To find your direction at night, you only need to find the ‘North Star’ (Polaris). It will be in the direction of “true north”.
Remember, ‘magnetic north’ may be offset by several or more degrees, depending on your location (magnetic declination). But that’s really not an issue for general direction finding at night using the North Star for guidance. With that said, maps are aligned to True North.
Note, the North Star is NOT the brightest star at night (many people assume that it is). The North Star is actually of average brightness.
Find The Big Dipper
If you can find the Big Dipper in the night sky (which is arguably the easiest constellation to identify), here’s how to use it to find the North Star and the direction of True North…
1. Locate the Big Dipper.
2. Locate the two stars at the front edge of the cup.
3. An imaginary line between these two stars, extended out about 5 times from the Big Dipper’s cup will point towards the North Star (Polaris). It also happens to be the last star located at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle (though the ‘Little Dipper’ itself is dim and often difficult to see).
As you face the North Star, you are facing true north.
Here’s why it works (using the North Star to find ‘north’)
Because the axis of Earth is pointed almost directly at Polaris. Throughout the night, if you observed Polaris at different times, you’ll see that it remains in the same spot (year-round). All of the other stars will actually appear to be circling around it over time…
If you were standing at the North Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead!
If you were on the equator, the North Star would appear nearly on the horizon. So, this means that its angle up into the sky will correspond to your latitude.
[ Read: Basic Map Reading – Latitude & Longitude ]
Note: The position of the Big Dipper around the North Star depends on the time of night and the month of the year. The following image illustrates this…
The Big Dipper (Seasons)
Other ways to find the North Star at night
The constellation ‘Cassiopeia’ is located on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. It is a ‘W’ shaped constellation with 5 stars.
The following illustration shows Cassiopeia with relation to the North Star.
Another way. Use the moon. It’s phase. East-West or North-South at night:
[ Read: Find Your Direction By The Moon ]