A while back, a bunch of us over at the www.baitshopboyz.com were musing over how to find north without a compass.
Well, let me see.
I had a buddy who lived through the Bulge. He said the Big Dipper and the North Star were usually obscured, but that Orion was usually fairly visible, being higher in the sky. He regularly navigated using Orion’s belt when it was too dark to do otherwise. The trick was keeping track of the position of Orion every night, and what time it was. If you’re outside for 6 months, that isn’t a problem.
There’s the stick method:
That only works when the sun is casting a shadow.
There’s a watch method that I don’t have a link for, and I’ve forgotten since I started using a digital watch. It only works when the sun is up.
If the moon has points, drawing aline between the point and extending it points N/S.
The toughest is fog and dark and heavy rain, and all those times when you’re really screwed, and hypothermia is setting in, and you know you’re going to buy the plot if you don’t get out.
At that point, if you’re that far in and you didn’t bring two compasses, my suggestion is that you open up your coat and expose yourself to the elements; we didn’t need your genes in the pool anyway. That sounds a little harsh, but cheese and rice! I’ve been places in this world where I was the first vertebrate. I did it with less than 5 lbs of gear. It isn’t that hard to take a few things you might need.
BTW: I’ve done adventuring in Canada, the Northeast, the South, Florida, the Smokies, Appalachia, and the Northern Midwest. I haven’t adventured in mountains like the Rockies or in hot deserts. Keep that in mind.
I’ve gotten lost, yes. I’ve also gone out with only two compasses and found out one was no longer pointing North. I’ve gone out with a compass that I couldn’t remember which end of the needle pointed North. However, I don’t ever go out of sight of camp without something, and if there’s any question of getting lost I bring two somethings. That goes for compass, knife, matches, whistle, writing tablet and pen. I may be stupid at times, but I am not suicidal. I expect to get lost. For the most part I’ve enjoyed getting lost. There’s nothing in this world quite exhilarating as coming down the hill to the road taking you home and suddenly finding a 200 ft cliff in the way. That’s when I know I’m really alive. That’s when I reach into my mental bag and pull out Plan B. If I don’t have a Plan B, I’m not going in the first place.
Having been there and back on a few occasions, I feel inclined to offer some advice. I realize that it is useless; if you don’t know this already, you probably shouldn’t be out. On second thought, go for it: we may be losing a weak link in the evolutionary chain, but the world will be gaining much needed mulch. The difference between mulch and mastery is simple: planning.
THE SHAMANIC GUIDE TO NOT GETTING SCREWED IN THE FIRST PLACE
Planning makes these sorts of things as looking for moss on bark unnecessary. Study your topo. Study your road maps. Make note of where you are going in relation to roads, habitation, and other bits of civilization. Plan what to do if you get screwed ahead of time. For each leg of the trip figure out what you’ll do if you get screwed. Let other people know your plan. If nothing else, leave a brief description of your plan at your car. That way the authorities won’t waste a lot of time looking for the corpse in the wrong place.
The best plan for getting unscrewed begins with a call to a person you trust saying “If I don’t call you by Tuesday, tell them to look for me . . .”
I once boogered my leg on a simple overnighter. I knew I had 8 miles to the next nearest road that had regular rounds by a ranger. I walked 1 mile in 4 hours, and the charlie horse I thought I’d walk off kept getting worse. Faced with an estimated ETA at the road long after dark, I pulled Plan B out and went back the way I came. Based on my calculation, I arrived back at the car with a half hour of light left, and drove myself out to medical treatment for a ruptured cyst that might have cost me the leg if I’d tried to go on.
THE SHAMANIC GUIDE TO GETTING YOURSELF UN-SCREWED
1) Don’t rely on your senses if you’re that screwed. Something is wrong. I once had the heat get to my head on a simple 5 mile hike and almost ran the party off a cliff. I had a compass and a GPS, but stopped believing both of them. Sit down and rest. If it’s cold, build a fire. Get a grip on yourself, you’re going to need it.
