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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.

You can use an analog watch for navigation. In the Northern Hemisphere, point the hour hand toward the sun. By drawing an imaginary line between the hour hand and the twelve o’clock mark, you can find your north and south bearings. To determine which side of the line is north and south, view the Sun’s position in the sky. This process is similar in the Southern Hemisphere. You will point the twelve hour mark at the Sun and draw an imaginary line between it and the hour hand.

Animals and plants can also aid you in navigation. Though some people find spiders creepy, they are quite helpful. They tend to build their webs on the sunny, southward facing side of trees. Contrary to spiders, moss does not like direct sunlight, so it is more likely to grow on the north side of trees and rocks. At first glance, you might think trees grow symmetrically. However, branches on the southern side of a tree tend to grow more horizontally, whereas northward facing branches grow more vertically. If you are near a body of water, fish, birds and amphibians typically prefer to breed on the western side.

Lastly, you can make a compass with a small needle, safety pin or paper clip. You can simply rub a magnet along the pin in the same direction 20-30 times. If you don’t have a magnet, you can rub the eye of a needle against silk or animal hair 50-100 times. Lay your pin or needle on a leaf and place it in water. The Earth’s magnetic field should cause the pin to point north. However, the problem with this method is you won’t know which end of the needle is pointing north. You will need to use the sun or stars to determine bearing. Take note, this device is negatively affected by a slight breeze or any nearby metallic objects.

In conclusion, your trusty compass will be your best option to guide you through your backwoods adventures. If your compass is not available, the tips you just read may be the difference between aimlessly roaming to no avail and getting home in time for dinner. As always get outside, stay safe, and

Journey Past Your Limits.

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