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Survival Skills: Directions Without Compass or Maps Using Airplanes, Trees, & Ants

Joel is a history-loving hobo who travels, usually on foot, across the United States. He is always homeward bound but never quite there yet.

Getting lost in beauty can be dangerous!

Getting lost in beauty can be dangerous!

Finding Directions Without a Compass

Last year, just north of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, after successfully navigating and hiking to an abandoned quartz mine, I found myself in a beautiful part of the Roosevelt National Park mountains that was beckoning for a little more exploring. And even though I knew I was in bear and mountain lion territory, I decided to explore just a little bit further. Besides that, it was still only 9 a.m. and it wouldn’t start getting "mountain dark" until about 6 p.m. "Mountain dark" is what I call the time of day where even though daylight lasts until about 8 p.m. down on the flatlands, the shadows of the mountains can darken whole valleys to the point where it feels like nighttime. I was well within the safe zone but then I ran into a slight problem. I was lost.

I’m not quite sure how it happened. After all, I simply went up one mountain to see the view beyond it. Then, I saw a wide clear stream that seemed to disappear into the side of the opposing mountain and I went just a little bit further, to capture the beauty of it with my camera. It was, however, at that point, that I looked up at the mountain I thought I had just walked down, and realized, it didn’t quite look the same. There were actually several mountains side by side that all looked the same.

If you know normal flight paths, you have an approximate compass

If you know normal flight paths, you have an approximate compass

My Experience of Getting Lost

I took what I thought was a good guess and headed up the mountain. Wrong choice! When I got to the top, all I could see were more mountains that looked the same and looked different at the same time. Besides that, the forest trees were so tall that I couldn't (and pardon the pun) see the forest for the trees. I was lost. All I knew was that the original road I came upon was headed west and that I had taken a right off of that to the quartz quarry. Luckily, I looked up into the sky and found a solution that helped lead me out and in the right direction, It was an airplane. Actually, it was a jet. A jet that was flying from south to east, a normal flight pattern from the Denver Airport that I was familiar with. From my vantage point, it was flying away from me and climbing, meaning, I was facing east. A quick deduction told me I was following a parallel course from where I needed to be. I would have walked well into the night had I continued my current path. I made an abrupt right turn and ended up close to where I had started. It took me right to the road, not far from where my Jeep was parked.

Getting lost and using a jet contrail to get away from my predicament worked, but that's just one way of doing it and certainly not the most reliable. If I had not known the normal flight path, it would not have done me any good.

Below are some other things I could have tried, and much, much better. Maybe you can try them if you decide to get lost from time to time, like me.

More Than One Trick

Sometimes, it is better to have more than one trick up your sleeve. Not all methods are good all the time. For instance, finding your way out of a lost situation in the mountains during the day could require a totally different approach at night, in a snowstorm, or, when it's raining. In fact, sometimes it's better to use a combination of several just to confirm your results.

Ants have a tendancy to build their homes on the south side of mountains

Ants have a tendancy to build their homes on the south side of mountains

Follow the Ants

Be careful where you step, you just may be stepping on your path to successfully surviving. Look closely at your surroundings and look for bugs and ants. Ants in particular have a tendency to build their homes on the warmer, more protected side of a mountain or hill. To double check yourself, look at the other side of the mountain. If you don’t see any ant hills or burrows, than that side is North, the ant side is south.

Build Your Own Compass

The easiest way to tell north from south is with a compass. But since you're reading this, you obviously don’t have one! So here’s a simple way to make one. You will need, a bowl of water, or even a puddle of water, a leaf or a piece of paper, and a sewing needle or similar piece of metal that can be magnetized.

Magnetizing the Needle

First, let's start with the needle or thin piece of metal itself. You can magnetize it one of three different ways. The easiest way (but not likely) is to whip out your magnet and touch the positive end of the piece of metal and the negative end to the other; your needle or small piece of metal will now be magnetized.

The second way of magnetizing your needle is with a battery (preferably a 9V). To magnetize the needle, press one of the needles against one of the terminals, and then using a small piece of wire on the other terminal, touch the other end of the needle; it will now be magnetized.

The third way, if you don’t have a magnet or a battery, is by taking a small scrap of clothing and rubbing quickly it on your needle or thin piece of metal from one end to the other about 100 times. Your needle will now be magnetized.

A simple sewing needle makes a great compass

A simple sewing needle makes a great compass

The Compass

And now for the magic! You will need your magnetized needle a bowl or puddle of water, and a leaf (or piece of paper will work also). Place the needle on top and in the center of the leaf and simply and carefully place the combination on top of the water being careful not to spill the needle. Let the leaf and needle settle and watch it. Slowly it will turn with the sharp end pointing north. You now have your compass.

At this point, I usually place a stone marker in the direction of north for future travels. It serves also as a landmark stone to identify the direction you went when combined with a second marker stone.



Trees are great compasses in more than one way and they are more than than happy to tell you which way is North. The major thing to consider, however, is the information they good will change depending on which side of the equator you are on. I will give you the “above” side information; if by chance you are on the “below” side, the methods will be completely the opposite.

The side of a tree that has more branches is North.

The side of a tree that has more branches is North.

Trunk and Branches

Stand facing a tree from any direction. Now look at the trunk and the branches going up. Which side of the tree has more branches? The side that has more branches is North Check out several trees in the same general area as some trees don't play by the rules.

The next things that trees do to help us tell direction, is bear their fruit more heavily on one side than the other. The side that bears more fruit is South. Pretty cool, right?

And finally, the one that many people know already, is which side is moss growing on? The north.

North is the shadier, less sunny side.

Sun Dial Compass

Now this method is a little more complicated and actually takes a couple of hours to bring to fruition, but it is very accurate and will give you East and West directions. It will require two sticks about three to four foot long, two stones, has to be started before noon, and be in a mostly clear space where the sun will illuminate an area approximately twelve feet in diameter

To begin, place one of the sticks securely in the ground and look at where the shadow is that is projected from the sun hitting the stick. Using the second stick lay it on the shadow produced and place a stone at the edge of it. Next, using the second stick as a measuring rod, draw a circle around the center stick.

And now, wait several hours until the sun passes overhead and the shadow begins to grow in length. Watch carefully as the shadow gets closer and closer to the circle you drew on the ground earlier. At the point when the shadow touches the circle, place a stone at that point.

The last step will be to draw a straight line between the two rocks. This line is what all the work was about. You now have your compass that points East and West. West will be the second rock you placed, East the first.

Demonstration Video

Here's a great demonstration video that gives a practical demonstration of the method described above with a bit of a different approach. Simple but effective.

How to Find Direction Without a Compass

Tips and Other Bits

  • Snow melts quicker on the south side of a mountain or roof
  • When lost, make a make shift map noting key points along the way
  • When in doubt, follow a stream or creek, they usually lead to civilization
  • Vegetation grows heaviest on the South side of a mountain
  • Leave signs and markers along the way. This will give a search party good reference or for yourself if you get turned around.
  • When hiking always carry a survival kit, a battery, a paperclip, matches,etc.
  • Never get lost.

Closing Thoughts

Please feel free to leave comments, suggestions, or other survival and finding direction ideas. Thanks for reading.

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.

© 2016 Joel Diffendarfer