Natural Navigation or Survival Navigation

Natural Navigation or Survival Navigation

Natural Navigation or Survival Navigation

There is something both satisfying and rewarding in being able to find direction accurately and quickly without the use of a compass, gps or any other modern technology. In the past issues I have been explaining how to use a map and compass from a beginners level through to more advanced techniques.  We have also covered a range of related issues such as planning for adventures and what to do when things go wrong either on the hill or in remote areas.  In this issue I am going to explain a few methods of finding direction without the use of a compass, beginning with using the sun


Being lost is never a nice feeling and can often leave people feeling anxious or in a  state of panic and fear . if you are unlucky enough to land yourself in a situation that has made you become lost and you have no compass to guide you then don’t worry! There are still ways to find direction and I will explain how.


A technique called the shadow stick is a very accurate method of finding direction. Unfortunately it is often overlooked and is a bit more complex than a lot of people and books describe.  Most explanations  state that to find North by using a shadow stick you need to place a straight stick about a meter high in the ground when the sun is out, then mark the end of the shadow on the ground with a marker, a pebble or a small pointed stick will do fine. Wait a while – anything past 20mins will be ok.  Then repeat the process.  You will have two markers  on the ground now with the sun on your back if you’re facing the two sticks. The one that went in first is your Westerly reference and the one on the right is your Easterly reference.  Straight ahead will be true North. This is described for Northern hemisphere use.


This explanation is partially correct.  I will point out why and how there is so much more to this method than described  above .


I am going to explain this method as if being in the UK (Northern hemisphere) or on a similar latitude. We know that the sun rises in the Eastern part of the sky and sets in the West. This only happens precisely on two days of the year and that is the Spring and Autumnal Equinox. All of the sunrises after the Spring Equinox begin to move North of East daily until it stops at the Summer Solstice.  Its final position before it peaks at the solstice is approximately North East, depending on your latitude. As we pass the solstice the days begin to shorten again and the sun moves South. On the Autumnal Equinox  the sun will be once again rising precisely East and setting in true West as the year progresses towards the Winter solstice, then we experience much shorter days. This is due to the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth on its axis. In terms of navigation at the Winter solstice the sun will be rising South East and setting South West.


If you were to mark the shadow from a shadow stick over a full celestial day at both the Summer and Winter solstice then you would notice a huge difference between the line it leaves

(Picture of the Summer arc formed by the marking of the shadows throughout the day. This is a replication of a day started at morning  and marked to early evening , near the Summer Solstice)


The first picture shows the line left on the Summer Solstice. The morning and evening shadows are long  and as the sun reached midday the shadow shortens creating a North South line.  Using the perfect North South line you can work out East and West . Alternatively to just find the East /West line mark several markers through the midday period and you will form a small semi circle, a line which horizontally dissects the top section of the semi circle evenly and square will be a perfect East to West line   (The top section of the semi circle dissected forms a perfect east west line )

Hopefully now you can begin to see that because of the seasons the lines from the shadow of the sun will change shape dramatically. If I was to do what I explained in the beginning of the article on the early hours of the morning near the Summer Solstice then my East West line would not be an East West line it would be a South West / North East line . Almost 45 degrees out which is a huge amount in terms of navigation.

(This is a picture of the Midday section of the Summer arc, when the shadow is at its shortest, mid celestial day then it will form a perfect South/ North line.)

The Arc formed in the Winter near the December Solstice would be a smaller mirror image of the Summer Solstice  and near the Equinoxes in Spring and Autumn a near straight East west line is formed making it much easier to understand and use in navigational terms.

(This is a replicated image of a full celestial day at the Winter Solstice, notice the arc curving in the opposite direction to the Summer Solstice )

(In this picture the near straight line represents the Equinoxes, using the shadow stick near the Equinoxes makes it much simpler to understand and form an accurate East to West Line )

This method can be used at night in exactly the same way as in the day using the sun. To try this you will need a clear night and a moon somewhere between its quarter and three quarter period, This is to ensure there is enough light to cast a shadow


Using a wrist watch

Another way of finding direction using the sun is to make use of a wrist watch. An analogue wrist watch works perfectly for this and it’s as simple as laying the watch flat i.e. so the face is parallel to the ground, point the hour hand at the sun and half the angle between the hour hand and the 12. 00 o clock position.

Doing this will give you a South North line. This method I have just explained is for Northern hemisphere use. When we add our hour on in British Summer Time it must be knocked off to increase its accuracy.  A lot of people these days don’t use an analogue watch any more. Digital watches can be used too. In this instance just draw the clock face on the ground in the dirt or sand using the current time and repeat the explained process.

Taking it a step further you don’t really need a watch at all, most people can guess the time of day without the use of a clock to within the hour. Once you have established the time draw your clock face on the ground and use in exactly the same manner.





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