A Sense Of Direction Without GPS – How To Instinctively Know

In our modern world, nearly everyone has GPS (Global Positioning System) built-in to their smart phones and navigation systems in their vehicles. It is really useful technology! However, I wonder how many people these days have a ‘sense of direction’ without GPS…

When I was young there was no GPS for public consumers. I had no choice but to learn how to navigate in other ways. To read maps. Having a sense of direction. Visualizing the map in your head while you travel. Remember the days of written directions?

A Sense of Direction Without GPS

Today more than ever, few people seem to have a natural sense of direction. If you took their GPS enabled phone away or didn’t let them look at the GPS in their vehicle, they would have little idea of north, south, east, or west.

Having a sense of direction is a very important fundamental attribute for navigation without GPS. So how do you know which way you’re facing, or where you’re going?

It’s a learned technique which may involve a number of observations.

1. The Sun
2. The lay of the land, landmarks
3. Familiarization with a map

Use the sun to know your direction without GPS

You do know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, right? Well, more accurately stated, it depends on the season.

While the sun may not rise exactly in the east (dependent upon season and your location), it’s close enough to give you a fairly good idea of your orientation. At my latitude, during the summer the sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest (a big arc). Although during the winter, the sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest (a small arc).

The earlier in the morning the easier to know where east is, because the sun is lower to the horizon.

The hours around 12 noon are a bit more difficult during the summer months because the sun is nearly directly overhead. However during the winter the sun is closer to the horizon so you know that it’s somewhere midway between east and west (south!).

Later in the day it becomes fairly easy again because the sun is lowering towards the horizon in the west.

Even during partially cloudy days you will likely be able to identify where the sun is located in the sky and use this technique.

The more you practice this, the more it will become instinctive. After a while you won’t even have to think much about it. You will just know what direction you’re going so long as you can see the sun.

Direction without GPS: the ‘lay of the land’

What I mean by this is to simply know, or have an idea of the geography of the area you’re in.

I would suspect that even in the location where people live, many are not able to visualize the lay of the land in their own region.

Getting a sense for the lay of the land is multifaceted. It includes visualizing the roads network and 3D topography of the land itself. Putting it altogether in your head…

The best way to begin to understand the lay of the land is to simply look at a map. Again, most people don’t use maps anymore. And a GPS unit is not typically adequate to fully understand the topography from a wide and effective overview vantage point. Detail is lost as you zoom out.

Direction without GPS: Maps

I suggest two things. A road map and a topographical map.

Many road atlas maps are drawn onto a topographical map (some better than others) giving you a sense of where hills, valleys, and mountains are located.

[ Read: Road Atlas Map for each state ]

For even finer detail you might acquire US Geological Survey topo maps. However for the sake of general sense of direction and lay of the land, any map with roads and 3D features will be good.

It will take some study of these maps as you correlate roads and map features with what you’re actually observing in the real world. For example as you look ‘over there’ and see that mountain range, look at the map and identify where it is. Also identify what direction it is from your location.

After awhile you will imprint in your brain a general idea of the ‘lay of the land’ which will help your sense of direction without GPS.

I certainly recommend that you become very familiar with your own region where you live. You should get to the point where you can visualize a road map and topographical features in your head for the area where you live.

Now couple this ability with knowing your direction based on the sun, and you will have a pretty good idea of where you are, or where you’re going.

Nowadays, people don’t even have to think – they just use GPS. Unfortunately this eliminates the requirement to “remember” or imprint a map in your brain. It eliminates the advantage to knowing the lay of the land. And it doesn’t require that you have a sense of direction.

Don’t let a GPS dumb you down. It’s good preparedness to know your direction without GPS!

A few comments from Modern Survival Blog readers:

When I was I kid, I had a great Scoutmaster who always taught us to ‘find north’ the minute we stepped out of a vehicle to do a hike.

