There are times while hiking when it’s a good idea to be able to fall back on traditional navigation techniques.
Modern maps, compasses and especially GPS units are great. But you can lose your maps, break your compass and run low on batteries. Also, GPS units don’t always work – sometimes the signal gets blocked by, of all things, trees. Well, there tend to be a lot of trees around in hiking areas. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.
The best way to be prepared is simply to have some basic navigational knowledge that doesn’t depend on anything more than your eyes and intelligence. Fortunately, that knowledge is super easy to obtain and use.
Most people learn early in life that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. And that’s approximately true. But being away from the equator, or somewhere near midday, makes it sometimes a little harder to judge.
In the Northern Hemisphere, at noon the sun will be south of you. If you wait an hour, it will have moved enough to judge it’s general direction easily. It’s always better to take multiple measurements when trying to judge direction.
Take note of the landmarks around you and look at your watch to note the time. Take note of the sun’s position at half-hourly intervals and keep a mental graph of the line along which it moves. That will give you a natural East-West line.
Once you know that, finding North and South is easy. North is 90 degrees ‘to the right’ of West, South is 90 degrees ‘to the left’.
At night you have a potential problem. The sun, obviously, isn’t there to guide you. But, you can still navigate well by the stars. After all, humans have done so for thousands of years. Heavy rain or fog, or even trees, can make that difficult, though. Sometimes you just have to wait until you get a clearer view.
When you can see the stars they’re often very bright. Most hiking areas are far away from city lights. It should be relatively easy, then, to pick out some major constellations to use as guides.
Around 8 p.m. look straight up then around in a small circle. Before long you should be able to locate the Big Dipper. That’s the group of stars that looks like a cooking ladle. The two stars at the end of the ‘scoop’ form a line that points to the North Star.
Another easy to spot constellation is Orion’s Belt. That’s a series of three stars that form part of the Orion group. They’re almost straight across east to west looking roughly south about 9 p.m. at night.
Naturally, the constellations will be in different positions at different times of the night. But the Big Dipper’s scoop stars will still point toward the North Star, and Orion’s belt – so long as it is still visible – will still be in roughly the same orientation and direction.
When you plan any hike become familiar with the positions of some of the major constellations. Even a day hike can turn into an overnight stay unexpectedly. You’ll be very glad to have that knowledge if that happens.