Navigating With or Without a Compass

Using Bearings and Nature to Find Your Way


By Miles Tanner

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 7, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Never be lost again! This concise and handy guide will help you get your bearings and find your way out of the wilderness no matter your equipment.

Finding your campsite, a spectacular view, or your way home can be difficult, especially when your phone or GPS malfunctions. But knowing how to use a magnetized compass, paper map, and the positions of the sun, moon, stars, and other practical aids in pathfinding will help outdoorsman find their way in almost any kind of terrain.

Navigating With or Without a Compass will teach you the basics of using that essential tool, such as the difference between true north and magnetic north based on where you are and using compass bearings from a map and in the field to determine location.

However if you find yourself without a compass, this handy guide will also give you natural signs and guideposts for pathfinding, such as the way the wind blows, trees grow, or flowers bloom. Also covered will be determining direction through reading the Sun and the shadows it forms, the position and stages of the Moon, and familiarizing oneself with the principal constellations to guide you and determine the time at night.

Perfect for the skilled woodsman or just a walk in the woods, Navigating With or Without a Compass is filled with tips and essential knowledge indispensible for hikers, campers, scouts and nature lovers.


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Navigational know-how is sometimes overlooked as a rudimentary skill that you can intuitively learn without much study—just observe your surroundings and walk from point A to point B. But when you dig past the surface of the science of navigation, you’ll find that a whole world of technical (and practical) knowledge awaits.

Some people assume that navigation is a skill set studied only by survivalists. But any person who ventures into the outdoors—or who simply wants to find their way around a city without a smartphone—should learn at a minimum the basics of route-finding, compass-reading, and map-reading. Not only can it be a fun hobby to learn, but it may also save your life.

As you dive in to this book, you’ll learn that navigation has played a central role in the advancement of civilization and exploration for thousands of years. At the very least, examples of ancient problem-solving and invention will remind you how resourceful humans can be when motivated by necessity. Early civilizations looked to the sky for guidance on how to navigate. The first mapmakers used clay, shells, and wood to render replicas of their surroundings. Bygone sailors may have even observed the flight patterns of birds or noted certain smells wafting from shore in order to gauge their bearings at sea.

Studies have shown that you can actually improve your ability to find your way by practicing navigation skills. The part of the brain that determines location and interprets directions is located in the hippocampus, a region that, with exercise and stimuli, can be strengthened over time. With disuse, this part of the brain can weaken. Overuse or over-reliance on smartphone mapping can also compromise the hippocampus. Conversely, one study showed that the hippocampi of cab drivers in London were larger and thicker than the average person’s.

These days, technology has advanced enough that devices can essentially do the work of navigation for us. But devices can run out of battery or lose a charge. Unpredictable changes in weather can obscure landmarks. Strong currents can push watercraft off course. These common scenarios often result in veering off route. To correct the situation and stay safe, more sophisticated navigation skills are needed.

Before participating in activities where getting lost could have dangerous repercussions, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of navigating using simple—and essential—tools like a compass and a map. Even the most experienced outdoorspeople get lost, and it is often because they left these tools behind. That’s why this book will cover not only the basics, but also more technical navigation techniques like calculating bearings, noting the positions of celestial bodies, and creating your own solar compass.

Even non-outdoorsy people can benefit from learning the art of navigation. Some people may rarely think about north versus south, the divisions of time, or how to use a printed map to plan a route, because we let our technological tools do this work for us. As an unintended consequence, we’ve grown increasingly unaware and ignorant of our surroundings. Not only is there a practicality in knowing how to find your way, but there is beauty in the art of reading the signs that nature provides. In a sense, learning how to navigate is like learning a new language. Knowing how to read nature’s language allows us to understand new information about our surroundings, helping us to not only avoid getting lost, but also deepen our appreciation for all that the natural world has to teach us. Learning how to find north from the location of the stars, determine east from the position of the sun, and use your natural awareness to guide you may awaken an excitement that comes from understanding the natural world.

This book is an excellent first step toward developing those skills, which will lead to a clearer sense of direction—in the city or the woods.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”

Henry David Thoreau

Navigation is the means by which a person can pinpoint their geographic location and then accurately determine where they need to travel to reach their intended destination. Although this can seem simple, there’s an art to the science.