2nd step was to locate the ‘major landmarks’ in relationship to the vehicle and north. He would also stop us every 1/2 mile or so along a trail and take a poll among the group, ‘where is the vehicle?’, ‘Where is north?’.

By this method he trained us all to constantly mentally mark our position. Occasionally he would deliberately get us off the trail and ‘turned around’, then quiz us. that was a great training experience. I want to thank my old Scoutmaster right now for doing this, it was a great gift.

~ Minerjim

I use trees. Find a tree in an open area. Branches on the north side are not as thick and grow more vertically.

Branches on the south side are more horizontal and with thicker growth. Try it. Just walk around a suitable tree to see what I’m talking about.

~ Paleao

I can navigate the backwoods with the best of them. Finding North? No problem. I’ve never felt helpless in the back country.

Getting separated from the wife in a Super Wal-Mart, now that’s scary.

~ Dennis

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten phone calls saying “I can see your horses, but not your house.” That’s mainly because I don’t have horses, and their GPS took them to a pasture a mile from my house.

~ Ozarks Tom

Some years ago, when I was in the Army, we had occasion to take a group to the National Training Center (NTC) at Ft. Irwin, just above Twenty-Nine Palms. As part of my job, we were getting maps ready for the various leadership positions/officers, so I had reason and occasion to handle them a good bit.

Fast-forward a couple of months; we were at NTC and I had been riding inside a closed truck for several hours (asleep). We stopped, I got out with everybody else to stretch my legs and drain radiators at about 2 a.m. My boss called me over and asked me if I knew where I was. I stepped over to the hood of the truck and oriented the map by turning it 180° after looking at the night sky. And I put my finger on it. I said, ”Right about here.” I was about 1 klick off.

I didn’t tell him, when he asked me I how I did that, but I will tell this forum. NTC is basically flat, with a central valley running east and west. There are three towns around it, putting light stains on the night sky, one to the north and centrally located. The other two are located to either side on the east and west; and one is on the north side of that valley, the other is on the south. By figuring out which way was north, and looking at the glow of city lights against the sides of my horizon where we were parked in that valley, I was able to make a pretty good guess as to where we were located on that map despite never having been to NTC before, and absolutely bumfuzzle my Colonel. That’s just one trick, and I am not a one-trick pony.

~ Papa Smurf

Here’s a suggestion… a simple button compass – doesn’t have to be anything real fancy…

BUTTON COMPASS
(view on amzn)

[ Read:

How To Use A Watch As A Compass

Basic Map Reading (Latitude – Longitude)

Find North At Night By The Star – Polaris

13 Comments

  1. a good compass with maps are crucial to navigation if you find yourself outside of a known area. usgs topo and road maps are important. west of the Rockies you can see where you are going days before you get there. not so much in the east. maps will also help to avoid large population areas and maybe skirt around them if necessary, depending on the scenario.
    if lost find anyone. if the stuff has gone down avoid people like the plague. i have a Suunto M-3 Nh Compass that i really like, and some others.

  2. The compass and my watch are my security blanket when navigating in heavy fog, smoke and falling snow. In addition to hiking, I also travelled by canoe and kayak. When on a large body of water or hiking in sand dunes, ash covered landscape or snow fields, I like having the compass with frequent checks to ensure that I am walking or paddling in a relatively straight direction. I thought I was really good at finding my way around after working in mapping department of the Los Padres National Forest. Spend a day or night out in the fog trying to go from point A to point B using a compass keeps me humble about my abilities. GPS? I am an old guy that was doing this work before Garmin came on the scene. On one fire north of Los Angeles, I was plucked out of my fire crew to be a line scout because I updated that section of the topo map several years before. (I am rusty at it now but look up: Township and Range system of finding something on a topo map). Knowing my luck, the batteries on the GPS would die. I still have a Suunto Forester compass in my possibles bag along with orange flagging tape. (no batteries required). When on a public road, I use the odometer and milepost markers for navigation rather than my watch.

