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How to navigate using the Weather

Latest News: My new book, The Secret World of Weather, contains hundreds of weather clues and signs that hide in front of our eyes.

Finding and holding direction using the wind and clouds can be imprecise, but there are clues in almost every environment on Earth and so remaining aware of what the elements are doing and have done can give a natural navigator some valuable clues. This assistance becomes all the more valuable when the sun or stars are not helping.

The wind can blow from any direction on any given day, so the best way you can use it to find direction is by looking at the past, ie. the prevailing trends. If you have read about using the trees to find your way, you will know how the tops of exposed trees in the UK appear windswept from the southwest to the northeast. This technique with some twists can be used all over the world. It does require an awareness of the prevailing trends in any new place you visit, but these are quick to pick up.

One of the first things to do on arriving in any new area is to look at the prevailing wind trends. In temperate zones, like the UK, you will be using plants and in deserts you can use dunes (like the horseshoe-shaped ‘barchan’ dune which lines up with a prevailing wind – the horns point in line with the wind). In the polar regions direction can be found using the ‘sastrugi’ or ice ridges, which align themselves with the wind. The Inuit can actually identify which of two prevailing winds have carved a ridge from the shape of ice tongues, and use that to understand its direction. A similar technique is used by sailors in the Pacific, only here it is the less permanent swell that is read.

Once direction has been found, the wind can be used to hold direction much more accurately than most people imagine. I have crossed parts of Dartmoor in near zero visibility using the way the grass was combed by the wind to find direction and the feel of the wind on my face to hold it. The wind does shift during the day, but it tends to be by small amounts, unless there has been a dramatic change in weather conditions. If a front goes through then the wind may shift by 90 degrees or more, but fronts are usually easy to spot.

It is always a good idea to check which way the clouds are moving at the start of any journey and it is usually different to the wind you feel on your cheeks. When the wind comes into contact with the surface of the land it ‘backs’ in the northern hemisphere, ie. turns left, sometimes by as much as 50 degrees. This means that the wind you feel and the direction the low clouds are moving is rarely identical and an awareness of both is a good idea. The clouds we are thinking of here are the low clouds, the fluffy cumuli of a fair weather day are the easiest to begin with. The upper clouds can be used too, and often move in a different direction again. Although the upper clouds are actually much more consistent than the lower clouds, they appear to move very slowly and take quite a lot of time and practice to become comfortable with.

If you are in open country the wind is likely to be your best friend and if in a sheltered space, like a steep valley, woodland or even in a town, then a patch of sky that reveals moving clouds can help you even when the wind has been blocked out – providing you have tuned into their behaviour earlier on. There is simply no point waiting until you have lost your bearings to take an interest in the wind and clouds, it is too late. If you begin your journeys with a keen awareness then the elements will repay this attention when you need their help most.

This isolated cumulus cloud is mapping a hidden town

There is a rich art to making maps using clouds that I explore more thoroughly in my books. But you can get a taste of it by watching the following timelapse video. Notice how the clouds move with the wind, but they also appear and disappear over the same spots – the long trains of clouds form over the ridges.

The land forces the moist air up until it cools and this creates clouds in the same places. There are small clouds over the hills near us and taller ones over the mountains in the distance. We can see clouds from a much greater distance than the land below it and so this technique was vital for ancient seafarers and is still used by Pacific Island and other traditional navigators to this day.

Lots more information about these methods and lots of others can be found in my books, The Secret World of WeatherThe Natural Navigator and The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs and Wild Signs and Star Paths.

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For a complete guide to Natural Navigation read Tristan's books.

The Natural Navigator

The Natural Explorer

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs

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