Basic Wilderness Navigation Techniques: A Beginners Guide


Man Standing on Stream Bank in Wilderness

Navigation is the skill and study of the process of controlling the movement of yourself or a vehicle from one position to another. That means knowing where you are, where you are going, how to get there, and successfully executing that route.

There are two critical aspects of navigation: Location and Direction. They are closely tied together and are individually useful, but you will not be able to navigate without both of them properly.

There are many ways of navigating. Indeed, the development of increasingly improved navigation techniques has been crucial to people’s exploration of the planet. Still, it is also an essential skill for individuals who might find themselves in the wilderness. While today there are many technological tools you can use to navigate, there is value in being aware of more traditional techniques that don’t rely on the same technology.

This article will outline the essential navigation techniques you can use to determine your location and the required direction, as well as highlight their strengths and weaknesses.

Location

The importance of location lies in determining the starting point of your route. You will already know where you are in many scenarios, and if you have been following a route closely, you will likely remain aware of your location.

However, as it is easy to get off course in terms of direction, it is vital to double-check your location regularly even when following a route. Even a few degrees can put you off course if you maintain that direction long enough.

In many ways, location is trickier to determine and relies heavily on tools and technology.

There are three key ways of determining your location:

  1. Using a GPS
  2. Key Landmarks
  3. Bearings

Let’s cover each separately.

1. Using a GPS System

Today, we have the technology available to readily determine our position with reasonably high accuracy at any point in time. Most of us carry smartphones with us at all times, which allows us to see our location on a map, but there are also dedicated GPS devices that will help you figure out where you are.

The advantage of GPS devices lies in their efficiency as they are fast and easy to use, especially for the less experienced survivalist. They are also very accurate.

However, there are also several downsides to using GPS devices. Many casual backpackers and hikers rely on their phones for navigation. This can cause three big problems.

  1. They tend to break easily- Your mobile phone is fragile and can break easily, primarily when used outdoors while walking or climbing. If you have been relying on your phone, that leaves you in a particularly vulnerable position.
  2. Reliant on batteries- Mobile phones have limited battery life. Regardless of spare battery packs, there are no power outlets in the wilderness, or indeed in most survival situations, and your phone will run out of battery eventually.
  3. The Internet is often required- Your phone is reliant on Wi-Fi to show you the map, rather than just the dot of your location. This can be circumvented by down-loading maps before leaving, but there is a risk of not having all the information you need.

GPS devices made for use in the wilderness are less prone to these issues, as they are typically build to be much sturdier and have a much longer battery life, but those problems cannot be eliminated completely. GPS devices also rely on you pre-loading maps onto them to show you your location on a map, which again limits you to the areas you have specifically prepared for.

In an actual survival situation, the world’s GPS system could become damaged, leaving you without any tools. While this is unlikely, it is unwise to entirely rely on GPS, although it is useful to supplement other methods.

2. Using Key Landmarks With a Map and Compass

The most traditional method of determining your location is by using known landmarks. If you are using these techniques in a familiar area, you will likely be used to the landmarks around you, including church spires, rivers, lakes, and distinctive mountains. These are helpful even if you are not directly in a location you recognize, as long as you can see at least two familiar landmarks. By using their relative positions, you can determine your rough location.

For example, if you know that a specific mountain is east of a tall church spire and you can see the church spire on the mountain’s right, you know you are in an area north of both landmarks. If the two line up and you can see the church spire in front of the mountain, you know you are to the west of both.

The more landmarks you recognize all around you, the more accurate you can determine your location. However, this will always remain a rough guess, compared to other methods. However, if you have a map and compass, you can determine your location to a relatively high degree of accuracy using a similar approach. A map will also allow you to recognize more landmarks.

3. Using Bearings

In its most basic form, taking a bearing is very straight forward, although it takes some practice to ensure accuracy.

  • From your location, determine the exact angle, relative to true north towards at least two, but ideally three, landmarks.
  • On your map, draw a line of the same angle through each landmark.
  • Your location is where all of these lines intersect. If you are perfectly accurate in your measurements, this will be a perfect location

You can also take a bearing more easily using particular compasses with a clear base plate and orienting lines. This also means that you do not need to draw on your map. While these compasses are the most commonly available for mountaineering and hiking, they are not required. They often come with instructions on how to use them, so make sure to memorize and practice these.

