Backpacker Magazine –
Survival: Off-Course With No Map or Compass
Use your watch to orient yourself.
Start by locating the sun. It rises in the east and sets in the west (yes, lost persons have messed this up). It also sits low on the southern horizon during winter and, by midsummer, is almost overhead. If the time is close to noon, use this watch method to fix a direction more accurately: Take an analog watch (or draw one on the ground, taking the time from your digital watch). Position the watch so the hour hand points at the sun. The line that bisects the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (1 o’clock during DST) is aligned north to south; find north by recalling that the sun tracks through the southern horizon.
Find the North Star
At night, you can identify Polaris (the North Star) by first finding the easily recognized Big Dipper. Take the two stars that form the lip of the Big Dipper’s cup, and trace a line upward (for about five times the distance between the two stars) until you reach a faint star. This is Polaris, and it always points north. Mark this direction in the dirt before sheltering for the night, and follow it in the morning.
Stop moving and start thinking about your last known location, usually a singular spot like a summit, trail sign, river crossing, or a lake. Return to that place if possible. If you can’t backtrack, you’ll need to navigate by dead reckoning. The good news is that most hikers lose their way within a mile of a marked trail, road, parking lot, or structure. So if you know a road or a trail is somewhere east of your location—and you’re certain you can travel east without a compass—head in that direction. The bad news is that lost people generally cannot follow a straight line across wilderness terrain. Unless you are totally confident, stay put and wait for rescue.
If you’re lost, regularly double-check your direction as you hike to make sure you’re not wandering in circles or letting the terrain determine your path.
Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter