How to Find Your Way in Deep ForestEach year, dozens of people get lost in the Mountains and become
the subjects of search-and-rescue missions. In most cases, people
simply wandered off of marked trails and lost their bearings.
Losing one's way in the woods can be an unsettling, frightful
experience. If you follow the blazes or cairns, you should have no
trouble. But, if you should find you've wandered off the path, stop
immediately. In many cases, you will find that retracing your
footsteps will bring you back to the trail. If not, follow these
What to do when lost
- Pay close attention to your surroundings and landmarks and
relate this to your location on a map.
- Stay calm if you get
lost. Panic is your greatest enemy. If
you run wildly around, even for a little while you could lose your
sense of direction complete. Try to remember how you got to your
- Trust your map and
compass (if you
have them) and do not walk aimlessly. Use the compass to give you a
sense of direction. Think of which way you came, and if that was
Northeast, and then recall if you took a turn and what the
direction the turn was. If you are calm, you can remember a great
many things. If you are on a trail do not leave it.
- Start retracing your steps. Leave markers where ever you go, so
you can return to where you are. Also, if someone tries to find
you, they will look for markers. So make as many as you can, on
every turn that you make, and try to mark the direction you are
taking. You got off the trail, maybe ten minutes ago, so if you
track back more than that time, you know you are on the wrong
- Remember that if you are not able to retrace your steps, then
the best thing is to just stay put, in one place and let the
searchers find you. Create a marking so it can be seen by air.
Sing loudly or shout help, when
you hear others trying to find you. If you have a whistle, blow it.
Stay in the open so they can find you easily. Do not hide in a cave
or under brushes.
- Stay put if it is nightfall, if you are injured,, or if you are
near exhaustion it is smarter to stay put and try to find your way
out in the daylight.
- Remember that as a last resort, follow a drainage or stream
downhill or downstream. This can be hard going but will often lead
to a trail or road. and you will eventually come to
- Make sure you bring plenty of matches or a lighter. Along with
this bring even more water than you expect to drink. This is not
for the daily drinking, but more for being prepared if you get
lost. Moisten your mouth instead of actually drinking, will make
the water last longer.
- Always keep to the trail, never wander off. This will keep you
from getting lost in the first place.
- Never leave for any camping trip unless you tell a friend, or a
family member, or both where exactly you are going, and what trail
you will be taking. Someone should be told so that if you get lost,
and are not back at the day or time specified they know where to
look for you.
Using a Cellphone
- Download a compass program for your cellphone. Compass programs
exist for almost all cellphones and this method is especially
useful because it's accurate and most people today carry a
cellphone with them at all times.
- One popular compass program is Compass from http://qcontinuum.org/compass/index.htm
- Input your latitude and longitude or the airport code for the
nearest airport and make sure the phone has the correct time, and
the program will show where the sun and moon is relative to
- Simply orient the sun or moon on the display with it's real
life counterpart and the compass will show the correct
Using a Digital Camera
When the stars are visible in sky it is possible to determine
the true celestial north or south by taking a long exposure
photograph of the stars, that captures the movement of the stars
across the sky - This is called a star trail photograph.
The star trails will circle around the axis of rotation of
whatever celestial body the photograph was taken from - For most
Wikihow readers this will be the planet Earth. The axis of rotation
on a planet or planetoid determines its true celestial north and
south, so by finding the center the star trail circle around, one
will have found true north or south.
You will need :
- A digital SLR camera with the ability to take long exposure
shoots of at least 4 minutes in length.
- A tripod or something sturdy to rest the camera on
- A wide-angle lens to cover as much of the sky as possible
- A shutter release cable or a remote control
- It helps to have Mirror Lock-up enabled if possible to reduce
- It is possible to take star trail photographs with film cameras
too, but since you would have to wait to get the film developed, it
is extremely unpractical to use a film camera to find true
- Usually only Digital SLR camera have the ability to take long
exposures lasting over 30 seconds, so a compact camera will most
likely not work.
- Mount the wide-angle lens on the camera and zoom it to its
- Secure the camera on the tripod or rest it on something sturdy
, pointing the camera in the direction you estimate north or south
to be in, while trying to cover as much of the sky as you can - If
possible include a little of the horizon.
- Set the camera to take a very long exposure photograph of at
least 4 minutes - The longer exposure you use , the longer the star
trails will be, making it easier to determine the center of
rotation and thereby true north or south.
- Take the photograph - To be usable the camera must remain
perfectly still throughout the exposure, so it is highly
recommended to use a shutter release cable or a remote control to
take the photograph.
- The disadvantages of this technique are that it requires a
clear sky, somewhat expensive photographic gear and time to setup
the camera and take the long exposure shoot.
- The advantages are that it is always perfectly accurate, it
works on any celestial body (so even astronauts can use it), and it
produces very stunning and beautiful photographs
- These methods may require practice to perfect, so it's a good
idea to try them a couple times when you can check your readings.