Direction

Once, you know where you are, you will need to know how to get to where you are going. While direction can be useful without an exact location, they are most useful in combination. However, some of these methods will be particularly useful if you are completely lost and do not know your location or destination.

Here are 7 methods of determining direction:

1. Using a Compass

The most common way to determine direction is by using a compass. If you also know where you are, this will give you the best idea of which direction you need to head toward. In combination with a map, which will also give you an idea of the topography.

2. Using the Sun and a Watch

During the day, the sun will be the most useful reference point for determining direction if you do not have a compass with you.

The basic principle behind this is that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

The most accurate way to make use of this information requires a watch to give you the exact time. It is essential not to use daylight saving times, but rather the true local time. Using this, you can get a reasonably accurate measure of direction.

  • Hold your watch horizontally like you would a compass and point the watch so that the hour hand (the shorter hand) points at the sun.
  • Halfway between the hour hand and 12 o’clock is the north-south line (going through the center of the watch).
  • At noon, in the northern hemisphere, the sun is in the south, which will help you determine which end of that line faces north and which faces south. In the southern hemisphere, the sun will be in the north at midday.

This method will give you a relatively accurate measure of your direction, but as your watch will be set by your local time zone, it can vary somewhat depending on how wide your time zone is. For most purposes, however, this way of measuring direction is sufficiently accurate.

3. Using the Sun and a Stick

If you do not have a watch and require a more general sense of direction, you can determine the east and west by following the sun’s movement.

This is easiest using a stick which you push into the ground to stand upright. If there is a tree or other object which casts a clear shadow with a defined end, this will be suitable as well.

  1. Mark the end of the shadow on the ground.
  2. Then you will need to wait a while as the sun travels through the sky. About ten to fifteen minutes will be sufficient.
  3. When the shadow has clearly moved, mark the end of the shadow again.
  4. Drawing a line through these two points will give you an east-west line, with your first mark representing west, the second representing east. The east-west line created by this will be accurate.

Just keep in mind that you will be limited by correctly estimating angles from this to measure the direction you desire.

A protractor is helpful in this. If you do not have a protractor, objects which have right angles, like books and pieces of paper (not ripped), can also help as they will help you determine the north-south axis with decent accuracy. Folding a piece of paper will again give you a fairly accurate measure of 45 degrees.

For most purposes, this will provide you with a decent idea of direction. If you repeat this process several times throughout the day, you can be more sure you are staying on the correct course.

4. Using the Night Sky

There are two useful ways of determining direction using the night sky:

  1. Using stars
  2. Using the moon

Using Stars

In the northern hemisphere, the most useful star for navigational purposes is the North Star. However, while the North Star is bright, it can be challenging to locate. The North Star is the last star in the “tail “of the Little Bear, also known as the Little Dipper. The easiest way to find it is by using two constellations to help you.

Here is how you can locate it:

  1. First, locate the Big Dipper, which is shaped like a wagon made from a trapezoid and a handle.
  2. Follow the line made by the two stars on the short side of the trapezoid, making up the Big Dipper (the side without the handle). The North Star is along this line.

Once you have found the North Star, you have located north. To find the direction you are facing, you can draw a line from your position pointing towards the North Star on the ground and one line from your position towards the direction you are facing. This will make it easier to estimate the angle between those, giving you the direction in degrees.

If you have a quadrant or sextant available, the North Star can also help you find what latitude you are on, which gives you an idea of your location. This is measured by the degrees between the horizon and the North Star from your vantage point. This is likely not as relevant unless you are at sea, as on land, other means of finding your location are significantly more effective.

In the southern hemisphere, Alpha Centauri is always in the south. It is less bright than the North Star, and you will need to use constellations to locate it. The most useful is the Southern Cross. Alpha Centauri is located along the line made through the cross axis. Finding your direction follows the same principle as with the North Star.

Using the Moon

If you are struggling to locate the North Star or Alpha Centauri, the moon can offer you at least some guidance. It is significantly less accurate, but it will give you a sense of direction until you can find a better way of measuring it.

If the moon rises before sunset, the bright side will be in the west. If the moon rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be in the east.

This gives you a general direction, which is helpful if you are particularly disorientated. It will also help you find the direction in which to look for the relevant constellations to determine your direction more accurately.

5. Using Rivers

You may find yourself lost in a situation where you need to navigate out of unknown and challenging terrain, without a map or compass and without the knowledge of which compass direction is most suitable. In those situations, navigating to safe terrain is equally important as knowing where you are or where north is.

