How To Find North Without A Compass

All you need is a stick, some rocks and a watch

Picture this scenario - you are part of a section patrolling through the desert towards a Forward Operations Base.

During the briefing, you were told that, in the event of you becoming cut-off or lost from your colleagues, the emergency plan is to simply move north until you come across a road. When you hit the road, all you have to do is turn left on to it and follow it until you reach the FOB. 

However, you have no compass.

So, how, in this instance, will you find North and your eventual road to safety?

Here are three military-grade methods of finding North when you are void of a GPS or compass.

Credit: Jumpstory

Stick Shadow - Daytime

Using rudimentary items easily found in most environments, a person can use ancient methods of calculating directions.

The stick/shadow method is one such process, resulting in the stranded, lost navigator calculating an approximate north bearing.

It is a simple process that just requires the following items/circumstances:

  • A stick
  • Two stones or rocks
  • Sunlight and clear skies

The process of navigating North actually occurs thanks to being able to calculate east and west. Just follow these simple steps.

  1. Place a stick in the ground in an upright and vertical position.
  2. Mark the tip of the stick's shadow with one of your rocks.
  3. Wait a period no less than 20 minutes (if you can afford to, wait an hour – it will result in a more accurate calculation). Then place your second rock on the tip of the stick's shadow.
  4. Draw a line between the two rocks. This line is approximately East-West, and from it, you can calculate the direction of North. If in the northern hemisphere, the south is towards the base of your vertical stick.

Try it for yourself.

Credit: Jumpstory

Orion's Belt – Nighttime 

Aha, but what if there is no sunlight available, we hear you say. Well, never fear. By using the stars as an aid, it is possible to calculate North. Follow these steps.

  1. Find Orion – or, more specifically, find Orion's Belt. These are three bright stars referred to as a belt, as they sit in the broader star configuration of Orion.
  2. Look down from the belt and identify the single brightest star, which also signifies Orion's sword.
  3. Follow an imaginary line down to the horizon in the direction of the sword. The point at which you hit the horizon is South.

Give it a go on a clear night and see if you can identify the bright star of Orion's sword. 


Credit: Rawpixel

Analogue Watch Method – Daytime 

If you are lost and happen to own an analogue watch (which, frankly, you should), you have everything you need to find North (or south). 

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Identify the location of the sun. If it is a sunny day, this is a straightforward matter. However, if it is overcast, you might need to create a shadow to help you figure out exactly where the sun is positioned in the sky.
  2. Take your wristwatch and place it horizontally on the ground.
  3. Point the hour hand in the direction of the sun.
  4. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12 o'clock on your watch face. By 'bisect', we mean the mid-point of the angle.
  5. In the northern hemisphere, the bisecting point at the rim of your clockface and off into the distance is due south. Mark this on the ground with a line. This line is now your north-south directional line.

As with all things survival, the trick is being prepared. So, if you find yourself at a loose end, why not step outside in the day or night and practice the three methods described above. You never know when you might need them.

Good luck.