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Walter Hix

How To Navigate In The Wilderness If Lost

How To Navigate In The Wilderness If Lost

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 get lost in the wilderness, and you cannot count on GPS technology to make your way out of there.

If you get lost in a new city it 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 tell you what you need to know and show 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. Don't just turn around and try to find your way without knowledge. Stay knowledgeable and prepared!

Using a Compass and a Map

map and compass for navigation

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 get 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" or magnetic north.
  • Direction-of-travel arrow - the compasses point in 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:

  1. Put the compass on the map with the travel arrow pointing at the map top.
  2. Align the bezel with the travel arrow in such a way that they both point north.
  3. 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.
  4. Rotate the compass while holding it and the map tightly until the magnetic needle matches the outline of the orienting arrow.
  5. 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. It is not always necessary to head north, but it is the easiest direction to keep located and straight as you traverse back to civilization. It is best to keep to one direction, as it will eventually lead you population. You will probably come across this good advice in many articles, and that is because positional awareness is a very important thing. Going in one cardinal direction insures you do not go in circles, back from were you came, etc. If you haven't already, the first thing you should pack for a excursion should be a GOOD compass.

Using the Sun

using sun for navigation

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 the south side, your best choice is to stay put and use the sun to determine the cardinal points. Using the sun as a method of orientation is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and it works something like this:

  1. Find a stick and trim the leaves off before sticking it vertically into the ground.
  2. Notice the shadow that the stick makes in contact with sunlight and mark its end with a stone.
  3. The stone that you have placed marks west regardless of where you are on the planet.
  4. Sit down and wait for about an hour or two to pass.
  5. Take another rock and place it at the end of the new shadow that the stick makes now.
  6. Draw a line between the two rocks, and you get the line between East and West.
  7. Position yourself between the two rocks with the first (West) stone on your left, and the second one (East) on your right.

Now you are facing 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. A good tip to remember is that the noonday sun will point due north in the Southern Hemisphere, and it will point due south in the Northern Hemisphere.

Using the Stars at Night

using stars for navigation

Using the sun can help you navigate 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 woods at night, you do not have to wait until the morning to navigate your way back to civilization. The first step is knowing your location in accordance to the stars, like if you are in the Southern Hemisphere or Northern Hemisphere. Find North on your compass, and go from there. 

If you don't have a compass, 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). If you find yourself lost in the Southern Hemisphere, tracking location by stars can be a little more complicated, as Polaris will be less visible. 

The North Star appears within a degree of the Celestial North Pole in the Northern Hemisphere, 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.


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