Dead in Your Tracks: Navigation Without a Compass

Often, while hunting, I decide to check out a babbling brook or a cluster of trees in the distance. Most times, this quick detour is no big deal. However, what happens when your journey takes you through thick forest or tall grass lands? Getting turned around isn’t as hard as it seems.

Whether going out on a day hike or hunting in the back country, we can all agree we should carry a compass with us. After all, an orientation device is part of your everyday carry gear. However, your excitement to brave the wild can make you forgetful. You might be somewhat familiar with an area and feel overconfident with your sense of direction. Maybe you misplace your compass or it breaks in your gear bag. What do you do if you're stranded in the woods and have no way to navigate?

First, you should take a deep breath and try not to panic. Once you calm down, you may see some environmental markers or landmarks to get you back on course. For instance, you may know of a large lake to the north or a highway to the east. Which direction are you facing though? The tips below will allow you to figure out which point of compass you are heading and get you back on your way.

Let’s shine some light on the situation. The Sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. You can either use its general position in the sky to estimate your bearing or you can build a solar compass.

A solar compass is a simple device to build and use. You will need to find, a fairly straight, three foot branch. Find a level, brush free area, and stab the stick into the ground. Next, mark the tip of the shadow with a stone or twig. Wait 15-20 minutes and mark the position of the shadow again. Proceed with this method three or four times and draw a line in the dirt, connecting the marks. This line will show your eastern and westward directions. By laying a stick perpendicular to the line, we get our north and south directions.

The Big Dipper is one of the most well-known constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. It is comprised of a cluster of seven stars resembling a dipping spoon or a drinking gourd. The two stars, in the forward part of the drinking bowl, are named Dubhe and Merak. If you extend an imaginary line, connecting the two celestial objects, it should point to the North Star. The North Star, also known as Polaris, is nearly aligned with Earth’s axis. This bright object will always point to true north.