When I first began exploring nature, one of my goals was to navigate without any man-made tools like compass or GPS.
There’s a real sense of confidence and security that comes from knowing exactly where you are in the woods, and being deeply tuned with your surroundings through traditional methods.
Yet most aspiring wanderers and explorers become way too dependant on modern navigation tools, and while a compass can always be helpful… It’s just no replacement for good old fashioned brainpower.
So over the years I’ve learned some extremely effective traditional navigation techniques that can be readily mastered with just a bit of practice.
These methods are 100% practical. They could save you from getting lost in a dangerous situation, and they will make your outdoor adventures a whole lot more fun.
So here are 12 easy ways to navigate without a compass:
1. Use The Sun To Find North
One of the most fundamental navigation skills is knowing how to find north without using a compass.
This is actually very simple to do just by looking at the position of the sun.
This technique works a little bit differently depending on what hemisphere you’re in, and how close you are to the equator, so let’s look at 3 different ways to do it.
Find North In The Northern Hemisphere
In the northern hemisphere, the sun’s highest point every day is directly south.
Now obviously the sun will get higher in the sky during summer than it does during winter, but each day the highest point of it’s curve is always going to be exactly south.
So all you have to do is practice watching the sun’s daily journey for a few days and try to identify the point at which the sun is highest in the sky.
After a few days you’ll get pretty darn accurate, and once you have south, you also have north, east, and west.
Pretty simple right?
The only exception to this rule would be at the north pole during summer when the sun circles high in the sky all day long… But I’m going to assume you’re not at the north pole!
Find North In The Southern Hemisphere
In the southern hemisphere this process is basically the same, it just happens in the opposite direction.
So in this case, the sun’s highest point each day will be directly North.
This method works in every season, no matter what day of the year. It will never change, so it’s a very reliable way to identify north.
Find North At The Equator
At the equator, the sun’s highest point is directly overhead, so we have to use a different technique to find the directions.
In this case you’ll use sunrise and sunset to identify east and west.
Just keep in mind how close you are to the equator, and use whatever technique is most appropriate for your latitude.
2. Find North With The Stars
At night, it’s also possible to find north by observing the stars & constellations.
The first step is to locate the big dipper. Most people have probably seen this constellation before.
It’s called the big dipper because it looks kind of like a big scoop in the sky.
It’s a big and bright constellation that shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
Next – find the front of the scoop on the big dipper and imagine there’s a line connecting the two leading stars that projects out into the night sky.
Keep following that imaginary line until you hit a bright star in the north sky that lines up with the front of the big dipper.
That’s the north star.
The north star only moves slightly in the sky, with every other constellation circling around it, which makes it a great way to confidently know when you’re facing north.
This star also forms the handle tip of a smaller constellation called the little dipper.
The little dipper is a lot smaller than it’s counterpart, but it’s a good way to confirm that you are in fact seeing the north star.
3. Learn To Read Topographical Maps
Of course, identifying north only actually helps you if you know which direction you want to go!
Just because you can find north, doesn’t mean you can actually do anything with that knowledge. It certainly doesn’t mean you’re a master navigator yet.
You still need to be able to read the land and know your territory.
So this is where Topographical maps come in handy…
Topographical maps contain some of the most useful information you’ll ever find to help you navigate without a compass or GPS.
If you learn how to accurately read a topographical map, it’s possible to visualize in 3 dimensions how the hills and water actually flows through the landscape.
It’s like being able to visit a 3D model of any location in your mind before you go there in real life.
I highly recommend you buy a map for the areas where you go exploring, and study the landscape, paying special attention to elevation changes, hills, ridges, etc.
Many outdoor supply stores will carry detailed topographical maps. Here’s one that I bought many years ago for my own area.
It was one of the best purchases I ever made for my naturalist toolkit and I reference this map anytime I want to update my understanding of the topography in forests I explore.
Topographical maps will probably also include landmarks that you can use to identify your position.
With a bit of practice reading topographical maps, it’s possible to read your exact position just by comparing the physical landscape with the ridge lines and valleys detailed on your map.
The more you study maps, the better you’ll get to know the terrain and prepare yourself before visiting a new location.
4. Use Big Landmarks To Track Your Location
Almost every landscape has certain defining features or landmarks that can be used to know your exact position.
Some examples of common landmarks include rivers, lakes, creeks, trails, mountains/hills, clearcuts or changes in the forest composition, and even manmade towers & rail-beds.
One of the best ways to navigate is simply getting to know these defining features so you can track your relationship to them.
