Expert Advice: How to Find Your Way Without a Compass

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Happy Marooned Without a Compass Day! To celebrate, we asked Kirk Reynolds, CEO and guide at the New York City-based Discover Outdoors for some tips on how to find your way out of any tricky situation, sans compass.

What is the easiest way for a total outdoors novice to orient themself without a compass?
This is one of my favorite games to play on a Discover Outdoors trip. My advice is to try at least two methods to confirm your orientation. The easiest way is to use a map. It may seem harmless to go on a hike without a map, but even the most seasoned outdoors-people can get lost. Look for landmarks: hills, rivers, trails, and man-made structures like roads, pipelines, and fire towers. Without question, this is your first move.

Are there other ways—perhaps a bit more advanced—that other people can use, too?
As wilderness guides, this is how we get to show off. Assuming you don't have a map:

1. Use your watch. If you don't have an analog watch, you can visualize where the numbers would be on the face. Take the watch off and align the hour hand with the sun. Imagine a line that intersects the halfway point between the hour and 12:00. That line is pointing south. For example, if it's 4:00, the halfway line will be pointing to 2:00. Note that in the summer, you will need to adjust for Daylight Savings by one hour, so move your hour hand back an hour. If you're in the Southern hemisphere, align the sun with 12:00 and the imaginary line will be pointing north.

2. Track the sun. This one takes more time. Find a patch of land that gets direct sunlight. Put a stick in the ground and place a mark at the tip of its shadow. Wait 30 minutes, and place another mark at the tip of the shadow. Draw a line between the two points and you can see approximately where east and west are.

A lot of non-compass ways of navigation rely on the sun—what do you do on a cloudy day?
Sometimes you can still get a shadow on a cloudy day, but as a backup, look at your environment. Moss typically grows on the north side of trees and rocks. Look for multiple samples to confirm. If it's a generally shaded or wet environment, the moss may grow on all sides. However, if you find a grove of trees that receives consistent sun, you have a decent indicator of north. Another way is to look at the hillsides. If you have a view of multiple hills, the drier, less-vegetated hillsides will face south.

The North Star is a good way to navigate, but are there other stars you can use?
This is getting really technical, but still easier than you think. Orion is a constellation that rises in the east and sets in the west. Look for Orion's belt, the three stars in the middle that form a line. They are pointing east/west and Orion's sword, which hangs from the belt, points south.

What was the first way you learned to navigate yourself without a compass?
It might be easier to tell you when I first started using a compass, which was much later in life. My parents took me on a lot of outdoor trips growing up, exploring many of the state and national parks across the country. With my father, I think navigating was mostly done intuitively, which may explain a few extra miles hiking on unintended trails. But I wouldn't trade those detours for anything.

Have you ever actually lost your compass on an excursion and had to put one of these ways into practice? Which one did you use?
What kind of guide would I be if I lost my compass?! But if I did, you can count on the watch method; at night, Polaris is a sure thing.

What's the best tip you can give people who have to navigate without a compass?
If you find yourself lost and without a compass, remember that you were born with instincts, and let that first calm your nerves. Never make a knee-jerk reaction or make a decision out of panic. Take your time, evaluate your surroundings, take a mental picture of how you got there, then remember the basics. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun is always south and the North Star is always north.