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Land Navigation Without a Compass or GPS

Alternative Land Navigation Techniques

Catch features. Attack points. Handrails. Aiming off. Those are just some of the terms and techniques used when practicing alternative navigation.

When I say "alternative," I'm referring to navigating without the use of instruments, like a compass, GPS or altimeter.

I'm talking about navigating with no more than a map and a mental grab bag of tools, including knowing how to read terrain and compare that terrain to features on a topographic map, using terrain to your advantage, and using the sun, moon and stars to find your way.

These and other methods of utilizing natural and man-made elements are a valuable backup to gadgets, which can malfunction or get lost or broken in the field. I use these types of alternative navigation myself, whether I'm just out hiking for fun or in the backcountry as a Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteer.

In SAR, we like our gadgetry, but sometimes we find that backcountry travelers rely on it to the exclusion of other non-battery-powered, unbreakable techniques and a "feel" for their surroundings. Their GPS suddenly dies in the field and, oops, they didn't bring a compass. And they haven't been paying attention to the map or the terrain. Next thing they know, it's getting dark and cold, and they're stuck while waiting for help to arrive. And SAR folks often rely too much on gadgets themselves, which is why we practice "alternative navigation" on an ongoing basis.

So, here I'd like to introduce some of the basic concepts that fall under the alternative navigation heading as well as provide some additional resources for learning more about these skills.

See The Essential Wilderness Navigator: How to Find Your Way in the Great Outdoors, Second Edition

Land Navigation

Land Navigation

You Map Is a Must-Have Tool for Navigation

If for some reason you just had to choose one navigational tool to take with you into the backcountry, choose a map. Preferably, a topographic map.

A topographic map differs from a planometric map primarily in that a topographic shows the shape of the terrain with the use of contour lines, though it will still show planometric features such as roads, towns, urban areas, and bodies of water. Planometric maps are two-dimensional representations that don't show the shape of the terrain at all. (One example of a planometric map is a road map as you'd see in a road atlas. Forest Service maps are also planometric.)

Learning how to read a topographic map takes a little practice but overall is fairly easy once you get the hang of interpreting the contour lines and other symbols. For more information, see:

Of course, two or more navigational tools are better than one, and most weigh no more than a few ounces, so why not bring along a compass and maybe a GPS as well? But a map really should be the basis of that system.

You can order topographic and other types of maps and more from the USGS Store

Catch Features and the Safety Baseline Navigation Technique

One way to find your way without a compass or GPS

A catch feature -- or baseline -- is any type of natural or man-made feature that lies across your route, such as a road, powerline or river, which can be effectively used to tell you you've gone too far and missed your destination.

In this photo, the power line (and "road" or swath beneath it) is an effective catch feature.

Before heading into the backcountry, look at your map and select one or more long catch features relatively near the area in which you'll be traveling. Important: These features should be easy to identify, both on your map and in the field, and should be obvious even at night. A catch feature at a distance of 2 miles from your area of travel is reasonable, while 20 miles away is of little value.

Select a feature that's long enough that it will "catch you" even if you're slightly off in direction, meaning, if the catch feature is to the south and you hike southwest, you should still run into it. Make a note of or, better yet, memorize the direction and rough distance to the catch feature/s in case your map is lost.

The best scenario is if you have two catch features, or baselines, that intersect -- such as two roads, or a road and a power line or creek -- in order to contain you in a smaller area. If you get lost, travel in the direction of a catch feature until you reach it and can re-orient yourself and get to safety. This method of containing yourself in an area with catch features and using one or more to navigate to a point is called the Safety Baseline Technique.

A powerline can be a safety baseline or catch feature.

A powerline can be a safety baseline or catch feature.

Another Handy Technique: Using "Handrails" in Navigation

A guide to follow to your destination

A handrail is a feature along your route, such as a stream or canyon, that you can travel next to, or at least keep in sight as you move along to maintain direction. A handrail can be a natural feature or it might be something man-made, like a powerline.

Basically, if you find something that's going where you want to go, follow it. You might need to leave the handrail and contour around to your destination.

