Sunrise over the sea

A popular ‘dad’ question for kids returning home for Christmas is “So, what route did you take to get here?”. This was an important part of family small-talk in the pre-google era. They usually follow this up with a demonstration of their own encyclopaedic knowledge of the British roads: “Did you come up the A1(m) or stay on the M25 till junction 27 for the M11?” You then watch them roll their eyes when you say, “I dunno, we just followed the arrow on the sat-nav” .

It’s true that with Google maps and smart phones never far from reach, it might seem as though learning how to navigate is a waste of time. But phones have a habit of breaking or running out of battery just when you need them most. I made this mistake on my way to meet some family in Cambridge a few years ago. My phone went blank and became no more than an expensive paper-weight. It was night and I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with no road map and no means of communication.

In the end I had to use a payphone. Can you believe that? Like some kind of savage.

My point is that, whether you’re caught in a storm in the middle of the Brecon Beacons or banging your head against the steering wheel of your car in the middle of the Fens, navigation is a useful skill.

You should always carry the relevant map and a compass on a hike. Knowing how to find and follow a compass bearing can get you out of all sorts of trouble. Even paths that seem obvious on a clear day can completely disappear in fog and familiar landscapes can feel alien in the dark. There’s no feeling worse than not knowing where the Hell you are as you watch the sun slowly sink below the horizon.

Map reading is so important that it deserves its own post. I’ll get around to that eventually. In the meantime, there are some other handy methods you can use if you find yourself in either of the following emergency situations:

  1. You’ve lost your map and compass and need to find your way to safety
  2. You desperately need to impress some friends with your expert woodsman skills

Just keep in mind that your plan A should always be to use a map and compass. Never assume that you’ll be fine without.

Navigating using the Sun

Everyone knows that the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and is at it’s highest point at noon. Unfortunately, this is only sort of true. It actually only does this on the equinoxes in March and September. Every other day of the year, it varies. This is due to the earth’s tilt as it orbits the sun, giving us our seasons and, more importantly, screwing with what would otherwise be a perfectly straightforward, handy method of navigation.

What this means is that during the summer the sun rises slightly north of east, and slightly south of east during the winter. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll do for an approximation. If you’re really lost, you should aim for a main road. These generally stretch for long distances across the landscape, so a rough bearing will be enough to find it eventually.

At midday the sun will be at it’s highest point and, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, you can draw a line through the sun, down to the horizon and that line will be pointing south. Spin around 180 degrees and you’ll be facing north. To clarify, when I say midday, I’m referring to when the sun is highest in the sky, not when your watch says its 12pm. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing. Again, you can thank the earth’s pesky orbit for that.

Finding ‘Proper’ North

Try this- Place a stick upright in the ground and make a mark at the tip of it’s shadow. Repeat this each hour and you’ll have marked out a curve. The mark that’s closest to the base of the stick represents the shadow cast by the sun at midday and it points due north. My original plan was to set this up so I could take a picture for you. But it’s January, and there is no sun. Instead, please enjoy this handy doodle that I’ve thrown together:

shadow stick

So what can your watch do if it can’t be trusted to tell you when it’s midday?

Hold your watch with the hour hand pointed towards the sun. Now, bisect the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position. That line runs north to south, north being the direction opposite the sun.Watch Navigation


Clearly, this method of navigation falls short on days when the sun isn’t visible. But I did already say that you should carry a map and compass. You should definitely give this a go though. You know, in about three months when we see the sun again. In the meantime, lookout for my next post on heavily weather dependant navigation: Celestial Navigation


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