One of the most important skills that a survivalist must have is the ability to orient themselves and navigate. Modern technology has made this easier for us, with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) telling us exactly where we are, from altitude and direction to the surrounding topography. Aside from GPS, we also have maps and compasses as the bare minimum for tools when navigating. But to be able to survive, we should always expect the worst and prepare for it.
Suppose you get lost at night, it’s pitch black, and you don’t have a compass with you– what do you do? You can stay put and wait until daylight to get oriented or for other people to find you. But if you need to move ASAP, you will need to be able navigate in the dark without even the most rudimentary tools to guide the way.
THE MOON AND STARS ARE YOUR TOOLS
Without a compass, the stars and the moon are your friends. Much like the sun during the day, they can help you orient yourself and make map reading a bit easier.
Celestial navigation, finding one’s way by using the moon and the stars, has been man’s earliest navigational aid for thousands of years. Modern tools have made it simpler and more accurate, but the basic concept remains the same.
The moon, like the sun, rises in the east and sets in the west. Knowing how late it is in the evening and which side of the sky the moon is on will give you an idea where the cardinal directions are. But there are other methods of utilizing the moon and constellations that will yield more accurate results.
THE NORTH STAR
Polaris, also known as the North Star or the Lodestar, is one of the most important stars for navigators because it’s the closest star to “true north”. It’s also almost static, with the other constellations appearing to revolve around it, making it easier to find anytime of the year. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, finding Polaris is key to orienting yourself.
Finding Polaris isn’t difficult and there are a couple of ways for you to find it. However, it’s not as simple as finding the brightest point in the sky, because contrary to popular belief, Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky (The brightest is Sirius).
The easiest way to find the North Star is to look for the “Big Dipper”. It’s a group of stars that form the shape of a ladle or “dipper”. This group is composed of the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major, or Great Bear, and found in the northern celestial hemisphere. It’s visible throughout the year.
The two stars located on the far side of Big Dipper’s “bowl” are Merak and Dubhe. They’re also called “pointer stars”, because they point directly to Polaris. Once you’ve identified the Big Dipper’s pointer stars, draw a line from Merak to Dubhe. The line and distance between these two stars, multiplied by five, will get you to Polaris.
But how can you make sure you have the right star? Polaris is also a part of a group of stars called the Little Dipper, and Polaris can be found at the end of its handle.
Another way to confirm the location of Polaris, or if the Big Dipper is too low in the sky, is to locate Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia is a group of five stars that form an “M” (a “3” or an inverted 3 if it sits low on the horizon) and located opposite of the Big Dipper, with the Little Dipper (and Polaris) sandwiched in-between.
Once you’ve identified Polaris, imagine a straight line going down from it and onto the horizon- this point will be north. Now that you’ve identified which way is north, finding the rest of the cardinal directions will be easy.
THE SOUTHERN CROSS
Finding Polaris is easy when you’re in the northern hemisphere, but the farther you go south, the lower Polaris dips into the horizon. If you’re standing south of the equator, Polaris won’t be visible anymore.
There’s another method you can use to orient yourself when you’re in the southern hemisphere without Polaris: a group of stars called the Southern Cross, or Crux.
While there is a star (Sigma Octantis) like Polaris that sits very near the south celestial pole, it’s too dim and can be difficult to spot, so it’s easier to use the Southern Cross as your guide. The Southern Cross is so prominent in the sky that it’s even depicted in the national flags of some nations in the southern hemisphere like Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s a group composed of five stars, with four of its brightest forming a “cross” on the sky.
The head of the cross is Gamma Crucis or Gacrux, the foot is Alpha Crucis or Acrux, and the arms Beta Crucis (Becrux) and Delta Crucis. The small star between Delta and Alpha is Epsilon. To confirm that you’re looking at the Southern Cross, you can also look for its two bright “pointers”, the stars Alpha Centauri (also known as Rigil Kentaurus) and Beta Centauri (or Hadar).
To find south, draw a line from Gacrux to Acrux. Extend this line 4.5 times more. The end of this line will sit around the area of the southern celestial pole. Draw a line from this point straight down to the horizon. With your body facing this direction, you can now find the other cardinal directions- west will be to your right, east to your left, and north behind you.
STALKING A STAR
Finding the North Star and the Southern Cross depends on your location on the globe. Another method you can use, regardless of whether you’re in the northern or southern hemisphere, is tracking the movement of stars with aiming sticks. This method is also useful if you have difficulty locating the major constellations.
To do this, drive a straight stick into the ground. Pick a star that you can easily distinguish from the others, usually the brightest that you can see. Drive a second shorter stick, lining your sight up its tip with that of the first stick and your chosen star, just like when you’re peering through a rifle’s sights at your target. Once you’re done, let 30 minutes pass and look through the tips of your aiming sticks again and take note of the position of your chosen star.
If your star moves to the left, you’re facing north. If it moves to the right, you’re facing south. If it rises, you’re facing east, and if it sinks, you’re facing west. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll get the opposite (star moving to the left means you’re facing south, sinking means you’re facing east, etc.).
QUICK AND EASY WAY TO USE THE MOON
In cases where the stars aren’t bright enough or are washed out by other light sources, you can use the moon as a tool to help orient yourself.
If you’re looking at a crescent moon, you can use its pointed ends (or the horns) to help you find south. From the trip of its horn on top, draw a line to its second horn in the bottom. Continue extending this line until it touches the horizon. The point where it meets the horizon is where South is (if you’re in the northern hemisphere). Be warned that this won’t provide you with the most accurate result and you’ll only get a rough estimate of where south is, but for most situations, this should be helpful enough.
HOW FAR NORTH ARE YOU?
Aside from finding the cardinal directions, you can also see how far north you are using your fist with Polaris as your guide. This method will only apply in the northern hemisphere, since there’s no star bright enough in the southern hemisphere that can work like Polaris.
Find Polaris in the sky and the visible horizon. Extend your arm and make a fist with the back of your hand facing outward, then position it on top of the horizon. The height of your clenched fist equates to around 10 degrees (this is just an estimate, since hand size varies between different people). Determine how many fists it will take from the horizon to Polaris. For example, if it takes three fists, it means you’re 30 degrees north of the equator. Knowing your latitude isn’t very useful without knowing your longitude, but at least you’ll be able to know if you’re drifting north or south or walking around in circles.
Being equipped with the proper tools increases one’s chances of survival, and they’re worthy investments to help you prepare for a worst-case scenario. But to be able to truly prepare, you should also have redundancies at hand in case you lose your tools or they malfunction, and this often means relying on primitive but still reliable methods.