Finding Direction Without a Compass
Photo by Luis Pérez

Preparation and carrying the ten essentials is vital to any outdoor trip. Map, compass and GPS make up my navigation kit. Still, the unplanned happens, and a magnetic compass may be broken or left at home. Knowing a few common practices for finding direction without a compass can make a difference.


Several techniques can be used to determine direction. First, let us eliminate two methods that are not practical:

Eliminate the old axiom of moss growing on the north side of a tree. It’s just not reliable. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, moss is everywhere and around everything.

Secondly, dismiss the concept that deciduous trees (e.g., oaks, maples) develop significantly more vegetative structure on a southern exposure. In the Pacific Northwest, the Forestry professors that I have discussed this with tell me not to depend on such observations.

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Photo by Allison Wildman

The following are a few methods that are worth remembering:

1) Perhaps the most accurate method to determine direction is to use the North Star (Polaris) at night. Unique from other celestial stars and planets, Polaris is closely aligned to the earth’s axis. From the earth’s surface, stars and planets rotate around Polaris. Moreover, like the sun, rotation is from east to west through the sky. Polaris is be found approximately half way between the northern horizon and straight overhead. Polaris can be found in the northern sky and is never more than 1° from true north – the North Pole. A clear sky without a lot of background glow from the lights of a city is essential. Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky. Using the North Star when it is high above the horizon is a challenge.

When pulling the true north bearing (from Polaris) “down from high in the sky,” it takes a bit of practice and patience to align the bearing to the horizon where it can be useful.

I recommend taking your compass with you on a clear night and attempting to find Polaris.


2) The sun provides an excellent means of direction finding, too. The ideal situation is one where the sky is bright and relatively free of clouds.

The next method is called a “shadow stick compass.”

In an open area, clear away forest debris and duff. Place a stick or trekking pole (extended about three feet – longer is better than shorter) into the ground as deep as possible (see image below.)

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Figure 1 Outdoor Quest image

Notice the shadow moving out from the trekking pole. At the furthest point of the shadow, place a marker such as a rock, stick or tent peg in the ground.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, place another marker at the end of the moving shadow.

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Figure 2 Outdoor Quest image

The markers shown above were placed over a period of one hour, each thirty minutes apart. A piece of yellow twine was laid adjacent to the markers to provide reference. The line of markers runs east west.

To find north, I simply put the toes of my boots next to the markers with my body perpendicular to the yellow line made by the twine. Facing away from the trekking pole, north is straight in front of me.


3) A traditional analog watch (one with hour and minute hands) can be used to locate north. Again, a bright sunny day is ideal.

The following is quoted from the US Army field manual FM 21-76 (20).

“An ordinary watch can be used to determine the approximate true north. In the North Temperate Zone only, the hour hand is pointed toward the sun. A north-south line can be found midway between the hour and 12 o’clock. (See image below.) This applies to standard time; on daylight saving time, the north-south line is found midway between the hour hand and 1 o’clock. If there is any doubt as to which end of the line is north, remember that the sun is in the eastern part of the sky before noon and in the western part in the afternoon.

On cloudy days, place a stick in the center of the watch and hold it so that the shadow of the stick falls along the hour hand. One-half of the distance between the shadow and 12 o’clock is north.”

Finding Direction Without a Compass
Image from Army FM 21-76


4) A topographic map balances the methods discussed above. Once north is determined, orient the map to north and compare terrain features on the map with the actual contours and features on the ground. Identify topographic handrails such as rivers, trails and dominant land features (e.g., mountains tops.) These features will help guide the hiker’s travel during the day.


Using Polaris and the “stick compass” can, with practice, provide good directional information. These methods provide a trend of direction at best. A trend of direction would be where the hiker is heading in a generally northerly direction rather than a specific bearing.

There are a few more techniques available, but these three are easily remembered and do not require more gear. It’s a fine place to start.

For more information consider:

  1. US Army Field Manual – FM 21-76
  2. Staying Found by June Fleming
  3. The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
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