Anyone traveling in the terrain, in the forest or in the wilderness must, sooner or later, focus on orientation. Because even in relatively small forests as we find them in Europe, it can easily happen that one runs and at some point no longer knows how to find the way back home. Of course, it will be even more important if you are traveling in countries where there are still real jungle areas. Areas that have not yet been destroyed and / or cultivated by humans and have retained their original, wild character. In Canada, for example, there are areas that are three to four times the size of Germany – and in which not a single person lives. Anyone who loses his or her orientation in this area and does not know how to navigate the wilderness has little chance of survival!
Dangerous half-knowledge in orientation
However, the central danger is that most of us hardly know anything about orientation – but rely on a lot of dangerous half-knowledge. There are a number of legends, mistakes and misconceptions that have been in our heads for a long time and that we like to remember in an emergency situation because we’ve picked them up somewhere. If we then believe them and rely on them, it can lead us to get lost in the terrain so much that in the end we do not even know where the south and north are. That’s why I want to clean up once and for all with the most popular and common mistakes about orientation!
Five mistakes in orientation in the field
1. The mossy side of the trees always faces north!
This is probably the “most popular” misconception about orientation. If you have lost your way in the forest, it is first of all very important to know about the cardinal directions. Because if you are aware of this, you can at least get a general idea of in which direction you need to go and which one you do not. But how do you find out in the field where the direction is, if you do not have a compass?
One of the first thoughts that comes to mind of most people is that moss growth on tree trunks. The corresponding theory sounds plausible at first: The sun travels from east to west and never stands in the north in the northern hemisphere. The north side of the trees is therefore always in the shade, providing the ideal conditions for moss growth. Because moss is known to love to be cool and humid. So far the theory.
However, this has a decisive catch: The growth of moss on a tree trunk depends on numerous factors – not only the position of the sun. There are shady, damp valleys where the trees are completely mossed from top to bottom on all sides. In other places, moss does not appear on the trees at all. In addition, the moisture needed to grow moss depends not only on the absence of sun, but much more on the main wind direction and humidity.
If in a region there is almost always a strong west wind that brings a lot of moisture, then the moss will form mainly on the west side of the trees. Provided, of course, the wind can always blow free from the west. This is especially the case when you are in an open space. Inside a forest, however, the wind is diverted from the trees and undergrowth and sometimes comes from completely different sides than expected.
If there is still a stream nearby or a lake that gives off moisture, then you have so many “disruptive factors” together that you no longer have a reliable basis for orientation. The theory of orientation based on mossy tree trunks sounds so tempting and logical, but on closer inspection quickly led to absurdity.
2. Ants always build their hills south of the trees!
Here is a similar case as in the moss-covered tree trunks – only this theory has not gained quite so much fame. Probably because anthills are much rarer than mossy tree trunks. In fact, this theory has a true core. Ants like to create a warm and sunny, but sheltered place for their hills. So if they have the opportunity, they build their hill to the south side of a tree. But they also have a magnetic sense – much like chicks, pigeons and various mammals. The magnetic force of our planet is not the same everywhere, but runs in certain paths, similar to a grid.
So, if you see an anthill in the forest, then it may well be that the little builders chose this place because of the sun. But the magnetic nature of the place may as well have been the reason for its construction activities. This means that you can not rely one hundred percent on this theory of orientation. There is also the problem that there are naturally many shades in a forest. The south side of a tree trunk does not necessarily have to be the sunniest. Ants also sometimes move to the left or right to find the optimal site.
In a dense forest, another factor is added that makes it completely impossible to orient yourself on the basis of anthills. The trees are sometimes so close together that the ant hills fill the entire space between them. So how do you tell which tree the insects meant when they decided to build it in the southern location ?! If you have decided for the south at all … see above!
3. The sun rises in the east and goes down in the west!
Every child knows that the sun is rising in the east and setting in the west! Or not? How else do we get that this should be a mistake? Quite simply, the mistake lies in the detail here. Of course, the sun really sets about in the east and sets in about the west. But only about and also depending on when and where you are.
