To be on the road without tools – that is part of the high art of orientation. Some wilderness experts are true masters of how to navigate terrain using landmarks, waypoints, and sunshine. I have put together my research results here for you so that you too can benefit from it.
Because when you’re out in the wild, there is hardly any topic that matters as much as the orientation in the terrain. Orientation – this is the art of always knowing where you are, where you want to go and how to find your way back. The orientation is always about three central questions:
- “Where am I?”
- “Where do I want to go?”
- “How do I do that?”
To answer these questions, today there are a lot of technical aids such as maps, compasses, navigation systems and GPS devices. But those who really want to move freely in nature and determine their location, must also be able to orient themselves without these aids. As I said, I have put together some useful tips for you below.
1. When out in the wild keep your eyes always open
It sounds succinct – but attention is the alpha and omega of outdoor orientation. Especially if you have no compass, no map and no GPS device available. Most of the time we only go lost because we do not remember where we came from. And this happens because we do not pay enough attention to our surroundings.
For example, when you’re roaming the first time in a new city, it’s easy to get lost. But if you stay longer in the city, then the individual streets and corners get a kind of personality. They are more clearly perceived, linked to memories. Gradually a picture, a relief, is created in the head.
The more attentive one wanders around, the faster this image is imprinted in the mind. The less it happens, that one gets lost. If you walk carefully through the streets right from the start and consciously realize their special features, you ideally remember the way without repetition and can hardly get lost anymore.
The look back is important
One should always keep in mind that one comes from the other direction on the way back. Therefore, it is important to look back from time to time and see how the streets, trees and buildings look from the other direction!
The orientation in the forest is ultimately no different than that in the city. The only difficulty is that trees are much more similar to our superficial view than houses and streets. We have the feeling that everything looks the same anyway, so our mind usually shuts down and does not even try to remember the way.
So here it is very important to be on the move with “open senses”. One should always try to perceive as much as possible. Not only with the eyes – but also with nose, ears and feet. The more information about the environment enters your consciousness, the easier it will be to remember the way home later.
2. Outdoor orientation via “Songline”
To remember the way back even easier, there is an ancient method – the so-called Songline. It comes from the native inhabitants of Australia, the Aborigines.
With this orientation method, you can always see striking points while walking. Especially if you change direction. These terrain points – a conspicuous tree, a distinctive rock, a giant anthill – are built into a lively story.
In the beginning, it helps to pronounce the story out loud. So you build an even more intense relationship to her. Above all, it is important that the imagined story evokes the most intense images, colors and feelings in one. So she stays in the head very well.
If you make your way back, you go through the individual stations of history in reverse order again. The songline redirects you just section by section back to the starting point.
However, the method has the disadvantage that you – at least if you’re not already a Songline-veteran – you must focus very much on the story and the way. This gives you little opportunity to also perceive the area right and left of the route.
3. Mark the way in the terrain yourself
If you are traveling without a compass and without a map in an area where there are few noticeable landmarks, you can also mark your path at regular intervals. It is best to use branches or stones, which are arranged in unusual formations or placed in places where they attract attention.
Depending on where and how you are on the road, you have to weigh whether it is more helpful in the current situation to lay the most conspicuous trail, which can then be tracked by anyone else, or rather one that can only be recognized if you know that it is there and how it is put on. But beware: The latter variant, of course, carries the risk that one overlooks them!
4. Orientation based on landmarks
The most important means of orientation are the so-called landmarks. These are eye-catching terrain features that make up a landscape. Usually you can recognize them well. Because they are so big that you can orient yourself over a longer distance.
The landmarks include mountain ridges, rivers, forest edges, canyons – and in our forests, of course, ways and roads. In some areas – such as the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia – the mountains are relatively straight and parallel (in this case from southwest to northeast). Once you have determined the course direction of such a landmark, you automatically know which direction you are walking when you are for example following a valley.
Once you have recognized this, you can move relatively freely in the field. Because you know that you come back to the camp, if you walk for example so that the ridge is always on your right side. Only when crossing the mountain, it is important to look for new landmarks that can lead your way back to the starting point.
Rivers ideally lead to settlement areas
Also, rivers are particularly good guidance, because they not only provide a long-term clue, but also indicate the direction in which you have to go by the flow direction. So, if you’re lost in the wild and looking for a way back into civilization, a river can also do a great job. People always prefer to settle on the water and chances are that sooner or later one will automatically find a place or a city when following a river downwards.
