Navigating Without a Compass – Part 3

Shadow Stick Tip Method - Illustration by Brian Green

This is the third post in my three-part series on navigating without a compass. In part one I described how you can use easily identifiable constellations to locate the north star, Polaris. In part two I showed how you can use an analog watch and the sun to quickly determine North and South. In this third part I will explain how to use the Shadow Stick Tip method to get a reasonably accurate reading of compass direction.

The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, but not exactly due east or due west. In the northern hemisphere, the sun will be due south when at its highest point in the sky, or when an object casts no discernible shadow. In the southern hemisphere, this same noonday sun will mark due north. In the northern hemisphere, shadows will move clockwise. Shadows will move counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. With practice, you can use shadows to determine both direction and time of day.

Shadow-Tip Method
Find a straight stick about three feet long. Look for a level spot on the ground that is free of brush and debris where it will cast a distinctive shadow. Place the stick or branch upright into the ground. Mark the shadow’s upper most tip with a small stone, twig, or other means – I am using a small stick in this example. This first shadow mark is always west – everywhere on earth.

Wait for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until the shadow tip moves a few inches. Mark the shadow tip’s new position in the same way as the first, you can see my second small stick.

Use your straight stick or, if possible, draw a straight line through the two marks to obtain an approximate east-west directional line. Now stand with the first mark (west) to your left foot and the second mark to your right foot and you will be facing in a northerly direction.

To test this, I placed my pocket compass in the direction I was standing to confirm that I was indeed facing north – as indicated by the red arrow on my compass. I should note that a compass gives a reading of magnetic north whereas this shadow stick method provides a reading of true north because it uses the sun. Even with that said, this technique provides a reliable and accurate method for quickly determining your direction with nothing more than the things laying around on the floor.

Do you use any other methods to navigate without the use of the compass?

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04380958324541306917 JERMM

    I’ve heard of this technique, but didn’t know how it was done, thanks for clearly explaining.

    I went out to my garden to give it a try and sure enough it works. Like you said my compass pointed to magnetic north while the stick and sun method pointed to true north. cool!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Hi JJ, I’m glad to hear that this helped explain the technique for you. I was taught these techniques and more as a young Boy Scout in England and they’ve stuck with me ever since. I was surprised to learn how many fellow backpackers were not aware of this one and the other two I mentioned.

    It’s very handy knowledge to have with you in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you need it.

    The great thing about knowledge is that wherever you go, the skills go with you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17106432593950504039 Cody

    I learned this technique in scouts what seems like an eternity ago. While I always have a compass with me, I like to use this method from time to time just to keep the skills sharp. :) An expertly written article.. thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Thanks Cody. I wrote this series of articles because I was shocked by how many of the people i run into that couldn’t navigate well with a compass yet alone without one.

    Like you, these were shown to me many years ago and because of their simplicity they have stuck with me.

    Thanks for your kind words :-)

  • Marwanium

    Thanks Brian,
    Just a small comment, on the 3rd picture with the compass, maybe it would have better to turn the dial on the compass so the Red “N” also faces north, as this can/might confuse a novice. Thanks again, Marwan, Egypt.

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

      Thanks Marwan, you’re probably right. I had to take the photos in a bit of a hurry, so it would be fun to go back and update this with better photos. :-) How is the hiking in Egypt?

  • Marwanium

    Thanks Brian,
    Just a small comment, on the 3rd picture with the compass, maybe it would have better to turn the dial on the compass so the Red “N” also faces north, as this can/might confuse a novice. Thanks again, Marwan, Egypt.

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

    Thanks Marwan, you’re probably right. I had to take the photos in a bit of a hurry, so it would be fun to go back and update this with better photos. :-) How is the hiking in Egypt?

  • http://www.facebook.com/cwiellis Idris Ellis

    All of the above, tho in the Southern hemisphere, the Cross & Pointers [which are always hiding behind a hill or trees, in Summer] Watch method differs so that the Sun is on twelve. The Moon can be used thus: hold your hand up to your face, little finger outstretched, look at it with your little finger nail across the horns, or poles, and your elbow will be pointing to the pole across the equator, except in the Tropics, where it depends upon what side you are compared to the Moon. I have three other ways.

  • Dan

    Any comments about the effects of latitude, time of day, and time of year on the accuracy of the shadow tip method described here? This would seem to me to only be truly accurate if the two times were straddling solar noon and that the closer you get to sunrise and sunset, the method has more inherent error. Would love to be able to quantify this error.

    • Tom

      Agreed. This works perfectly all day on the equator, but the more the Sun rises and sets at a greater angle to the vertical (higher latitudes, winter time), the more the accuracy of this method suffers in the morning time and later in the afternoon when the Sun’s shadow is drifting north or south as well as west to east. To quantify the error you’d need to know – as you say – your latitude, time of day and time of year then a bunch of complex trigonometry. But if you knew the time of day you could use the method in part 2.

  • Chad

    Where did part one of this series go? MIA!!!

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

      Oh no, looks like a few links got messed up as part of the Blog migration. Let me take a look and fix them. Thanks for the heads up!

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

      Chad, they should be all good now. You can easily get to the whole series using the “Navigation” link at the very top of my blog, just above the banner.

  • Noam Gal

    I know of a similar technique, where you don’t have to wait for 10-15 minutes –
    Imagine a big analog clock on the ground, centered around the 3 foot stick. Now, imagine the shadow the stick casts to direct at the current time (so 10:15 am is a quarter of the way between 10 and 11), and imagine another line pointing at 12 o’clock (so it’s location is dictated by the stick’s shadow and the current time). Lastly, take these two lines (The shadow and the imaginary 12 o’clock) and imagine a line exactly between them. This line points at the north.

    I am not sure how this will work in the southern hemisphere, mostly because I am not sure why it works at all. But it does.
    You’d have to take the “real” time into account, so if you are currently in daylight savings time, deduct one hour from your watch. Since time is arbitrarily set to regions about 15 degrees wide on Earth, this will probably not be the “real” time of your current location anyway, so it might not be %100 inline with your compass, but it gives a fairly good approximation of the north. With a map and some prominent land marks, I am sure you can locate yourself easily.