Know for sure which way to turn

The technique of aiming off means creating a purposeful error to one side, so you'll know for sure which way to turn to get to your destination. For example, you want to return to your vehicle, which is parked on a Forest Service road. The road is a catch feature, clearly identifiable on your map, and you know which direction to travel to reach the road. But you don't want to get to the road and not know whether your car is to your left or your right, so don't try to head directly towards the vehicle.

Perhaps you know that if you travel to the northwest instead of due north, you'll definitely have to walk to the east -- to your right -- to get to your vehicle. You'll want to make the error significant enough that there's no doubt about which way to turn. This may mean some extra walking perhaps, but it can be a lot less than if you try to aim directly for that vehicle, then get to the road and spend an hour walking in the wrong direction.

Other Terrain-Based Methods of Alternative Navigation

You'll just need your eyes, your brain, and your map

Using check points:

Check points are recognizable features along your route which allow you to stop and check your location, such as a pond, a fence, a turn in a road, or maybe the point where a power line crosses a road. If you can pinpoint on the map what you see in the field, it can be used as a check point.

Using an attack point:

An attack point is a location from which to begin micro-navigating to a destination. An example of an attack point would be the clearly identifiable intersection of a creek and a power line. You should be able to recognize the attack point not only on your map but in the field and have no doubt you are at that point. This point should be close to your destination to be effective. Once you reach the attack point, you will want to use as many methods of navigation as you have in your arsenal to travel to your destination, such as pacing off the distance (see below), continuously checking your map and comparing terrain changes to topographic features, and so forth.


This means using features -- particularly catch features and handrails, such as streams, roads, powerlines or cliff edges -- to funnel you to a point. This point, or intersection of two features, can become an attack point from which to micro-navigate to a destination, such as a campsite.

Pacing for Distance

Another "tool" for land navigation

Imagine it's dark, and it's snowing heavily. And the terrain is flat, without any distinct features to guide you. In a case like that, it's helpful to have some indicator of how far you've traveled. One method is using time, though you'll have to know your general speed--ie. 2 miles per hour--and account for any stops.

Another method, one preferred by my Search & Rescue teammates, is determining distance traveled by pacing. Here's how it works:

Measure your pace by counting each time you put a foot down on the same side, so choose your left or right before you begin. Measure a distance of 100 feet and walk it several times, counting how many paces it takes you to cover that distance. Take an average of these trials. Then multiply your 100-foot pace by 52.8 (one one-hundredth of a mile). The result will be the number of steps you take with one foot in a mile ... or your pace. (It's fine to round off for ease of use in the field.)

Most people will walk about 1,000 paces per mile, though pace will vary with terrain. Pacing is not an exact science, of course, but figuring out your approximate pacing between two points on a map and then keeping track as you move in the field will give you a good estimate of when you're getting close to your destination. It can be helpful to use beads or to pick up a pebble, let's say, each time you get to 100, to help keep count. (Remember, if you move side-to-side, don't count paces.)

Pacing for Land Navigation. Here, you see students in an alt. nav. class determining their pacing by averaging their results from a 100-foot distance.

Pacing for Land Navigation. Here, you see students in an alt. nav. class determining their pacing by averaging their results from a 100-foot distance.

One can keep track of pacing in a number of ways, including using "ranger beads" on a string (or compass lanyard), moving one over for every 100 paces. Similarly, you can pick up a pebble or other small object for every 100 paces. You can write it down or tell a partner, "That's 100 ... that's 200." Whatever helps you remember where you're at if you stop for a bit or get distracted.

Remember that paces will generally widen when going gradually downhill and shorten when going uphill. Pacing works best over "average" terrain.

Land navigation with the sun. Is it a bird? A plane? An alien invasion?

Land navigation with the sun. Is it a bird? A plane? An alien invasion?

