Finding North without a Compass

I have a casual interest in bushcraft/wilderness skills and one seriously useful outdoor skill is navigation. In today’s world of GPS and Google Maps perhaps the traditional map-and-compass is seeing its twilight years, but I have a feeling that there’ll be a need for detailed battery/satellite-free maps for a long while yet.

Learning to use a compass, take bearings and find your position on the map is a great skill to have, but as the title implies, you don’t even need a compass to find a rough guide to where north is, there are plenty of other ways. One of my favourites is by finding the north star, it’s easy and a fun way to begin your journey into stargazing. I practice it most nights when taking the dog into the garden.

But, in daytime it’s not so easy to find the north star! Fortunately there are plenty of other ways. One of my favourites is by using a shadow stick, if you have the time to set it up.

A more immediate way of finding north without a compass is by knowing the correct time.

If you have an analogue watch that’s perfect, but if not just draw out the clock face in the dirt with a stick, or mark out with stones, etc.

Draw the hour hand pointing at the sun and also mark where 12 would be. Put another mark halfway between the hour and twelve. Draw a line from that mark through middle of the clock-face.

So let’s say it’s 6AM. You’d draw a circle on the ground. Put a mark where the sun is and call it ’6′. Draw another mark where 12 would be. Draw another mark half-way, at 9. Now you draw a line from 9 through the middle of the clock face to 3. That line is the north-south line. It’s easy to do in your head once you’ve got the hang of it.

It is important to note here that a great many of the sources online will tell you that the end closest 12 is north, or that the smaller angle is north, etc. This is a mistake that goes back at least to 1956 with “How To Stay Alive In The Woods” by Bradford Angier. This blog post is an attempt to set the record straight. (NB: The SAS Manual by Lofty Wiseman correctly states only that it is the north-south line and makes no mention of which end is north).

The problem is that in the morning ’9′ is in a different place to where ’9′ is in the evening. But north stays in the same place. So if you do it in the morning, the line ‘points’ north but in the evening the line ‘points’ south. It’s best to remember that the line doesn’t point anywhere, it only gives you the north-south line but it doesn’t tell you which end is which. (The problem still exists if you’re reading at a more reasonable hour, say 2 in the afternoon, I just chose early hours as the example to make explanation simpler.).

To find which end is in fact north, there are a couple of possible methods:

  1. Remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and apply some common sense to the reading (perhaps only really applicable in morning and evening though.)
  2. In the morning north will be at the end of the line that is furthest from 12, while in the afternoon north will be at the end of the line closest to 12.
  3. In the morning count anti-clockwise from the hour until you reach the line to find north, and in the afternoon count clockwise until you reach the line.
  4. Count clockwise from the hour to the end of the line and remember that in the morning that’s south and in the evening it’s north.
  5. Remember that before noon North is to the left of the hour hand, after noon it’s to the right of the hour hand.

Unfortunately none of these are particularly elegant.

In fact, the wristwatch method is fraught with caveats and gotchas; the method changes depending on which hemisphere you’re in (in the Southern Hemisphere you point twelve at the sun and continue as normal). Daylight saving time has an effect (add one to the hour). Your latitude makes a difference too. It doesn’t work very well close to 12 noon.

However, it’s the best method I’ve found in the daytime if you’re in a hurry. Other methods involve checking which side of the trees moss grows on, where the spider webs are, which side of the tree have branches growing upwards not straight-out. I find these too fuzzy, and relating them online it’s too easy for the reader to assume that one tree with moss high on one side is a solid indicator of south where in fact you should sample several trees over a wide area to be sure. All those methods are highly dependent on your local environment too. So for now, the wrist-watch method is my preferred way of finding north without a compass.

Just remember: point the hour at the sun, mark half way to 12. Draw a line from that mark through the center. In the morning north is at the end of the line furthest from twelve.

Happy bushcrafting!

Thanks to the members of BushcraftUK forums for working through the method with me.

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