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Directional Navigation Using the Sun

Many hikers now rely on GPS and other gadgets for navigation.  Personally, I favor using a traditional compass and map.   Regardless of what device you use when you are out on a planned trip, it is prudent to know how to apply basic navigational skills in case you find yourself lost without either.

Quick Common Sense Approach to using the Sun

The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Depending on the season, it may not rise/set precisely due east or west, but knowing how to direct yourself accurately using only the sun is far better than walking in circles.

If you are lost and the time is between sunrise (say 6 am) and sunset (say 6 pm), the position of the sun is at “high noon” at half-day (12 pm).  High Noon is the point the sun is highest in the sky and directly South (North hemisphere) or directly North (Southern hemisphere).

  • In the northern hemisphere: Around noon, the sun will point due south when at its highest point in the sky. Shadows will move clockwise as the sun begins to descend in the horizon.
  • In the southern hemisphere: The noonday sun will point due north. Shadows will move counterclockwise.

Now watch the sun for a few minutes (say 15 mins) to see what direction it is moving. That direction is West.  This gives you an approximate orientation based on the fact that the sun moves across the sky from East to West – everywhere in the world.

What if you want to find a more accurate direction of true north?

Find North by the Shadow-Tip Method

This simple method is highly accurate for finding direction by the sun.  It uses four basic steps:

Step 1. Find a straight stick about 3 feet long, and anchor it into the ground on a level spot where the stick can cast a distinctive shadow.  Mark the tip of the shadow with a stone, or other means. This first shadow mark is west– everywhere on earth.

Step 2. Wait 10 minutes until the shadow tip moves a few more inches. Mark the shadow tip’s new position like you did in step 1.

Step 3. Draw a straight line through the two marks to obtain an approximate east-west line.

Step 4. Stand with the first mark (west) to your left and the second mark to your right.  The other directions are easy: you are now facing north, east is to your right, and south is behind you. This fact is true everywhere on earth.

Of course, this method assumes you are able to see the sun. I’ll cover more methods for night / cloudy day travel.

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Outdoor Herbivore

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Creating trail-worthy foodstuff and playing outside.
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1 thought on “Directional Navigation Using the Sun”

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