No, these people are in an alternative navigation class, learning how to determine direction by the position of the sun. Here's how it works:

From the side of one's hand to a comfortably extended thumb is just about 15 degrees -- or 1 hour of time -- in the sky. If you know the approximate time that the sun will be at its highest point for the day in your area, then you can use this system to find due (that is, true not magnetic) south and, from there, the other cardinal points (East, West, North).

  • To find solar noon in your area, plug in your information at and print your solar noon calendar.

Here in Flagstaff, Arizona, the sun never crosses the North/South meridian. It is at its highest point anywhere between 12:15 and 12:40pm, depending on the time of year, so we can use 12:30 as a general rule when determining direction by the sun.

Based on the Flagstaff example, if it's 11:30 (or close to it) in the morning, we can measure one hand width to the right to find due south. By the same token if it's 2:30pm, we'd measure two hand widths to the left to find due south. Then, we can orient our map to south (making sure map north -- the top of the map -- is facing away from the sun). Then, place a straight object on the map from your current location towards your destination, and walk in that direction.

Land navigation with the sun. Here, you see the students orienting their maps to due south, then placing pens on the map to determine direction of travel to their desired destinations.

Land navigation with the sun. Here, you see the students orienting their maps to due south, then placing pens on the map to determine direction of travel to their desired destinations.

For a time, you can keep the sun at the same location relative to your body. Since the sun moves, however, using other types of alternative navigation (terrain features, for example) will be necessary to keep on course. One can also readjust by using the sun and time again no more than one hour later.

The key to this navigation method is that you must know your current location on the map.

More on the Sun

When it comes to celestial navigation, knowing how to locate the North star, or Polaris, is a good place start. From there, as long as you know the cardinal points on a compass -- North (0 or 360 degrees), East (90 degrees), South (180 degrees) and West (270 degrees) -- you can orient your map and yourself and travel in any direction, in part by keeping Polaris in a certain location relative to your body.

You might select another bright star in the direction you need to go and aim for it; however, all stars but Polaris move throughout the night, so Polaris is the only one you can rely on for direction for a long period of time.

Navigating by the stars

Navigating by the stars

Finding the North Star Using the Big Dipper

And a few other constellations while you're at it

More on the Stars

Learning to locate Polaris is one thing, but celestial navigation is a subject and skill one can really dive into. Here is a site I came across that might help you get started:

    Read "Navigating By The Stars" on (You may have to scroll down to see the beginning of the article.)

Celestial Navigation Tricks and Tips

A 9-minute video showing several methods for finding direction using the stars and time.

Navigating by the moon is tricky and really provides only a rough determination of direction unless you're really an expert, meaning the moon roughly rises in the East, and sets roughly in the West. In fact, the rise and set directions for the moon can be up to 28.5 degrees to either side of true East and West.

Accurate navigation using the Moon is impractical for most of us, and even a guesstimate of direction requires knowing the times of moonrise and moonset. Not to mention that, on most nights, there will be a period when the Moon will not be visible (or the sun for that matter).

However, if the moon rises before the sun has set, the illuminated side will be roughly to the west. If the moon rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be generally to the east.

Navigating by the moon

Navigating by the moon

No Map? And No Gadgets Either?

There are still ways to figure things out. This text explains how to navigate by observing birds, animals, weather patterns, vegetation, shifting sands, patterns of snow fields, and the positions of the sun, moon and stars.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Questions Or Comments About Alternative Navigation?

UncleBubba on September 25, 2013:

Useful lense! Land navigation without modern navigation tools is tough...I've tried to navigate myself through the bush without compass and it is very very easy to get off track. It's harder than you would think!

Aladdins Cave from Melbourne, Australia on September 07, 2013:

Great Lens and info. Would have been useful last time I was going in circles in the Dessert.

Cheers from DOWNUNDER

Doc_Holliday on September 05, 2013:

All very good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Being able to make your own compass is also good, especially in bare desert or in the rain and in dense bush with no features. Being able to follow birds etc as per the Gatty book is, in my humble opion, essential. How else would Columbus have discovered America?

Stanley Green from Czech Republic on September 02, 2013:

Really great lens! I'm a survival-orientated guy and this are useful hints. Thanks!

