The Wonderful World of Natural Navigation

The following article by Tristan Gooley was published on the BBC Website in March 2010.

Natural navigation is the rare art of finding your way by using nature. It consists mainly of the unusual skill of being able to determine direction without the aid of instruments and only by reference to natural clues including the sun, the moon, the stars, the land, the sea, the weather, the plants and the animals. It is about using your senses and then deduction.

Natural navigation should not be used instead of navigational instruments, but in a complementary way. The senses sharpen and the world comes alive when the simple question, ‘Which way am I looking?’ is answered before reaching for the map, compass or GPS.

Once you understand the sun’s arc it is possible to use it to find direction. For example, in the UK the sun rises in the northeast in midsummer, in the east in spring and autumn and in the southeast in midwinter. For everyone north of the Tropic of Cancer, including all of Europe and the US, the sun is always due south when highest in the sky, when is true midday. With practice it is possible to work out what it is doing at any time during the day and from anywhere in the world. Mid-morning in March in the UK? It is halfway between dawn and midday so it must be close to halfway between east and due south, it will be close to southeast. A similar technique can be used with the moon, but it takes a bit of practice.

The easiest way to understand how to use the stars to find your way is remembering that if a star is overhead your destination, then it is pointing the right way. Most stars appear to move and so will not stay over the same place for long, but Polaris, the North Star, sits steadfastly overhead the North Pole and so will always point the direction of north. The stars in a part of the sky known as the ‘celestial equator’, move constantly from east to west but they always rise due east and set due west. Orion’s Belt is very close to the celestial equator and so wherever you are in the world, it can be used as an accurate guide to east or west when it is close to the horizon.

Using nature to find direction is possible without help from the sky, because of the influence of the sun and weather on the ground. Little of what we see in nature is symmetrical and natural navigation is often about spotting subtle differences. Trees, like all green plants, need sunlight to grow and so their growth can be used to deduce where most of the sunlight is coming from. The ‘heaviest’ side of isolated trees in the UK will normally be the southern side.

Mosses and lichens are quite fussy and prefer certain levels of moisture and sunlight, which means that they grow unevenly on each side of buildings and trees. Their patterns often vary from place to place, but once deciphered are consistent over large areas. North-facing roofs near where you live may have lots of moisture-loving green moss, whereas the south-facing ones may have colonies of golden lichen that are able to thrive in the sun.

It is even possible to find your way from puddles and bare earth. The sun reaches different parts of the ground more easily than others, which means that two sides of a path often reveal a clue: if one side is dry and dusty and the other is wet and muddy then it is time to solve the puzzle of where the sun has been and then use this to find direction.

It is not just the sun that leaves footprints, but the wind too, which combs the tops of trees and each day moves clouds in a way that can be helpful. The wind can even be used just from the feel on your face and the buffeting sound in your ears.

Animals can teach us much about navigating naturally. Observing the birds’ daily patterns can reveal the location of land from sea or vice versa and watching their annual migratory patterns gave the earliest explorers clues to the location of islands in the cold North Atlantic and warmer waters of the Pacific.
There are clues in the water itself. Sailors from the Ancient Greeks, through the Arabs and Vikings, to modern day Pacific navigators have learned to use the motion of the ocean swell to understand more about their location and the direction a boat is moving. The Micronesian masters of this art can tell which way their canoe is heading when they are lying down with their eyes shut.

From ancient to modern times the number of natural clues that have been used for finding direction mean that there is never a shortage of nature’s compasses to look for – even in a city. Natural navigation is rich, diverse and sometimes challenging subject, but it is one that can enrich every journey.

Like this article?

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