How to Find Your Way: 8 Tips For Navigating Without a Compass

Prevent getting lost in the woods with this quick guide to determining direction

Flickr/Chris Zielecki

Getting lost in the woods may sound like an eerie fairly tale including a witch and a candy-covered house, but unfortunately it is far too common in our current world. It seems like every week the news announces a new hiker that has gone missing, or a search and rescue (SAR) mission update. In a study published by Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, it found that in a span of 15 years there were approximately 65,439 SAR incidents and of that number 48% of the people were lost while hiking.  

Related: 14 Dangerous Hikes in the U.S.

While there are many different factors that can play a role in a person needing SAR assistance, it is important to prevent getting lost in ways that you can control. Expect the unexpected because many hikers are unprepared, and unaware of common threats such as summer hypothermia. But sometimes being unprepared can be simply forgetting your compass at home and getting lost off-trail. As an important note, going off-trail can be dangerous, and even if you believe you know an area thoroughly, one wrong turn could keep you lost for days. But sometimes, a mistake is made, or something steers us off-trail that we are unprepared for, and without a compass or map, getting lost in the woods takes on that fairy tale meaning.

But, there was a time before even the technology of a compass existed, and navigating was done. Vikings followed the sun’s direction and elevation to seek their destinations. So next time you are lost in the woods, stay calm and become a viking. And stick to these tips to help you find your way.

1. Stay calm. I can not emphasize that enough. It is important to stay calm in this situation so that your mind is clear and aware.

2. Walk in a straight line. Walking in a straight line is a lot harder than you think when you are stressed and lost. But taking extra care to walk in a straight line will lead you in a direction, and often there will be some sort of evidence of civilization before 20 miles.

3. Use the sun to walk in a straight line. Walk with the sun over one shoulder. When it starts to set, choose to either walk into it, or have it completely even to your back while you walk.

4. Find landmarks. Near or far, it is good to set yourself a landmark goal to walk towards, and follow in that same direction facing the landmark the same way. One good landmark to follow is a mountain top at a further distance.

5. Use your watch. If you have a watch, and the sun is out, point the hour hand directly at the sun. Find the halfway point between the hour hand and twelve o’clock. Think of this midpoint as an invisible line to follow. It will point north in the southern hemisphere and south in the northern hemisphere.

6. Without a watch. On flat terrain place a stick of about 3 feet in the ground. Mark the ground where the stick’s shadow is cast. Then in about a half an hour mark the movement of the shadow. The first mark represents west and the second is east.

7. At night. If you have watched the moon rise, that can determine where it is situated. If it rises early, it is in the west, and if it does not ride until after midnight, it is in the east.

8. Find a river or stream. Following a river or stream will usually lead to civilization.

These are all basic tips to help you find your way, and to at most, find civilization. Know the direction your trip leads, and where civilization is before you start your hike, so that if you do get lost, you will know which point of the compass (or in this case determining your own compass) you need to follow.

Always try to stay safe, and be prepared before a big hike. Inform your family and friends of your trip plan, and what day to expect you back, so that if you are lost SAR assistance will be notified.

Click here for 31 Great American hikes to do before summer ends 



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