Mental Floss

4 Tricks to Help You Navigate Without Google Maps

Shaunacy Ferro
iStock / iStock

After a few years with a smartphone, the notion of getting around without digital directions has become kind of terrifying. But with a little prior research, finding your way can be as easy as looking up.

Here are four simple ways to navigate using just the sun, moon, and stars that we learned from Spencer Merlis, a New York City-based sailor who teaches classes on natural navigation. All will help you find cardinal directions in order to orient yourself, but you’ll still need a working knowledge of the city you’re in and the address of where you’re going to find your way—we’re not miracle workers!

Note that these instructions are specific to the Northern Hemisphere, but if you live south of the equator, just reverse them (south for north, etc.) and the same instructions apply.


The sun hovers due south (meaning, directly south) at noon, so on a sunny day, as long as you know the time, you can figure out where north is. Just face the sun head-on, and turn around. Even if you can’t necessarily see the sun—say, if you’re surrounded by tall buildings—you can use shadows to figure out about where it is. Shadows fall away from the sun, so if a street sign is casting a shadow on the sidewalk, for instance, you know that the sun is behind the sign at the same angle as the shadow. At times other than noon, you can also approximate—during the mid-morning, the sun will be in the southeast, and in the late afternoon, it will be in the southwest.


You can still use the sun to find your way around when the sun is below the horizon. At dusk or dawn, you can tell east and west by the color of the sky. If one part of the sky is pinkish around dawn, that’s east. At dusk, the sky is lit up in the west (where the sun is setting). So if you’re walking away from the glow of the sun in the evening, and your shadow is in front of you, that means you’re walking east. If your shadow is to your right, that means you’re headed north.


Image Credit: Jim Thomas via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Shaunacy Ferro

As the name indicates, the North Star (Polaris) is in the north, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s relatively simple to find if you can find the Big Dipper, a pretty easy-to-recognize cluster of stars that’s bright enough to see even in cities. The two stars that comprise the outer, non-handle side of the Big Dipper’s bowl point right at the North Star.

The constellation Cassiopeia, shaped like a W or an M, also points toward the North Star. If you imagine it as a W, just draw a line in your mind's eye to connect the W's two outer points. Then draw a line perpendicular to this at the left-side point where you’d start making your W, as in the diagram above.


A full moon is due south at midnight, just like the sun is south at noon. During a half moon, you can imagine the divider between the illuminated half of the moon and the dark half as an arrow pointing straight down toward due south. If it’s a crescent moon, just imagine where the line between two halves of a full moon would be, and the same principle applies.