Going out into the wilderness can be a great way to connect with nature and fill yourself with energy. No matter if you want to go hiking, trekking, or camping as some leisure activity. All of the beautiful rest and relaxation can be done in an instant if you get lost somewhere in the wild.
Orientation can be a difficult thing, but if you know where your north-south route is, it can feel a bit safer. Being able to orient without a compass can be challenging, but it can also save your life in extreme situations. Your phone might die, and without a remote charger it is useless, maps can get wet, or you can simply lose all of your equipment.
Determining where the North is, does not mean you have to follow directions. Instead, it prevents you to circle around on one trail. Learning where north is can help you identify your surroundings easier, even if you are not acquainted with the area. Truth is, north is often the easiest direction to follow consistently.
There are several ways you can determine a new route, and find a way out of a scary situation if you are lost with no plan or trail in sight.
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Orientation in Nature
This is undoubtedly one of the most critical skills for hiking aficionados or wilderness enthusiasts. Knowing the orientation can sometimes really be the thin line between life and death.
You have probably heard or read many stories about people who wandered in the wilderness and never returned. It is easy to get lost very in nature, especially if the weather is bad: fog, rain, darkness… Don’t think that this happens only to beginners – experienced hikers and backpackers get lost, too, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic if you know how to orient yourself.
We have prepared tips on how to handle your whereabouts when in the wilderness. Of course, you are free to use any method that is easiest for you or that is possible in the given circumstances.
Find Your Way Without a Compass
When it comes to orienting in nature without a compass, rookies may not be the most rational, which is every camper and hiker needs to know how the easiest way to orient yourself without a compass would be to use a map. You may be wondering, what if my batteries run out? But there is more to life than digital content, and using a paper map of the area is a great way to be prepared once you have lost a signal or energy on your phone.
Depending on the type of map, it is highly advisable to keep an eye out for man-made objects, such as pipelines, roads, and power lines.
Keep in mind that any type of printed paper is easy to get soaked and damaged when camping so it cannot be used again. Also, people who go camping in order to rest are likely to carry a book or two for leisure time, or even a journal. Keep in mind that they should be held in cases that are water-resistant to prevent the paper from getting soaked, damaged, and unable to be used further down the road.
All of these are fairly simple ways of orientation, which do not require any special prior knowledge. Common sense in nature is sometimes more important than anything else. Planning ahead can literally save a life, be prepared and study the terrain you will be covering.
Print out a map of trails and the entire area for orientation purposes. After your camping or hiking trip is finished, the printed maps can be a great addition to a travelers journal (for example), where you will note the route, or any other memorable or significant data.
Go Straight and Stay Focused
The mountains are a favorite destination for nature lovers. The hills are often overgrown with forest, so your field of vision is usually quite reduced. Finding the right path can be quite a challenge, but it is possible if you stay calm and rational. Otherwise, you panic and make mistakes.
The first tip is: stay focused and try to find out where you are. One of the simplest methods is to climb to the top of a hill or to the tallest tree and observe the surroundings. Notice a dominant point that will be your landmark for a while (a lone tree, a rock, a glade, a house, an electric pole…). It may be anything you will go towards and not lose sight of as you approach.
It is important to go as straight as possible and maintain the direction by choosing a landmark. That way, you will surely stumble upon something recognizable, sooner or later. Expert mountaineers tend to say that even a poorly chosen route is better than none.
Use the Sun and a Hand Watch
If you are hiking in hot weather, you will be able to use Sun and a hand watch as an orientation method. The first thing you need for this orientation method to work is an accurate watch. Also, both handles need to be working properly to help determine the location of the north-south, and west-east directions.
Once you are certain your watch is working perfectly (and preferably do this before your trip) level it with the level of the earth– Take it off your wrist and set it in your palm. Hold it in front of you as if you were holding a compass. Use your free hand to support the first one for greater stability.
It is easier to turn the clock if you observe the sun on the glass of the clock. You should turn it until the direction of the sun coincides with the small hand.
Then look at the time and point the smaller handle towards the Sun. Find the middle point between the small handle and the position of the watch that shows 12 hours – this is south.
The middle direction will always point south and the opposite direction is the north. This is a great and efficient way to help themselves or others if they get lost, and it is quite useful to know these pieces of information without using a compass.
Use the Shadow
Start by finding an open space that is covered with sunlight. Find a stick, or something similar and stick it in the ground. The idea is that it should work as a sundial.
Mark where the shadow is falling, wait another half an hour and mark the other spot as well. Afterward, make a line covering those two marks. The trail will be in an approximate east-west direction
Use the Clouds
Once you determine the direction in which to move, the clouds can help you further. Namely, the direction of cloud movement can remain unchanged for several hours. You may choose to take the direction of the cloud movement, the opposite direction, or transverse (left or right). This may be a good tactic in the woods or bushes when it is difficult to find a suitable landmark.
What to Do On an Extremly Cloudy Day?
