How to Find True North Without a Compass

Which way is north? Whether you're lost in the woods or you're trying to install a sundial in your yard, you're bound to want to find true north from time to time, and chances are when the time comes you won't have a compass. What's more, even if you do have a compass, it will point to magnetic north, which, depending on your location in the world, can vary a great deal from true north. So what's an intrepid explorer to do? Read this article to find several ways to find North.

These tips do require that you have some usable vision, but even if totally blind, they could come in handy, in case you have to tell someone else how to use them.

The Shadow-Tip Method

  1. Place a straight stick upright in the ground so that you can see its shadow. Alternately, you can use the shadow of a fixed object that is perpendicular to the ground. Nearly any object will work, but the taller the object is, the easier it will be to see the movement of its shadow, and the narrower the tip of the object is, the more accurate the reading will be. Make sure the shadow is cast on a level, brush-free spot.

  2. Mark the tip of the shadow with a small object, such as a pebble, or a distinct scratch in the ground. Try to make the mark as small as possible so as to pinpoint the shadow's tip, but make sure you can identify the mark later.

  3. Wait 10-15 minutes. The shadow will move exactly from west to east in a perfectly straight line.

  4. Mark the new position of the shadow's tip with another small object or scratch. It will likely move only a short distance.

  5. Draw a straight line in the ground between the two marks. This is an east-west line.

  6. Stand with the first mark (west) on your left, and the other (east) on your right. You are now facing true north, regardless of where you are in the world.

Alternate Shadow-Tip Method for Increased Accuracy

  1. Set up stick and mark first shadow-tip as above. For this method, take your first reading in the morning, at least an hour or so before midday.

  2. Find an object or length of string, etc., exactly the same length as the shadow.

  3. Continue taking measurements of the shadow's length every 10-20 minutes. The shadow will shrink until midday, when it is at its shortest. Then it will gradually grow longer.

  4. Measure the shadow length as the shadow grows. Use the stick or object you used to measure the length of the initial shadow. When the shadow grows to exactly the same length as the stick (and hence exactly the same length as your first measurement), mark the spot.

  5. Draw a line connecting the first and second marks as above. Once again, this is your east-west line, and if you stand with the first mark on your left and the second on your right, you will be facing true north.

Watch Method: Northern Hemisphere

  1. Find an analog watch (the kind with hour and minute hands) that is set accurately. Place it on a level surface, such as the ground, or hold it horizontal in your hand.

  2. Point the hour hand at the sun. You can use a stick to cast a shadow to aid in your alignment if you wish, but it is not necessary.

  3. Bisect (that is, find the center point of) the angle between the hour hand and the twelve o'clock mark (the number 12 on the watch). The center of the angle between the hour hand and twelve o'clock mark is the north-south line. If you don't know which way is north and which way is south, just remember that no matter where you are, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere the sun is due south at midday. If your watch is set to daylight saving time bisect the angle between the hour hand and the one o'clock mark instead.

Watch Method: Southern Hemisphere

  1. Use an analog watch as above, and point the watch's twelve o'clock mark (the number 12) toward the sun. If your watch is set to daylight savings time, point the one o'clock mark toward the sun.

  2. Bisect the angle between the twelve o'clock mark (or one o'clock mark if using daylight saving time) and the hour hand to find the north-south line. If you're unsure which way is north, remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west no matter where you are. In the southern hemisphere, however, the sun is due north at midday.

Moon Method

  1. Observe the moon. If it is not a full moon and rises before the sun sets, the illuminated side is west. If the moon rises after midnight (standard time) the illuminated side is east. This is true everywhere on Earth.

  2. Approximate north and south based on the rough east-west line of the moon. No matter where you are, if you are standing with the west side to your left, true north will be straight ahead.

These methods may require practice to perfect, so it's a good idea to try them a couple times when you can check your readings. That way, you'll be able to rely on them if you're in a survival situation.

The shadow-tip methods are not recommended in the polar regions, which are latitudes above 60 degrees in either hemisphere. The watch method is not recommended in lower latitudes, particularly below 20 degrees in either hemisphere.

Here are a few more ways to find north, south, east and west without a compass.

  1. Look for any mossy trees around you. Most of the time, the moss will grow on the north side, where there is the least sunlight.

  2. If there are no trees, look at the sun. If you think it's the afternoon it will be setting so it will be in the west. If it is still morning then it will be rising in the east.


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