October 2, 2006

13 ways to find north if you’re lost in the woods

To the best of my recollection, I’ve never been lost in the woods (or elsewhere away from civilization)—or at least not sufficiently lost that I didn’t have a general sense of which direction I needed to go. But if I were, I’d have many options for getting my bearings. I recall learning, as a kid, that moss always grows on the north side of a tree, and then learning later on that under the right conditions, moss can grow on any side of a tree. When there’s no moss, or when the moss steers you wrong, you can use any of numerous other tricks to find north. Some of these don’t work especially well in dense foliage, in all weather conditions, or in all parts of the globe, but in almost any situation one of these ideas should do the trick. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I have every confidence in readers to add comments with additional methods!

Most of the following suggestions were adapted and condensed from Navigate Without a Compass and Find True North Without a Compass (both at wikiHow), Worst-Case Scenarios: How to Find Your Way When Lost in the Woods at Popular Mechanics, and Wildwood Wisdom—Chapter 17: LOST at Shelter Online.

  1. Look for moss; it usually grows on the north (i.e., least sunny) side of trees and rocks—or at least, grows most plentifully there.
  2. Look for spider webs, which tend to appear on the south sides of trees.
  3. Put a stick in the ground vertically, and note where the end of its shadow is. Wait a little while, and mark where the end is now. The line going between those two points should run approximately east–west; you can then tell by the direction of the sun’s movement which way is north.
  4. Watch the sun, which rises (more or less) in the east and sets (more or less) in the west. But since the exact position of the sun varies by season and latitude, this is rather inaccurate.
  5. In the northern hemisphere, if it’s night and the sky is clear, you can usually pick out the north star (Polaris) as the brightest one in the handle of the Little Dipper. If you’re facing that star, you’re pointing north.
  6. In the southern hemisphere, find the Southern Cross. Note the direction of the long axis of the cross. Follow that imaginary line for a distance equal to five times the length of the cross and fact the point in space where it would end. You’re now facing directly south; spin around 180° to find north.
  7. Hold an analog watch horizontally. In the northern hemisphere, point the hour hand toward the sun; in the southern hemisphere, point the 12 toward the sun. Either way, the north-south line runs halfway between the hour hand and the 12 (or 1, if Daylight Saving Time is in effect). To figure out which is which, note the sun’s direction of movement, or assume that the sun is in the southern half of the sky.
  8. Note the direction in which the clouds move, which is generally west-to-east. (This can provide only a very rough approximation at best, and doesn’t work everywhere.)
  9. If you’re in a part of the world where Traveler’s Palms grow, find one. Chances are the axis of the branches runs east-west; as usual, determine north from the direction of the sun or assume it’s in the southern part of the sky.
  10. If you’re near a body of water where birds, fish, or amphibians are breeding, keep in mind that they often prefer to breed on the west side.
  11. Use a compass. (You did bring a compass, right?)
  12. Make a compass by carefully floating a magnetized needle on the surface of water that’s sitting in a very still container. (You did bring a needle, right?)
  13. Use a GPS receiver. It’ll probably tell you the direction you’re facing without any effort, but even if it lacks an electronic compass (or the compass isn’t working), you can work out which way is north by taking two or more readings some distance apart and doing some very simple geometry. (You do remember your geometry, right?)

29 Responses to “13 ways to find north if you’re lost in the woods”

  1. medea said:

    Does the “moss on the north” work on the southern hemisphere as well? And what about wind, doesn’t it depend on the coriolis effect and turn the other way on the southern hemisphere?

  2. Mike said:

    Thanks for the tips. That’s a useful resource for writers who are sick of their characters looking for moss when stuck in the woods.

  3. Joe Kissell said:

    Medea: Although the sources I consulted were careful to point out northern/southern hemisphere differences for things like stars and improvised sundials, none of them mentioned such differences for moss. My guess is that moss would still tend to grow on the north sides of trees in the southern hemisphere, because that’s the direction least likely to get sunlight (everywhere), owing to the tilt of the planet. As for wind, the Coriolis effect, as far as I know, applies only to circular motions (for example, hurricanes or water draining out of tubs). I don’t know enough about meteorology to say whether it has implications for the common direction of weather’s travel in the southern hemisphere.

    Mike: Glad to be of service!

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  5. mobile said:

    Ah, yes, the coriolis effect. Here’s how to use it:

    1. Fill your bathtub and drain it (you did bring a bathtub, right?). Observe how fast the water spins as it goes down the drain.

    2. Move the bathtub somewhere else.

    3. Fill your bathtub and drain it again. If the water is spinning faster, that means you have moved north. If it is spinning slower, you have moved south. If it is spinning at about the same speed, then you have moved east or west.

  6. Jen said:

    Of course, with the encroachment of civilization on wilderness areas etc. etc. etc., it’s often no longer necessary to find a compass direction when lost in the woods. As soon as you feel that you might have lost your way, here’s what to do: stand very still, listen very carefully, and then walk in the direction of the sound of freeway traffic.

  7. KEITH said:

    Put your mother-in-law in a nylon dress, rub her till she becomes full of electricity, then drop her in a lake or river, she will point north/south, you did bring your mother-in-law with you didn’t you?

