Navigating when your in the Wilderness

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Navigating when your in the Wilderness

When I first started hiking I didn't have a GPS for navigation. I learned the ‘hard’ way with a compass and a map, and many times I would venture out without these as well - knowing only a general direction of where I was headed and using my other survival skills to stay on track. The guys here at APE Survival think this is a little extreme, and we in no way recommend venturing into the wilderness without a way to navigate. That's a recipe for disaster. Luckily, I made it through without any major incidents, but it brings us to the topic for today. How to stay on track when you're lost in the wild. Let's say you were prepared but then you lost your pack as you took a tumble from your canoe, and only made it to shore in shorts and a t-shirt. Or you took a spill and smashed your compass, or simply forgot to charge your fancy new GPS. So what do you do now?

Stop and stay calm

When you're lost the first thing you need to do is stop. Walking aimlessly burns calories, and it's scientifically proven that we humans find it very difficult to walk in a straight line. Despite any challenges to the landscape (we tend to walk through the path of least resistance), people have a tendency to slightly veer to the left or right as they walk, which means lost hikers often wind up travelling in large circles. Sit down, take a drink of water and evaluate your next steps. Consider if there's a particular direction it would be best to travel in (perhaps you remember there is a major highway due East of your location), or know there's a river running just a few miles away you can follow until you hit civilization. Decide on the direction you want to go.

Get elevated

If you really have no idea on the direction, perhaps you need a better look around. Seek out any elevated areas you can use as a vantage point to spot perhaps a distant road, or river, or even smoke rising from a farmhouse. A small hill will enable you to see far into the distance on a clear day, or scale a tree so you can check out your immediate surroundings. I'd head towards anything man-made as a first priority, but also take note of any water sources as you will need to stay hydrated. Now, pick your destination.


The simplest means to navigate to a destination in the distance is to pick a landmark and use this as a waypoint. I like to line up two separate objects, like the tip of a particular tree and a point on the ridge, and keep them in line as I walk forward. Do the same with the objects you pass behind you, so if you need to backtrack you also remember the way from which you came. Leaving a trail is also a good habit, breaking off branches at a particular height, or marking the trees in a certain way so you aid anyone that's coming to find you, or helps you easily retrace your steps.

Shadows and sticks

If there's a particular direction you know you need to go, even without a compass you can nail basic navigation. Grab a stick, and stick it in the ground so it's pointing straight up in the air. You can use whatever you like for this, I prefer a thin stick about half a meter long, because it makes it easy to see the change in the shadow and get an accurate reading from the point at the tip. Take a smaller stick, and stick it into the ground where the tip of your branch starts from. Wait about 10 minutes. The point of the shadow will have moved (as the sun moved across the sky). Mark the spot where the tip of the branch's shadow is now pointing. Drawing a line between these two points is a rough East to West line. Stand with the first stick on your left and the second on your right, and you're now (roughly) facing true north.

Your watch

Northern hemisphere. So long as you've got an analogue watch (the kind with an hour and a minute hand) you can use this technique. Hold your watch flat in the palm of your hand, and point the hour hand at the sun. Look at where the number 12 is on your watch, and cut the angle between the hour hand and the number 12 in half. This line marks the North to South line. If you're on daylight savings time bisect the angle between the hour hand and the number 1. Southern hemisphere The watch technique also works here, where the only difference is you point the number 12 in your watch at the sun, and bisect the angle between the hour hand and number 12 to find the North to South line. Remember, use the number 1 if you're on daylight savings time.

Night navigation

Personally, I don't recommend travelling at night, despite the countless articles that tell you how to use the moon or the stars to reach your destination. Your survival is going to be much better served finding shelter, getting a warm fire going, and trying to replenish your energy for the hike tomorrow. Sleep (if you can), and have a bite to eat before you get in your sleeping bag, as your digestion will help to keep you warm. When the sun comes up, use it to your advantage (it rises in the East), and continue your hike back to civilization. Getting lost in the wild is never fun, but with a little common sense and remembering these tactics you will be able to find a direction to travel, stay on it, and make it out alive.