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How to Find North

Written by Super User on . Posted in Stories.

Most navigation techniques rely on the answer to one important question: Which way is North? Let's explore all the ways you can figure that out; there are more than you think!

"You don't need your phone to navigate!"

Use  A Compass

This is the fastest and most accurate way to find North. Magnetic North (where your compass points) is about 500km away from True North (the North Pole, where Santa lives), and is actually on the move! So you have to adjust the declination on your compass to account for this difference. You can calculate this yourself using information from a map of the area, or just type the location into this handy site and it will do it for you. Declination for a given area shifts a bit each year, so adjust your compass at least once a year.

Once your declination is set, turn the bezel to north, hold the compass flat and away from your body, and rotate it until the needle goes into the “house”. Once the needle is in the house, the compass is pointing to the North.

But what if you don’t have a compass with you?........

Use A Map

If you can recognize at least two major landmarks, you can find North with just a map. Find the landmarks on the map, and then align the map in the same orientation as the terrain you see. The top of the map will then be pointing North.

But what if you don’t have a map?.......


In the Northern Hemisphere:

Hold the watch flat, with the hour hand pointing in the direction of the sun. The middle point between the hour hand and the 12 o'clock mark on the watch will be pointing South. The opposite direction from this will be North.

If you don’t have an analog watch, you can still do this. Draw a picture of a clock displaying the current time and use that (but be quick, it will lose accuracy as time goes on).

If you are in a time and place that uses Daylight Saving Time your watch will be one hour "off". To compensate for this use the midway point between the hour hand and the 1 o’clock position to find South instead.

Check out this video where Jenna demonstrates!

But what if you don’t know what time it is?.....

The Position of the Sun

Everywhere in the world, the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. Therefore, midway between sunrise and sunset (this is not noon) the sun is pointing due south. You can then estimate the direction that the sun is sitting based on the amount of time ahead or behind the midpoint between sunrise and sunset.

Hiking Pole or Stick

If you have time to stay in one place for at least 30 mins, and have bright sunlight, you can use a shadow for more accuracy.

  1. Drive a 2ft stick or trekking pole in flat ground.
  2. Put a rock at the tip of the stick’s shadow to mark its location. This is the West rock.
  3. Wait 20-30 mins
  4. Put a second rock at the tip of the stick’s shadow to mark its location. This is the East rock.
  5. Draw a line between the two rocks. This points west and east.
  6. Stand with your left foot on the first (West) rock and your right foot on the second (East) rock. You are now looking North.

Check out this video where Jenna shows you how!

But what if it's night time?......

Use the Stars

In the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris (also known as the North Star), is visible in the night sky and points to the North. The Big Dipper and Little Dipper can help you find it. Join one of our Full Moon Hikes to learn more about the stars!

Photo courtesy of NASA

Any Star

If you can’t find the North Star because something is obstructing your view (clouds, mountains, forest) and can stay in one place for about 30 minutes, you can use any star.

  1. Pick a star in the night sky. Any star will do, but it’s easier if you pick a bright one or one that is part of a constellation you can easily recognize.
  2. Place 2 sticks in the ground about 1 meter apart so that when you line them up, the star is just visible above them.
  3. Wait for at least 30 mins, and compare the star’s new position to its old position using the sticks.
    • If the star went up, you’re facing East.
    • If the star went down, you’re facing West.
    • If the star went left, you’re facing North.
    • If the star went right, you’re facing South.

Here is a mnemonic to help you remember this…

For your cardinal directions = West Northfield Elementary School matches up with the direction the star moved = Don’t Leave Underwear Rot

Take a navigation course to learn what you can do once you know which way is North. Try practicing these skills when you’re out on regular hikes or even from your backyard. Then use a compass or GPS to check how accurate you are. This will help you to solidify your skills, so if you ever need them, you are ready!

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