It is a natural human reaction to panic a little when you lose your compass on a backpacking trip in the wilderness. However, it is possible to find directions without a compass. Here are a few tips to help you navigate backwoods territory even without your favorite, trustworthy compass.
The Sun, Moon, and Stars
The Sun: Since the beginning of civilization, humans have relied on the sun to navigate direction. You know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, roughly speaking. It is important to note that the exact point along the horizon at which the sun rises and sets is seasonal. When the sun reaches its highest point at noon, its direction will be either south (northern hemisphere) or north (southern hemisphere). In winter, the sun is lower in the sky so shadows are longer.
The North Star and Orion: While the North Star is not precisely north, it is close enough. On a clear night, you can find it at the tail end of the Little Dipper. Orion is a constellation that rises in the east and sets in the west. On a clear night, you should be able to spot the three stars in the middle that form the line known as Orion’s belt. They are pointing east/west and hanging from the belt is Orion’s sword, pointing south. Using either of these as guides, lay a stick on the ground with a couple of small sticks to make an arrow. When you awaken in the morning, this will be a reminder of your direction. You can confirm your arrow is accurate because you know the sun rises in the east.
Trees and Plants
Moss typically grows on the north side of trees and rocks. The dilemma is in a generally shaded or wet environment, the moss may grow on all sides of a tree. However, if you find a grove of trees that receives consistent sun, this can be a fairly accurate indicator of north. Another method is to look at multiple hills. Drier, less-vegetated hillsides will usually be facing south.
DYI Compass: Necessary materials include a needle, a piece of wool or silk, a leaf, and a puddle of water. If you rub the needle with the wool or silk about 100 times, it will acquire a magnetic charge. You can also carefully rub the needle through your hair to attain the same effect. Carefully place the leaf on the pool of water and put the needle on top. If there is no wind, the thicker end of the needle with the eye will favor the north.
Cast Your Own Shadows: This will only work if it is sunny. Drive a stick into the ground about 12 inches high. Place a small pebble at the end of the shadow. Wait about 15 to 30 minutes and you’ll notice the shadow has moved. Place a second pebble at the end of the shadow and draw a line through the two pebbles, which is your east/west line. Look at which side the shadow is pointing over the east/west line. If the sun favors the south side of the sky, the shadow will point in a northerly direction. Draw a line through the east/west line at a 90-degree angle and you now have north, south, east, and west coordinates.
Before you leave for your trip, you should familiarize yourself with landmarks. This includes knowing whether specific sites are north, south, east, or west of your campsite. If you do find yourself in the wilderness without a compass, try not to panic and trust your instincts.