Just like it is harder to make a campfire in gloomy and moist weather, it is harder to orient in nature without a compass if you are hiking in cold and bad weather. The previous methods mostly relied on the Sun. Now, even though you might have some shadows, it can be hard to use them because of the clouds.
If it’s cloudy or if you don’t have a watch, “live compasses” can help. The sides of the world in the forest can be determined by the dark stripe that stretches from the ground almost to the very top of the tree. It is well visible on the background of lighter bark. That darker strip is always on the north side and is formed by residual moisture.
A safer solution is to try looking for moss. This is one of the oldest techniques for orientation outdoors, and that is taught in elementary school. Moss usually grows on the north side of trees and rocks. However, keep in mind that you should confirm the north side of a few samples to be certain.
Of course, there are challenges even to this technique. If you are located in a damp area with little to no Sun, the moss will grow evenly. Try looking for a tree exposed to the Sunlight majority of the day, then you can determine the side of the North. Also, depending on your surroundings, you may be able to observe a few hilltops. If there are multiple hills, the side of the hill that seems more ‘dry’ with less vegetation will be facing South.
Wet bark dries the slowest on the north side, where there is the least sun. In addition, the bark of the trees on the north side is rougher and is usually overgrown with moss. Fungi that live on trees grow better on the north side because there is more moisture there.
Similarly, the walls and roofs of the buildings are colder and darker on the north side, and on that side, they are overgrown with fungi and moss. Significantly more resin appears on the conifers on the south side than on the north. On the stump of a felled tree, the rings are narrower on the north and wider on the south.
Ok, so you know how to set up a tent at night, but do you know anything about nighttime orientation?
Orientation during the night is imperative with good weather and a clear sky. Some people claim it is easy and that all you have to do is locate the North Star. However, it is not the brightest star in the sky, as people usually assume. It takes clear weather and a good set of eyes to be able to locate it, as well as some astronomy basics.
Start by finding the Big Bear constellation that consists of the seven brightest stars. They may be lower or higher in the sky, depending on the time of the year. It is important to know how to locate them, as it will lead you to the North Star.
The North Star is the brightest star in that part of the sky (sometimes seen by day) and marks the direction of the north.
Irrelevant to the season, the two stars that form the end of the ‘spoon’ or the tail of the bear, are always facing the Northerner. Take your finger or simply imagine a line passing through these two stars and is continuing the same route. On this route look for the brightest star in the sky, until you find the North Star.
Interestingly enough, the North Star got its name by its fixed position in the sky. It is never further away than one degree from the true north (referencing the Earth axis puncturing the north pole that passes through the North Star exactly). Looking left from the star you have west, looking right lies the east, and in the opposite direction of the Star lies the south.
Other Ways of Orientation
There are many other ways people manage to determine where they are. For example, ants make anthills usually on the south side of stumps, trees, or shrubs. The south side of the anthill has a milder slope than the north. But beware, one should not judge by just one anthill.
The spring grass is bigger, denser and greener on the south side of large stones, trees, and forests. The opposite is true when there is a long drought: then the grass is longer green on the north side.
If you come across a stream, head downstream. The stream leads to the valley, towards the river, and sooner or later you will meet people there.
Bees can reveal how to get to the settlement or to the hives at the edge of the forest. One only needs to pay attention to their flight: the bee with nectar and pollen tries to return to the hive by the shortest route.
Orientation is also possible with the help of churches and cemeteries. In Orthodox churches, the altar is on the east and the entrance on the west. In Catholic churches, it is the other way around. The cross on the dome, near all churches, is placed in a north-south direction. Christian graves have a tombstone on the west side, so the grave occupies the east-west direction. Muslim graves have a north-south direction with the tombstone on the south side of the tomb.
If you have a transistor, you can use that as well. If you turn it towards the strongest signal of a radio station, you’ll be directed towards the transmitter of that radio station.
At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, it is possible to orientate using the snow.
- The snow starts melting 1-2 weeks later in the northern parts of the forest. Around the lonely trees, stumps, and pillars, there are parts without snow, which are elongated to the south. Snow stays longer on the northern slopes than on the southern ones.
- On the contrary, in ravines, holes, etc. the snow melts faster on the north side because no direct sunlight falls on the south side of the depression. The same can be seen on the snow tracks left by humans or wildlife.
- The spring grass is bigger, denser, and greener on the south side of large stones, trees, forests. The opposite is true when there is a prolonged drought: the grass is longer green on the north side.
Is There a Reason Why Do You Always Go North When Lost?
In the end, it seems that when people get lost on their hiking trails or camping routes there are more ways to attempt determining the most accurate location. All these ways of determining the sides of the world, except with the help of the sun and the clock, are not always reliable. Therefore, one should orient oneself carefully, check the results and not rely on only one indicator.
Positional awareness is critical for anyone going out into the wilderness.
It is not common practice to always go north, but rather ‘turning to the North’ in terms of determining its location can significantly help in orientation. Whether it is to determine a current and fixed location, or a trail to follow, identifying the sides of the world can reduce stress, provide security and help the individual learn and grow through this adventurous process.