Blaze A Trail: How To Navigate Without GPS

Technology can be a double edged sword. Sure, it has afforded us with a vast number of conveniences – from streaming entertainment to all but eliminating the need for long division – but it also cripples us in some notable ways. For instance, many people rely heavily upon GPS (be that on their smartphones or in standalone GPS devices) to give them directions, but can’t find their way home without it.

Perhaps the most notable of situations in which this technological crippling is the most dangerous is out on the trails. Whether you’re just tackling one of the world’s many day hikes, doing a long-form thru-hike (like the Pacific Crest Trail), or you’re just getting out in the woods for a few days of off-grid relaxation – knowing how to navigate without GPS can be the difference between your continued survival and mortal danger. And that’s why we put together the following guide: so you can find your way out of a tricky situation, even if you don’t have the crutch that is technology.

Compass Be Your Guide

Amazing Magnetism

We believe that everyone who heads out on the trails for an extended period of time should, at the very least, become familiar with the area they plan to hike and carry both a topographic map and compass along with them. The reason for this is simple: barring wild electromagnetic interference, a compass is one of the most reliable ways to get your bearings in a survival and/or navigational situation. All you have to do is pop it open and look at it and the compass does the rest of the workBarring wild electromagnetic interference, a compass is one of the most reliable ways to get your bearings. – pointing out exactly which way is north and, by proxy, the orientation of the other cardinal directions.

To use this tool in conjunction with your topographic map is nearly as easy as looking at the compass itself. All you have to do is place the map on a flat surface along with the compass and then point the top of the map in the same direction the compass says is north. This will allow you to better use the map to determine where it is you are because, as a standard practice, the top of all topographic maps is north and the bottom is south. Of course, if you’re going to use this method, it helps to know how to read a map – otherwise, you could be in trouble.

How To Read A Topographic Map

If you’re going to use the compass method for navigation, it will help you greatly to also have a map. And the combination will do you much better if you are familiar with how to read a topographic map, as is outlined in our handy guide.

The Shadow Method

An Ancient Classic

If you’re desperate, you can use your own shadow.This is one of the easiest ways to figure out where you are headed, but is dependent upon a few important factors to be of value to you, as well. First, it has to be a sunny day with as few clouds as possible. Second, you need to find an area clear enough that there aren’t trees blocking your view of the sun overhead. Third, you’ll need a stick, hiking pole, or something else similarly rigid to stick into the ground and at least two smaller items to use as markers – rocks work great. If you’re desperate, you can use your own shadow, as well. The rest of the method is as follows:

  1. Take your stick or rod and push it into the ground of your given area so that it stands up vertically without your assistance. Try to make it stand as straight as possible, as you will be using this items shadow as your primary navigational tool.

  2. Grab one of your two smaller marker items and place it at the edge of your stick’s shadow. This will end up being your westward marker. It’s important to note that, when in the Northern Hemisphere, the first marker you place down will always be your westward marker and the second one will be your eastward marker. The reverse is true for the Southern Hemisphere.

  3. Wait for an extended period of time. You don’t have to give up your entire day to this task, but you need enough time to go by for the shadow to have noticeably changed position. Don’t wait long enough and you won’t have much to go by in regards to directions. Wait too long, however, and you could miss the sun altogether. 15-25 minutes should do the trick.

  4. After you’ve waited for 15-25 minutes, take your second marker and place it at the tip of your stick’s shadow. This will be your eastward marker (unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). You can now remove the stick from the ground and use it to draw a line between your two markers. This is your east-west compass axis.

  5. Draw another line, perpendicular, down the center of this line. That will be your north-south axis – with north being the direction you face when the western marker is on your left and south is, obviously, the opposite direction.

It’s important to point out that this method is not what we might call an exact science. Depending upon how far you are from the equator, your results will be different. This method is also harder to use the closer you are to the equator. Still, it is an excellent means by which to get your bearings and can help you get on the right track if you are lost in the wilderness without any sense of direction. Unfortunately, if you use this method to create a compass rose, you will not be able to take that directional tool along with you – so you’ll likely have to use this method again after you’ve traveled some distance. But it is better than nothing.

Watch The Sun

No Complication Necessary

This method doesn’t depend upon waiting in the same place for an extended period of time.While the above method is quite handy, the fact that you can’t bring the directional tool with you once you’ve created it is a major drawback. Luckily, there is another method that similarly uses the sun, though it doesn’t depend upon waiting in the same place for an extended period of time. It does require one essential piece of gear, however: an analog watch. If you have a digital watch with an analog-style face, you can still use this method, though it won’t be of any use to you if your watch features a digital readout or if it dies. To use this method, follow the following steps:

  1. Take off your watch and orient it horizontally (meaning with the face pointed upwards and the back of the case facing toward the ground). You can attempt this method without taking your watch off, but it’s easier if you just remove it.

  2. Point the hour hand of your watch toward the sun – this is easier to do when the sun is closer to the horizon, but it’s not impossible while the sun is up high in the sky. If the sun is quite high, just point the hour hand toward the horizon underneath the arc of the sun.

  3. With the hour hand pointed toward the sun, find the 12 o’clock marker. The halfway mark between the location of the sun and the 12 o’clock position is a rough approximation of the north-south line, when bisected across the face of the watch. For instance, if the halfway marker is the 10 o’clock position, the north-south line would be from 10 to 4 across the face of the watch.

