How to navigate using nature

Discover navigational know-how from Andy Harris, former Royal Marines commando mountain leader, and survival consultant to TV's The Island with Bear Grylls and Australian Survivor.

By Andy Harris
Published 28 Mar 2017, 16:00 BST, Updated 20 Jul 2021, 15:24 BST
Snowy view in Carpathian Mountains, winter landscape.

Snowy view in Carpathian Mountains, winter landscape.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. The shadow-and-stick method

Drive a metre-long stick upright into the ground. Mark the tip of the shadow it creates with a rock: this is 'west'. Wait 15 minutes and make another mark at the shadow's tip: a rough east direction. Draw a line between the two: an east-west marker; it's simple to work out the other cardinal points.

2. The watch method

Place an analogue watch flat on the ground, with the hour hand pointing towards the sun. If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o'clock symbol and draw a line on the ground to get your north-south line. This method is more accurate further away from the Equator.

3. The moon's shadow

The moon shines due to reflected sunlight, so it can be used as a rough navigational aid. In the Northern Hemisphere, if there's a crescent moon, draw an imaginary line between the two points of the horn and extend it down to the horizon — this gives you approximate south. If you see the moon before sunset, the illuminated side marks west. If the moon rises after midnight, the bright side will be east.

4. Using the stars

On a clear night, different constellations in the North and South Hemispheres can help establish Polaris, the North Star. In the Northern Hemisphere, use Ursa Major (seven stars in the shape of a ladle) and Cassiopeia (five stars that form a side-leaning W shape); they're opposite each other and rotate anticlockwise around Polaris as a centre point. The two stars forming the handle of the ladle point to Polaris, as does Cassiopeia's central star. Once you've located Polaris, draw an imaginary line directly to earth to find north.

5. Establish wind direction

Another useful way to work out your position is to use the wind, as long as you know the prevailing wind directions where you are. In the UK, they typically run from south west to north east, so if you face into the wind, you'll be looking south west.

6. Measuring moss growth on trees

Vegetation can be used to back up navigational calculations. As moss thrives on shade and moisture, it will be generally be more established on the side of the tree facing the north, in the Northern Hemisphere (south in the Southern Hemisphere). Unfortunately, because many local factors affect moss growth, this method is far from 100% reliable.

7. Snow on the slopes

North-facing slopes, in the Northern Hemisphere, are cooler and damper, and will retain more snow and ice than south-facing ones.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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