WHICH WAY IS NORTH? (Or any other direction)

When stranded in a wilderness area how do you determine which direction to go to get out? The very best item to have available would be a topographic map of the area. Various methods may be used to determine which way to go. Those used to determine a specific direction are used for NAVIGATION. Those methods used to return to a particular starting point (relative position) we will call BACKTRACKING.

One point that is abundantly clear is that prior planning can save a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in determining any future course to be traveled. Also, it is important to determine whether moving is even advisable. If there is a plane wreck it is generally better to stay with the wreckage. Search crews will be able to see it better. Tell tale signs of a crash may be visible from the air that are invisible from the ground (broken off tree tops). A fire, working emergency locator transmitter (ELT), charred ground all serve to help search aircraft. Under what conditions should you move? Well, possibly...

  1. Topographic map - Identify terrain features such as hills, lakes, trails, or other landmarks as a reference.
  2. Sun position - The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west from the United States. At extreme northern latitudes the sun never rises very high, especially in winter months, so the actual position will be south east to south west. At "high" noon the sun will be due south. Account for daylight savings time as appropriate. This method requires a somewhat clear sky to see the sun position, but some overcast is tolerable.
  3. Moss is often found on the north side of trees. This is a general indication, not very specific. In frequently wet areas moss may be found on all sides.
  4. Tree rings of trees in northern latitudes are always farther apart on the southern side of a stump.
  5. Compass - A compass is very useful in lower 48 states, however in Alaska the initial variation is 22-25 degrees, and there are considerable differences in environmental sources of deviation. For example, in the Gasteneau Channel, in Juneau, Alaska the amount of error can be as much as 170 degrees. Floatplanes and boaters are both affected by this error. Deposits of natural magnetite, and nearby metal objects will cause significant compass errors. If a magnetized needle is suspended so that it can swing freely it may not be possible to determine which end is pointing north as a result. The north magnetic and north geographic poles are nearly 1,000 miles apart. As a result of all these factors, a compass on the ground is unreliable in Alaska. Still, the compass from the downed aircraft may have some value if used with caution. A compass may also be made by stroking a piece of ferrous metal (pin, needle, small nail, razor blade) with a magnet (from a radio speaker, for example, or by using a nail and coil of wire and running direct electrical current through it a magnet can be made). However, it will not necessarily be clear which end is the north end.
  6. Stars - Constellations may be identified on clear nights, and the North Star (Polaris) is directly overhead in Alaska. It may be located by referring to the Big Dipper. Requires nighttime and clear skies. Sometimes stars may also be seen in daytime if you are down a deep hole, or during long, dark winter days.
  7. Sun and wrist watch - To find TRUE SOUTH, point hour hand at the sun, true south is midway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock. This is based on standard time (Last Sunday in October to first Sunday in April).
  8. Snow accumulations - tend to be greatest on north facing slopes. Useful in spring and late summer, but in winter in Alaska all slopes tend to be covered with snow.
  9. Green up of slopes - tends to come later in season for north facing slopes.
  10. Plants tend to be greener and bushier on the sunny side of slopes. Some plants such as willows and alders will lean toward the sunny side. This will be toward the south.
  11. Prevailing winds - Winds generally come from a particular direction, such as from the south west in Colorado, or the south east in Anchorage. Sand dunes will be shaped by prevailing winds and can give a general indication of direction. Local terrain features may reverse this and make it unreliable as an indicator when in rough mountainous terrain. Also, coastal areas tend to have winds blow toward land in the daytime and away from land in the evening and night.
  12. Stick - Place a stick in the ground and mark the end of the shadow. Wait 15-20 minutes and mark the end of the shadow again. A line drawn between the two marks will run east to west. North is at right angles to that line. When the shadow of a stick runs along the north-side line it is noon, so you can set your watch to noon local time.
  13. Star motion - Sight on a particular star (Not the north star) and watch which direction it moves. If it moves up you are facing east, down you're facing west, to your right you are facing south and to your left it indicates you are facing north.
  14. Quarter moon - If visible, a line drawn from the top point to the bottom point will be directed (point) to the south in a south to north orientation.
  15. Birds - tend to fly south in large flocks in the fall, north in large flocks in spring. May fly the opposite direction or E/W, so not reliable.
  16. Commercial air routes - contrails from jets overhead will indicate the direction of the aircraft. As you proceed further north there are fewer flights, and if you know the routes or have a universal schedule you may conclude after watching several aircraft which are the prevailing directions.


  1. Map - Other types - Backtrack from present position to where the trip began. For this purpose you can draw your own map as you go, highlighting specific landmarks that identify when to turn and in which direction.
  2. Streams run down hill to larger rivers, and eventually to civilization. However, this may be a journey that requires weeks of travel.
  3. Route traveled - If you know the heading, speed, and travel time of the aircraft you were traveling in you can use the aeronautical chart to determine approximately your present location.
  4. Footsteps - follow your own footsteps in the snow or mud back to the starting point.
  5. Blazing - mark the course traveled by hanging ribbons, pieces of cloth, toilet paper, or cutting chips out of trees. If there are rocks make cairns. Break tree branches. Move dead tree logs into pointers. If you have excess cyalumes they could be set at strategic points along the way to serve as spot lights.
  6. While hiking out, turn and look back often in order to visualize how the return path will look. Make specific mental notes of what you see to jog your memory when returning.
  7. Use a long rope tied to trees along the way for short distances. For example, just going to an improvised "outhouse" during blizzard conditions could cause a person to get lost, but a rope extended between the shelter and your destination will enable you to find your way back.

Here is another interesting trick. When you want to know the temperature, count the number of times a cricket chirps in 15 seconds, then add 37.


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