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How to find North, if you don't have a compass

Updated on November 2, 2012

How to find North? As a boat captain I have quite a bit of technology on the boat to tell me where I am, which way I'm going, where I'm going & how long it will take to get there at all times. On the boat I have two GPS systems, an AIS system, a magnetic compass, a radar system, an E.P.I.R.B., several navigation charts, a depth finder, & three VHF 2-way radios. Most of this gear is required on this size & type of work-boat.

When I step off the boat, it's a completely different story.

Finding your way around this planet can get to be very confusing at times & being lost is seldom a good feeling.

Here are a few things that may help you get back on track.

Beginning a new day.
Beginning a new day.

Look to the sky.

 The Sun, the Moon, all the visible planets & most of the stars rise in the east, & set in the west.

In the morning, look in the direction of the rising Sun. North will be to your left.

In the evening, look in the direction of the setting Sun. North will be to your right.

 If it's night time, look for the rising Moon, Venus (Venus looks like a very brite star) or Mars (The red planet). North will be to your left.

On the road in the USA

Find a sign. The US highway system uses signs that end with an even number for east-west bound highways. The signs end with odd numbers for north-south bound highways. For example, state highway 27 runs north-south. Interstate highway 70 runs east-west. There are also mile markers every mile on most highways. You can use these to report your exact position If you see or have a breakdown or accident. This may not tell you where you are but at least you know which way you're going.

Sticks & stones

If you just happened to miss sunrise & now it's going on noonish, you can still find north with a stick, a stone, cola can, or anything you have that's tall enough to cast a shadow.

Find an area that has the sun shining on it. Place your stick (or what ever you have handy that will make a shadow) with its end pointing at the Sun so that there is no shadow showing. Wait about twenty minutes then look for it to have a shadow. The shadow will be pointing towards the east. If you face the stick with the shadow pointing at you, then north will be to your right.

Moss grows where?

On cloudy, rainy, foggy, or days where there are no shadows, you can sometimes find north by looking at moss.

Moss only grows on the north side of trees? This may be a little confusing. The answer is not exactly. It depends mostly on where on this planet your at. If you are in the Northern hemisphere, the moss does grow on the north side of trees. The further north you are, the more prevalent this will be. If you are in the Southern hemisphere, the moss grows on the south side of the trees. If you're near the Equator, lets say in the rain forests of the Amazon, the moss will grow all the way around the trees. Moss grows best in the shade & with a continuously moist surface to grow on. Moss will grow on almost any surface if the conditions are good. Therefore, You may be able use moss to find north, but it's not a great method for doing so.

I should also add that if you're in a desert, you will probably be SOL on finding some moss.

Looking for moss.
Looking for moss.

True v Magnetic

There are actually two north poles. The Geographic (True) north pole, & the Magnetic (Compass) north pole.

True north (geographic) is what is used to make maps & atlases. It uses latitude & longitude lines to divide the world into measurable sections. Latitude lines go east-west. Longitude lines north-south, & point to the true north & south poles.

The Magnetic north & south poles are where the Earths magnetic fields come together at a point on the Polar icecaps. The magnetic north pole is where your compass points.

I'm not going to get into making a compass. If you didn't bring a compass, it's not very likely you brought the materials to make one.

Here is an excellent YouTube video to show how to make a compass.


Closing thoughts

This is just my opinion. If you are going to be in an area where there may be a chance of getting lost. A GPS system is a great thing to have with you. Even a cheap one is capable of keeping you from getting lost or taking you back to a place that you know.

If a GPS just isn't feasible, then at least get a compass. Please!


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    • franciaonline profile image

      franciaonline 7 years ago from Philippines

      Very useful information! Thanks for sharing.

    • ttagpine profile image

      George S McChristian 8 years ago from Louisiana, USA

      Come on now Gus, you know you're a rolling stone.;)}

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 8 years ago from USA

      Hi ttagpine - Fun article. Problem - I am now going to have people hanging around me trying to figure out NSE&W because I move so slowly that moss grows but the rest of me shrinks.

      Gus ;-)))