How To Use A Watch As A Compass

It’s surprisingly simple and easy how to use a watch as a compass. It only requires having enough sunlight to cast a shadow from a twig. And, of course, an analog watch.

If you ever become lost, and do not have a compass, you can easily discover your general direction by establishing a North-South line from your analog wrist watch. It’s not exact, and there are a few caveats. However it’s close enough to orient yourself.

Note: This method works accurately at the equinoxes, because during the rest of the year the sun is not at the meridian (directly north if you are in the southern hemisphere). However, it’s still close enough to get you out of a jam.

Here’s more about using a watch as a compass.

Using Watch As A Compass In The Northern Hemishpere

How To Use A Watch As A Compass

Align the shadow of a twig with the hour hand

Align a twig (pointing straight up) at the edge of your watch so that it casts a shadow onto the face of the watch from the sun.

Then while holding the twig steady, rotate the watch until the twig’s shadow is cast directly onto the position of the hour hand for the current time.

In other words, you’re aligning the shadow with the hour hand (you’re pointing the hour hand in the direction of the sun).

One caveat: It’s important to hold the twig straight up, rather than at an angle for a more accurate result.

Bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12-oclock

Bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12-oclock. This halfway point between the hour hand and the 12-oclock position is your North-South line.

Another caveat: If your watch is set to daylight savings time, use the halfway point between the hour hand and 1 o’clock to determine the north-south line.

To determine which end of the line is north or south, remember this…

  • The sun rises in the east, and is in the east before noon.
  • The sun is due south at noon.
  • The sun sets in the west, and is in the west after noon.

During the summer, the sun rises in the Northeast, goes around very high to South at noon, and sets in the Northwestwest. During the winter, the sun rises in the Southeast, keeps low to the South at noon, and sets in the Southwest.

So I originally posted this article, How to use a watch as a compass, nearly a decade ago. I came across the article again, so I decided to double-check myself.

Borrowed Mrs. J’s Timex and headed outside. Quickly found a twig. Set the watch on the hood of the truck and oriented/aligned the the hour hand of the current time with the shadow from the twig. It’s summer, so daylight savings time. Therefore I bisected between the 9-oclock and 1-oclock. Sure enough, the North-South line was pretty close to where I know it to be…

TIMEX 38mm
(amzn)

Using Watch As A Compass In The Southern Hemisphere

How to use a watch as a compass in the Southern Hemisphere

Align a twig (pointing up) at the edge of your watch so that it casts a shadow onto the face of the watch from the sun.

Then while holding the twig steady, rotate the watch until the twig’s shadow is cast directly onto the 12-oclock mark.

In other words, you’re aligning the shadow with the 12-oclock mark (you’re pointing the 12-oclock mark in the direction of the sun).

The halfway point between 12-oclock and the hour hand is your North-South line.

[ Read: Find East – West with a Stick and the Sun ]

[ Read: How to Find North – South At Night ]

13 Comments

  1. Thanks for some good info. I always struggle with finding north. I have seen other tricks for finding north but this is less work and easier.

  2. I just wanted to check my memory having been told this method some years ago.so I was pleased to learn the earth is still going round the sun!,

  3. To use this method you need to now the actual “solar time”, depending on the place it could be a lot different from normal time (for example in China).
    In Spain you need to use the actual time -2 hours in summer, and -1 during winter, to be more precise.

  4. Simpler method:
    Cut a cork in half length-wise, stick a pin or needle in to width-wise, put it in water, and it will ALWAYS point to magnetic North/South.
    Use sun-up/sun-down to determin which is the north direction.

  5. I’d recommend learning the shadow tip method. That’s taught both in the military as well as most survival schools. There are times when you might not have a watch, but you can almost always find a stick to stick in the ground to cast a shadow. It works everywhere but the polar regions.

    The worst areas to get lost (at least to me) are in heavily forested regions or in thickets. There you often go one direction but then the path is too rough and you have to double back and circle around. Doing this many times, say in an area where there is lots of muck or swamp coupled with the forest and you end up hopelessly lost.

    Since you often will come to a clearing (even a small one) then most of the time the sun is out at some point and you can utilize the shadow tip method.

    When lost, most people get filled with anxiety and then rush off in one direction. Since we all favor one leg over the other, then we tend to take a bigger stride with that leg. As such, as you traverse unfamiliar terrain, then you tend to eventually walk in fits and starts in a circular path. Taking a bearing with the shadow tip method will definitely help as long as you can find some opening in the forest canopy to get a cast shadow. Stopping for a bearing is important when panicking anyway.

  6. Good. It’s a tried and true method. Even the Vikings with their sun shadow compass used a variation on the idea.

  7. Didn’t the Congresscritters and Smokin’ Joe do away with Standard Time recently ? I think we are permanently on Daylight Time moving forward…

    <bb

  8. That “getting rid” of DST did not pass the Senate yet. Just read about that yesterday. Up until than I thought the same thing!
    If I’m hiking in the woods or trails, I’m very likely to have my phone or actual compass.

  9. The original post is the one that caused me to find MSB and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. I was searching for a way to use my watch as a compass and found this post. Little did I know where I’d be today because of this blog. I am way more prepared and still striving for more. Thank you Ken!

    1. To ‘Simple Life’, I’m glad that the blog has helped your overall preparedness! It is a journey of sorts, a way of life if you let it…

Leave a Reply

>>COMMENT POLICY
>>USE OPEN FORUM for Off-Topic conversation

Name* use an alias