Finding North

There are a few ways to find north without a compass, gadgets or technology. Knowledge you’ll probably never need, but if you’re out in the woods, get lost and don’t have a compass, it may stop hours of wandering about.

Moss on Treesmoss

Given you’re likely to find yourself in woodland (unless you sleep in a hammock on the ground?!?), you may try relying on a common belief that mosses are more likely to grow on the north side of trees because the north side will receive less sunlight (and so be cooler and more damp than the south side). Mosses like damp, shady habitats, not unlike people from Manchester.

Be warned that I’ve found myself in some woods where everything is covered in moss, and others where the species of tree seems one that mosses simply don’t like. Worse, I’ve seen trees where the moss was only growing on the south side. If something else is giving the tree shade (like the tree next to it) this is creating those same shady conditions which mosses seems to prefer.

So how good a tip? I wouldn’t want to rely upon it.

The Sunstickcompass

You can make a simple compass using four sticks and the sun. Take a 2 feet long stick and poke one end in the ground. At the end of its shadow, place a marker (a small stick again pressed into the ground or a rock will do). 15 minutes later the shadow will have moved (ideally wait longer than 15 minutes for greater accuracy). Place another marker at the end of the new shadow. Lay a fourth stick between the two markers. This stick points from east to west, but which is east and which is west? Remember, the sun will cast shadows towards the north. Lay a fifth stick at a right angle across your east/west marker line, and the end pointing towards your shadow stick points south, and t’other end points north.

Reliable? Not indoors, nor at night time, in the fog, under dense tree cover or in driving rain. Otherwise… pretty good!

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west and as a rule of thumb, at 6am it’s to the east of you, and at 6pm it’s to the west. It’s roughly south-east at 9pm, due south at midday, and south-west at 3pm. Don’t take my word for it… test it out!

The Stars

starIt’s dark and I’m lost! While nature may let us down with the reliability of tree mosses, the North Star (Polaris) will reliably point you to the north unless there’s light pollution or it’s a cloudy night. Even better, the North Star is easy to find (although NOT the brightest star in the sky).

You may have noticed two groups of stars which look like saucepans (to me at least… always the food theme). These are the Big Dipper and Little Dipper constellations. The North Star is the last star in the ‘handle’ of the Little Dipper. A third constellation, Casseopeia (which looks like a ‘w’) is also useful to help locate the North Star in the sky.

The North Star can be found roughly in a straight line between the Big Dipper and Casseopeia. Even better, the outside edge of the pan shape on the Big Dipper points towards both the North Star and Casseopeia. Have a look at the image, which explains things more clearly.

Find the north star, then image a line straight down to the horizon. That’s north!

Using a Watchwatch

Remember, at midday if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, at midday, the sun is due south.

How do you tell where the North/South are when it’s not midday? Simple. You need a watch with an hour hand. Lay the watch flat on the palm of your hand. Turn around until the hour hand points in the direction of the sun. Work out the middle point on the dial between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (so if it was 4pm, this would be the 2pm mark). Run an imaginary line from that point to the centre of the watch face. This is your North/South line.

If you have a digital watch or tell the time using your phone (as I do), make out a watch face on a piece of paper or even on the ground with a stick.

A word of warning. If your watch is set to daylight saving time, you’ll need to make a minor change. Turn the watch until the hour hand is facing the sun as you did before, but work out the midway point between that and the 1 o’clock marker on the watch face instead of using the 12 o’clock marker.

We should probably add “don’t look directly at the sun”. [Ed: Do I really have to tell people this?]

Smartphone and App Based Compasses

Be careful as batteries die, the calibration goes skew-whiff.

The Good Old Compass

When I say good, it depends on quality, as some compasses are not good at all. Test it before you head off into the wilds as I’ve had ones before where the needle wobbles about and changes its mind!

There’s also a small risk in today’s world of gadgetry that the magnetic fields generated by mobile phones and similar electronics can reverse the compass needle polarisation. Just imagine your compass guiding you west when you think you’re going east!

One final word of warning… scientists predict that the earth’s magnetic poles will swap, although it’s unlikely to be in our lifetime 😉



It may seem a bizarre thing to write, but when was the last time you disconnected from the world, just stopped, and were still. With the mobile switched off, Facebook closed down, no television in the background. Being still, or gently rocking in the breeze (in a hammock, rather than clutching your knees as a result of another bill coming through the door). There’s an old poem by William Henry Davies (I was forced to learn it at school):

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

In reality there’ll be some jobs to do over the course of the day. Breaking up some firewood, cooking, washing up… but take a little while to just stop and do nothing. Chill out. Disconnect the mp3 player, put down the book. If you fall asleep, does it matter?


Nerf Wars

nerfgunYou’ve taken the kids, and there’s the inevitable matter of entertainment.

One thing we occasionally take with us are nerf guns.

