How to navigate without a GPS


Emergency Situation: You’re out on a solo, non-Scouting day hike at a local nature preserve when you realize you’ve wandered off the marked trail. You try backtracking, to no avail. You turn to your GPS for help, but the battery’s dead, and there’s no replacement. Your cell phone has no signal. Reaching for your paper map and mechanical compass, you’re shocked to find them missing. In a few hours, your family will be surprised to find you missing, too. How do you find your way back to civilization?

Assuming you’ve told someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, the general rule of thumb when you lose your way is to stay put, not wander without direction. Your Boy Scout training taught you the mnemonic “STOP” or Stay put, Think, Observe and Plan. But before you decide that you’re lost, take a deep breath. Often the immediate stress of losing one’s way causes a person to make erratic decisions. Stay calm. And before you decide you’re officially lost, consider these route-finding methods that will help get you back to safety. With a few simple tricks, you can easily determine your direction of travel and — assuming you at least know where you’ve come from — hike back to safety.

First, the easy ones. You may have heard that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If not, you’ve at least seen pictures. (And yes, this is true even in Australia.) If the sky is clear, you should be able to determine the compass points by following the path of the sun. This method won’t, of course, give you a precise heading, but it will give you a general idea that you’re at least not walking in the opposite direction you came from.  Because weather generally moves west to east, observing the movement of cloud formations may further help you. In addition, in the northern hemisphere, north-facing slopes tend to be in more shadow, cooler, and thus hold water and snow/ice.

If you’ve got an analog watch, you can use it to double-check your presumed compass points. (This works only if the sun is visible.) Take the watch off and hold it flat on your palm. Rotate it so the hour hand points toward the sun. Next, picture a line passing through the numeral “12” on the watch face and crossing the hour hand at the pivot point. Finally, imagine a line that bisects the arc between the “12” and the hour hand. This line is north-south, with the continuation of the bisecting line across the arc pointing south. (See illustration.) If your watch is set to daylight saving time, use the line that bisects the hour hand and the “1”, not the “12.” And be advised that it will be getting darker sooner! One of the great things about this method is that it will work even if you have a digital watch. As long as you know the time, all you have to do is draw a watch face on a piece of paper, then proceed as above.

Another navigation method is to follow the path of a river. This method is useful (with some caveats, below) because human settlements are typically on or very near rivers. Following a river is more likely to bring you to civilization than, say, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. It’s true that most rivers flow north to south. But that’s a bit like saying “most” snakes are not poisonous. Unless you’re familiar with specific snakes (or rivers), a mistake can be costly. It’s also true that, except on completely flat terrain, rivers flow downhill: from higher elevation to mouth. Of course, rivers may meander in any direction, often for miles. Unless you know, for certain, where the source of a river is, it’s best to rely on one not for true compass points but rather as a method to get you to a populated area. Following a road is probably a better idea, if you can locate one.

There are numerous methods of navigation using the stars, but these require not only an unobstructed view of the night sky but also hiking at night, which is not recommended if you’re truly lost — there are too many ways to get injured. Still, another tip: If the moon rises before the sun sets, the illuminated side will face west. If it rises after midnight, the illuminated side will face east.

However, if night has fallen, stay put, make camp and wait for rescue.

Use this checklist to make sure you’re prepared before you head out on a weekend hike.

  • Know the area. Research where you plan to go, and talk with someone who’s hiked or camped in the same location.
  • Don’t hike alone. Take a buddy. Better yet, travel in groups of four to 10. That way, if someone gets injured, you can leave a buddy with the injured party while a group of two travels to get help.
  • Leave an itinerary. Whether you’re hiking with or without Scouts, make sure others know where you’re going and when you will return.
  • Prepare for emergency situations. This includes weather, injury, dehydration, losing your way and more.
  • STOP. Make sure the group members know what to do if they become lost or separated from the group.

JOSH PIVEN is the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit

16 thoughts on “How to navigate without a GPS

  1. Other considerations:
    1. carry a satellite- cell phone, (or SPOT device used with your smart phone) with backup solar power; (rentals available)
    2. carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB);
    (I have one of these, bought on Ebay. Make sure you buy the new ‘high band’ 406mHz model as the low bands models are not supported by NOAA any more – since 2009!)
    3. Complete, and be competent in, a Wilderness Survival course.

  2. I suggest adding this to the Before You Go section (perhaps as part of bullet one):

    Study the destination area on a map and locate natural boundaries for the area you are going to hike in. Look for highways, roads, railroads, rivers, power lines, etc. Make observations like, if I hike out to the East, I will always run into the power line (or highway or etc.). Often you will be able to determine natural boundaries on all four sides of the area.

    Of course, you should take the map and other essentials. The above is just for the case where the map gets lost.


  3. The problem I’ve had with the watch method is this: anytime after 6 (can be am or pm) does not point me North or South, but instead like WNW and ESE. I’ve used that method before, but it was about 4:30. Is that something that will always happen? If so, is there a way around it? Or am I just doing something incorrect?

  4. Hold on! Haven’t you guys heard of a Map? How about a Compass? Who are these rich dudes with an expensive toy? GPS/GNSS is fine for robots & High-tech situations, but they are not reliable. Take a map, the compass is a big help.

      • retraction? get a life.I can find the axis of the earth’s rotation with no external clues, as in inside, underground, night or day, so what are you on? This article is so twee and backward that it me want to puke

    • Read the stroy before you make the comment. The battery is dead and the compass and map are lost….Learn to navigate without a GPS… This was a good story.

  5. Even easier and more reliable is the sundial method. It requires you stay put for 15 minutes but works like a charm. Put a stick in the ground to act as your sundial. Mark the tip of the cast shadow. Wait 15 minutes, then mark this shadow tip. The line between these two points will indicate East – West and 90 degrees perpendicular away from your sundial stick will be North.

    • It will be North if one is north of the Tropic of Cancer; south if South of the Tropic of Capricorn, & either, if between them. Just stick to “Shadows move from West to East, more or less”. So many travellers get confused when they get into the Southern Hemisphere, it is ridiculous. Yes, some do have GPS, but not the information to use it properly.

    • Putting a stick in the ground vertically and tracing the shadow over 15 minutes is approximate only, unless it’s very close to local noon (not clock noon). The shadow will point more or less to the east. A better solution is to push the stick in at an angle, so that it casts no shadow at all. Wait 15 minutes, and the shadow will point exactly east – any time of day.

  6. I was on a search for a missing girl. Our leader had a cell phone with a compass. We were suppose to go through some thick woods and make our way to a road to be picked up. The cell phone never worked right we had no way of know how to get to the road. So I got to seeing some old logging roads. I knew as a deer hunter we use these roads a lot. When I saw a deer stand I mention to the group all we had to do was follow the road and we would find a way out. It was thick in places and may not have been hunted in a while. I led us out to a road where we called our ride. Pay attention to man made objects in the woods. It might help you find your way.

  7. Your picture is backward for the northern hemisphere. In the NH half between the hour hand and 12 would be pointing south. Your description is correct for the northern hemisphere. The picture is true for the southern hemisphere.

  8. In this picture, Time is 4:30pm so most probably in this time sun will be at the west side, how come its in east in this picture.

    • Because this is the image for south of the sun, as in the southern hemisphere and north of the equator in Northern summer.
      Proper research was not done

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