Find your bearings with (or without) a compass

The compass is the one instrument above all others that will help you find your way in the wilderness. By effectively using one, you can stand in the middle of nowhere, pick a destination far off in the distance and know that, no matter how many obstacles might lie in your path, you can still get there. That is a comforting feeling to have in an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when using a compass is that its needle always points to magnetic north, not true north. This angle of difference is called “declination” and must be taken into account. Most topographical maps note declination.

Having a map improves your chances of survival many times over, but only if you know how to use it. To correctly use any map, you first need to orient it.

In simplest terms, a map is oriented when it is lying flat, with its north and south marks corresponding with north and south on your compass.

Take a Heading

You don’t have a map. What do you do?

The first step in using a compass without a map is to take a heading, which is easy. Taking a heading allows you to head in a general direction using landmarks as navigational aids. Hillsides, big rocks, unique-looking trees, ponds and lakes can all be used for this.

Here’s how to take a heading:

  • Determine the direction you want to go. Level the compass to let it point north. Keeping the needle pointing north, rotate the compass body until the big “direction of travel” arrow in the middle points toward your destination. Now choose a topographical landmark lying in that direction that you can easily differentiate from others around it.
  • Take your eyes away from the compass and make your way toward the object. Once you reach the object, find another landmark in your path in the same direction and continue on your way.
  • The reverse method is to first point the direction-of-travel arrow in the direction you want to go, and then rotate the compass center until the north needle and north markings line up.

The beauty of taking a heading is that if you were to only stare at your compass and walk, you would eventually find an impassable barrier in your path. Choosing a landmark in the right direction means you can put the compass down and make your way to that landmark, walking around obstacles en route.

Take a Bearing

Taking a bearing is more time-consuming than taking a heading but is also more versatile. In simple terms, a bearing (one of the 360 points on a compass) is the direction you want to travel from your position to another in relation to magnetic north. You can measure the bearing either on a map or directly in the field.

If you can see your destination:

  • Hold the compass flat in your hand and point the direction of travel arrow at the destination.
  • Rotate the housing to align the pointed end of the north arrow with the red end of the magnetic needle.
  • Read the bearing at the index line (e.g., 148 degrees).
  • When you start hiking, you do the “compass shuffle.” Put the compass flat in your hand, make sure the bearing reads 148 degrees, and shuffle your body until the north needle and north compass lines match up. The direction-of-travel arrow will point to where you want to go.

If you can’t see your destination:

  • Place the compass on your map with the compass edge running along the desired line of travel.
  • Rotate the compass housing to align its north-south lines with the north-south lines on the map. Note the bearing number (e.g., 92 degrees).
  • Stand at the starting point of your travels. The bearing at the index line needs to be set at 92 degrees if it has been moved at all. Hold the compass level in front of you and do the compass shuffle.
  • The direction-of-travel arrow is now pointing directly to your destination.

No Compass?

There are ways to determine directions from ordinary materials. Note that none of these methods is very accurate, but each will help you get a general idea of where the major directions lie.

Cast a Shadow

The shadow stick method uses the sun to determine direction. Start by placing a stick or branch into the ground. Choose a level spot where you know a distinctive shadow will be cast. Mark the tip of the shadow.

Wait about 15 minutes, during which the shadow tip will move. Mark the new position of the tip. Draw a straight line through the marks; this is an approximate east-west line. Stand with the west mark to your left. North is in front of you, east to the right and south behind.

Note that the shadow stick method cannot be used effectively in regions above 60 degrees latitude. Sorry, Alaska.

Check the Time

Although it can be off by as many as 24 degrees and doesn’t work everywhere on the planet, a watch can be used as a makeshift compass in a pinch. If your watch is digital, draw a “watch” with hands on a circle of paper with the correct time on it.

Point the hour hand of your watch directly at the sun. Then draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and 12 o’clock. This imaginary line points south. Note that during daylight saving time, the north-south line is found between the hour hand and 1 o’clock.

If it is before noon, use halfway to the right side of the hour hand; if it is after noon, use halfway to the left of the hour hand.

Help From Mother Nature

Moss tends to grow on the north sides of trees, because it gets less sunlight there. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find moss on the south side of a tree or even all around the trunk. So, you need to use more directional signs in conjunction with one another.

In the northern temperate climate, many flowers will face east in the morning to maximize their exposure to the sun. The barrel cactus in the Sonoran Desert grows toward the south.

Following a stream or river can be the perfect action to take — or it can be a nightmare. It can lead you to civilization or into miles of endless wilderness. Only solid pre-trip knowledge will help you with this choice.

Following train tracks or power lines might seem like the wisest move. Again, it will depend on what local geographical knowledge you have. You could find a town just around the bend or walk through 100 miles of nothingness along a line no longer in use.

Celestial objects are good navigation tools, particularly the North Star. In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star always holds its position. To find it, first find the Big Dipper. Draw an imaginary line connecting the two stars that form the far end of the ladle. Continue the line a distance about five times greater than the depth of the ladle, which will lead you to the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. This is the North Star.

Make a marking or lay a stick on the ground that points north (to the star). You can use this once daylight comes.

You can also use the moon to navigate. If the moon is a crescent, draw an imaginary line through the ends of the crescent down to the horizon. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the point where it touches is roughly south. If the moon rises before the sun sets, the illuminated side will be west. If it rises after midnight, its illuminated side will be east.


Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an award-winning TV producer, director, host and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting survivormantv.com, a subscription-based web portal for all things survival and adventure.

1 Comment

  1. When using the clock face method of finding south, you have to be extra careful after 6 pm. Instead of finding south halfway between the present hour pointing at the sun and 12:00, you should find south halfway between the present hour and solar noon. For instance, at 9pm in the summer (with daylight saving time making solar noon at 1 pm), halfway between 9 pm and 1 pm would make south at 5 pm on the clock face. Using solar noon rather than 12:00 reminds you to go back to noon rather than making the error of going forward to midnight.

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