Even before you go into a new area, you can learn many of the key landmarks just by looking at your topographical map.
For example: You might notice the entire landscape slopes downwards to a creek that flows east-west.
This is a great landmark because if you ever get lost, all you have to do is walk downhill and you know exactly where you are!
Other landmarks could include distant objects like a radio or cell tower, or a big mountain/cliffs that can be seen from a distance.
There are also many small-scale landmarks that you can get to know in places where you explore often.
This might include things like a particularly distinctive tree that breaks the whole pattern of the forest… or a spot where the moss gets deep and distinctive.
Even patches of blueberries or fallen trees, if they’re distinctive enough can be great landmarks you’ll use to keep track of where you are.
Landmarks give you a lot of freedom to go off trail and feel comfortable that you can always find your way back.
5. Follow The Edges of Water
Following water edges is similar to the idea of using landmarks, but this technique is so important, it really deserves it’s own section.
Water is an extremely important shaping feature of most landscapes…
And since it’s such a significant element, it really is one of your best tools for navigating with accuracy and knowing exactly where you are.
If you live in a place that has an abundance of creeks, rivers or lakes… one of the best ways to lost-proof yourself is by learning all the names of the waters in your area and how they flow through the landscape.
There’s a reason indigenous cultures around the world have names and stories about every body of water.
In addition to the cultural role those stories play for native people, it’s also an extremely effective mnemonic tool for navigation.
Water can be seen from long distances and it’s easy to find because water flows downhill (this is again why knowledge of topography gives you better navigational instincts).
Knowing the waters of your area is a great way to setup navigation rules for yourself by saying things like “As long as I don’t cross Beaver Creek, then I know exactly which forest I’m in and how to get home.”
6. Practice Your Own Mapping Skills
In addition to using maps made by professionals, there are also many benefits to drawing your own maps.
Drawing maps will not only help you get familiar with a new landscape, but this is a great way to train your brain in order to understand relationships from a bird’s eye view.
The best way to develop this skill is simply by trial and error.
You can choose a defined area of forest and test yourself on how well you can map it out.
First – Spend some time wandering around the area and look for landmarks. If there are trails, try to follow them all and see where they go.
Make note of any interesting landmarks or waterways, hills or big boulders.
Even things like old broken down vehicles, fence-lines, and ancient trees that break up the forest pattern in a distinctive way.
Next – When you get back from your wander, try to draw everything on a self-drawn map as best you can.
You’ll notice the first time you do this might not turn out so great, and that’s totally fine.
The whole point is to practice a new skill, so you’ll want to repeat this exercise multiple times.
You’ll notice that when you go to draw your map, there might be certain areas of your memory that are a bit shaky.
This tells you exactly where your blindspots are, and what you need to pay closer attention to next time.
Give yourself some clarifying questions, and go back out to investigate again.
Follow up on exactly how the trails curve and intersect at different spots.
Keep repeating this process several times until your mapping skills become more and more accurate.
If the exercise becomes too easy, it means you’re ready for a larger patch of land where you can do it all over again.
Eventually your mapping skills can become so good, you’ll be able to walk into a completely new landscape and draw it with reasonable accuracy after a single visit.
7. The General Awareness Method
One of the main reasons people get lost in the woods is simply that they aren’t paying attention.
Most people move through the forest with their eyes focused squarely on the ground 5 or 6 feet ahead of where they’re walking.
They rarely stop to look around and notice what kinds of trees & distinctive features are part of the landscape… and almost never look behind them to see where they come from.
People just have bad awareness habits in the forest.
Therefore, one of the best things you can do to really develop your navigation instincts is to be intentional about your general awareness whenever you go outside.
When you’re walking off trail, things can look very different depending on which direction you go.
You might walk a couple minutes off trail only to get turned around and suddenly you can’t remember which direction you came from.
This can all be avoided simply by staying out of your head and using your senses:
- Stop often and look around you.
- Examine each of the four directions and really look at the features of this landscape.
- Notice whether you’re going uphill or downhill.
- See if you can point to the trail.
- Can you confidently point towards the last place you stopped? If not, then you aren’t paying close attention.
If you keep your awareness tuned up, then you’ll be able to go off trail and never get lost.
8. Learn To Walk In A Straight Line
Another shocking realization for many aspiring explorers is to learn that without practice, you probably cannot walk a straight in the forest.
Because terrain in the wild is sloped with logs & rocks to go around, it’s surprisingly common for people to think they’re walking straight, when there’s actually a significant curve to their path.
This is a big danger for inexperienced people in the woods because you won’t realize you’re getting lost until it’s too late.
