Stepping off the trail and heading up a canyon for a mile or so is enough to get a person lost. The twists and turns of a benign-looking range of hills and arroyos can be confusing, especially if you add to it the fears of survival, pangs of hunger, or the parched dryness of thirst. You know where you came from — a broken-down car or last night’s camp — and you know where you want to go: to civilization. But you’re not sure how to get there. You need to get from Point A to Point Z and you’re on foot. You’ve never done that before, so you’ll have some challenges. To help overcome some of those challenges, you’re prepared, because you have in your bug-out bag a map of the area and a compass, right? Right? If not, put down this magazine and go add these two essential items to your pack.
MAP AND COMPASS
A map of your terrain is always more important than the compass, though you should always consider them as a unit. You can use them independent of each other, but a map alone can be complemented by nature’s compass. If you only have a compass, you can accurately travel in a straight line for miles through fog, or forest, and then go back the same way you came.
A map is an aerial picture of your terrain, showing you the location of roads, buildings, water, towns, railroad lines, mines – everything you need to know. The USGS topographical map is the map of choice because it gives you a visual depiction of the rise and fall of the land. This enables you to choose the easiest route (which is not necessarily the shortest) between two points.
A compass certainly makes the map more useful, since it enables you to accurately align the map with the actual terrain, so you can head in the appropriate direction. There are other ways to align the map with the terrain if you don’t have a compass, such as physical observation of the terrain, and sighting of the North Star.
When you buy a compass, read all of the instructions that come with it and practice all the exercises the manufacturer provides. One of the best ways to learn to use a map with a compass is to enroll in a local college class on orienteering or participate in a few programs with a local club.
But life isn’t always convenient. Maps and compasses get lost, forgotten, broken, ripped, burned. What then? Let’s look at some of the ways we can determine directions if you have neither a map nor a compass.
1. THE STARS
The North Star is not the brightest star in the sky. If you follow it with time lapse photography, the North Star will appear to be stationary, and all the stars would appear to rotate counter-clockwise around it. If you were standing on the north pole, the North Star would be directly overhead. To find the North Star, locate the Big Dipper. The North Star is in a direct line with the two end stars of the Big Dipper.
Go outside on a moonless night and get to know the constellations. Begin with the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. Get to know Orion. Once, while driving in an unfamiliar part of Los Angeles with a friend, we got hopelessly lost. I was able to stick my head out the window, see the Big Dipper, and determine which direction we should drive to get to our destination. It worked!
2. WATCH YOUR SHADOW
There is a simple method to generally tell directions (and time) with a stick and some pebbles. Place a stick into the ground. Put a pebble at the end of the shadow. Wait 20 minutes or so. The shadow will move, so put another pebble at the end of the shadow. Wait another 20 minutes and do this again.
In general, when you are in the northern hemisphere, your shadow will be pointing north if the stick is stuck vertically into the ground. (In fact, this is not always so, such as during midsummer when the sun is north of the celestial equator … but, read on).
The shadow’s movement, marked by the pebbles, will be eastward, because the sun moves west-ward. The shadow should be the shortest around noon, when the sun is directly overhead (directly overhead at 1 p.m. if it is Daylight Savings).
If you draw a straight line from the stick to the stone marking the shortest shadow, you should have a north-south line, more or less. A perpendicular line gives you an east-west line, becoming a crude compass. If you know the approximate time the sun is rising and setting, you can evenly divide the arc formed by the stones and create a crude but usable sun dial clock.
FINDING AN EAST-WEST LINE
3. NATURAL DIRECTIONS
You have no map, no compass, and you’re lost or confused. Are there signs in nature to tell you directions? We have long heard moss grows on the north side of trees. Yes, it does, but it also grows on the east side, the south side, and the west side of trees, especially in a dense forest where there is little light. Though there is logic to this idea, and though in a clearing the moss is predominantly on the northern half of the tree (there’s less light there), it is not a precise, nor reliable, method of direction-finding.
All rivers flow to civilization. Really? This myth has been repeated over and over that it seems to be a fact in the minds of many. And since it sometimes does work, its efficacy seems enforced. But it simply isn’t always so. Just look at a map. The only direction rivers and streams consistently flow is downhill. If you are lost, following a stream downstream might lead you into very rugged wilderness. This is not a sure-fire way to get “un-lost.”
“WE HAVE LONG HEARD MOSS GROWS ON THE NORTH SIDE OF TREES. YES, IT DOES, BUT IT ALSO GROWS ON THE EAST SIDE, THE SOUTH SIDE, AND THE WEST SIDE OF TREES, ESPECIALLY IN A DENSE FOREST WHERE THERE IS LITTLE LIGHT.”
In fact, there is no single natural observation that will tell you directions. You need to be observant of many features, and collectively – in conjunction with your common sense and “thinking on your feet” – you stand a good chance of determining compass points. Here are a few of those general guidelines – though some would put these observations into the category of “folklore.” This is because they are “general” guidelines. Rely on these alone and you may still remain hopelessly lost.
Tips of certain trees will tend to point in specific directions. For example, the tops of willows, poplars, and alders often point south because they grow typically in canyons or streams, which are (more often than not), flowing southward. But a stream can have lots of bends and curves and so this is only a very general observation that can help, in conjunction with other observations.
The tips of pines and hemlocks often point east. These trees are typically found at higher elevations and the tips are affected by prevailing winds. The operative word here is “often,” not “always.”
It is said the holes of woodpeckers are always on the east sides of the trees. This is demonstrably false. However, in general, the pileated woodpeckers tend to peck primarily on the east sides of trees. This is a bit too imprecise to be of any practical value; plus, how many of us can differentiate between the pileated woodpecker and any other woodpecker’s holes?
6. FACING THE SUN
Flowers often face the sun. This is how sunflowers got the name. You can point a time-lapse camera at a sunflower and watch it move throughout the day to face the sun as it moves across the sky.
Any hill or mountain range which runs in an east-west direction will receive the most vegetation on the north side. The south side – exposed more to the sun, will have different plant communities and generally be drier. The north side will retain snow longer, and will have more shade, and thus more ferns, moss, etc. This means if you had to travel and be quiet, it would be best to walk on the northern side of the hill where there is more moisture. On the south side, there would be drier soil and dry twigs that would make more noise as you walked through.
How Much Daylight is Left?
This is an old way to tell approximately how long it will be until the sun sets. Face the horizon and extend your arm. Tuck in your thumb. Bend your hand so your fingers are parallel to the horizon. Now, using your four fingers, measure up from the horizon to the sun. Each finger represents about 15 minutes of the sun’s travel across the sky.
This will give you a good idea when the sun will hit the horizon. Keep in mind in the summer, there will still be usable light for at least an hour after sundown. In the winter, things will get pretty dark after the sun dips below the horizon.
If you need to make camp before dark, this is a good way to determine how much light is left.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.