Wilderness Direction Finding
(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival
In a survival situation, you will be extremely
fortunate if you happen to have a map and compass. If you do
have these two pieces of equipment, you will most likely be able
to move toward help. If you are not proficient in using a map
and compass, you must take the steps to gain this skill. Other
ways to determine direction follow.
USING THE SUN AND SHADOWS
The earths relationship to the sun
can help you to determine direction on earth. The sun always
rises in the east and sets in the west, but not exactly due east
or due west. There is also some seasonal variation. In the northern
hemisphere, the sun will be due south when at its highest point
in the sky, or when an object casts no appreciable 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. The shadow methods used for direction finding
are the shadow-tip and watch methods.
In the first shadow-tip method, find a
straight stick 1 meter long, and a level spot free of brush on
which the stick will cast a definite shadow. This method is simple
and accurate and consists of four steps:
Step 1. Place the stick or branch into
the ground at a level spot where it will cast a distinctive shadow.
Mark the shadows tip with a stone, twig, or other means.
This first shadow mark is always west - everywhere on earth.
Step 2. Wait 10 to 15 minutes until the
shadow tip moves a few centimeters. Mark the shadow tips
new position in the same way as the first.
Step 3. Draw a straight line through the
two marks to obtain an approximate east-west line.
Step 4. Stand with the first mark (west)
to your left and the second mark to your right - you are now
facing north. This fact is true everywhere on earth.
An alternate method is more accurate but
requires more time. Set up your shadow stick and mark the first
shadow in the morning. Use a piece of string to draw a clean
arc through this mark and around the stick. At midday, the shadow
will shrink and disappear. In the afternoon, it will lengthen
again and at the point where it touches the arc, make a second
mark. Draw a line through the two marks to get an accurate east-west
The Watch Method
You can also determine direction using
a common or analog watch - one that has hands. The direction
will be accurate if you are using true local time, without any
changes for daylight savings time. Remember, the further you
are from the equator, the more accurate this method will be.
If you only have a digital watch, you can overcome this obstacle.
Quickly draw a watch on a circle of paper with the correct time
on it and use it to determine your direction at that time.
In the northern hemisphere, hold the watch
horizontal and point the hour hand at the sun. Bisect the angle
between the hour hand and the 12 o'clock mark to get the north-south
line. If there is any doubt as to which end of the line is north,
remember that the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and
is due south at noon. The sun is in the east before noon and
in the west after noon.
Note: If your watch is set on daylight
savings time, use the midway point between the hour hand and
1 o'clock to determine the north-south line.
USING THE MOON
Because the moon has no light of its own,
we can only see it when it reflects the suns light. As
it orbits the earth on its 28-day circuit, the shape of the reflected
light varies according to its position. We say there is a new
moon or no moon when it is on the opposite side of the earth
from the sun. Then, as it moves away from the earths shadow,
it begins to reflect light from its right side and waxes to become
a full moon before waning, or losing shape, to appear as a sliver
on the left side. You can use this information to identify direction.
If the moon rises before the sun has set,
the illuminated side will be the west. If the moon rises after
midnight, the illuminated side will be the east. This obvious
discovery provides us with a rough east-west reference during
USING THE STARS
The main constellations to learn are the
Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper or the Plow, and Cassiopeia
(Figure 18-3). Neither of these constellations ever sets. They
are always visible on a clear night. Use them to locate Polaris,
also known as the polestar or the North Star. The North Star
forms part of the Little Dipper handle and can be confused with
the Big Dipper. Prevent confusion by using both the Big Dipper
and Cassiopeia together. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are always
directly opposite each. other and rotate counterclockwise around
Polaris, with Polaris in the center. The Big Dipper is a seven
star constellation in the shape of a dipper. The two stars forming
the outer lip of this dipper are the "pointer stars"
because they point to the North Star. Mentally draw a line from
the outer bottom star to the outer top star of the Big Dippers
bucket. Extend this line about five times the distance between
the pointer stars. You will find the North Star along this line.
Cassiopeia has five stars that form a shape
like a "W" on its side. The North Star is straight
out from Cassiopeias center star.
After locating the North Star, locate the
North Pole or true north by drawing an imaginary line directly
to the earth.
MAKING IMPROVISED COMPASSES
You can construct improvised compasses
using a piece of ferrous metal that can be needle shaped or a
flat double-edged razor blade and a piece of nonmetallic string
or long hair from which to suspend it. You can magnetize or polarize
the metal by slowly stroking it in one direction on a piece of
silk or carefully through your hair using deliberate strokes.
You can also polarize metal by stroking it repeatedly at one
end with a magnet. Always rub in one direction only. If you have
a battery and some electric wire, you can polarize the metal
electrically. The wire should be insulated. If not insulated,
wrap the metal object in a single, thin strip of paper to prevent
contact. The battery must be a minimum of 2 volts. Form a coil
with the electric wire and touch its ends to the batterys
terminals. Repeatedly insert one end of the metal object in and
out of the coil. The needle will become an electromagnet. When
suspended from a piece of nonmetallic string, or floated on a
small piece of wood in water, it will align itself with a north-south
Steve's Notes: Cradled in a couple pieces of thread,
magnetized a needle can be slowly lowered onto the surface of
a cup of water, and will actually float there due to the surface-tension.
Drop the ends of the thread and the needle will align north-south.
You can construct a more elaborate improvised
compass using a sewing needle or thin metallic object, a nonmetallic
container (for example, a plastic dip container), its lid with
the center cut out and waterproofed, and the silver tip from
a pen. To construct this compass, take an ordinary sewing needle
and break in half. One half will form your direction pointer
and the other will act as the pivot point. Push the portion used
as the pivot point through the bottom center of your container;
this portion should be flush on the bottom and not interfere
with the lid. Attach the center of the other portion (the pointer)
of the needle on the pens silver tip using glue, tree sap,
or melted plastic. Magnetize one end of the pointer and rest
it on the pivot point.
OTHER MEANS OF DETERMINING DIRECTION
The old saying about using moss on a tree
to indicate north is not accurate because moss grows completely
around some trees. Actually, growth is more lush on the side
of the tree facing the south in the Northern Hemisphere and vice
versa in the Southern Hemisphere. If there are several felled
trees around for comparison, look at the stumps. Growth is more
vigorous on the side toward the equator and the tree growth rings
will be more widely spaced. On the other hand, the tree growth
rings will be closer together on the side toward the poles.
Wind direction may be helpful in some instances
where there are prevailing directions and you know what they
Recognizing the differences between vegetation
and moisture patterns on north- and south-facing slopes can aid
in determining direction. In the northern hemisphere, north-facing
slopes receive less sun than south-facing slopes and are therefore
cooler and damper. In the summer, north-facing slopes retain
patches of snow. In the winter, the trees and open areas on south-facing
slopes are the first to lose their snow, and ground snow pack
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