Most people are used to walking on concrete sidewalks where everything is perfectly laid out and defined.
If you decide to go off trail, you need to be very conscious of your surroundings and make sure you can get back to safety.
Luckily, walking a straight line in the forest is a fairly simple skill to develop.
All you have to do is line up 3 objects in a straight line with you at the center, then walk to the next object and that becomes the new center.
- Imagine Tree A, Rock B, and Tree C are all in a straight line (You’re standing at position B).
- Then you walk to Tree C, and look back at rock B (Where you were just standing).
- Tree C now becomes position B, and you choose a new point C up ahead that’s in line with the previous 2 points.
Using this method, you can bypass any optical illusions that come from the curves of the land, and walk in a perfectly straight.
Plus you have a complete record of landmarks that you can use to retrace your steps if you need to go back to where you started.
9. Progressive Navigation Skills Training
This is a really important principle…
Don’t wait until you’re lost to try and learn how to navigate.
Navigating without tools isn’t something you should wait to practice until you need it.
By the time you find yourself in a situation where you’re depending on awareness to get where you want to go, it’s already too late.
However, a bit of practice will prepare you for most situations you might find yourself in.
If there’s a particular wilderness area you’re planning to explore, try taking it in small chunks and practice all the different skills discussed in this article.
Always tell someone where you’re going and have a plan in case something goes wrong.
You can make a lot of practice on navigating without a compass or GPS even in a single day going through the mapping & awareness exercises shared here.
And always remember to test yourself in a secure, controlled environment.
10. Give Yourself The “Lost Test”
The lost test is a way of testing your ability to handle navigation challenges in a controlled environment.
First – get together with a friend and head out into an area that’s new to you.
It’s a good idea to choose somewhere with definite boundaries like a forest in-between a creek with trails on all sides.
This way if you actually do get lost, you’ll eventually hit a trail or the creek, which you can use to find your way back.
The idea here is to put yourself in a simulated lost scenario while removing the actual danger by doing it in a controlled setting.
The challenge of the “lost test” is simply to walk directly into the forest for 100 paces, then turn around and walk back to where you started.
Your friend should watch from the starting point and keep track of you from a distance.
If you find this test too easy, then you might want to pick a more challenging terrain, or add more steps.
You can come up with a contact system by using crow calls or bird calls if you get lost.
Remember to keep your awareness up and be smart about how far you push yourself.
Once you get skilled with the lost test, it will become very unlikely that you’ll ever get lost.
11. Emotional Control
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest reasons why people get lost is because they get scared.
Fear & adrenaline can be useful in a fight or flight situation, but it can also dull your senses and cause you to make rapid decisions that have unwanted consequences.
Be prepared for the emotional rush that will happen if there ever comes a day when you get a bit turned around in the forest.
The most important thing in this situation is to stay calm and remember everything we’ve talked about so far.
Even though it might feel a bit uncomfortable, the reality is you’re probably not in any real danger… just stay calm and don’t make it worse by rushing off deeper into the forest.
Many people will instinctively begin to move faster and more frantically to try and get back to the trail, but this will actually reduce your ability to see and hear and be conscious.
If you notice your heart rate is increasing, and a feeling of worry coming over you… the most important thing is to stop, just relax, and start looking around.
12. How To Recover From Being Lost
If you followed the mapping & navigation tips shared in this article you will definitely be able to recover from getting a bit lost.
Just think back to your mental maps.
- What do you know about this landscape?
- What landmarks are nearby?
- What is the overall slope and shape of this forest?
- Where is the nearest water?
- How does the trail system work in this place (both human and animal trails)?
- What trees or plant patterns were next to the trail before you walked off.
- What can you hear? (like distant highway noise)
Then before you move from this location…
- Look around at where you are.
- Notice any landmarks or distinctive vegetation.
- Then systematically explore each of the 4 directions until you recognize something.
If you suspect the trail is south, try walking south for 10 paces and see if you notice anything familiar.
Then if you realize that south probably isn’t the right direction, simply go back to where you started and try a different direction.
You can gradually expand your search in concentric circles outward, and it’s only a matter of time until you spot something you recognize.
Whatever you do, don’t become frantic because that simply will not help you and will probably make things worse.
When all else fails, it’s helpful to have some basic survival skills in your back pocket in case you need to spend the night.
Just follow these 12 tips and you will be able to navigate without a compass or GPS.
You’ll never have to worry about getting lost, and these skills will dramatically enhance the enjoyment you get from exploring nature!
Stay safe out there, and have fun!