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, of course, but it should put you on the right track, both literally and metaphorically. (Several of these suggestions were adapted and condensed from How to Find True North Without a Compass at wikiHow.)
- 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. (If you’re south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the south side of a tree should be least sunny, but since well over 95% of the world’s population lives north of that latitude, I felt it relatively safe to generalize.)
- Look for spider webs, which tend to appear on the south sides of trees. (Again, note the qualification about your latitude.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Note the direction in which the highest clouds move, which is generally west-to-east. (This can provide only a very rough approximation at best, and doesn’t work everywhere.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Use a compass. (You did bring a compass, right?)
- 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?)
- Use a GPS receiver. I mean, there’s probably one in your smartphone, and maybe another one in your smartwatch, or you can go old school and get a standalone GPS receiver. Even without a network connection (since “lost in the woods” may also imply “no signal”) most GPS-equipped devices include electronic compasses and can therefore tell you the direction you’re facing. But even if your device lacks an electronic compass, you can work out which way is north by taking two or more GPS readings some distance apart and doing some simple geometry. (You do remember your geometry, right?)
Of course, if you’re lost in the woods, you’re probably also unable to search the web for how to find north. So if you expect to spend time in the wilderness, finding north should be one of those things you practice in advance, like making fire, purifying water, and avoiding dangerous wildlife.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on another of our sites, SenseList, on October 2, 2006.