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 😉