  4. Determining which direction on that line is north and which is south is quite simple: the position closest to the sun would be south, whereas the opposite side is north – so long as you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. The opposite is true for the Southern Hemisphere. In our example, the 10 position would be south and the 4 would be north.

  5. Use this method as often as you’d like to keep yourself oriented and headed in the right direction. So long as the sun can be seen in the sky, you can use your wristwatch to figure out the cardinal directions.

It’s worth noting that, if you’re in the tropics, this method becomes a lot less useful – especially around noon, as the sun will be practically overhead in the sky. The benefit of this knowledge, however, is that the sun also rises due east and sets due west, so if you can garner the direction that the sun is headed, you should still be able to orient yourself.

Follow The Stars

Heavenly Bodies

Using the sun to map your path is only useful so long as the sun is visible in the sky. This doesn’t account for at least half of every 24-hour period, as the sun isn’t visible at night. Luckily, thanks to the rotation of our planet in relation to other heavenly bodies in the sky, you can still navigate at night. The easiest way is by locating Polaris, AKA the North Star. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, Thanks to the rotation of our planet in relation to other heavenly bodies in the sky, you can still navigate at night.this star (which sits at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper constellation) will always point you in a general northern direction.

You can also use the moon to determine directions, as it follows a similar arc across the sky as the sun – rising in the east and setting in the west. If you can gather which way the moon is moving, you can generally discern the cardinal points. And, if the sky is clear enough and the moon is full enough, you should still be able to use the shadow method, like you might with the sun. But, those not the only way to orient yourself. Another method utilizes any single star in the sky, alongside a single stick. It works as follows:

  1. As you would if using the shadow method, this process is much easier if done in a large, relatively flat, open area. Find a suitable location and get started.

  2. Embed your stick in the ground with the tip pointed vertically and situate yourself in a position so that the tip of the stick points closely to a discernible star in the sky. Make sure you’re comfortable, as you could be in this position for up to 20 minutes.

  3. After time has passed, note whether that star has moved to the left or the right. If the star has moved left, you are facing in a northerly direction. If the star moves right, you are facing south. The reverse is true if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere.

  4. If the star hasn’t moved left to right, but rather up or down, you can still garner a direction out of the information. In this instance, upward movement means you are facing east and downward movement means you are faced west.

  5. The final possibility is that the star moves in a combination of directions. In this case, you aren’t facing north, south, east, or west – but rather you are pointed northeast, northwest, southeast, or southwest. For instance, left and up corresponds to a northeastern direction, whereas right and down would be southwestern, etc.

Natural Landmarks

Trust The Topography

You can always use the natural landmarks around you to help figure out where you are headed.Finally, if none of the other methods on our list have suited you very well, you can always use the natural landmarks around you to help figure out where you are headed. Some of these tips and tricks might seem more obvious than others, but each and every one of them is useful for helping you navigate yourself out of a tricky situation – and that can mean the difference between survival and mortal danger. Probably best that you heed all of them, lest you think risking your life is a better option.

  1. Mountains & Moisture: If you find yourself in the Northern Hemisphere, that means that the sun arcs across the sky slightly to the south. This also means that the plant life and moisture on the northern side of a mountain will differ slightly from that on the side that faces the sun. This is seen most plainly in the patterns of moss growth. Moss grows best out of direct sunlight and, likely, will appear in greater abundance on the northern side of a mountain in the Northern Hemisphere. As always, the reverse is true for the Southern Hemisphere. It’s also worth noting that the side of a mountain facing away from the sun will be cooler and retain snow for longer.

  2. Rivers & Streams: If you can find a river or a stream, one of your best bets in regards to survival is to follow it. Most of human civilization is situated on or near bodies of water – that includes rivers. It’s also typical that human settlements are often at lower elevations than the peaks of the surrounding lands. So, if a stream is headed into a nearby valley, your best bet for stumbling upon human life other than your own is by following it downhill.

  3. Landmarks & Natural Features: When lost in the wilderness, it’s very easy to become disoriented and potentially lose your sense of direction. If you can’t see the sun or the stars, this is even more true. But you can use the natural topography around you to keep yourself headed in the right direction. If you know which direction you need to head, you can pick a distinctive natural feature toward the horizon to keep you on track – be it a mountain, a grouping of trees, or whatever else. You can also keep yourself headed in a straight line (as opposed to a circle or weaving path) by keeping another distinct feature at your back. It’s not an exact science, but it’s better than idle wandering.

  4. Memorize Your Map: Whether you’ve got a GPS watch that has died or you lose your topographic map in a strong gust of wind, you can still do yourself a lot of good in regards to navigation if you have familiarized yourself a bit with the surrounding area in which you are camping, hiking, or whatever else. By knowing the land more intimately, you can find natural features or landmarks that will help you figure out where, exactly you are. This is also useful if you know their relation to one another. For instance, if you know that there’s a large grouping of boulders at the southern end of a lake, then you also know which direction is south. It seems obvious, sure, but the importance of this type of knowledge can not be overstated in a survival situation.

Basic Survival Skills Everyone Should Know

Of course, knowing how to navigate without GPS is just one of many things you should know how to do in order to keep yourself alive. The rest can be found on our list of the 8 basic survival skills every man should know.