  3. If you do not plan on navigating in a smokey, snow-covered or foggy landscape, you may feel some sense of security in dropping a cheap compass in your go-bag. I chose to replace my inexpensive compass in my possibles bag after my first season in the Park Service where I had to travel in falling snow, wildfire smoke and thick fog in order to find people, tie in fire crews and to simply get back home. The Suunto Forester was less than $50 so it seemed like it was wise for me to upgrade when I went to town.

  4. Over the years I have noticed that most people “zone out” while travelling unless they are the driver or the leader of the group going some place. Part of the trick to training folks ( especially young’-ins) is to get them to “get their head on a swivel” and constantly observe. Making them show you where they are on map is also key, and really gets them thinking. ( how do you think underground miners learn to “know” where they are underground? No sun, no compass, no major landmarks). Just food for thought. I think that teaching this skill to our kids and Grands is one of the most basic, but most important skills they should know.

    1. Minerjim, when taking the grands back home (south) after their summer visit we encountered an interesting traffic pattern. My 11-year-old granddaughter pulls out her phone and then proceeds to tell me there’s an accident a couple miles up the road and our traffic will be slowed down shortly…. And she even told me how long our traffic would be slowed down for. Apparently, there is an app for that. But stick these kids in the woods and they have a good sense of direction.

  5. Either that or get on a horse that knows his directions.
    The better half and I were trail riding with horses. Had been decades since I road the trails with my parents. The trail ended.
    I had a pretty good sense on where we were and which direction to head back to camp.
    I just gave my horse his head, up/down hills, over logs, thru up to belly high on a horse ferns.
    The better half asks, where the ….. are we? It’s getting dark.
    I have a general direction, but he seems to know where we should go. Sure enough 20 minutes later he hit an orv trail, he knew what direction to follow, then the surrounding areas became vaguely familiar.

    If you’re a smart one, pack a compass, horses are just too damned heavy.

  6. I would very much like to take “Brandon” out to a place I know in the mountains.

  7. Game trails usually lead to water but you may also meet the occasional bear. You will not be any closer to civilization, but these days that could be a plus.

  8. i posted this on another article but i think it applies here as well.
    if its cloudy or overcast and you have no navigation tools, always go downhill and try to find a water source and then follow that, (the water will come in handy as well). a stream, creek or river will always lead to a town, house or road eventually.

  9. I’ve spent my whole life wandering the woods in North Idaho. The woods are a pretty big place up here, and a lot of people get lost or come out miles from where they should. Ever since I was a kid, I always carried a simple compass with me, and had to use it more than a few times, even though I knew the woods fairly well. I use the sun a lot for direction, and the trees as stated above. Only one time I thought I was truly lost, but finally found my way out. Believe me, it was extremely scarey and un-nerving. And by the way, I also carry a second compass in my pack, or in a different pocket or something, in case I lose the first one. Above all, keep your cool and don’t panic if lost.

  10. – My Suunto compass was ‘borrowed’ by little sister for her son and a Scout trip some time back (the boy in question is now a SEAL) and I never saw it again. I still keep a Cammenga and I have a button compass as a backup, along with a Casio watch which is very accurate. I get by. And, I do have to agree with Joe c., horses are way too heavy, but they do work.
    – Papa S.

  11. I’ve found most people under 30 aren’t able to orient a map. Take a map and lay it flat and place your compass in the origin along the north line. Turn the map until the compass north needle lines both on the compass and the north line on the compass rose in the maps origin. Now your map is oriented. You can also do this with landmarks, such as roads, rivers, buildings and streams. Also, most rivers run north and south, while most streams run east and west. As well as highways, odd numbered highways run typically north and south, while even numbers run east and west.

  12. Big John
    one addition, declination, where I live North (mag) and North (true) are way different, in one case while in search for a downed ww2 fighter, I found it off by about a mile! Easy way, the top of the map is oriented in true North.

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