My iPhone has a handy little GPS in it. I also have a dedicated handheld GPS that is about one-thousand times better. Both are luxuries, and if my life depended on either, I would be very, very worried.
Simply put, there is no substitute for a proper paper map and a quality compass. Not a digital compass, but a magnetic compass. Batteries die. Satellite signals get lost. Electronics break. Real orienteering skills may one day save your life.
Here are a couple of tips for finding your way when your map is lost, your GPS wonʼt work and your compass is smashed to bits:
Find the North Star
First locate the Big Dipper then follow an imaginary line commencing at the last two stars that make up the end of the “cup;” these line up with the last star in the Little Dipper, which is the North Star and always lays smack dab over the northern horizon.
NOTE: this only works in the Northern Hemisphere. Finding south with the stars in the Southern Hemisphere is much tougher. You need to locate the South Celestial Pole—the spot that all stars seem to rotate around.
Pick a sunny spot and drive a one-metre-long stick into the ground. Place a small stone at the end of the shadow the stick casts. Wait about 20 minutes or so then place another stone at the tip of the shadow the stick now casts. The first stone is the west end of the line running between these rocks, the second stone is east.
NOTE: Only when the times used to mark the tip of a stickʼs shadow span local standard noontime will the resulting line run exactly west to east. The line will be just a bit east of true north near 6:00 a.m. and will be west- to-east at noon and eventually become just a bit east of true south near 6:00 p.m., so try to do this when the sun is high.
If you have the luxury of a wristwatch you can utilize it to better orient yourself with this method: the sun “moves” 15 degrees per hour. At 6:00 a.m. it is due east; at 9:00 a.m. it is southeast; at noon it is south; at 3:00 p.m. it is southwest, and at 6:00 p.m. it is west.
No watch and no compass, but lots of sun and all day to think about it? Start marking the tip of the stickʼs shadow in the morning and continue until the shadow begins to lengthen. The point of shortest shadow is true north from the base of the stick.
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