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Unless you are sure someone will come looking for you, it may fall upon you to get yourself out. With a few basic techniques and some instruction in basic navigation, you can make it out alive.

In the fast paced electronic age of today, we have a host of navigational aids. We still use the old standby compass. there are map compasses, lensatic compasses, and compasses that sit on the dash board of our car or truck, or pin to the lapel of our shirt or coat. There are even electronic compasses on some high end watches, and smart phones.

If you want to be able to pinpoint your location within a couple of meters, GPS is the way to go. While any compass uses the earths magnetic poles, a GPS unit uses satellites floating in geosynchronous orbit above the earth to triangulate our exact location. A GPS unit gives us latitude and longitude, as well as our altitude. Units for backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts even have the ability to download detailed topographical maps to help aid in navigation.

The GPS and map program on my iPhone provides me with spoken turn by turn directions to anyplace I may choose to walk or drive. The wonders of the modern world are truly mind boggling. But what happens when your battery dies, or when you look down for a quick directional check, only to find that cool compass attached to the lapel of your jacket was pulled off by the last thicket you pushed your way through? How would you find your way if you and your priceless lensatic compass become forever separated?

I was on a trip through a remote part of Canada when my canoe tipped in a stretch of rapids. I made it to shore in time to see my pack disappear around the next river bend. We cannot foresee all of the problems life may throw at us. It is our job to be prepared to get ourselves out of those little predicaments.

There are numerous ways in which we can navigate without a compass or GPS unit. I will outline 5 widely used and relatively accurate methods. Our first step is to make sure we all know the basic directions. Proceeding clockwise from the top, they are North, East, South, and West.

We have but to determine just one compass point. Once we have identified that one point, we then know each of the others, and should know which way we have to go to get ourselves out. For those of you who do not know how a compass works, if you face North and extend your arms straight out to your sides, your right hand will be pointing East, while your right is pointing West, and your butt is facing South.

Methods of Navigation

Watch method

Improvised Sun Dial method

Vegetation method

Lunar method

Star method

The Watch Method:

I love tools which can perform more than one task. In a survival situation this is essential because weight is a definite concern. I always wear a watch. If not on my wrist, I have a pocket watch. It is invaluable to help determine my speed of travel, as well as telling me how much daylight I have left. If you make sure the watch you wear is an analog watch, meaning it has hands, rather than a digital, you can easily use it as a pretty accurate compass. All you need is to be able to see the sun.

The process is really quite simple. Take your watch off of your wrist, or out of your pocket, and aim the hour hand, that is the small hand boys and girls, directly at the sun. If you are in the northern hemisphere, half way between the hour hand and the 12 is due South.

As illustrated in this graphic, it is almost 3:30 pm. We point the hour hand at the sun, then draw a line to the 12:00 position. We then draw another imaginary line that splits the distance, and that is due South. Once we have that, we know that North is behind us, East is to our left, and West to our right.

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere It works exactly the same only different. the line bisecting the 12 and the hour hand now points North.

There is one other slight caveat. If your watch is set for daylight savings time, you must use the 1 instead of the 12, because the watch has been set an hour ahead. The closer to you get to the equator, the less accurate this method becomes. This is due to the fact that the sun is almost directly overhead.

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The Sun Dial Method:

This method again makes use of the sun, and it does not matter if you are on the equator, it is still extremely accurate. It takes a bit longer than the watch method, so you might start it while breaking camp, and complete it when you have finished.

You will need a couple of supplies. Start out by gathering a sturdy stick about 3ft long, that is roughly a meter for our non American friends. You will also need two small rocks or stones.

Now that you have your supplies, we are going to make a sundial of sorts. Find an open place in direct sunlight. Start by clearing an area roughly 6ft in diameter. Make sure there is no loose leaf matter or other debris. You do not need to remove grass or anything like that. Find the rough center of your area, and pound one of the sticks into the ground far enough that the wind will not knock it over. Make sure it is straight up and down.

Now take one of your two stones, and place it where the tip of the shadow cast by the stick touches the ground. Do not move this stone. This point just became West. You can even draw a W on the ground next to the stone. Now we just sit and wait a while. The longer you can let this step go, the more accurate your results will be. I have used it with good results after leaving it as little as 30 minutes, but I would recommend an hour minimum.

After your hour has passed, take a look at the position of the stick's shadow now. It has moved quite a bit. Place your second stone at the tip of this new shadow. This point represents East. Now draw a line between these two rocks. You now have an East West line. If you stand with the West stone at your left, and East stone at your right, North will be straight ahead, and South will be behind you. This method also does not need a cloud free day. I have used it in cloud cover, when I was not sure there was even a shadow being cast.

Note: The above figure is borrowed from the US Army Survival Manual.

