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Finding your way in the woods, without a compass

Discussion in 'Preparedness & Survival' started by treemanx, Jun 24, 2009.

  1. treemanx

    treemanx Spray, Or. Active Member

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    This is an issue that relates to alot of survival type situations, camping, backpacking, hiking, hunting, fishing at lakes with no established trails, etc.. I think this is an important thread to have here, as alot of us at NWFA are outdoor enthusiasts.

    So Id like to have this thread for tips and discussion of ways to navigate without the aide of a compass or GPS. Gps are so dangerous, due to people getting to comfortable with depending on them in the woods. As many of us have heard before, they are a mechanical device with batteries and can fail. So IMO people should have the skills necessary to confidently know which direction they need to travel if those devices fail.

    I guess I'll start a list of ways to find direction, and give a breif description of them as theyre listed. Feel free to correct me if Im wrong about something and also add to the methods and list. We should probably also talk about methods that dont work as well.

    #1. Using a wrist watch to find South(In the Northern Hemisphere).
    Holding the watch level, point the hour hand towrds the sun, and draw an imaginary line between the hour hand and 12:00(1:00 if daylight savings time). The imaginary line is pointing towards your gross southern heading, and knowing south will give you basis to find North, East and West. (In the Southern Hemisphere, you point the 12:00 symbol at the sun and draw the imaginary line between that and the hour hand to give you North.) This works best during the middle hours of the day

    #2. Stick and its shadow
    This works best during the middle hours of the day as well, in the morning and the evening it wont be anywhere near as accurate. The very best time is a couple hours before noon. Find a relatively straight stick of any length that will cast a nice long shadow on the ground when stabbed into the dirt. Also find three or four small marker sticks or rocks. Push the stick into the ground, and where ever you see the top of the sticks shadow cast on the ground, mark that point by placiing a rock there or stabbing another stick into the dirt there. Every five or ten minutes, use a stick or rock to mark the shadow tips new position. You will soon have a line of markings, giving you an East- West line. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, so the first mark you placed is eastward, and the last is westward. drawing a perpendicular line to that will give you North-South.

    #3. Dead Reckoning
    This is good to use if your traveling through dense trees and underbrush, where its harder to keep visual track of your direction. Its also more to keep on a straight line, than actaully finding direction. Wherever your standing, pick an object that is easily identifable from a distance, like a unique dead standing tree, or a large rock outcropping. This object should obviously be easily within your sight through the brush, which may only be 20 feet away. Then, pick an object at your present location that is clearly visable from the first object you chose. Walk from the object next to you, to the object you picked ahead of you. Once you get to it then pick another point in a straight line ahead of you in the direction you want to travel. Standing in the middle of those three points that are visible to you, you can see whether or not your line of direction is straight. Walk to the next point, pick another ahead, and look at the one behind. This will keep you from wandering off course.

    #4. Navigating by the moon
    If the moon is rising before the sun sets, the lighted side will be West. If the moon rises after midnight, the lighted side will be the East. This gives a good East-West reference during the night when the moon is visible and not full.

    #5. Stars
    One way to navigate by the stars is using the North Star. To find it, find the big dipper, and cassiopeia. Cassiopeia looks like a W on its side with the middle point of the W pointing towards the big dipper, and is East(or to the right) of the big dipper. If you draw an imaginary line straight out from the middle W point, about halfway to the big dipper, then draw a line using the two stars that form the outer lip of the dipper straight out about halfway to cassiopeia, they should intersect at the North Star. Draw an imaginary line straight down to the earth from the North Star, and you'll have true north.

    There are many other methods including magnitizing a needle or piece of wire and placing on a leaf in still water, hanging a magnitized razor blade from a string, ect but Im not as familiar with these as somebody else may be on here. If you know more methods please post them.

    The only method Ive heard of that isnt really true, is moss only growing on the north side of trees. Ive seen this to be true rarely, but usually the moss grows all the way around trees and is not reliable method.
     