That way, you'll be able to rely on them if you're in a survival
- Another method is to point your right hand towards the rising
sun and your left hand to the setting sun. You will be facing
- The shadow-tip methods are not recommended in the polar
regions, which are latitudes above 60° in either hemisphere. At
sunrise or sunset near the time of a solstice (worst case
scenario), the error in this method is approximately 23, 24, 25,
27, 31, 38, and 53 degrees for latitudes (north or south) of 0, 10,
20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 degrees, respectively.
- The watch method is not recommended in lower latitudes,
particularly below 20° in either hemisphere.
- Due to standardized time zones, the sun can reach its highest
point somewhere between 11:00 and 13:00, depending on your place in
the world. Some timezones are more than an hour wide.
- Amsterdam is 5° east of the zero meridian, so the Sun reaches
its highest point 20 minutes before London. As Amsterdam is one
timezone ahead, that makes it 12:40h, or 13:40h during summer.
- The North Star becomes higher in the sky the further north you
travel, and it is not useful about 70° N latitude. Also when trying
to locate the North Star it is important to remember that, despite
popular belief, the North Star is NOT the brightest star in the
sky. The only remarkable thing about it is that it is the only star
in the sky that does not move.
Find True North Without a Compass
Which way is north? Whether you're lost in the woods or you're
trying to install a sundial in your yard, you're bound to want to
find true north from time to time, and chances are when the time
comes you won't have a compass. What's more, even if you do have a
compass, it will point to magnetic north, which, depending on your
location in the world, can vary a great deal from true north. So
what's an intrepid explorer to do? Read this article to find
several different ways to find your way.
- If you are stuck for a long period of time...use the Sun. It
rises in the east and sets in the west.(remember: Cowboys_from the
west_ ride off into the sunset) After you eat and are ready to
begin finding you way and have plenty of food and water ready...put
the rising sun on your RIGHT shoulder and keep it there.
When the sun is straight above you... stop, rest, eat and drink all
while keeping DIRECTLY under the sun, then simply put the sun on
your left shoulder as it sets. You should be home in no time...or
just going really far North.
Shadow-Tip Method - #1A
- Place a stick securely in the ground so that you can see its
shadow. The stick does not need to be straight or at any particular
angle relative to the ground. Alternatively, you can use the shadow
of any fixed object. Nearly any object will work, but the taller
the object is, the easier it will be to see the movement of its
shadow, and the narrower the tip of the object is, the more
accurate the reading will be. Make sure the shadow is cast on a
level, brush-free spot.
- Mark the tip of the shadow with a small object, such as a
pebble, or a distinct scratch in the ground. Try to make the mark
as small as possible so as to pinpoint the shadow's tip, but make
sure you can identify the mark later.
- Wait 10-15 minutes. The shadow will move mostly from west to
east in an arc which depends on your latitude, season and time of
- Mark the new position of the shadow's tip with another small
object or scratch. It will likely move only a short distance.
- Draw a straight line in the ground through the two marks. This
is approximately an east-to-west line.
- Stand with the first mark (west) on your left, and the other
(east) on your right. You are now facing approximately toward true
north. (Accuracy improves as your location approaches the equator,
as the time of year approaches either equinox and as the time of
day approaches midday.)
Shadow-Tip Method - #1B
- Find a straight, slender stick that is 1 to 2 feet in
- Securely place the stick in the ground so that it will not move
and pointing directly at the sun. You should see no shadow.
- Wait 10-15 minutes, or until there is a shadow about 4 inches
long. The shadow will be pointing toward the east.
- Stand with the stick on your left, with the shadow extending to
your right. You are now facing toward the north.
This method is a slight variation of Shadow-Tip Method #1A in
that the point where the stick enters the ground in this method is
equivalent to the first shadow-tip mark in method #1A. Exactly as
in method #1A, accuracy improves as your location approaches the
equator, as the time of year approaches either equinox and as the
time of day approaches midday.
Shadow-Tip Method - #2 (for Increased Accuracy)
Set up stick and mark first shadow-tip as above. For this method,
take your first reading in the morning, at least an hour or so
The Shadow-tip method
This method will allow you to find two times centered
approximately on midday. The marks you make will be on that part of
the west to east shadow arc mentioned in method #1A that produces
the best accuracy.
- Find an object or length of string, etc., exactly the same
length as the shadow.
- Continue taking measurements of the shadow's length every 10-20
minutes. The shadow will shrink until midday, when it is at its
shortest. Then it will gradually grow longer.
- Measure the shadow length as the shadow grows. Use the stick or
object you used to measure the length of the initial shadow. When
the shadow grows to exactly the same length as the stick (and hence
exactly the same length as your first measurement), mark the
- Draw a line connecting the first and second marks as above.
