How To Find Your Bearings
People go missing in the woods in the U.S. every year. Some of them are never found. In many cases they are found many miles from the trail they left and the vast majority of them either didn’t have a map or weren’t familiar with the area. I am lucky enough to live right next to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and every year multiple people go missing. Unfortunately, some are never found. This is in no way a poor reflection on those searching for them. If you are in a heavily wooded area, visibility can be as little as 20 yards. Sometimes searchers can come within 100 yards of a lost person and never make contact with them.
Considering that I grew up with a national forest less than a mile from my house, I ventured into it quite frequently growing up. I also got lost on more than one occasion. Getting lost is an incredibly stressful situation. This is one reason why many children who are found can’t remember what happened. The stress simply gets to them and they break down.
On one memorable occasion I got lost while following a series of old logging roads. The more confused I got the more scared I got. I finally calmed myself down and decided to head North. It turns out that North was the worst direction to head. However, making the conscious decision to head North put my mind in the right place. It caused me to calm down and to start thinking. Although I was only about 10 years old, I knew that the sun rose in the East and set in the West.
With this in mind I was able to determine which way was North. This then got me thinking about the best direction to start moving. On further reflection I realized that I had left in the morning and that I had the sun at my back for most of my journey. This meant that I had been traveling West. As such, my destination must be to the East. Using the sun as my bearing I made my way through the woods and came out less than a mile from my home.
Learning to read a map and find your bearings is relatively simple with or without a compass. In this article I will be discussing how to use a compass and find True North.
Why finding North is important: Finding North is important when orienting a map since maps tend to be oriented as such. Having your map facing the wrong direction is most undesirable for obvious reasons. Finding North is also important in helping you determine not only which direction you are going, but also keeping you in that direction. Studies have found that when blindfolded and told to walk in a straight line, people tend to circle back.
When lost it’s not only important that you be aware of which direction you are going, but also how far you have traveled in that direction. Because of this, it’s important to keep a “pace count.” This can simply be done by counting the number of steps you have taken in that direction.
How to find True North: As previously stated, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. As such, if you stand with your left side facing West, than you are facing North. Another method for finding North (besides using a compass) is to use an analog watch. Simply hold the watch level with the ground and point the hour hand towards the sun. Then draw a line between the hour hand and 12. That line is South. In the Southern Hemisphere the line between the hour hand and 12 is North.
You can also use a digital watch by simply drawing a picture of an analog watch and marking the hands using your digital to determine their placement. A simple trick to finding exactly where the sun is, is to simply put a stick into the ground and look for the shadow. The shadow points to the direction of the sun.
How to find the North Star: The North Star (also known as Polaris) is the only stars in the night sky that doesn’t move. All other stars will move across the night sky as the earth rotates, but the North star always remains faithfully pointing the way North. A time laps photo shows the movement of stars with the North Star remaining unmoved in the middle.
The North Star has been faithfully used by travelers for thousands of years. Luckily it can be easily spotted if you know what to look for. The big and little dipper are the most easily spotted and well known constellations. The North Star is located at the tail end of the little dipper. If you align the last two stars of the end of the Big Dipper they will point to the North Star.
How to use a compass: A compasses main use is for telling you which direction is North. However, a compass will tell you which direction is “Magnetic North” which is slightly off from “True North.” Most maps are oriented to face True North rather than Magnetic North. The difference between True North and Magnetic North is referred to as “magnetic declination.” Magnetic declination varies depending on where you are. Most topographical maps list what their magnetic declination is. A standard compass should have a ring around the outside listing the degrees (360 in total). You can use these degrees to figure out True North. For example, if the magnetic declination of your area is 10 degrees, than you can use the degree indicator ring on your compass to find True North.