What Direction Am I Facing? How to Tell Directions Without a Compass

what direction am i facing

What Direction Am I Facing?

Some people are great at directions, and some are, well…directionally challenged.

If you were hiking and got lost, would you be able to determine which way is North?

After reading this article, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to accurately answer the question, “What Direction Am I Facing?”.

Here are some tried-and-true methods on how to tell directions without a compass.

Use the Sun’s Position

We all know the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, so in the morning and evening, it’s easy to see which way is East or West (and then you can figure out North and South from there).

It’s not an exact science, however, because determining your direction using only the sun differs slightly depending on what time of the year it is and exactly where you are in the Northern (or Southern) hemisphere.

The variations occur because the Earth doesn’t orbit the sun in a perfectly circular path. Instead, the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, and the Earth’s axis is tilted by roughly 23.5° to the orbit. So the sun’s location varies somewhat.

Actually, the sun only rises due east and sets due west on 2 days of the year – on the spring and fall equinoxes which are usually around March 20 and September 22. On other days of the year, the Sun rises either north or south of “due east” and sets north or south of “due west.”

But even though it’s not exact, you can still use the sun to tell you which direction is which – at any time of the day.

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere:

  • During winter, the sun’s path is south of the zenith (a position directly overhead). So, at noon, the sun is due south, and shadows are thrown north.
  • During summer, the sun’s path is north of the zenith, so shadows are thrown south.

The exact opposite is true if you’re in the Southern hemisphere.

So, that means that when you’re facing the sun at noon during the winter months, walking directly toward it will take you south. Walking with the sun at your back means you’re heading north (and again – the opposite is true if you’re in the Southern hemisphere).

Use an Analog Watch (the kind with a dial and hands)

In the North Temperate Zone, point the hour hand to the sun.  Draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12. If it’s daylight savings time, draw an imaginary line between the hour hand and the 1. This is the North-South Line.

To figure out which end of the line points north and which points south, remember that the sun is in the East before noon and in the west after noon. You can figure it out from there.
find north and south using an analog watch
Source: FM 21-76 Army Field Manual: Survival October 1970

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If you’re in the Southern Temperate Zone, however, it’s different. Point the 12 toward the sun, and draw an imaginary line halfway between the 12 and the current hour hand. The north-south line is the imaginary line drawn halfway between the current hour hand and the 12.

find north and south using an analog watch
Source: FM 21-76 Army Field Manual: Survival October 1970

Just FYI, the Northern Temperate Zone ranges from 23 ½ degrees north latitude to 66 ½ degrees north latitude.

The Southern Temperate Zone ranges from 23 ½ degrees south latitude to 66 ½ degrees south latitude.

What if it’s Cloudy and You Can’t See the Sun?

If it’s cloudy out, put a stick at the center of your analog watch and hold it so that the shadow of the stick falls along the hour hand. One-half the distance between the shadow and the 12 is north.

Use the Stars to Find the Directions at Night

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, when you draw a line from you to the North Star (Polaris), the line is never more than 1 degree away from true north.

Here’s how to find the North Star:

  1. Find the Big Dipper
  2. Draw an imaginary line through the two pointer stars which form the side of the cup farthest from the handle. About 5 times the distance between these two stars in the direction from which you would pour from the dipper is the North Star.

finding south in the southern hemisphere
Image source: earthsky.org

If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you can find south by finding the Southern Cross. Compare this group of stars to a kite. If you can figure out the length of the kite from the tip to the tail and extend an imaginary line from the tip of the tail 4 ½ times the length of the kite, you can determine the approximate direction of south.

Is it True that Moss on Trees only Grows on the North Side?

I have often heard that, in order to find your direction, look for moss growing on trees, since moss only grows on the north side of the tree.

However, that’s not always correct.

You can still use it to help you orient yourself though. Moss that grows on the south side of the tree will be greener and thicker because it gets more sun, while the moss on the north side of the tree is thinner and sparser.

Look for Ant Hills Near Trees

Ants usually build their anthills on the south or southeastern areas near trees because it’s warmer there.

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Look for Snow Melt on Rocks or Mountains

If you’re lost in the winter and there’s snow around, look for snow that has melted.  Snow will melt faster on the southern part of rocks and mountains because it’s warmer there.

How to Stay on Course When You’re Moving

Pay attention to where the sun hits your when you face the direction that you want to travel.  Check its position to your travel direction frequently as it will change with the time of day and season of the year. So, if you’re walking in a straight line and the sun is on your left, make sure you keep it on your left as you go to avoid walking in circles.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.
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