  2. treemanx

    treemanx Spray, Or. Active Member

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    Any body wanna contribute to the list? I think that this is such a vital part of outdoor activities that Joey should make this thread sticky, so it's always at the top for new people to see. Who knows, maybe this hunting season, a member of NWFA will get lost out there and remember what he read on here to find his direction. I think it could easily help to save someones life.
     
  3. ORBrit

    ORBrit Eugene Member

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    what's to contribute? you already covered most of it!
    If you're in mountainous terrain you can often figure out direction to travel by the types of trees. In the Northern Hemisphere, Deciduous trees are most often found on the southern slopes and almost exclusively evergreens on the northern slopes.

    Rivers and valleys can be an aid to navigation.
    If you know your general area and if there is a large river or water source that you are aware of, you should know that the mountain streams are going to drain into that river.
    Water is vital for survival but can be a hazard in it's own right - e.g. be aware of flash flood danger.
    Streams can be followed downstream to a lake or river where you can continue to follow the river downstream. Almost every major river runs near civilization at some point!

    A point for those of you who may have a compass but have never really used it to navigate. A lot of people get too focused looking at the compass when trying to walk on a bearing. Like the dead reckoning method above, you have to pick an object on your correct compass bearing and walk to that object. Then repeat the process.
    If you try and walk on a bearing staring at your compass you will invariably drift off course.
     
  4. treemanx

    treemanx Spray, Or. Active Member

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    I have also heard that everyone is either right or left leg dominant. So as you walk(more of a problem while walking with limited visability), every step you take your dominant or stronger leg will eventually pull you in that direction making you curve off course or even walk in circles. To negate this, figure out what your dominant leg is, and then intermittantly step to the opposite side of trees you incounter as you walk. This should help keep you travling in a straight line. Has anyone else ever heard of this?

    Thanks again ORBrit for the great post, those are all great methods as well. I know there are some few places in the world where following a streams to rivers downstream actually wont get you to civilization, but that is usually 100%true most places you go especially in the US.

    As far as using types of trees on the northern and southern facing slopes to find direction, is that due to the amount of sunlight the specific types get on one side or the other? Thats one Id like to know more about. Thanks again!
     
  5. ORBrit

    ORBrit Eugene Member

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    I've also heard of the leg dominance thing and in my early days as an army cadet made the mistake of walking while looking at my compass in a thick fog. Ended up way off course!
    The trick we used to use there (when you can only see 30 feet) is if you have people with you, send them ahead of you and tell them to stop right before they disappear and you position them on the correct bearing path. They become your direction of travel markers. Slow method, but sometimes necessary.

    The tree growth trends is not something I'd bet my life on - Always try and get your bearings with the known trusted methods first.
    If you're under permanent cloud cover and can't see the sun or stars, I'd start looking at the trees. Growth should also be heavier on southern side of trees, and branches can tend to be more horizontal whereas branches on the north side of the tree can often grow more vertical.
    Downed trees should show rings closer together on the north side (in the northern hemisphere) and farther apart on the south side of the tree.
     
  6. Islandeddie

    Islandeddie whidbey New Member

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    "The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, so the first mark you placed is eastward, and the last is westward."

    Isn't this backwards? I believe the first mark would be West. Make yourself a little drawing with a point as the top of the stick and a sun figure on your known south and extend a line through the to your first point. Now move your sun to the west and repeat.
     
  7. toys

    toys PDX Member

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    some of your pointers are good, some are questionable especially during the winters here.
     
  8. markw76

    markw76 Portland/Moscow on the Willamette Member

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    Cloudy days can really mess you up. As will dense forest canopy, especially at night.

    The most important thing is being oriented. Even without a compass, if you've taken the trouble to become familiar with a map of the area, you can keep the sun or other reference to one side or another and keep your direction of travel consistent. It will also give you valuable ideas where to head, like roads or rivers, and places to avoid, like steep terrain. Best to have a map on you, but at least if you've spent some time with one, you can remember enough to be useful to you. I've spent many hours hunting where all I used to get around was a map and just matched up the landmarks with what was around me.