Natural navigation for children

The following is a transcript of an article written for Wildlife Watch, the Wildlife Trust’s  junior members’ magazine, by Tristan Gooley in April 2009.

Have you ever wondered how people found their way around or made long journeys before there were things like GPS, compasses or even maps? Our ancient ancestors still had to travel across the land and sea but often they did not have any technology to help them at all, so how did they do it?

First they had to get to know their own local area, which is what we all still do today when we travel somewhere new. It is part of the fun of going on holiday, venturing out and exploring our new surroundings.
Next, if the ancients wanted to go further and make a long journey to places that nobody knew anything about, they would need to make sure they did not get completely lost. One of the methods they could use is called natural navigation. They would find their way by using nature, looking at the stars, the sun, the moon, the plants and animals. If we know where to look then nature gives us lots of clues about the direction we are travelling, there are natural signposts all around us.

The sun rises close to east and sets close to west each day. So there is our first signpost. The ancients also realized that when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky each day it is due south. They would plant a stick in some open ground and make marks where the tip of the shadow moved over a day, then the shortest shadow in the day would be line from north to south, with the base of the stick pointing south. If they walked in the direction that this shadow pointed then turned around and walked in the opposite direction of the shadow it would lead them back, close to home again. This is a method that I used recently when walking in the Sahara desert, but you could try it in a garden or on a beach.

But what about when it is cloudy and we cannot see the sun? Nature can still help. In Britain the winds can come from any direction, but they come from the southwest more often than any other one. If we look carefully we can sometimes see that the tops of trees in windy places look as if they have been blown over. The chances are that they will have been blown from the southwest and so we can learn to read this and use the trees to point the way.

Another way of using the trees is to remember that, like all plants, trees need the sun. Sometimes they grow more thickly on their southern side, because this is where they receive the most sunlight. Have a look at the tops of the trees near your home or school.  Can you spot if the sun or wind has had any effect?

At night we cannot use the sun or the trees, so we have to look to the night sky. This is where the stars can help us. I spent a lot of time looking at the stars when sailing across the Atlantic on my own, but it is just as much fun from home on a clear night. All we need to do is find a group of seven stars called the Plough and these will then help us to find a very important star called the North Star, which is sometimes called Polaris.  The North Star is always north and has been used by navigators for hundreds of years. It is the most famous star in the sky and a lot of people think it is the brightest star, but it’s not. The brightest star is called Sirius and is in a different part of the sky altogether. See if you can find the plough and North Star on the next clear night.

Finding the North Star

1)   Find the Plough. It rotates in the sky, so is not always the same way up in the sky, but it is always the same shape.

2)   Next look for the two stars called the Pointers at one end of the Plough.

3)   Use your fingers to measure the distance between the Pointers

4)   Look for a star that is five times that distance in the direction that the Pointers show.

5)   The North Star is not the brightest, but it is on its own so is usually quite easy to spot.

Remember that these methods are fun to use when looking at nature, but you should never set out on a journey using them yourself unless you are with an adult.

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