The ammunition

If you haven’t come across these toys, they fire small foam darts with rubber tips (I’ve been hit in the eyeball and can still see, but sunglasses are probably a sensible idea). They’re ideal for children (including those in their 40s) and an alternative to water pistols where the weather isn’t quite warm enough to dry you out.

You can buy targets and darts with suckers on. An alternative are darts with the plain rubber tips, and the target is you (or your 9 year old)! Raucous fun which sees children running about and unglues them from i-pads and portable computer games.

Choose your weapon

nerfmachinegunFrom easy to pack small, single shot, spring loaded, pistols (the Nerf Gun Elite Jolt) to semi-automatic beasts which load magazines of ammo, there’s a huge number to choose from.

Nerf battles are a great way to interact with the children. You’re in the woods… you’ve got midge repellent used by Australian or American special forces in jungle warfare… take things that one step further!

If your daughter is into the Hunger Games and sees herself as Katniss Everdeen, a nerf bow fits the ticket. With sleeping up trees and a little bushcraft, you’ll have an adventuress by your side. Nerfing isn’t just for boys. Be an elven warrior, live for a moment in Game of Thrones, make Robin Hood come alive.

Buy extra ammo as inevitably a few darts will get lost, but they’re brightly coloured and easy to find. Face off that alien invasion… engage in guerrilla, and be a kid again. Go on, I dare you!



Crabbing – Making Memories

Velvet Crab

Crabbing is an essential part of childhood. I remember doing it on various childhood holidays. The excitement of dangling a bit of weighted string off a jetty with a lump of pork chop and hauling up monsters (and then watching parents trying to put the in a bucket without losing their fingers) stays with you.

Brown (or Edible) Crab

We’re a little more sophisticated now and use a crab snare, although there’s a range of equipment you can use (albeit a length of string, pebble with a hole in and a bit of chicken works perfectly well!). A crab snare is small, wire metal box which you put the bait in, and attached to the box are nylon free running snares.

Whether you take the crab back home (or to the campsite) and eat it, or simply set it free, your children will have the experience of being close to nature, being away from tablets and playstations, and… well… being being kids. Crabbing is a ‘quality time’ thing to do.

Your children are unlikely to remember hours on Minecraft, but they will remember catching their first crab. Make a competition out of it. A prize for the first caught, the biggest and the most caught.

There are 65 different species of crab in the seas around the British Isles. The brown and velvet crabs are particularly common (and make a very good meal!). Brown crabs have particularly strong claws used for crushing mussel shells (so be careful… don’t say we didn’t warn you!). The crab you’re most likely to find is the shore crab (and yes they’re edible, with a sweet flavour… very popular in Spain).


Crab Net

Crabs detect things by sense of smell, so the smellier the better. Raw food such as pork, chicken or fish is ideal but do make sure the kids wash their hands before eating ice cream after they’ve been crabbing! Oily fish works well, and a piece of mackerel (or mackerel head) is good to bail cage or net traps (I never did work out how to tie a fish head onto a string). Even better if you leave the bait out for a day or so to get a bit rank and even smellier!


Take your pick…

Go Traditional: A simple length of string (or paracord) tied around a rock to weight it down (or use a large fishing weight) and then wrapped around bacon, chicken or pork chop works well. It’s how I used to catch crabs as a kid. The crabs cling on, and you haul them up from a jetty or sea wall hoping they won’t let go (they usually don’t)!

Safety Lines

Safety Rigs: For a couple of pounds, you can buy a hand reel, line, with a weight and netting bag attached to the end. Quite why they’re called safety lines escapes me, but they work well, and I always have two in the boot of the car (no comments please that it’s about time I cleaned the car out).

Crabbing Nets: These are large nets much like a bucket, which you pop bait into, drop to the sea floor, wait and then can scoop up several crabs at a time.

My Crab Snare

Crab Snares: Little seen in the UK, but popular in America (and introduced to me by Thomas), the picture is of my very own crab snare. A small, plastic coated wire cage, with free running snares attached. You’ll need to attach your own line (string or paracord is fine) and weight down the cage (pebble or a fishing weight). You can also attach these snare boxes to a fishing rod! Use a decent strength line as weighted down with three crabs, these boxes can get heavy! The secret is to slowly haul (or reel) in the line so the snares draw closed on the crab legs and claws. Be warned, removing the crab from the snare can be an adventure (yes, those claws do nip).


Pyramid Star Crab Traps: If you find the idea of dealing with snares and pincers a little scary, why not try a pyramid trap. These are clever pieces of kit where, when lowered to the sea bed, the four sides open up, allowing the crabs to scuttle to the bait. Draw the string up, and the sides close shut! No risk of losing your catch, and once you’ve hauled it up, place it on the ground, lower the cage to the ground and the sides come back open.


You may want to put the crabs back, and that’s fine. It’s a matter of choice. Personally, I’d eat them if they’re a reasonable size (whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch never tried one of these!).

See our article on Guilt Free Crab Killing.