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The Vegetation Method:

I am sure we have all heard the old adage, "Moss grows on the North side of trees". There are those who believe it, and there are just as many who do not. I say unequivocally that yes, moss does grow on the North side of a tree. It also grows on the East side, the South side, and the West side. It grows all around a tree. Navigation by the vegetation method is more of an art than a science. Do not get me wrong, there is hard science behind what I am about to tell you.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun travels in an arc across the southern sky. This sun provides more heat and warmth to the Southern side of trees. That means that the North side does not get direct sunlight, allowing it to stay more moist and damp. Moist and damp are precisely what most mosses need to thrive. It does not mean it cannot grow in the sun, it just means it grows best in the shade. We can use this information to aid in our navigation. It will be necessary to look at a number of trees in an area, and make note of where they have the most moss build up. This will be the northerly side of the tree.

Having a little knowledge about botany can give you invaluable navigation information. Plants use a process called photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy. Think of the leaves as the solar panels. The more leaves a plant has, the more energy it can make. There is only so much room on any given branch for a tree to grow leaves. The tree gets around this fact of nature by producing multiple branches. This allows for more real estate upon which to put its solar panels. In order for a solar panel to work it has to be pointed at the sun. The more sun, the more energy it can convert. Plants are Phototropic, meaning that they position themselves toward the sun. The more leaves a tree has facing the sun, the more energy the tree can make. We can therefore logically infer that a tree will have more branches facing toward the sun. We can use this knowledge to aid our navigation. You will once again have to look at a sampling of taller trees in the area. Most of the trees will have a larger number of branches on their Southern side.

If you take the information you learned from the moss, and the information you learned from the tree branches, this should give you a pretty good idea of North and South.

It is important to remember that that is reversed in the southern hemisphere.

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The Lunar Method:

Many people enjoy the light of the moon. There was even a popular song about it recorded in 1909. But as is usually the case, fact is often much different than fiction. The moon has no light of it's own. The light we see is actually solar light reflected off the surface of the moon. When the moon is between the earth and the sun, we see the moon's dark side. This phenomenon is called a new moon. As the moon moves from directly between the earth and the sun, the right side becomes partially illuminated, this is called a waxing moon. The moon continues to wax until the earth is directly between the sun and moon, and becomes a full moon. As it begins to move back into our shadow it is called a waning moon. I always thought that each time the earth passed between the sun and moon, it caused a lunar eclipse, but that is not the case. The moon is usually on a different plane than the earth, that is why it appears full. On the few times each year the moon and earth share the same plane, it results in a lunar eclipse. And conversely when the moon shares the same plane as the earth, but is positioned directly between the earth and sun, there is a solar eclipse.

We can use this knowledge to aid with navigation as well. If the Moon rises before the sun has set, the lighted side points West. If however it rises after midnight, the illuminated side points East. This gives you a rough idea of that all important single compass point.

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The Star Method:

Because the evening stars are in a constant state of flux, navigation by star changes based upon where you are on this beautiful blue orb.

Northern Hemisphere:

In the Northern Hemisphere you can tell direction by locating a couple of familiar constellations in the night sky. If you learn to recognize the Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper, and Cassiopeia, you can find Polaris, the north star. Neither constellation ever sets, they rotate around the North Star. The Big Dipper consists of 7 stars shaped like a large water dipper. Because they point directly at the North Star, the two stars forming the outer lip of this dipper are called the pointing stars. Trace a mental line from the bottom star through the top one. Now extend this line about 5 times the distance between the pointer stars, and you will find the North Star.

The only hitch in this method is that there is also a little dipper, Ursa Minor. To further complicate things, Polaris, the North Star forms part of the handle of the little dipper. It is therefore important that you find the right dipper. You will spend a frustrating night if you are erroneously navigating by the Little Dipper. Enter the lovely Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia consists of five stars arranged like a large W that has been tipped over onto it's side. Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper are across from one another in the northern sky. As a matter of fact, they rotate counterclockwise around Polaris. If you draw a mental line from the center point of Cassiopeia's W, and a mental line from the pointing stars of the Big Dipper, they will meet at the North Star.

Now all you need to do is draw a mental line straight down from the North Star, and that will be the north pole.

Southern Hemisphere:

In the Southern Hemisphere it is completely different. There is no star bright enough over the southern pole to be easily recognizable as a Southern Star. For this reason we use the Southern Cross or Crux as a sign post pointing us in a general southerly direction. The Southern Cross consists of 5 stars. Its four brightest stars form a cross which tilts to one side. The stars of the longer side are the pointing stars. To determine South, imagine a distance five times the distance between these stars, and the point where this imaginary line ends is the general direction of South. Look down to the horizon from this imaginary point and select a landmark to steer by.

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I drew the illustration of the watch method. I then started the others, but thought better of it, and got out my copy of the US Army Survival Manual for the remaining three illustrations.

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Navigation Techniques

Analog Watch Navigation

Improvised Sun Dial Navigation

Navigating Using Vegetation

Lunar Navigation

Stellar Navigation

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Revised: 07/17/16 Living Afield