  8. Guri said:

    In the southern hemisphere, the rule would be “moss on the south”. The south pole would have to be pointed at the sun for it to appear in the southern sky at every latitude (except at the south pole). Over the course of the year the latitude directly below the sun varies between 23.5 N and 23.5 S. These latitudes are known as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. At any other latitude the sun’s zenith is in the direction of the equator. So south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the north side of a tree would receive the most sunlight. If you’re not convinced, then get out a globe and flashlight. Point the flashlight at the equator, and imagine yourself standing in Australia looking at the bright light. Towards which pole would it appear? Just look out for the roos. ;-)

  9. Guri said:

    The Coriolis effect is weak enough that it generally only affects large scale weather patterns, like hurricanes and jet streams. The drain pattern on bathtubs has more to do with the tub’s shape and waves in the water. You can observe the Coriolis effect in a tub-sized container under specific conditions. The vessel must be perfectly circular, have a very slow drain in the center, and be free of vibrations and air currents. Not an easy feat to accomplish in the woods. It’s a neat idea, but not very practical. Now the idea that the rotational speed would affected by the latitude is interesting. I think that the Foucault pendulum demostrates this very well. However, it takes a while to measure, and the difference between two locations within walking distance would be nearly impossible to see. Again, a neat idea but not practical. http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadCoriolis.html http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/PHYSICS_!/FOUCAULT_PENDULUM/foucault_pendulum.html

  10. Joe Kissell said:

    Guri: Thanks for the moss clarification. And you’re right about the Coriolis effect; I wrote about that on Interesting Thing of the Day: http://itotd.com/articles/498/the-coriolis-force/.

  11. Jim Perkins said:

    When I was a meteorologist for the federal government I went on a drug trip to Central and South America (okay, it was paid for by confiscated drug money, and the only drug I actually acquired was a single bag of coca tea, legal in Bolivia, which I never drank.) I did a coriolis experiment in each country, by flushing the toilets. From Panama (north of equator) to Quito (on the equator) to LaPaz (south of), all the toilets flushed counterclockwise, also confirming Guri’s comments. I did not measure the rotational speed of the cyclonically spinning waters, however. Time for another trip!

    The jet streams north and south of the equator, and hence upper level clouds, all flow generally west to east. Low level cloud movements are more variable since they are affected (well, effected, too) by local terrain, temperature differences, and location of migratory closed low pressure areas (around which clouds and wind blow counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern.)

    Jim

  12. Shandooga said:

    Wow, I’m glad I found this. Never again will I get lost in the vast wilderness that is Miami.

  13. steve said:

    thanks this will help with my school project

  14. Randy said:

    Joe,

    A little hobby of mine is outdoor survival. I just study it, I’ve never actually had to use it. I thought I knew every conceivable way to find north. I didn’t know #9 or #10. Thanks. Also, I watched Man vs. Wild and found out that in the Everglades that even though the water doesn’t look like it’s moving…it is. Always north to south. Use an empty canteen or something else that will float tethered with a string (shoelace?) and tied to a tree. It may take a half an hour or more but when the string grows taught the canteen will be headed south.

  15. jd said:

    conservation of angular mommentum is the spinning effect on the water in a draining tub or flushing toilet or say maybe a pop bottle well actually and thing that is draining any liquid out the bottom will have the spin

  16. joe said:

    Jim Perkins: I’m fairly sure that the direction of the water in a toilet is not a result of the Coriolis effect, but merely because of the direction the jets right underneath the rim of the toilet are pointing. http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadCoriolis.html http://www.discovery.com/area/skinnyon/skinnyon970523/skinny1.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_effect#Draining_bathtubs_and_toilets

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  18. shredder said:

    what ever happens if your in the middle of 3 bears in the forest… what would you do?

  19. cee said:

    hmm this stuffs really interestin. theres also a way to find north by connecting a potatoe floatin in water to a magnetic needle… could be fun right??

  20. Juju, WA said:

    Great- everyone tells you how find north, what if you need to go south?

  21. EEvatheDevine said:

    The comments here are not helpful. Would’ve been great to see comments that elaborated on the subject matter or, at least, provided some useful information.

  22. ted wall said:

    How do you find north? now im confused after reading these comments

  23. Richie said:

    to help you find the north star you can find the plough, its an easy one to find once you have found it once you will always be able to pick it out. once you find the plough, you find the furthest right star of the plough which is the top right courner of the pan shaped part of the plough, look 10 oclock of its position about 2 hand widths and you pretty much bang on the north star, a very easy way to find the north star once you done it once you will never have dramas again, believe me its helped me out before and well worth knowing.

  24. kasim said:

    Take a paper and make a big hole at one end and a smaller one at the other end and then place it in still water then wait for 20sec and see where the big hole points to and then that will mean you are facing north

  25. Yogeshwar said:

    Plz chk.. as per me moss is on the southern side..

  26. download free dvd movies said:

    I’ve tried #3 when we were at the bootcamp, and it works! But amazingly now we can avail GPS at a very low price. Back then it was like $500! :)

  27. Samad said:

    Thanks. quite useful information

  28. kARL hARDER said:

    RE: #3 Another way is to find a short straight stick or that welding rod you brought and pound it into the ground so that there is no shadow. wait 15 or so minutes and the shadow will point more or less east depending on your latitude and month/day of the year. My guess that twice a year when day and night are equal in length (Vernal equinox and autumnal equinox) The shadow cast by the stick will be East and west. Below is a link to a short Utube video of the stick in action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuv-2NkxrJE Karl

  29. kris said:

    It was gr8 help 4 me i needed it 4 xams!!! thnks tons