Once again, this is your east-west line, and if you stand with the
first mark on your left and the second on your right, you will be
facing in the approximate direction of true north. (Note: for
highest accuracy, your two marks need to be made at exact intervals
before and after noon where you are, which means when the sun is at
its highest point in the sky. Deviations from this will lead to
some small inaccuracy.)
Watch Method: Northern Hemisphere
Find an analog watch (the kind with hour and minute hands) that is
set accurately. Place it on a level surface, such as the ground, or
hold it horizontal in your hand.
Click to enlarge
- Point the hour hand at the sun. You can use a stick to cast a
shadow to aid in your alignment if you wish, but it is not
- Bisect (that is, find the center point of) the angle between
the hour hand and the twelve o'clock mark (the number 12 on the
watch). The center of the angle between the hour hand and twelve
o'clock mark is the north-south line. If you don't know which way
is north and which south, just remember that no matter where you
are, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the
northern hemisphere the sun is due south at midday. If your watch
is set to daylight saving time bisect the angle between the hour
hand and the one o'clock mark instead.
- If you have a 24h dial on your clock (like many pilot watches),
then just point the hour hand at the sun, and north is at the 0/24h
- In the night, you can use the shape of the moon to estimate
where the sun is, and use the same method. If there is full moon,
the sun is in the opposite direction. The guestimate of the sun
position influences the precision.
Watch Method: Southern Hemisphere
- Use an analog watch as above, and point the watches twelve
o'clock mark (the number 12) toward the sun. If your watch is set
to daylight savings time, point the one o'clock mark toward the
- Bisect the angle between the twelve o'clock mark (or one
o'clock mark if using daylight saving time) and the hour hand to
find the north-south line. If you're unsure which way is north,
remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west no
matter where you are. In the southern hemisphere, however, the sun
is due north at midday.
Using the Stars: Northern Hemisphere
Locate the North Star (Polaris) in the night sky. The North Star is
the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper constellation. If
you have trouble finding it, find the Big Dipper. The two lowest
stars in the Big Dipper (the outermost stars of the cup of the
dipper) form a straight line that "points" to the North Star (if
you imagine the distance between the two lowest stars as being x,
the north star will be a distance of 4x away in the direction that
the two lowest stars point). You may also find the constellation
Cassiopeia, which is always opposite the Big Dipper. The North Star
is located about midway between the central star of Cassiopeia and
the Big Dipper (see figure).
Click to enlarge
- Draw an imaginary line straight down from the North Star to the
ground. This direction is true north, and if you can find a
landmark in the distance at this point, you can use it to guide
Using the Stars: Southern Hemisphere
Find the Southern Cross constellation. In the southern hemisphere,
the North Star is not visible, and no single star always indicates
north or south, but you can use the Southern Cross as your guide.
This constellation is formed by five stars, and the four brightest
stars form a cross that is angled to one side.
Click to enlarge
- Identify the two stars that make up the long axis of the cross.
These stars form a line which "points" to an imaginary point in the
sky which is above the South Pole. Follow the imaginary line down
from the two stars five times the distance between them.
- Draw an imaginary line from this point to the ground, and try
to identify a corresponding landmark to steer by. Since this is
true south, true north is directly opposite it (behind you as you
are looking at the point).
- Another method using the Southern Cross is to also find the
Pointers. This is a pair of stars that point toward the southern
cross in a fairly straight line.
- As above, find the two stars that make up the long axis of the
Southern Cross. As well, look at the Pointers, imagine a line
between them. Find the point in the middle of this line, and draw
an imaginary line from that point at a right angle to the
- Where the line from the Southern Cross and the Pointers meet is
true south, so again true north is directly opposite.
Using the stars version 2
- Find two nice straight sticks. make sure that one stick is
longer than the other by about 5 or 6 inches, or the length from
the tip of your middle finger to where your palm meets your
- Locate an area where you have a clear view of the stars and
insert the longest stick into the ground in front of you. make sure
it is secure enough so that it will not move.
- Now choose a star and insert the short stick so that the tips
of the sticks line up with your selected star. Again, the narrower
the tips of the sticks are, the easier it will be to align them.
Repeat this process for two or more other stars which are about 45
degrees on either side of the first star. Pick stars which will be
easy to locate again when you come back in 15 to 30 minutes.
- Now you wait several minutes, maintain your fire, find some
food, whatever. after a while, return to your sticks, make sure NOT
to disturb them! Locate your selected stars. Again, view the sticks
so that their tips align, and based on which way your stars moved
you can determine North.
- Here is a key to help you determine based on where your star
moved, which way is north. If the star rises, you are facing more
toward the east. If the star falls, you are facing more toward the
west. If the star moves right or left, then you are facing more
toward the north and/or south (you can't tell which). Combine your
observations to decide which way is approximately north. Keep in
mind, these will not give you magnetic north like a compass, but
will give you the general direction of north.