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…

(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