Learn the art of natural navigation

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In this excerpt from Lonely Planet Magazine, natural navigation expert Tristan Gooley shows you how to ditch the compass and GPS and find your way using only the signposts that are all around us.

These tips are written from a northern hemisphere perspective - many directions can be reversed for the southern hemisphere - eg, when the sun is at its highest in the southern hemisphere sky it's due north. These tips are just for interest. Please navigate responsibly!

Sun

When the sun is at its highest in the sky, it is due south – in simple terms, the sun is south at lunchtime. Yet it doesn't rise and set in the same place throughout the year. It rises in the northeast in midsummer and the southeast in midwinter. That's a huge difference. It's amazing how few people know that. It's due to the north pole being tilted towards the sun in summer and away from it in winter.

Rocks

Even on a completely overcast day, the sun's light and heat still reach us. As the sun comes from the south in the middle of the day, it will heat up one side of a large rock much more than the other. So even if you can't tell where the sun is in the sky, you can deduce it by feeling a rock. The warmer side is likely to be the southern side.

Puddles

In nature, things get wet, then dry again, all the time. Yet not in an even way. In the middle of the day – when most of the drying is happening, remember – the sun is in the south. Anything on the northern side of something that casts a shadow – like a hedge – will stay wet longer.  So, puddles will be left along the northern side of a raised east-west path, while drying out on the southern side.

Trees

Wind direction is not random: there are patterns. In Britain, the prevailing wind comes from the southwest. So, the extremities of trees appear 'combed' from the southwest to the northeast. You can  see it clearest on trees at the top of hills in the countryside.

Satellite dishes

These point to geostationary satellites which stay over the same point on the Earth's surface. In Britain, we have a dominant broadcasting company, so nearly all our dishes are pointing in the same direction. Depending on where you are, it will be between southeast and south-southeast.

Moon

When the moon is reasonably high in the sky, and it's a crescent moon, if you join the two horns of the moon together and extend the line down to the horizon, you'll be looking roughly south. It takes two seconds and, while it's not as accurate as referring to the north star, if you're really disorientated it is a big help.

Further reading: If you prefer travelling with gadgets, share your expertise or post a question on the Travel Tech branch of the forum.

This article was first published in August 2011 and was republished in January 2013.