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How to Find True North Without Using a Compass


You’re lost in the woods. That’s bad. You forgot your compass. That’s worse. But it’s not hopeless.

There are several techniques you can use to find true north and get yourself reoriented.

The Watch Trick

If you’ve got a watch, and it’s not digital, you can use it like a compass. First, point the hour hand towards the sun. Then find an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch face. (During daylight savings time, the halfway line is between the hour hand and the 1.) That imaginary line points south. North, of course, is 180 degrees in the other direction.

If you’ll wait awhile, you can watch the sun and see which way it is moving. If it’s rising, that’s east. If it’s setting, that’s west. You’re oriented.

The Needle Trick

If you’re lucky enough to have remembered your first-aid kit, get a needle from it. Rub it on the silk liner of your sleeping bag or other material, and the resulting static electricity magnetizes it.

Lay the needle on a blade of grass and float that in a cup of water. It will orient itself in a north-south axis. You’ll have to guess which way is north, but at least you’ll have a 50-50 change of being right.

The Stick Trick

Find a stick that is about three feet long. Poke it in the ground so that it is standing straight up. Then place a rock at the end of the shadow cast by the stick. Wait about 15 minutes.

Now place another stone at the end of the second shadow. With your back to the stick, stand with your left toe touching the first rock, and your right toe touching the second rock. You’re facing north.

Draw an imaginary line from the first rock marker to the second. West is the direction of the first marker.

The Oldest Trick in the Book

But if you have no watch, no needle and the sun has gone down, stay put. Rescuers look near where you were last; if you wander, you’re less likely to be found.

31 Comments on How to Find True North Without Using a Compass

  1. All methods described, are easy to understand and trustworthy. One should try eachone a few times to master it.

  2. the sun rises in the east and sets in the west so in the morning the sun is east and in the evening the sun is west

  3. Cut down a tree or find a freshly felled tree stump..the rings on the stump are closer together on the south side…fence posts no good though..

  4. The stick trick would make more sense to people that don’t understand directions if you rotate the picture 90 degrees counterclockwise.

  5. Suburban Camper // November 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm // Reply

    Satellite dishes face south?

  6. the answer is a gps

  7. Moss depends on how the sun shines on each tree, so it varies a lot. If you look at several trees that get full sun all day there might be a tendency, but it wouldn’t be precise. Sun motion (a stick method) or the north star can be precise.

  8. James Troop 17 // June 9, 2016 at 10:29 pm // Reply

    Moss on the tree’s the sun don’t shine on the north side !

  9. Tinbird68 // June 4, 2016 at 4:48 am // Reply

    If what the stick trick is telling us is true, the picture accompanying the article is wrong. Assuming that the scout’s left foot was the first marker (because the stick shadow is behind his right foot), then his left foot should be East if the arrow is pointing to the North….

    • The picture is not wrong, Sun rise East to West, so 2nd mark is East(as shadow moving the opposite direction), which is his right foot, the arrow point to North all right.

  10. At night you can also find north using the stars.

  11. Eagle 2 Fox 3 // May 18, 2016 at 7:45 am // Reply

    Great lessons. But I think the NEXT lesson needs to be a SPELLING lesson.

  12. Going into the woods? Be prepared! That includes looking at map before you go and always carring survival gear. For more information, consult the Boy Scouts Handbook

  13. Watch from which direction the sun rises and that will always be roughly east.

  14. chuck norris // January 4, 2012 at 12:28 pm // Reply

    i dont find north, north finds me…

  15. Anonymous // May 6, 2010 at 8:30 pm // Reply

    the right end of the big diper points to the north star

  16. Spacescout // July 10, 2009 at 9:22 am // Reply

    Don’t also forget about moss. More moss show on the NORTH side, so the spot with the most moss is north.

    • ruunscaper // June 22, 2010 at 11:23 pm // Reply

      moss grows anywhere it is wet and can grow on the under sides of things too.

      • Buffalo 17 // June 9, 2016 at 10:35 pm //

        Moss grows on the shady side of the tree’s even if it grows every where but on the sunny side of the tree look for the tree with the moss on one side

  17. “The Stick Trick” It doesn´t work.

  18. ducky 10444 // June 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm // Reply

    remember the north star is NOT the brightest star.

  19. Old Scout 1960 era // December 18, 2007 at 12:12 am // Reply

    Pay attention to the moon.

    It can point out East or West to you.

    Think of the crescent moon as a bow (Diana, the Greek Goddess of the hunt and the moon’s bow) with an arrow aimed at the sun.

    In the evening the bow will point at the sun below the westren horizon.

    In the morning the bow points at where the sun will rise on the eastren horizon.

  20. paintballer 22 // November 18, 2007 at 7:06 pm // Reply

    awsome I could never find north!

  21. no gps always lost // August 9, 2007 at 6:05 pm // Reply

    Hey, this is great. I have been slightly off my path before (oops) high in the Rockies (even worse) and alone (really dumb!). This could have saved my life if I had not found the trail I was hiking on a few minutes later. I was lucky that time. Technology fails and we rely too much on it. Some old fashioned orienteering know how is great.

  22. 1666621662. // August 1, 2007 at 3:24 pm // Reply

    don’t for get stars they can be your freind, the northstar can be your best freind.

  23. Don’t forget the stars! They’re your friend…particularly Polaris, “the North star.”

  24. I knew All of those :>

  25. Lighting Mcqueen // July 17, 2007 at 11:26 am // Reply


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