Man silhouetted against a starry sky in the mountains

This seems like little more than a party trick now that everyone has sat-nav and Google Maps at their finger-tips—but it’s a cool party trick.

It’s an especially cool party trick if you happen to find yourself in situations such as:

  • Plane-crash survivor
  • Shipwreck survivor
  • Lost backpacker who didn’t read my Beginners Guide to Hiking blog (Who’s laughing now eh?)
  • 18th Century polar explorer
  • Zombie apocalypse
  • Guest at a dinner party who’s run out of interesting things to say before you’ve finished your first drink

It’s likely that you’ll never find yourself in any of these situations. But just imagine how silly you’ll feel if you do and you haven’t read this!

What is it?

Celestial navigation makes use of the moon and stars to help find your way (It also includes the sun, but I already did that here). It’s been used for 1000’s of years but these days you’d be lucky to find anyone who knows how to do it. I’m sure that’s just one more thing we can blame the millennials for—a group to which I definitely do not belong…

There are dozens of methods that you can use. The more accurate you want to be, the more complicated things get. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be focusing on just two main constellations; and our friend—the moon.

Finding North

Navigating at night time is harder than you might think. Large features that are obvious in the daylight can become invisible against the night sky. Fortunately, finding north is relatively easy if you know what to look for (and you’re lucky enough to be lost on a clear night). You’ve probably heard of Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star. Despite what you may have been told, Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky; but if you can find it, it always points north.

The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper Constellation

The “Big Dipper” —also known as “The Plough” — is the easiest way of finding Polaris. It’s a prominent constellation, so it’s easy to spot, and it points right to the north star.

Draw a line between the two stars that make up the outer edge of the Big Dipper. Your line will point to the north star.

Diagram showing ho the big dipper points to polaris

 

Cassiopeia

Cassiopeia Constellation

If you aren’t having any luck with the Big Dipper, try Cassiopeia. This forms a large sideways ‘W’.

Cassiopeia doesn’t point to Polaris as precisely as the Big Dipper, but if you draw a line dissecting the angle of the shallower ‘v’, it gets your there.

Diagram showing Cassiopeia in relation to Polaris and the Big Dipper

 

Finding South with the Moon

Obviously if you’ve just found north using one of the above methods, you don’t need this one. Just do a quick 180° spin and you’ll find yourself facing south. But you can often depend on the moon when visibility is poor and you can’t see any stars.

Like the sun, the moon tracks across the southern sky when we look at it from the northern hemisphere. So if you’re facing the moon, you can at least be sure that south definitely isn’t behind you.

The Crescent Method

Here’s a neat trick for your next outing and/or dinner party: If you draw an imaginary line connecting the two points of a crescent moon down to the horizon—it points south.

Diagram showing how south can be found by drawing a line between two points on a crescent moon towards the horizon

Final Thoughts

I’ve made this post deliberately brief. This is partly because the topic we’re discussing is vast and potentially complex, but mostly because I’ll have done a damn-good job if I’ve kept your attention even this far. Including more detail is probably pushing it. But I bet you’ll think of this the next time you look up on a starry night.

Failing that, maybe think of us? 

 

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