Expert trackers have always been aware of the importance of being able to tell the time and direction by the sun and the moon. This goes back to early Stone Age times when watches and clocks weren’t available and in maritime history, sailors have used the position of the moon and the stars to navigate oceans at night.
If you’re out camping, hiking or tracking, there’s always a remote possibility that you may end up getting lost in the forest or up a mountain without a map or compass. However, with a bit of luck and some knowledge of nature, it is possible to find your way back using nature to guide you.
Firstly, however, it is important to point out that if you’re lost and waiting to be rescued, you should stay put where you are as there’s less chance of rescuers finding you if you’re continually on the move. Therefore, this article is just a demonstration of how it is possible to establish direction without a map or compass.
Using the Sun
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. At midday, it is due south if you are in the northern hemisphere (above the equator) or due north if you are in the southern hemisphere (below the equator). Britain is in the northern hemisphere.
By pointing the hour hand of a watch at the sun, south will be half-way between 12 o’clock and the hour hand. However, if the sun is very high in the sky, it can be difficult to judge its direction. In that event, place a straight stick vertically into the ground and align the watch hand to this. Due north will now be halfway between 12 o’clock and the hour hand.
From that, you can determine which way is West and East also. However, because the sun is not always directly over the equator and the earth tilts on its axis, this method can only be used as a rough guide and, of course, it’s not always sunny!
Navigating accurately using the moon is impossible for all intents and purposes but it is possible to gauge a rough direction if you know the times of the moonrise and moonset. However, in conjunction with the stars it is possible to navigate at night using natures own resources and, in fact, much of maritime history will highlight how many sailors navigated oceans and seas by simply using the stars. It does, however, require much skill and knowledge.
There are basic rules of thumb such as if you can identify the bright star Polaris in the night sky, this is also called the North Star so you know if you spot that you’re looking North so once again, you can then work out where South, West and East are. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) also known as the Smaller Bear which, here in the UK, you can spot on clear nights as the constellation looks like a small wheelbarrow. There are also other constellations in the night sky which can help you determine direction but you really need to have a good knowledge of the night sky to do this with any degree of accuracy.
Other Tools of Nature That Give a Sense of Direction
Look all around you. There will be signs and indications of direction everywhere. Moss, for example, grows in the shade so, here in the Northern Hemisphere, it will most commonly grow on the north side of trees. Longer branches on trees may also grow towards the equator in strong sunlight which will indicate south.
If you’re on a hill, the north side will generally be far more moist and mossy while the south side might be filled with dry leaves and twigs, so if you find a hill, walk on both sides for a few minutes and the noisiest side in terms of the sounds beneath your feet is a good indication of it being south.
If you’re near a river, lake or stream, waterfowl, frogs and fish tend to prefer the west side for breeding which is another clue and if you’re in a forest, the bark of trees tends to be thicker on the north side.
Closer to civilisation – if you’re in an area where you can see houses in the distance, look to see if any of them have satellite dishes attached. Communication satellites must be in geostationary orbit, so satellite dishes will face a point directly over the equator, as will solar panels. You can try this even at home. If you’ve not noticed before, you’ll soon realise that all satellite dishes point in the same direction which, for us in the UK, is South. Follow the direction in which they’re pointing and you’re heading south.
Whilst using nature to navigate is only a rough science, it can be a useful resource towards getting you to safety if you’ve absolutely no other way out of your predicament but, once again, it’s important to stress that if you do get lost in the wilderness or are stranded, you should resist the temptation to find your own way out unless there’s absolutely no alternative, as rescue teams are more likely to find you if you stay in one place and you should try to attract attention using any signalling devices you may have on your person or around you.