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Survival / January 8, 2016

Never get lost again

Written by: Matt Minich

For millennia, indigenous people in the Americas hunted, traveled, and explored the continent without so much as a compass.

I get lost every time my phone dies. So I called up natural navigation expert Tristan Gooley for an intro to the lost art of getting around without Google Maps.

He didn’t share all his secrets (those are in his new book), but he did share three easy, actionable tips.

1. Look for a crescent moon

This simple trick comes in handy when Polaris is obscured by clouds. Image courtesy of Tristan Gooley.

When it comes to navigating by the night sky, most of us know one trick—the North Star is due North (within about a degree). But sometimes Polaris is obscured by clouds… or we just forget which one it is (it’s not the brightest star in the sky).

In that case, Gooley says, look to the moon. If it forms a crescent, trace a line through the two points and follow it toward the horizon. Where your line meets land will be roughly south. The higher the moon, the more accurate this is.

No crescent moon? Not to worry. When the moon reaches its highest point in the night sky (when it’s no longer moving up or down), it is due south.



2.Read the trees



Leaves grow larger on the north-facing side of trees. These two stems were taken from different sides of the same tree. Photo by Tristan Gooley.

The tops of exposed trees will generally point in the direction of prevailing winds. Photo by Tristan Gooley.

If you somehow wind up lost without a map, compass, or cell phone reception, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll do so in a place with trees. That or you’re in a place so desolate navigation is the least of your worries.

Trees generally have more branches and leaves on the south-facing side, which receives more sunlight in the middle of the day. Branches on the south side also tend to grow out from the trunk, while north-facing branches grow upward.

In windy areas, tree branches can also indicate direction of the wind. The tops of exposed trees will lean in the direction of prevailing winds, and trees will grow longer and thicker roots on the windward side.


3. Find south with the sun


Not all photos are well-suited to illustrate concepts, as demonstrated by this picture of the sun behind some clouds. Photo by GPS.

In most places, it’s not really true that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Depending on your latitude and the time of year, the sun can rise more than 30 degrees north or south of east.

That makes it tough to navigate by the sunrise or sunset. But one thing about the sun is consistent—in the middle of the day, it’s always due south. So long as you’re north of the Tropic of Cancer, that is.

Midday in this case does not necessarily mean noon. Instead, look for the sun when it’s highest in the sky—this is when shadows are the shortest.

Gooley’s more than two decades of pioneering outdoor experience include research among the Dayak people of Borneo and the Tuareg of the Sahara. His latest book, “The lost art of reading nature’s signs,” sells online for about $10. 

about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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