Direction Without GPS – How To Instinctively Know

direction without gps

In our modern world nearly everyone has GPS in their smart phones and GPS navigation systems in their vehicles. It can be really useful technology.

But how would you know your direction without GPS? Would you be lost without a clue?

When I was young there was no GPS (Global Positioning System) for public consumers. I had no choice but to learn how to navigate in other ways.

I can remember those years ago when my dad would teach me about having a “sense of direction” and understanding / visualizing maps for navigation.

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 your 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
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?

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.

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.

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 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.

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 of 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!

Lensatic Compass, Phosphorescent

Related article:
How To Use A Watch As A Compass
Basic Map Reading (Latitude – Longitude)



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