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How to navigate without a compass or GPS

Reading a map and using a compass is a lost art in these days with GPS navigation is so convenient and accurate. But what if you have neither GPS or compass?

If your compass is lost, or your GPS quits working you can still find your way if you are wearing an analog watch. Northern and Southern Hemisphere vary a little in technique so I have included both directions for both.

Analog watch technique – Northern Hemisphere 

  1. Find an open space where sunlight is accessible. 
  2. Hold your watch horizontally.
  3. Lay/hold it in a manner in which it is flat and completely parallel to the ground.
  4. Point the hour hand in the direction of the sun.
  5. If you find yourself having difficulties doing this, find a narrow object like a post or stick and place it in the ground so it makes a visible shadow. Line the hour hand with the shadow.
  6. Note the middle point of the angle between your hour hand and the twelve o’clock mark. 
  7. Before noon, measure clockwise from your hour hand to the twelve o’clock mark. Afternoons, you’ll need to measure counterclockwise from your hour hand to the twelve o’clock mark. 
  8. This middle point between the hour hand and twelve o’clock marks South. The point directly across from it will obviously signify North.

Analog watch technique – Southern Hemisphere

  1. Steps 1-4 are identical. The crucial difference is, instead of orientating the hour hand towards the sun, you will need to reverse it and point the twelve o’clock hand instead. 
  2. Again, if you find yourself having difficulties doing this, find a narrow object like a post or stick and place it in the ground so it makes a visible shadow. Line the hour hand with the shadow.
  3. Note the middle point of the angle between the twelve o’clock and  hour hand mark.
  4. This middle point between the hour hand and twelve o’clock marks North. The point directly across from it will obviously signify South.
    Remember, it’s reversed!

Important note: during daylight savings (Summer time), substitute the twelve o’clock mark for the one o’clock mark.

Quick watch technique – Northern Hemisphere

Look at your watch to check the current time.   If your watch is set to “Daylight Savings Time,” subtract one hour.

Point your right arm at the Sun.  Pretend your arm is the hour hand of a watch.  Now point your left arm to the Twelve-O-Clock position, based on the current time. 

Turn your body so that you are facing a direction that bisects the angle you just created.  NORTH is behind you.  You are facing SOUTH.

Quick watch technique – Southern Hemisphere

The technique differs for the Southern Hemisphere.

Look at your watch to check the current time.   If your watch is set to “Daylight Savings Time,” subtract one hour.

Point your right arm at the Sun.  Pretend your arm is the minute hand of a watch pointing at 12 O’Clock.  Now point your left arm to the hour position that matches the current time. 

Turn your body so that you are facing a direction that bisects the angle you just created.  You are facing NORTH.

Stick technique – Northern Hemisphere

If you have a digital watch, don’t despair. There is another technique that will help you get your bearings.

Find a straight stick and plant it in the ground, vertically.  Make a mark on the ground at the tip of the shadow created by the stick (A). 

Wait 15 minutes.  As the sun moves across the sky, the tip of the shadow moves by approximately 1.5 – 2.0 inches.  If you wait too long, the shadow length changes as the Sun moves to a different elevation in the sky.  This can throw off your measurement. 

By the way, the shadow will move “clockwise” with respect to NORTH.

At the end of 15 minutes, make a second mark on the ground at the tip of the stick’s shadow (B).  If you draw a straight line between A and B, you have an east-west line.  Point B always indicates East.  You can extend the line to make it easier to use by drawing beyond A or B.

Stand with your left foot on A and your right foot on B.  You are now facing NORTH.

Stick technique – Southern Hemisphere

You use the same technique in the Southern Hemisphere.  Find a stick and plant it in the ground, vertically.  Make a mark on the ground at the tip of the shadow created by the stick (A). 

Wait 15 minutes. 

As the sun moves across the sky, the tip of the shadow moves by approximately 1.5 – 2.0 inches.  If you wait too long, the shadow length also changes as the Sun moves to a different elevation in the sky.  This can throw off your measurement. 

By the way, the shadow will move “counter-clockwise” with respect to NORTH.

Make a second mark on the ground at the tip of the stick’s shadow (B).  If you draw a straight line between A and B, you have an east-west line.  Point B always indicates East.  You can extend the line to make it easier to use by drawing beyond A or B.

Stand with your left foot on A and your right foot on B.  You are facing NORTH.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice these techniques until they become second nature and use your compass or GPS to test your results. The quick watch technique is great for keeping yourself oriented as you move.

Of course these techniques only work when the sun is out.

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