Our reliance on modern electronic devices is steadily diminishing our ability to navigate the world using age-old techniques. Nowhere is this matter more visible and impactful than when you are lost in the wilderness, and you cannot count on GPS technology to make your way out of there.
Being lost in a new city is not a tragedy. You can always find a way to communicate with people and ask for directions. However, when you go off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight, orientation is soul-crushingly difficult.
In this article, we show you how to navigate in the wilderness, if you get lost and have no means of easy orientation. Keep this information handy, and come back to it before your next time in the wild to keep your navigation skills fresh..
Using a Compass and a Map
Firstly, let’s suppose that it is not your first time on an adventure in the wild. If so, you most likely had the intuition to bring a map and a compass with you. The instructions below will help you use them correctly and find your way back to civilization with ease. If you didn’t bring these essential wilderness navigation tools along, you might have to jump to the next tip.
The compass is one of the oldest navigation instruments. The earliest known mentions of a compass in the form of a lodestone, a naturally magnetic stone of iron, used for orientation date back to the 2th-century in China. The present-day version of this tool is a liquid-filled magnetic compass, which is composed of:
- A base plate - a transparent sheet of plastic that contains all the inner mechanisms and a direction-of-travel arrow.
- The compass housing - a circular casing depicting 360-degrees of direction and cardinal points, and which also houses the magnetic needle and the orienting arrow.
- The declination adjustment - the differential in degrees from the “true north.”
- Direction-of-travel arrow - the line pointing the travel direction that results from the alignment of the magnetic needle with the orienting arrow.
- A magnetic needle - the magnetic element that always points north.
- An orienting arrow - the arrow situated just beneath the magnetic needle when it is pointing north.
Here’s what you need to do if you have a compass and a topographic map:
- Put the compass on the map with the travel arrow pointing at the map top.
- Align the bezel with the travel arrow in such a way that they both point north.
- Move the base plate across the map until one of its straight edges aligns with either the left or the right side of the map while keeping the travel arrow pointing toward the top of the map.
- Rotate the compass while holding it and the map tightly until the magnetic needle matches the outline of the orienting arrow.
- Keep everything in this position for at least 20 seconds to allow for the magnetic needle to stabilize.
Now, you should know where to find north, so you have at least a cardinal point towards where you can move. Remember to store your compass away from magnetic objects or devices like your smartphone, which may realign the magnetic needle.
Using the Sun
Getting lost in the woods is not a pleasant circumstance, especially when you are alone. Your blood will be rushing with adrenaline and anxiety, and you will feel the urge to move in any given direction in the hope of rediscovering the beaten track. Unfortunately, by doing so, you may lose any referential point you have and get even more lost in the wilderness.
If you can’t tell north from south, your best choice is to stay put and use the sun to determine the cardinal points. This method of orientation is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and it works something like this:
- Find a stick and trim the leaves off before sticking it vertically into the ground.
- Notice the shadow that the stick makes in contact with sunlight and mark its end with a stone.
- The stone that you have placed marks west regardless of where you are on the planet.
- Sit down and wait for about an hour or two to pass.
- Take another rock and place it at the end of the new shadow that the stick makes now.
- Draw a straight line between the two rocks, and you get the line between East and West.
- Position yourself between the two rocks with the first (West) stone on your left, and the second one (East) on your right.
Now, you how to find north, even if you do not have a compass or a map with you. This orientation method is time-consuming, and it can slow you down, especially if you stop for an hour every few miles to make sure that you are still heading in the right direction. However, the time you spend waiting for the shadow to elongate, you get to calm down and reduce anxiety, thus becoming more lucid.
Using the Stars at Night
Using the sun can help you find your way out of the woods during the day. However, it doesn't do much for you during the night. Still, if you are lost in the wilderness at night, you do not have to wait until the morning to navigate your way back to civilization.
All you need to do is find the North Star. Also known as Polaris, the North Star is the brightest star on the starry night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the last star in the Ursa Minor constellation, which some may also know as Little Dipper or Little Bear (not to be confused with the big dipper).
The North Star appears within a degree of the Celestial North Pole, and it gives the impression that it doesn’t move while the other stars seem to move from east to west due to the Earth’s rotation. Locating Polaris reveals the cardinal points and helps you orientate better in the surrounding environment.