2) Forget North. If you don’t know where you are and where you are going, any direction will do. Do two things:
a) Listen for traffic: A road!!!
b) Look for flowing water or signs of previously flowing water. Follow where it goes. Eventually you’ll end up at civilization. If nothing else, at least start heading downhill. Most people live within a thousand feet of sea level, most people go to the mountains to get away from the crowd. Gee. What a concept!
3) You will never find home as long as your head is in a place where the sun never shines. Turn over a new leaf and start being rational. As soon as all your emotional (excremental expletive) is in one sock, take a careful inventory of everything you have. Ditch the stuff you won’t need. Make lists, set priorities.
4) If you’re not absolutely sure you’re going to make it out before you assume ambient temperature, spend what resources you have holing up. That’s a tough decision to make. If you screwed up and didn’t leave word of your plans, it might take a few days of agony before the dumb clucks find you. However, if you concentrate on keeping your sorry self warm, dry, and hydrated you will make it out. Make fire, make shelter, and wait. When you get home, read what I’ve written and try again next year.
5) Make yourself as findable as possible. If you hole up in a cave, make sure you leave plenty of sign on the outside or you’ll be mulch. If you chose to walk out, start leaving a trail of notes, blazes, markers, etc. Build big fires. Make noise with anything you can think of except your own voice– you’ll be hoarse and worn out and you’ll die.
6) After a while it all starts looking the same. Even if you don’t have a compass, set a goal of getting to a specific landmark in the direction you want to go. It may be a tree 50 yards out, but dont’ go wandering in a general direction. Most people have one leg shorter than the other, and most people don’t know how to compensate. Hence, most people will walk in wide mile-and-a-half circles if they have no other offsetting stimuli. Setting intermediate goals will also keep you from panicking. Walking through an endless Northern landscape of cedars on flat swampy ground taught me this. You may be down to 10 feet per leg, but once you give up and start stumbling around, you’ll know what screwed really means.
7) Do not attempt to travel at night. I do a lot of adventuring in the Big South Fork region of Southern KY. If you’ve seen “Last of the Mohicans” you know the kind of terrain, I’m into. I’d done quite a bit of caving when I was younger, so I assumed hiking in the dark with a flashlight was similar. For years, my belief held up. Let me tell you that there are 60 ft cliffs in these United States that don’t show up on topos. There are also sink holes. I’ve run into both in the dark. In fact once I went out deer hunting and almost walked off a 60 ft cliff, and the only thing that saved me was falling in a sinkhole about 10 ft from the edge and getting stuck up to my waist.
Listen to your old Shaman. Get a good survival guide and start taking what it says to heart. Start small, work up. Make every walk in the county park an bit of training for the big trail. Start making plans. Start working plans.
If none of this has sunk in, and you still want to know how to find North in a pinch, go out on a snowy night and look up at Orion. Admire the beauty of the Hunter and his dog chasing the great bull Taurus. Remember these words from my buddy John:
“You know, there are times when I look up at that sight, I think back to those dark times after fall had given into Winter. We were just up north of the Ardennes. At any time, we’d start catching fire from the eighty-eights. The Krauts would aim them to go off in the trees over our heads. Being in a foxhole wouldn’t save you. There was no where to go. You had to just sit and take it.
“One night, I went into a snow covered field; it must have been about 10 below. There was Orion. It suddenly occured to me that if I opened my jacket and laid down, I could be home in a matter of minutes. I’d had enough of being cold and being shot at, and I’d heard that before you went, you’d feel warm.
“I started to undo the buttons on my coat, but my hands were too cold and I just couldn’t do it. I was angry at first, and then I realized that either way didn’t make much of a difference. Finally I gave up and walked back to my dugout. To this day, I still remember that moment fondly, and whenever I’m out on cold frosty night, I look to Orion for comfort and solace and peace of mind.”