The first sailors followed the coastline, keeping land in sight, as this was the safest way to avoid getting lost at sea. The Greeks may have also used clouds and smell as navigational clues, since weather tends to form over landmasses, and odors can drift far across the ocean. Polynesians would watch the pattern and color of the waves, which when observed with expert eyes can indicate the direction of land. Sailors in ancient cultures also used the reliable nature of trade winds and currents to push them in the right direction.

On land, physical features are good points of reference for determining distance and position. Natural landmarks like mountains, rivers, and lakes can be used as geographic coordinates. But when civilizations began to cross long distances over deserts and oceans, a more precise method for calculating fixed positions became necessary. Eventually, a grid system was developed, which marked latitudinal and longitudinal lines across a global map.

Latitude measures the distance from the equator, delineated by east-west lines that run parallel to the equator on a map of the world. These latitudinal lines are called “parallels” and are measured in degrees. For example, the value of the parallel at the equator is zero degrees latitude, with the North Pole measuring 90 degrees north, and the South Pole measuring 90 degrees south.

Longitudinal lines are like latitudinal lines, except that they extend north to south, running parallel to the prime meridian, which divides the world into the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. Longitudinal lines are called “meridians” and, like latitudinal lines, the distance between each line is called a degree. On average, one degree of longitude or latitude measures approximately sixty-nine miles. There are 360 degrees of longitude around the globe and 180 degrees of latitude. Each degree, of either longitude or latitude, can be divided into 60-minute units, which can further be divided into 60 seconds. These units, however, don’t correspond to measurements of time.

At high latitudes, where the summer sky obscures the stars, different means of navigation have become necessary. The Vikings would note the flight patterns of birds. An early Norwegian explorer known by the nickname Raven-Floki sailed with ravens on his expedition to Iceland. He starved the ravens until he needed to locate the nearest landmass, at which point, he released the hungry birds in hopes that they would fly toward land in search of food. One flew away and then returned. The second flew over the boat and came back as well. The third left and did not return, and so Ravin-Floki set off in the direction of the third raven’s flight path. Eventually, he reached shore.

The lines of longitude and latitude form a grid pattern. The point where a parallel and a meridian intersect is called a coordinate, which can be used to determine an exact location on Earth. For example, the latitude coordinate for New York is written as 40°42′ N, which translates to 40 degrees and 42 minutes north of the equator. The longitude coordinate is 74°00′ W, which means it’s 74 degrees and zero minutes west of the prime meridian.


Humans have been developing navigational tools for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used a variety of navigational systems to guide their way, some of which are still being used to this day.


While the term may seem ominous, dead reckoning is simply a method of wayfinding that doesn’t depend on a clear sky and being able to see the stars. Rather, it involves determining a geographic position by noting a previous location, called a “fix,” and then using the velocity and direction traveled to estimate the current location. Dead reckoning is also used in nautical and aerial navigation, but lacks precision given uncontrollable variables like current and wind, which can shift the location of any point, making it difficult to find a fix. Since watercraft and aircraft are constantly in motion, this increases the challenge of calculating any given location with accuracy.


One of the most common navigational methods humans have used, celestial navigation, involves using the positions of the sun, stars, and moon to find north and south. The most basic navigational method was simply to use the position of the sun to find east and west. The Phoenicians named east and west Asu (sunrise) and Ereb (sunset), the eponymous roots for the eastern and western continents Asia and Europe. Celestial navigation also requires a familiarity with the constellations, the positions of which are dependent on the time of year and whether you happen to be looking up at the night sky in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

For more accurate measurements, ancient cultures would employ sophisticated instruments to help determine latitude, like the Arabian kamal, the astrolabe used by sailors in the Middle Ages, or the gnomon used in China. A sextant is another useful tool in celestial navigation, in that it measures with precision the angle between objects in the sky and the horizon, which helps to determine a location with accuracy. A clock and an almanac are also necessary for the celestial navigator, used in tandem to establish the location of the constellations during a specific time of year and time of night.


The ancient Chinese may have been the earliest civilization to use the compass—an instrument with a needle that points toward magnetic north, which is affected by the earth’s magnetic field. Because the earth’s magnetic poles aren’t fixed on its axis, magnetic north will vary depending on your location. True north is earth’s true geographic north. To give an accurate reading, most modern compasses will account for the magnetic declination between the two norths.


On Sale
May 7, 2019
Page Count
128 pages

Miles Tanner

About the Author

Miles Tanner is an avid outdoorsman who has written for numerous publications about survival and outdoor skills. He lives outside of Billings. Montana.

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