Navigating Without a Compass – Part 1

This is the first post of a three-part series in which I want to share with you some easy ways to successfully (and accurately) navigate without the aid of a magnetic compass. There are many different and well proven methods of navigating without a compass, but I’m going to focus on the three techniques that I have found to be the easiest to remember and simplest to actually use.

In my opinion you should have a compass with you at all times when venturing outdoors and know how to properly use it.  However, there will be times when you don’t have a compass or may have lost your compass and need to be able to find you way back to base camp or to safety.  Using the simple techniques that I will be explaining in these posts, you should be able to effectively determine your location/direction and perform basic emergency navigation.

Using The Stars to Find North
Knowing how to find the North Star in the northern hemisphere is definitely one of the most basic navigational skills that everyone should know – being lost in the wilderness without a compass is not the time to be trying to figure out where the North Star is.

Many people wrongly believe that the North Star is one of the brightest stars in the sky and is easy to spot. In actuality the North Star is not very significant in its order of magnitude, or brightness, when compared to all the other stars in the night sky, it tends to blend in to the background.  The key to accurately and reliably locating the North Star is being able to identify the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper, sometimes also called The Plough, is probably one of the best known groupings of stars in the northern sky and is relatively easy to distinguish among all the others.  It isn’t actually a constellation in its own right, but it’s part of a larger one called Ursa Major or the Great Bear. The Dipper covers a fairly large area of the sky and may be upside down or sideways, depending on the season.

The illustration below shows the entire Ursa Major constellation and the Big Dipper within it. Follow the imaginary line (shown in red) that runs through the two stars at the very front of the Dipper’s bowl.  If that line is continued it will point directly to Polaris, the North Star!

In finding the North Star, you’ve also found the tail end of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor).  Don’t be surprised if the North Star doesn’t appear very bright, as I mentioned earlier it isn’t one of the most significant stars in the night sky.  A helpful tip that I’ve learned to confirm that I have the right star is that if you estimate the distance between the two Big Dipper stars at the front of the bowl, the North Star is approximately 5 times that distance away – a handy rule of thumb.

A few things about the North Star – it’s called Polaris, or sometimes the Pole Star, and it always lies in the North. Due to the rotation of the Earth, during the night the stars all rotate 360 degrees, but not Polaris.  In fact the Earth’s axis points directly at Polaris or “true north” so it remains in the exact same place in the sky all night.

Once you have found the North Star you can also use it to determine your latitude north of the Equator. Simply measure the angle formed between the horizon and the North Star. Here’s an easy way to do that. Look directly toward the North Star and point one arm straight at it. Hold your other arm level with the horizon to form a V. The angle between your arms is roughly the degrees of latitude of your location above the Equator (for example: 35°).

A really great (and lightweight) way to remember how to identify constellations is by carrying a star chart or guide of some sort.  I carry a nifty laminated pocket guide called The Night Sky published by Waterford Press that sells for around $6.00.

Not only is it easy to pack and very durable, the two large star charts actually glow in the dark for easy night time reference.

In the following two posts I will explain how to navigate using a wrist watch (analog or digital) and how to use a shadow stick to track the sun and determine North.  If you have any tips or tricks on how to easily navigate without the use of a compass please share with us all via the comments below.

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  • http://howtodealwithdepression.org/ ian

    Interesting and beautifull pic I like it.
    Congrats for your works and your blog.

  • http://stick13.wordpress.com/ stick13

    Cool post. Thanks for the info. I will have to get outside one night when it is not cloudy and check that out.

  • http://www.adayak.com/ David

    Thanks! I always thought the North Star was part of the big dipper.

  • http://www.adayak.com/ David

    Thanks! I always thought the North Star was part of the big dipper.

  • Rajabalak

    Thanks for the important info, having navigated for eight years and always have 2 or 3 gps units + a compass with me when in the jungle, now I feel peace of mind having learnt your technics, thank you, and everybody should spare a few minutes to learnt it, I will draw it out, laminate it and keep in my backpack !

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Thank you, I’m glad you found it useful. I may create a small downloadable instruction sheet sometime soon.

  • RobertNorwood

    First explanation that ever made complete sense with easy facts to remember to ensure one gets it right.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Thanks Robert! I created the graphic to provide a visual for how it works. Once you know how to identify the Big Dipper and which part you are supposed to ‘follow’, finding Polaris (the North Star) is easy :)

  • Nick McGuire

    thanks for the information

  • tina

    I’m glad i found you blog. Great instruction and usefull tips, thanks!