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Natural Navigation Techniques

No matter how well you prepare for your adventures, it's a simple matter of probability that if you go on enough trips, you'll eventually find yourself up a creek without a compass. At that point, you'll be kicking yourself if you don't know a few basic tricks for natural navigation. Often, just being able to orient yourself in the right direction is all you need.

Natural Navigation Techniques, Navigating by Sun, Hema Maps, Offroad, Tips and Technics(Image: Navigating by Sun, it rises in the east and sets in the west.)


It rises in the east and sets in the west, correct? Yes, although it's not all that simple. Due to the earth's tilt, the sun only rises and sets due east and west two days of the year, the equinoxes in late-March and late-September (surprisingly, this is the same no matter where you are on Earth). 

Given this variability, a more thorough way to figure out which way's which is to use what's known as the stick method. Find a stick that's about one metre long and shove into clear, level ground. Mark the tip of the stick's shadow, then wait for 10-20 minutes and mark again. Draw a line that connects these two points, and if you like extends beyond. In the Southern Hemisphere, the sun is in the north at high noon, so if you stand on the line you've drawn with the first point marked to your left and the second point marked to your right (the stick still stuck in the ground behind you) you will now be facing north and the line you've drawn will run east-west.



In Australia the Southern Cross makes this an easy task. Take the distance from the star at the head and the star at the foot of the cross and measure four times that distance as an extension from the foot of the cross (this is easy to do by holding a stick at arm's length). The point on the horizon directly below the end point of the extended line is south. 



Trees need sunlight to grow, and since the sun spends most of its time in the northern section of the sky, trees are likely to grow more densely on their northern side. In dense bushland, this is hard to spot, but a stand-alone deciduous tree will often have an easily discernible heavy side. If you're taking this as a guide, however, it's important to view the tree from every angle and be aware that tree growth can also be affected by prevailing winds. 



Speaking of prevailing winds, weather is a variable factor but can give some indications that will help aid navigation. If you know the prevailing wind direction for the area you're in, you can look for indicators that will identify the direction that the wind usually blows in. Spider webs, for example, are often found on the sheltered side of trees and structures, and can be a rough indicator of which direction the prevailing wind comes from. 



In some parts of Australia we have magnetic termite mounds. These are long, thin structures that are built to capture the morning and evening sun, but avoid the midday rays. As such, they're oriented with their large flat sides facing east and west, and their pointed ends running north to south. Remembering that in the morning the sun is in the eastern section of sky and in the afternoon it's in the west, these mounds can be a good indication of direction.


  • Dr Colin F Bindloss: October 30, 2020

    In the first example if the stick is behind you then you are looking south, not north. The Tropic of Capricorn comment is a good one – there is quite a bit of 4WD country north of there!

  • Tim: October 20, 2020

    Note re using the sun for north in your ‘Natural Navigation Techniques’. In the southern hemisphere in the ‘sun’ example the stick would be in front of you not behind you.

  • Ian Crawford: October 30, 2020

    Finding north using the sun and a stick. In the Southern Hemisphere the stick will always be in front of you if you stand on the line as described. Remember the stick casts a shadow which will be on the southern side of the stick.

  • Ian Crawford: October 20, 2020

    Finding north using the sun and a stick. In the Southern Hemisphere the stick will always be in front of you if you stand on the line as described. Remember the stick casts a shadow which will be on the southern side of the stick.

  • Bronislaw Gaca: October 20, 2020

    There is another simple way to find the north direction with a watch with arms. Position your hand with the watch, so that 12 o’clock shows the current position of the sun. The north direction will be halfway between the present hour (time) and 12 o’clock, (which is the present position of the sun). Please check at different times of the day.

  • Lindsay: October 20, 2020

    Regarding Using the SUN to find north, be aware that if you are actually north of the Tropic of Capricorn during summer (especially Dec & Jan) the Sun may be to the south of you. The resultant navigation outcome could be heading east instead of west, or worse still heading home -( if you are from southern states).

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