The only exceptions are of course desert areas. If you meet a river or a trickle in a desert, follow it up the river. Unlike in other areas, the water does not accumulate here to ever larger rivers, but often dries sooner or later in the sand or an inland delta. However, if you approach the water, sooner or later you will find the spring and, ideally, a settlement.
However, it is important to realize that you will not be the only one to choose rivers as a guide. Depending on what regions of the earth you are on the road, it can be risky to walk right next to the river. In Canada, Russia and other bear regions, here is the chance to meet one of the furry giants!
5. Orientation with acoustic signals
If you are at a point where none of the above methods are available for guidance, it may be that the ears help a good deal! You can stop for a moment at certain intervals and pay attention to striking noises such as water noise, street noise and the like – that too can help with orientation.
If you want to get back to a city, there are usually a whole range of sounds that tell you if you can get closer to it and in which direction you should move on. It is important that you listen very attentively and accurately. Because often the sound of the wind in the leaves of the trees, the sound of the water in a river or on a coast, and the rush of passing cars on a highway sounds very similar. So it can happen quickly that you can be led astray!
6. Navigation with distinctive waypoints
Also important to play minor abnormalities in the landscape, which you may not see from afar. But if you can get right past them, they can mark a certain path.
These include, for example, strikingly grown trees, special rocks, large stones or boulders and all other unusual natural phenomena that can be found on the way. You can either build them into your songlines or remember them as important waypoints. A river or a ridge as a guide is good and important – but if one has not built his own camp next to them, then you need something to know in which direction you have to turn.
7. Orientation with the help of the sun
The Earth revolves exactly once within 24 hours in a counter-clockwise direction (from west to east) around its own axis. As a result, the sun seems to move exactly from east to west across the sky – moving per hour by about 15° to the west.
When the sun reaches its highest point, it is exactly in the south in the northern hemisphere, exactly in the north in the southern hemisphere, and almost exactly perpendicular to the observer in the equatorial region (in the so-called zenith).
This basic rule can be used to determine the directions of the compass based on the sun. So you can reorient yourself again, if you no longer know in which direction you have to go. The easiest way to do this is to have a GPS watch with you. It should be noted, however, that our summer time, contrary to the “real” time advances by an hour.
So you have to subtract one hour from the time shown on the clock. If you only have a digital clock at hand, you can use paper and pencil to make an improvised analog clock by painting the dial and entering the 12 o’clock mark and the hour hand at the current time. This technique is the more accurate the farther you are from the equator.
Shadow throw as aid tool
You have to keep the clock level and aim the hour hand exactly at the sun. To be more specific, you can also align it with the shadow cast of a straight object. Now you think of a line that divides the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark exactly in half. This imaginary line points to the south in the northern hemisphere.
An exception is the time before 6 o’clock and after 18 o’clock. Here the imaginary line points to the north – provided you can already see the sun at this time. In the southern hemisphere, on the other hand, the 12 o’clock mark is aimed at the sun and halves the angle to the hour hand. The resulting imaginary line shows (between 6 and 18 o’clock) to the north.
If you do not have a clock, but have some time, you can also determine the cardinal directions with a stick. This one puts in a vertical position vertically in the ground, so that its shadow is clearly visible. Now mark the end of the shadow with a stone or something similar and wait until the shadow has moved a good bit further.
The longer you wait, the more accurate the determination becomes. But you should have at least a quarter of an hour for this method to work. When the quarter of an hour has passed, mark the “new end” of the shadow with a stone and connect both marks with a line or a straight stick. This line now runs approximately in an east-west direction, with the marker set first in the west and the second in the east.
Conclusion for orientation in the open country
No matter which method one uses – anyone who has internalized the simplest of all orientation rules will be able to handle the terrain better. This basic rule is simply to be on the road with “open minds”. Although we have many technical devices available as “civilized” people, relying on their senses, instinct and natural resources when starting off-road has its appeal.
Nevertheless, in the end a short warning: As I would like to point out that for outdoor orientation and location determination without tools a certain measure of practice and routine is necessary. I therefore advise all wilderness adventurers to take advantage of all available resources such as GPS device, compass and map on mountain and terrain tours.
What other orientation methods do you know that I didn’t think of? Feel free to share them with us here below in the comment box – thank you for your support and help.