How To Find North At Night And Why It Works

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.

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:

1. Plainsmedic says:

Good stuff Ken. My grandfather taught me this as a child. My grandchildren all know it now. Use the sun and the shadows it makes during the day and the stars at night. Compasses are great, but ya don’t need one for general directions. It’s amazing the number of adults that don’t know their directions. You know, turn south and then go ….. east….. Adults just look at you and ask about left or right.
For newbies, you live in the northern hemisphere, so the sun will always be to your south. At noon it will be only slightly south of you, depending on the season (summer vs. winter). You can figure from there according to time of day. This is all roughly, unless ya start measuring. Think ships at sea.

2. Stardust says:

Good to know until it is a cloudy night. But when clouds block sun during the day I use the moss on trees to find a direction. Happened years ago when a friend took me walking to an isolated lake we never reached. Claimed to be an expert on direction without a compass or GPS with us. Well, he got lost and tried to go the wrong way back, and I insisted to go south observing the moss when we first left-..-all the trees looked the same, no landmarks, dense forest.

So he insisted going north arguing how wrong I was and I had to let him go thinking I better break some branches on the way back as markers so a recue team can locate him later on.

Now for the rest of the story– After walking alone for a half hour, I heard something stirring way behind me, thought it was a squirrel or a deer. It was my long lost friend. He caught up to me at the trail we turned off of earlier that morning. He said he heard me breaking branches when he found out he was going the wrong way, and followed the noise to find me. He also said if I hadn’t come along, he admitted he would have spent days lost and without the food and drink I brought. Humbling experience for him.

1. Plainsmedic says:

Stardust,
Good point with clouds, fog, etc. After a while, it somehow becomes “just a sense.” Not sure how that works, but it sure seems to. Lots of wilderness techniques; follow the creek downstream, moss as ya noted, even the natural slant of the trees. Being in the woods a lot and being aware of all around you, is a GREAT thing. Many of our young people no longer seem to enjoy it. Easier to play with their phone. Oh well. I have a grandson who is amazing with directions. Even from a very young age, he knew N,S,E,W. Somehow, he just always knew. Almost a little creepy.

3. Papa Smurf says:

– It’s a habit of mine to look at the “cowboy’s clock” whenever I walk outside at night. Even knowing where north is, it’s just a habit, like a GI checking their ‘gig line’ when they walk by a mirror.
You mentioned Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky. I don’t know where to credit for the information, but I am assured it is the 48th brightest of the roughly 6000 visible to the naked eye in the northern sky.

– Papa S.

1. Papa Smurf says:

– A pocket watch was both fragile and expensive when you were on a trail drive. A typical ‘night-herder’s’ tour of duty was 2-3 hours. The north sky, whether you could see Cassiopeia or the Dipper, makes a complete rotation counterclockwise every 24 hours. That would be accurate enough to swing by camp and wake your relief by looking at the sky, and worked well enough for ‘guesstimating’ your turn. Everyone could look at the stars easily enough, so it became a common practice. Hence, the “cowboy’s clock.”

– Papa

1. Papa Smurf says:

– I don’t guess my note was too clear. If you will look at Ken’s pictures above, follow the line from the pointer stars or from Cassie’s chair; that line from the North star is your hour hand.
For 3 hours, it will move 45 degrees. 15 degrees per hour, counterclockwise, and you have your clock. Sorry if I wasn’t very clear.

– Papa

1. Tmac says:

Papa Smurf – I saw an infographic YT video recently on dog behavior and specifically why they circle the target before dropping a deuce. According to the video they seek a north-south alignment. If this is true then man’s best friend may have another useful feature for those of us among light pollution.

1. Realist says:

TMAC……..I watched my dogs they almost 90% of the time end up after the circular dance end up in a northern pointing direction……..very interesting maybe also true

4. Paleo says:

I forgot where I learned this, but take 2 sticks and sight them at a star.
Come back in a bit and note which way the star moved and you will find which way the sticks are aligned.
Left and you are looking north. Up and it’s east, etc. LNUE is the way I keep it straight.

1. Lauren says:

Usually referred to as a lunar compass, I believe. When using the moon or sun, it’s the shadow on the ground that you use to determine direction.

5. Minerjim says:

This works great above ground. Try keeping directions straight underground. You can develop a sense to it all.

1. Dennis says:

Minerjim,

Pretty sure the only directions I would know underground would be up, down, left, right, behind me, and straight ahead.

1. Minerjim says:

Dennis,
Believe it or not, you develop a miner’s 6th sense over time, and know exactly where to be, and not to be, at the right times. I guess you develop an ability to “see” through the rock in your mind’s eye. Hard to explain, so i will leave it at that. I do feel safer and know my way around better underground than i do in most cities.

6. Mrs. U says:

Nice, have not thought about that in a while. Recall years back while along on dear hunt walking in the woods and checking where the sun was overhead. Then following the sun out as I knew we had to go west. Boyfriend had hope to follow our tracks in, yeah ok you do that.

7. scout says:

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.

1. Tmac says:

Good advice scout! – Same if it is dark. Me and a couple dozen others made our way back into the San Fernando Valley in the hours following the Northridge earthquake by following the California Aqueduct over the MWD spillway. Someone at the head of the group knew what they were doing.