How to Navigate Without a Compass In the Wilderness

Getting lost is one of the most terrifying, helpless feelings you can experience when exploring new areas. Having tools like a compass or GPS will limit this risk considerably but may not always be available!

So, how do you navigate without a compass?

The best way to navigate without a compass is to use the sun and stars to find which direction is north. By planning ahead of time, you can use topographical maps and other online tools to familiarize yourself with rivers, creeks, lakes, and land features that are relative to your position. 

Finding your way home without a compass or GPS is an important skill to have for anyone who spends time exploring new areas. In the article below, we will look at some of the best ways to navigate without a compass and how you can prepare before departing on your next adventure.

How to Analyze Maps

Before heading into any areas you are not familiar with, you must first analyze the area on a map. Most trailheads will provide a detailed map of the area, but having a topographical map that you review before leaving home is the best practice. It can also be helpful to utilize online tools such as Google Earth.

When you do map analysis, it allows you to create a mental picture of the landmarks and features of the area you are exploring. Here are some examples of things you can identify and make a note of to help you find your exact position:

  • Mountains
  • Hills
  • Rivers
  • Creeks
  • Lakes
  • Meadows
  • Boulders
  • Trails
  • Roads
  • Radio towers

The point is that you should immerse yourself in the landscape and surroundings to quickly identify specific features when you have boots on the ground. You can relate these features to the closest trailhead, road, or town and know exactly where you need to go.

How to Find True North

Now that we have a mental picture of what this land looks like and where we need to go, you need to identify which direction you are heading. This is done by finding your true north, and there are a few methods of doing it.

In the section below, we have instructions for finding true north depending on where you are in the world and additional tips and tricks.

In the Northern Hemisphere

The most important thing to look for in the northern hemisphere is the sun when it is at its peak. If you can find that point accurately for 1-3 days in a row, you will know that the direction you are looking at is south.

In the Southern Hemisphere

It is also important to look for the sun when it is at its peak in the southern hemisphere. The process for identifying the sun is the same. However, the direction you are facing is now north instead of south.

On the Equator

The sun will be at its highest point directly above you in the equator. So, it will be difficult to use the previous method we just discussed. This scenario will be a better option to identify which direction is east or west.

Remember, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west!

Tips and Tricks

Here are some tips and tricks you can use to figure out which direction you are going.

Use the Stars

To use the stars to figure out which directions you are going, you will first need to understand a few basic constellations. Most people know what the big dipper is, but if not, it looks similar to a big cup with a handle in the sky. If you follow the farthest right edge of this cup directly upwards, you will be able to identify the north star, and you know by following it, that you are going north.

Use a Watch

You can find which direction is north with a watch as long as it is analog and not digital. Hold the watch level to the ground and direct the hour hand towards the sun. Imagine a line running halfway between that hour’s hand and 12 o’clock on the face of the watch. You can mark it with a pencil or pen as well. That imaginary line will point south, and by turning 180 degrees, you are now facing north.

Use a Stick

Find a stick around three feet in length and push it straight into the ground. Find a rock to place at the edge of the shadow made by the stick. Wait 15 minutes and place another rock at the end of the new shadow. Once you have the two rocks in place, place your left foot on rock one and your right foot on rock two. The direction you will be facing is north!

Use Moss

In most cases, moss will tend to grow on the side of a rock, trees, and other features that spends most of the time in the shade. So, in theory, you should find it on the northern side of an object in the northern hemisphere and the southern side in the southern hemisphere. However, many outside factors can come into play when reading the moss. This is why it is less reliable than some of the other techniques discussed.

Follow the Water

Remember when we discussed reviewing maps? Well, this is going to be key for using creeks, lakes, and rivers as landmarks. If you familiarize yourself with a map prior to going to a new area, finding a water source can be a massive relief in determining where you are and where you need to go.

Practice Being Lost

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and navigation is no different. If you want to be comfortable in your abilities, you will need to know what it feels like to be in a new area without any navigation tool such as a compass.

Venture out into some areas you are familiar with and practice some of the techniques and tricks discussed here. Find some landmarks on the map at home and then identify them in person.

Be Proactive

The worst thing you can do is try all of these tips and tricks for the first time when you are lost. Learning the techniques in a stress-free and controlled environment will help you master them and ensure you are doing them properly. You should not wait until you are actually in a bad situation before trying them for the first time.

Stay Calm

Stress and panic never lead to logical and informed decision-making. By staying calm, you can collect your thoughts and remember what you need to do step by step. Take a few deep breaths, observe your surroundings, remember what you learned, and put together your plan of attack!

What to Do When Lost

When it comes to getting lost, a decision will have to be made on how you want to approach the situation. It’s important to be honest with yourself, your abilities, and the specific situation you find yourself in. The best decision for one person may not be optimal for another. You will need to decide whether you want to wait for a rescue or find your way out on your own.

Wait for Rescue

The first option is to stay put and wait to be rescued. Build a camp or shelter, start a fire, or make some rock formations to flag someone down for help.

Rescuers are trained to search the area where you were last seen. If this is the method you decide to employ, you should be doing your best not to move around too much or wander off. This could lead to missed opportunities for rescuers to find you.

Hunker down and stay put!

Rescue Yourself

The second option is to rescue yourself and find your own way out. Hopefully, you did some preparations and research beforehand by reviewing the area on a map. But if not, you will need to start systematically breaking down where each direction leads from the location you are currently standing in.

Before getting started, some good questions to ask yourself are:

  • What landscape features are you aware of?
  • Have you passed any recognizable landmarks?
  • What are some identifiable features of the last trail you were on?
  • Did you travel uphill or downhill from the last trail you were on?

Once you have some of these questions answered, you will likely have some suspicions on which direction can lead you to familiar lands. Follow your gut and slowly head in that direction for a short period. Take periodic breaks to stop, observe the surroundings, and listen for distinct sounds such as cars, city noise, etc.

It is extremely important that you ensure you are walking in a straight line when scouting for the way out. If you are walking completely straight, you can simply turn around and walk right back to where you started if you determine that direction is incorrect.

If you don’t find anything familiar heading in one direction, return to the original location and go in a different direction. If you have scoped out all directions, start expanding the distance and traveling a little further than before until you find something.

Always Be Prepared

While all of these steps will be incredibly useful for navigating without a compass, the truth is not getting lost at all is the most desired outcome. All of this can be avoided with a little research, preparation, and practice!

It is important to remember that electronics malfunction, and having backups for your backups will provide a safety netting. Put a compass in your backpack and leave it there! You never know when you might need it.