The typical advice is to follow a river or stream downstream. This is generally good advice. One thing that will always be true about rivers is that they will always flow downstream.

In the northern hemisphere, rivers also generally flow south overall, though you, in a localized view, this will depend on local topography. Rivers also generally flow towards the ocean, with some exceptions, notably in Africa.

Here is a cool video that tells you how to determine stream flow direction by using a topographic map:

Rivers Usually Lead to People

Following a river downstream will typically lead you to roads and civilization, as towns and villages traditionally exist in areas where water is plentiful, and the ground is more even, to aid agriculture. While this is no guarantee, going downhill is also beneficial because it is less strenuous, especially if you are struggling for supplies or with injuries, as well as leading you to less hostile terrain, where it will be easier to shelter.

Lastly, if you follow a river far enough, it will typically lead you to the ocean. At the coast, you can follow the coastline until you find a settlement. It also makes finding your location easier as you can limit the possible locations to the shore.

Exceptions

There are notable exceptions to this you need to be aware of:

  1. If you are lost at a river and aim to find a town or other civilization, you should check the river for pollution and litter. While some litter is often from campers and other people using the wilderness for recreation, you can make a judgment call on whether this pollution may have been washed downstream from a town. If it is, following the river upstream rather than downstream might lead you to safety soon, if the terrain permits.
  2. As mentioned previously, in Africa and some other exceptions, rivers do not end at the coast. In those areas, you might find yourself in a worse situation if you follow the river downstream.
  3. In some areas, like Florida, rivers often lead to swamps close to the coast, which are more dangerous. For both these reasons, you should always be aware of the general geography of areas you might find yourself in.

6. Using Tree Growth Patterns and Other Plant Growth

While you are crossing terrain, you should be aware of specific landscape indicators that will confirm if you are going in the right direction. These are significantly less accurate than other methods, but if you notice discrepancies, these will be an early warning sign that you may have gone off course or made a mistake.

All plants are reliant on sunlight and water for growth, and you can look at growth patterns to see which direction sunlight and water have reached them. Plants like moss that rely on cooler and damp conditions, for example, typically grow on the north side of trees and rocks, which are more shielded from the sun.

Similarly, snow will melt first on the south side of mountains, while northern slopes will retain snow much longer into the year. If you encounter a tree stump and can check the growth rings, you will notice that they are closest together on the north side, which has the least sunlight. All these methods are only general estimates and depend on other conditions, such as structures that provide shade and altitude.

7. Using Wind

For those familiar with the area they are in, wind direction can also provide useful information. While on a day to day basis, wind direction may be inconsistent, many regions have consistent wind directions.

Look for tell-tale signs of how wind has affected the area from day to day. In an area that usually has strong east to the west wind, many trees will bend towards the west, having been pushed that way by the prevailing winds. Familiarity with local conditions can help you recognize these signs.

Do a Reality Check

All these methods are useful as indicators rather than absolute directions. For example, if you think you are going north but the mossy side of trees and rocks consistently face you while the sides facing the direction you are going in are clear, you may be going south, rather than north. You should always use other methods to confirm your direction.

Tips

Once you are comfortable with the key ways of determining location and direction, you should be able to navigate in most terrains comfortably. There are a few things to consider and remember in all situations, to ensure your safety and the success of your journey.

  1. Once you have found your direction and are heading towards it, you need to remember that even a small deviation can take you a long way off course once over time. Therefore, you should always confirm your location and direction several times a day to ensure you have not made a mistake.
  2. You should always be aware of the local terrain and topography. This is important to ensure your safety and success. If you aim to go north, but there is a large mountain directly north between you and your destination, it is well worth considering going around it to shorten the journey time. Other times, the terrain in the desired direction may be unsafe, and you should always prioritize safety as any injury in the wilderness can be debilitating and lead to death.
  3. You should remember that shelter, water, and food are extremely important. Making sure you have access to all of them is crucial when deciding on a direction. If in doubt, going downhill is typically more likely to lead you to water and more sheltered ground. You should resume your journey over more difficult terrain only when you are sufficiently rested and have enough supplies.

With these methods, your journey should be as safe as possible, and you will be able to find your way successfully.

Final Thoughts

If you ingrain these few simple techniques, you will be way ahead of the game when it comes to navigating the wilderness. Just remember to gain some knowledge of any area you will be traveling through beforehand. One little detail that you learn could be the difference between life or death.

This article has been a blast to write. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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