Once when we humans divided our days into 24 hours, that was not just made out of the blue. We had a concept behind it. This concept is based on the sun. At 12 noon, the sun is in the northern hemisphere at its southernmost point – exactly at the point above the equator, where we are located. At midnight, however, it is exactly on the opposite side of our earth. In between, at 6 o’clock in the morning and at 6 o’clock in the evening – the sun stands exactly in the east or exactly in the west. In summer, however, the sun rises significantly before 6 o’clock and goes down much later. In winter, however, it later appears in the sky and disappears earlier.
For orientation, this ultimately means that the sun rises in the northeast in the summer and goes down in the northwest in the summer, while in winter in the southeast over the horizon and disappears in the southwest again. Only in autumn and spring does it follow the “specifications” with east and west. At all other times, it is necessary to look at the clock to see where it is at the moment. It is important, however, that only the winter time is based on the sun. In summertime, of course, you have to subtract the artificially added hour again!
4. You just have to go straight, then sooner or later a road will come!
If you are in a relatively small wooded area, this idea may not seem too bad. There are always roads and forest roads in our forests. So if we walk straight ahead in the area long enough, then sooner or later we would have to find a way that leads us out of the forest into the open air again?!
But even here there is a crucial catch – because every person has a dominant leg. This means that we do not perform equally strong with our legs. A leg is our driving leg with which we transfer the most power. The other leg is correspondingly weaker. So when we walk down a street and constantly orient ourselves with the help of our eyes, we do not notice it. However, if we walk through an area where we lack these guidelines, then we go in a circle completely unnoticed because of the inequality of our steps.
You can easily test this by connecting your eyes and trying to walk straight across a meadow. After just a few meters you realize – what feels right now, turns into a curve. The same thing happens when we walk through a forest. We believe that we follow a straight line, but in fact go in a circle. As a result, a wooded area of five square kilometers can be enough to never go outside again because we are permanently in a circle.
To prevent this, one needs a guideline that works in a similar way to the curb or road marking that helps us in the city to stay on a straight line. Since forests usually do not have such lines, you have to create one in your mind. It is best to look at three trees in a line behind each other. When you reach the first of them, you use the other two to find a new, third tree. That way, you can really walk straight ahead without fooling yourself!
5. If I have a GPS device, I can not get lost!
Perhaps the biggest misconception about orientation is the assumption that we actually do not need them at all, because there are now so many technical tools that take our work away. Navigation and GPS devices are undoubtedly useful and helpful inventions, but in an emergency they can easily cost us our heads if we rely solely on them.
For the devices to function reliably, the devices need two things: electricity and a satellite signal. Both, however, is not reliable and above all not permanently available. The battery life is relatively short. Electricity is on multi-day tours only in certain places and often not available. If you’re not careful, a little bit of unpredictability will make the schedule run longer – and you’re in the middle of nowhere with no idea where you are, where you want to be, or how to orient yourself without technical assistance.
Even more unpredictable, however, is the reception of the GPS signal. Often half-tight treetops are already enough to weaken the connection with the satellites or to completely shield them, so that the device itself also loses its orientation. So it may happen that even in well-developed infrastructure areas such as Europe are suddenly without signal, although at the beginning of the tour one had good reception. GPS devices often experience the greatest difficulty with their reliability when they are needed most – in dense, impenetrable forests or in deeply cut valleys and canyons. In addition, like all other technical devices, they are never completely free from malfunctions and complete failures.
Especially on longer expeditions, it can happen that a properly functioning device suddenly stops working. It is often suggested that acquiring an expensive GPS watch or a high-end GPS device will provide you with some kind of infallible outdoor life insurance, but in reality you should be absolutely sure of the standards of orientation with a map and compass. When relying solely on technical equipment for orientation outdoors, it can be fatal in the worst case scenario. Tools such as GPS devices can always be just an addition, but never the only orientation helpers!
Which helpful hints for orientation have you ever believed in and at the end turned out to be a mistake? Or do you have additional valuable information on how to do it right? Let me know in the comment box below please!