Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

How to Navigate Using Anthills

Tristan Gooley

One of keys to reliable natural navigation is avoiding an obsession with tricks.

It is nice when there is a fast, simple bullet-proof method for finding direction using nature. This websites contains many of those and my books contain hundreds of others.

But the truth is that with many clues, we do better to appreciate that plants and animals don’t really care about our labels of north, south, east or west. They are however very sensitive to their environment and they always reflect it. Light, heat, water and food change the way all nature behaves. And this is the key to finding direction in many species.

It would be lovely if I could tell you that there is a method for using anthills that works wherever you are, but that is too simplistic.

The good news is that ants are very sensitive to temperature, so their homes are built to take this into account.

Wherever you are you will find trends, but they will vary according to species and region. The great news is that we can navigate using anthills without having to identify the species.

Most ants will build their hills in a way that reflects their sensitivity to sun angles. South and southeast are important for all insects in the northern hemisphere because we receive most light and warmth from the southern sky. Southeast is important because the morning is when insects need the sun’s heat most and a southeast aspect is a great way to harvest this.

So, how do we use anthills to navigate?

There is only one technique that I can advise: remain observant and spot trends. There will be ant habits in your area and they are not hard to spot. Once you’ve noticed them, you can then rely on them for many miles or days.

The main things to look out for:

  • Which side of a hill are you on?
  • Which side of trees or stumps do you find most of the mounds?
  • Steep and shallow sides. Are they consistent?
  • Entrances. Are they always on one side?
  • General shape. Are there sides that are more curved or flat and are these trends consistent?

On a recent walk through a coniferous woodland, I noticed dozens of large anthills on the south side of the hill only. The anthills had a steeper north side and shallower south side. The entrances were a bit mixed, but mostly on the southeast side.

Once I’d spotted these trends, I was able to add this anthill compass to my collection and continue to explore the woods with confidence.

Update: here is another example, from a different species of ant:

The south-east side – lots of access holes visible
The north-west side, very few holes visible

Please check out the books or online course for more information.