Finding your way: Use Nature’s Tools to Navigate Through the Wilderness

Finding Your Way

Once your supplies are sorted and strapped in, it’s time to explore the great outdoors. Finding your way in the wild doesn’t necessarily require fancy navigation tools (a GPS can help sometimes), just about everything you’ll need is already in your backpack or nearby in nature. In this chapter, we’ll help you find resources to get to know your route, help you decipher what moss and natural shadows have to say about directions, and walk you through the safest ways to brave a river. Simply use nature’s tools to navigate through the wilderness!

1. Do a Little Recon

Know the area before you go

Learn how to navigate through the wildernessPhoto by Tom HiltonThe National Parks Service manages over a million acres of wilderness, ensuring the preservation of these lands for the education and enjoyment of current and future generations. They offer a wealth of information through their website, along with wilderness events and activities across the country. Some of their most valuable resources, however, are the park rangers who can provide insights on topography, weather patterns, and potential hazards. Along with these ‘insider’ tips, make sure you have a very detailed map, and that you have shared your plans and time of return with someone who can contact the authorities if you do not return.

2. Use a GPS

Smart Technology

GPS navigation can help in the wildernessPhoto by rogiroTwenty-four US navigational satellites circle the globe, forming the Global Positioning System (GPS). With a radio receiver, it is possible to locate your geographic position to within a few meters anywhere on earth. So accurate and dependable is this system that it has become indispensable for surveying and mapping, logistical supply chains, and transportation safety. For the wilderness adventurer, it has proven a lifesaver many times over. Handheld GPS receivers are designed to be rugged, able to survive and function in severe conditions, and available at outdoor recreation and marine stores for around $100.

3. Nature’s Compass

Read nature’s directional indicators

Compass navigation through the wildernessPhoto by Martin LopatkaThe sun’s journey from east to west gives us one of Nature’s most accurate navigational tools. Find a straight stick, push it into the ground, and mark the tip of the shadow to represent west. After about twenty minutes, mark the tip of the shadow again and connect the dots with a straight line to represent east to west. If you stand with the first mark to your left and the second to your right, you will be facing north. Under cloudy skies, look for moss, which always grows more prolifically on the north side of slopes and trees. Spiders, however, prefer a warmer spot, spinning their webs on the south side of trees.

4. Make your own Compass

Three simple ingredients to help you find your way

Floating Leave CompassPhoto by Jeremy FultonTo make a compass, you need a small container of water – large leaf, seashell, or plastic jar lid, a compass needle, and a way to suspend the needle on top of the water. The best needle is a sewing needle, something that should always be in your emergency kit. A paperclip, razor blade, or safety pin will also work. To work, however, your needle has to be magnetized. Going in the same direction, rub a magnet against the needle 25 – 30 times. Float the needle on a leaf in the water and wait for it to orient itself from North to South.

5. Watch the Night Sky

Navigate by starlight

Navigate by the StarsPhoto by steve lyonIn the northern hemisphere, use the north star to measure your approximate latitude; just point one arm at the star, stretch the other arm horizontal, and estimate the angle. Contrary to popular belief, the North Star is not that bright; it blends into the backdrop of stars. To find it, look for the ‘Big Dipper’ and follow the line created by the two points at the front of the ‘ladle’ directly to the North Star. Named ‘Polaris’, the North Star is also the tip of the handle of the ‘Little Dipper’.

6. Forge the River

How to safely cross a river

How to Cross a RiverPhoto by BLMOregonCrossing a river without a bridge, a boat or a kayak can be a dangerous undertaking, even for the experienced outdoorsman. Do not try to cross a swollen river; their currents can be treacherous and one slip on an algae covered rock has the potential of causing fatal injury. Once water levels drop and currents slow, you can choose the safest places to cross by reading the water. Washboard like ripples across the water indicates shallow depth, a good place to cross. Stay downstream of logs and boulders to avoid being swept into them and look for eddies if you need a break from swift running currents. Eddies, found directly downstream of large obstacles, are areas of calm water out of the flowing currents.

7. Follow the River

Rivers are nature’s highways

Follow the RiverPhoto by Jeff MoserFrom its source high in the mountains, water runs downhill, collecting to form tributaries and rivers until finally reaching its destination – an ocean, bay, or lake. In the northern hemisphere, water tends to run south, away from the North Pole. This southerly flow, however, is often interrupted by the topography of the land, sometimes completely changing the directional movement of the water. The only way to know the river’s path is to research the area before going in. Two rules will always hold true: water runs downhill, and if you follow it, you will eventually reach the confluence of the river and another body of water.

8. Build a Bridge

Stay dry while crossing a stream

How to Build a Log BridgePhoto by Daniel Piraino
Unless you are hiking in a desert wilderness area, chances are you will come upon a stream or two that you need to cross without getting your feet wet. If it is a small stream and you have good balance, a simple log pushed across the water to the other bank will do. A more stable bridge would involve two logs placed two feet apart, both long enough to span the creek with a foot or two on each side. Gather stout sticks – 3” or more in diameter – for the cross members, place them closely together and lash each one to the top of the two foundation logs.


Learn to read what rivers, trees, sunlight, and even modern technology are telling you about terrain and you’ll have no problem finding your way on your next adventure. In fact, a single star can tell you almost as much about where to walk as a high-tech GPS—as long as you know what to look for. After you’ve put these tips to the test, you’ll be ready to move on to the next challenge: bedding down in a safe and comfy camp with all the trimmings.

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1 Comment
  1. Susannah

    Great navigational info.

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