How to Find North Without a Compass

compassLet’s face it…we’ve all forgotten to bring one or more essential items on a hiking or backpacking trip. I, for one, pretty much always forget my compass. Call it overconfidence, forgetfulness, (extremely) early-onset Alzheimer’s…whatever you want. The fact is, I know I’m not the only one. So, what do you do if you find yourself lost on the trail without your compass?

Unless you forgot to bring your watch, too, you can use it to help you figure out which direction is which.  Here’s how:

Turn your watch into a compass

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, simply point the hour hand of your watch at the sun. The point midway between the hour hand and the “12″ on your watch is roughly South. Simply turn around to identify North, right for West, left for South…you get gist. Reverse the technique if you’re hiking in the southern hemisphere.

Ok, let’s say you’re wearing a digital watch, or no watch at all…what do you do?

Make a dirt compass

Here’s a good tip I saw on Man Vs. Wild. It’s not the quickest method, but it’s accurate (note — start this technique in the AM):

  • Find a level piece of ground with good sun exposure, like a meadow or flat ridge top.
  • Drive a 3-4 foot stick straight into the ground.
  • Mark the tip of the stick’s shadow with a pebble.
  • Using this marker, draw an arc around the stick, making sure to keep your original marker in place.
  • As the sun moves across the sky the shadow will shorten and pivot to the other side of the stick. When the shadow meets the other side of the arc, mark this spot with another pebble.
  • Draw a straight line between your two markers. This line represents West (1st marker) to East (2nd marker).
  • Draw a perpendicular line across the E/W line to complete your “dirt compass”.

Do as the Wise Men did

If you’re lost at night, stay put. Seriously. Make camp and wait ’til morning. If the sky’s clear and you MUST try to navigate at night, the best bet is to use the North star (it’s named that for a reason).  Contrary to popular belief, the North star — called Polaris — is not the brightest in the sky (which is Sirius, btw). Here’s how to find it:

  • Locate the Big Dipper
  • Draw an imaginary line between the bottom-outside star in the cup through the top-outside star and beyond. The medium-bright star in the line’s path is Polaris.

These are the most popular tried-and-true methods to find North without a compass, but there’s bound to be others.