EzLoanLookUp LM on August 30, 2013:

Very good lens. Thanks for the info

NuttSoRuff on August 25, 2013:

Very informative - thank you!

Northerntrials on August 25, 2013:

I thinking learning how to read a map and use a compass is one of those life skill's everyone should have. It makes uses a GPS easier if it you understand that.

PatrickHayes76 on August 25, 2013:

Really interesting lens and information. Thank you for sharing!

mina009 on August 23, 2013:

Great information!

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on January 26, 2013:

@anonymous: Hi, Jon. That's a good question and a whole article in and of itself! The best I can do right now is direct you to this how-to page, which is about as simple as it gets to do this as far as I've seen: (You might have to copy that URL and paste it in your browser). It's an article called, "DETERMINING LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE

OBSERVING ONLY ONE STAR" and you'll need several simple "tools" and to know some other info, like the number of hours shift between your watch and the universal time and the catalogued position of the star you will observe (right ascension, declination). If you try it, let me know how it goes. They say the error is less than 1 degree!

anonymous on January 26, 2013:

how can I find my approximate latitude and longitude position using the stars, without any instruments?

anonymous on September 30, 2012:

I've been involved with SAR for 16 years now. Some of these articles are very good. In fact, I'm reading them as a refresher. I just wish there was a dedicated "print" button, so I wouldn't have to waste so much paper and expensive ink.

anonymous on July 05, 2011:

Good article again.

JJGJJG on April 19, 2011:

landnav without a gps has become a lost art. excellent information. thanks

dwnovacek on March 30, 2011:

Very interesting and well-presented information. I learned a lot! Blessed by the Science neighborhood Squid angel!

Demaw on November 08, 2010:

Land navigation seems a good exercise in paying attention to where you are, and not day dreaming which could easily get you lost.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on September 24, 2010:

@aaronjconley: I'm sure that's a nice gadget for using in one's car, but the point of this particular article is navigation WITHOUT a GPS. I realize this post was an attempt at spam, but the HTML has been stripped out of the text link, so... sorry.

aaronjconley on September 24, 2010:

nüvi 855 not only tells you where to turn but listens to your spoken commands. With nüvi's innovative speech recognition, you safely control nüvi's interface with your voice--allowing you to keep both hands on the wheel. Simply press the button on the remote (which attaches to the steering wheel) to activate speech recognition and begin speaking menu options. nüvi even recognizes shortcut phrases for popular functions. Tell nüvi "Find Address" and speak an address to start navigating. Vehicle GPS

anonymous on September 12, 2010:

I've been thinking about doing a lens on land navigation, because so many people get lost and turned around. Thankfully there is usually a happy ending because of search and rescue teams. Still, just look at a map and compass, or nature and landmarks. Its needless to spend at night getting bit up by mosquitoes or worse. - Good lens Deb!

WritingforYourW on March 22, 2010:

I try not to go places I'll get lost, but these are some fun tips. Gonna have to remember them for story writing purposes. :)

zautoseexer on November 26, 2009:

There's a software call "GPS Trackmaker" helps us mark point to plot map for GPS

JohnsInk on October 18, 2009:

Great collection of lenses you have.

Sojourn on August 05, 2009:

Umm...I think I'd do best with a car....and a cell phone....parked outside of Starbucks. :) You do an excellent job with the technical lenses in your field. Very helpful!

Mihaela Vrban from Croatia on May 12, 2009:

Nice resource for newbies in orientation. Blessed by an Angel! :)

ctavias0ffering1 on May 12, 2009:

Excellent lens 5*

cjsysreform on May 12, 2009:

I never even thought about the possibility of navigating by the moon. That's so cool (but obviously very difficult). Great images and videos on this lens! I learned stuff.

religions7 on May 11, 2009:

Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

Bambi Watson on May 11, 2009:

excellent info, great lens...I do a lot of hiking near the upper St. Croix River, so the tips will be helpful 5*

Rachel Field on May 11, 2009:

Great lens! I rarely leave my house but I love this stuff! 5*