Finding True North with the Sun
If you're lost during the day somewhere without a map, compass or GPS handy, the best method to find your direction is to look up. The movement of the sun can illuminate your way true north. But to use this solar guide, you'll need to remember a few important things. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. At noon, it looms in the middle of the horizon and directly south. That means when you're facing the sun at noon, walking directly toward it will take you south. Walking with the sun at your back means you're heading north. The opposite is true in the Southern Hemisphere.
If it isn't noon, and you want to find your directions during daylight, an analogue watch with minute and hour hands can serve as a substitute compass. First, make sure the watch displays the correct time. Then, point the hour hand at the sun. Next, holding the watch in place, imagine an angle formed by the hour hand and a line from the 12 o'clock position to the center of the watch. Then draw an imaginary line bisecting that angle. That line indicates south in the Northern Hemisphere. During daylight saving time, create the angle from the one o'clock position instead of the 12 o'clock position.
In the Southern Hemisphere, point the 12 at the sun, instead of the hour hand. Then, form an imaginary angle between the hour hand and a line from the 12 to the center of the watch. The line bisecting that angle represents north.
Don't have a watch? No problem. As long as you know the correct time, you can draw out your own clock on a paper and use it the same way.
For another way to get your bearings, find a stick and a large sunny spot on the ground. For this approach, remember that when the sun casts shadows, those shadows are in the opposite direction as its position in the sky. That means when the sun is in the eastern sky, its shadows will point toward the west.
That said, grab a stick, preferably about a yard (1 meter) high, and stab it in the ground in a sunny area so that you can see its shadow. Use a rock or other sharp object and mark the tip of that shadow on the ground. Since the sun's shadows move from west to east during the day, this first point stands for west.
Catnap for 15 minutes or so, then mark where the stick's shadow has moved. Now you should have two spots in the dirt: The first spot represents the west and the second spot represents the east. If you draw a line between those two spots, you have a general idea of your east-west line. From there, you can draw your north-south line at a 90-degree angle to the east-west line.
Although these aren't precise directional guides, there are other clues in nature to help orient you toward true north:
- Moss on trees -- Although common convention holds that moss grows on the north side of trees, that isn't always the case. However, in the Northern Hemisphere, moss on the south side of trees will be thicker and greener because that side often gets more sun.
- Trees -- The bark may be duller and branches more extended to the sky on the north side of trees because it doesn't receive as much sun.
- Melting snow -- Snow may melt faster on the warmer southern side of rock faces or mountains.
- Ant hills -- Ants often build their nests on the south or southeastern side of trees where it is warmer.
OK. So we know how to find true north in the daylight. But what about when it's dark? Read on to the next page to learn how to find true north by the moon and stars.