Thu. Feb 29th, 2024
How to know the direction without a compass

Did you know that you can determine your directions without a compass or GPS?

It would be wonderful if we had a built-in system to help us indicate direction. If we did, we probably would have saved many lives that were lost by moving away from safety instead of towards it.

Humans are not very good at knowing instinctively which direction they are looking. Most methods for determining one’s direction when in the woods tend to be unreliable.

mossy forest

Some people suggest that if you look at where moss grows on trees, you will find that there is always more growth on the north side of the trees. This is because it evades most of the direct sunlight.

Or look for spider webs on the south side of trees. Or even, if you see a small hill in winter, the snow will be more prominent on the north side due to less warming/melting action of sunlight.

animal instincts

Birds in the blue sky

While many of these ideas have merit and, in controlled situations, may make sense, they have also been shown to provide false signals in complex outdoors.

However, we do know that many species of animals and insects have the ability to discern directions. Repeated studies of many bird species have shown that they can use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them determine which direction to fly. Recent studies have shown that animals with a camera-like eye, such as fish and primates, can use individual stars to determine their direction. Animals with compound eyes, such as insects, could use light from the Milky Way.1

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If animals can use the stars to navigate, surely humans should be able to do it at least as well.

Using Polaris to find north

stars over Frontenac

If you check out this month’s constellations, you’ll find easy step-by-step instructions for finding Polaris, also known as the “North Star.” From there, drawing a line to the horizon will give you an excellent approximation of where north is.

Knowing the direction of north allows you to find the other directions relatively easily. Although this method can be useful for canoeing at night or knowing which direction you will start your hike the next day, it is much more difficult to use for most daytime trips.

Is there another method of finding the address that can be used during the day, with a fairly high degree of accuracy and reliability? The answer is yes: the Solar Compass.

The sun compass

sun compass

The Solar Compass uses common principles developed by the ancients to track the sun.

The Babylonians developed the 12 o’clock system, which is why our clocks have 12 hours. Knowing that the sun always heads east around 6:00 am, crosses almost due south around noon, and passes west around 6:00 pm (18:00), allows us to take a sphere of old clock, and Turn it into a compass using the sun. Hence the Solar Compass.

To use Solar Compass, draw a clock face similar to the one above. You can draw this in sand, snow or any work. Draw basic times (6:00 am, 9:00 am, 12:00 pm, 3:00 pm, 6:00 pm) as best you can. The more accurate it is, the more accurate the compass will be.

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Now, place a stick (at its end) on the small dot in the center of your circle, like the black dot in the image. Orient the page so that the shadow reflects the current time and use the appropriate scale for standard or daylight saving time.

Once completed, south on the diagram will be closely aligned with true south. From there you can discover all the other directions and navigate wherever your journey takes you!

For more on this month’s astronomy, visit our Eyes on the Skies post.

  • James J. Foster, Jochen Smolka, Dan-Eric Nilsson, Marie Dacke. How animals follow the stars.. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2018; 285 (1871): 20172322 DOI: 1098/rspb.2017.2322