Want to find North, South, East or West?
Answering the questions, "Where is North?" and "Where is South?" are pretty easy when you know what to do. I'm going to show you how to find your direction no matter where you are on the planet and no matter whether it's day or night.
Here are five simple techniques you can use that don't require a shop bought compass.
1. Become Your Own Compass
This first technique is the most basic and will give you a general idea of directions. Simply identify where the sun comes up and sets in your location. The sun always rises in the East and sets in the West.
If you align your body with your arms outstretched (like a cross), so that your right arm is pointing east and your left is pointing west, then you will be facing north. The back of your head will be facing south.
2. Another Way of Using the Sun to Find North
If you have a watch with hands, rather than a digital one, then you can use the sun to give you a slightly more accurate sense of direction than the method above.
Lay your watch down on a flat surface. Point the hour hand towards the sun. Find the midpoint between the hour hand and 12 (on the left hand side of the watch). This midpoint is south. In a straight line directly opposite is north. Watch the video on the right if you prefer to see how it's done rather than read instructions.
3. Moss can show you the way
If you're in a wooded area and it's an overcast day then you can use this very simple technique to get a good general idea of directions.
Simply find a tree that has moss growing on it. Moss nearly always grows on the north side of a tree (in the northern hemisphere) because that is the dampest. If you are standing looking at the side of the tree with moss on it then you are facing south. If you turn your back to the moss then you are facing north.
How to Use Moss to Navigate
4. Finding Directions At Night
Where is North?
If you're in the northern hemisphere (which is above the equator) then on a clear night you can find the north star or Polaris to get a bearing on directions.
Simply find the Big Dipper, which is also called the Plough, the great bear or Ursa Major.
Look for the two stars which make up the farthest edge of the scoop. Follow the direction of these stars up and the first star you come to is Polaris.
If you walk in the direction of this star you will be walking towards the north pole.
If you're interested in the science of why Polaris always points north read here.
Where is South?
If you're in the southern hemisphere it's a little trickier to find your direction at night because the north star will not be visible to you. The southern hemisphere does have a star that points south but it is nowhere near as bright as the north star and can be quite hard to see with the naked eye. It's called polaris australis or sigma octantis.
The best way of finding it is by using the brighter, southern cross. Follow the line from the apex to the nadir of the cross (as if you were looking at it upright). You will need to get the correct orientation of the cross depending on the time of year. See below.
5. Make a Simple Compass
For this last method you will a few things that most people will have laying around at home.
- Aluminium Foil
- A Needle
- A magnet
- A Glass of Water
Place the needle on the magnet for 5 -10 minutes to magnetise it. Then cut a small piece of aluminium foil to lay the needle onto. Place the needle onto the foil and float on top of the water in the glass. The point of the needle will point south in the northern hemisphere and north in the southern hemisphere.
If you're out in the wilds and need to make a compass you can use the same basic technique. You just need some metal, wool or silk and a puddle. Rub the metal with the wool to magentise it and place it in a puddle. If the metal is too heavy to float then you can place it on a leaf. Here's a short description of how to do it.
So there we are! 5 simple ways to answer the questions "Where is North? and "Where is South?" Never get lost again!
Robert Morgan from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Gilbert AZ on June 17, 2015:
Thanks... I really appreciate your writing this. I am directionally handicapped and you just made life easier. Blessings
Roelof on November 07, 2013:
Method 2 does not work in the Southern hemisphere.
Instead you point 12 at the sun (just use a pin at 12 and cast a show through 12 and 6. Then halfway between 12 and the hour hand is North.
For the Southern Cross, lengthen the long axis 4.5 times in the direction of the cross foot. At that point, drop a "plumb line" down to earth. That's south.
Have fun :)
Susana Smith (author) from UK on July 24, 2010:
Good point MsLizzy - I'll add that in!
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 23, 2010:
Actually, I'm thinking you must live in the Southern Hemisphere, because in the Northern Hemisphere, the moss thing is exactly opposite. It grows best on the north sides of trees, because the south side is too hot from the sun to allow sufficient water for growth of the moss, which is a water-loving plant.
While this is, in fact, a useful tip, it is important to specify the hemisphere to which you refer.
Great hub, though, and the watch trick is pretty neat. Most people don't know that. ;-)
sheila kiper on March 10, 2010:
people need to learn these thing you could be going the wrong way on the high way, or go out in to the woods and get lost and end up driving hundred miles out of the way,i'm glad i learn this when i was very young on my own,and i pass this on to my kids as will.
Pagoni on January 08, 2010:
I am a little confused by your directions. I was taught that in the Northern Hemisphere, moss typically, but not always, grows on the north side of the tree. My understanding tot his is because moss does not do well in sunlight.
Pam_Cakes from Chicago on October 29, 2009:
So awesome! The fact that moss only grows on the South side of the tree will stay with me forever. Thanks for the hub!
ram_m from India on October 11, 2009:
a really informative hub
Susana Smith (author) from UK on September 05, 2009:
Thanks for the comments :) I'm glad you found this hub useful, intersting, informative and memory jogging! I think it's really important that we retain this kind of knowledge and pass it on to our children - you never know when you will need it!
Caymanhost on September 04, 2009:
What a great little Hub Susana. I was lucky enough to have a father who instilled most of these lessons in me as a child, but it is surprising how much you forget as the years pile up.
Not just educational, it raised some great memories of my dad and why he is so good at being a father :-) When I pass these on to my son, he will think his dad is smart too, at least for a short while!
MistHaven from New Jersey on September 04, 2009:
That way to find where North is using a watch is pretty clever. I'm surprised I never thought about that before.
elisabethkcmo from Just East of Oz on September 04, 2009:
great hub, I need this. Now if I can just keep from getting left and right mixed up, (yes, I do that occasionally)
I'll be good to go!
thanks for the info, Susana.
\Brenda Scully on September 04, 2009:
This was a really good and informative hub
Pete Maida on September 04, 2009:
Great tips. These are the kind of things that people should remember.