May 1, 2015 Comments (2) Adventure, How To, Safety and Survival, Travel Hacks, Travel Tips

Travel Hacks Friday: How To Find True North

how to find true north

Welcome to Another Travel Hacks Friday. As part of a new series, every Friday, we will be introducing new travel hacks for outdoor and urban adventures. We will scour the web for the best and most practical hacks, as well as dig into our reserves and share our own awesome moments of ingenuity!


For most of us, the need to find True North is an unnecessary skill; a lost art replaced by GPSes and Smartphones. But even technology has its limitations. So unless you happen to have your own portable solar panel (which begs the question of why you don’t have a compass), or discover an outlet or power source in the trees somewhere, learning some handy navigation techniques could get you home safe and sound.

As you channel your inner boy scout (or girl guide) you’ll certainly remember the rule: if ever lost, find the brightest star in the sky, and that will be your guide. Simple enough right? In theory finding the North Star is sound, but given that it’s not the brightest star, but in fact the star that doesn’t move, you’ll discover finding a single star in a sea of shining stars is easier said than done.   You could rely on your memory of constellations (it’s the last star in the handle of the big dipper) but if you’ve ever been out in the wild, under a clear night sky, you’ll understand how difficult it really is. To complicate things, if you happen to be in the southern hemisphere, you’ll need to use the Southern Cross method to find south, and not the North Star.  And what if it just happens to be a cloudy night or the middle of the day? Survival hacks, like making your own compass, could also work, but do require access to at least a little bit of gear (Sorry Bear Grylls, magnetizing your hair does not work!!).

So, assuming you’ve been dropped off naked, and you’re up the creek without a paddle so to speak, this weeks travel hack will set you in the right direction literally.

Also, before you think that you’ll never be in the backcountry and this hack is only for the wannabe John Muirs of the world, know that being able to find True North will also help with map navigation in the city, on the road, and virtually everywhere else. Maps are only useful if you know the direction of North (North is up on all maps).

Before I get to the hacks, some additional things to note:

  1. Finding North doesn’t mean to head North. It’s simply a bearing to know where South, West and East are in relation
  2. Before heading out into the wild, have an idea the cardinal direction you came from. For example, if you’re walking east, to get back you’ll have to head west
  3. The cardinal points spell NESW in a clockwise direction


how to find true north

Image Courtesy of Patrick87

How To find True North Method 1: Sun Rises In The East, Sets In The West


  1. The Sun

The most basic method to use in a pinch is knowing the Suns behavior. It’s not full proof and lacks precision since the Suns position depends on season and latitude, but it’s better than nothing.

  1. The Sun rises in the east
  2. The Sun sets in the west
  3. North will be to the right of where the Sun sets

How To Find True North Method 2: Look For Moss Growth On Trees


  1. Moss

Unlike typical flowering plants, moss grows abundantly in damp or shady areas. However, moss has the habit of growing anywhere it chooses, and so it’s important to observe and notice the small differences such as, moss on the south side being greener, and the moss on the north side being denser and more plentiful. As a rule of thumb the North side has the least amount of Sun.

how to find true north

  1. Look for moss growth on trees and rocks
  2. Determine where the moss is most dense and plentiful
  3. The side with the most moss will be True North

How To Find True North Method 3: The Watch Method


  1. A watch with dials and an hour hand
  2. The Sun

Surprisingly a watch serves more than just as an accessory. For this method you’ll need an analog watch with an hour hand.

how to find true north

  1. Point the hour hand at the Sun, and draw an imaginary line from the sun to the center of the dial
  2. Draw an imaginary line from the center of the dial to the 12o’clock position
  3. Draw another imaginary line halfway between the hour hand, and the 12 line, crossing through the center
  4. The line within the angle will be pointing south
  5. True North will be the line pointing on the other side of the angle

For those in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll point 12 at the sun instead, and replace the 12o’clock position with an imaginary line between the hour hand and the 12. North will also now be the line in the angle

How To Find True North Method 4: The Shadow-Tip Method


  1. Stick
  2. 2 rocks
  3. Open area
  4. The Sun

Using the sun and its relation to the rotation of the Earth, you’re able to get an approximation of the cardinal points. If you happen to not have anything that can be used as a stick, you could also use any fixed object that casts a shadow. But be aware, the finer the point of the stick, the more accurate the reading.

how to find true north

Image Courtesy of HowStuffWorks


  1. Stick the stick (yes I said it) in the ground
  2. Note where the shadows tip ends and mark it with a rock
  3. Wait 15 minutes. The shadow will move west to east
  4. Note where the new position of the shadows tip, and mark it with a rock
  5. Draw a straight line between the two rocks. This will be your West to East Line, with the first rock being West
  6. Draw a perpendicular line right of the West Rock
  7. That line will point towards True North


There are more precise methods that can even determine latitude, but those methods are generally impractical in survival situations with minimal gear or are far too complicated to recall easily in an emergency. Also, the methods only give approximations of how to find True North and should be used as your last resort. As with all things, preparation is key.

Now go buy yourself a compass.


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I'm an aspiring scuba diver, novice spelunker and avid adventurer.I have a penchant for always getting lost with an established track record for choosing the worst places to eat. With a healthy aversion to staying in one place for too long, I am the ceaseless wanderer and explorer. I recently traded in the suit for a backpack, and am now pursuing to live a life of sustained travel. I travel to learn, I travel to live and I travel in search of adventure.
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2 Responses to Travel Hacks Friday: How To Find True North

  1. Orana says:

    What a cool post! I like the idea of your blog and the crazy travel tips! #IBABLOGGERS

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