In many survival situations, remaining stationary and waiting for help is your best option. The most likely place rescue personnel will start their search is wherever you were last heard from or seen. If you are with a vehicle, you almost have to stay put. A large metallic object possibly equipped with a horn and headlights is the ideal rescue signal.
However, what if you have no other choice? What do you do if nobody knows where you are located and you have no way of calling for help? What if you are travelling in an area so remote that rescuers would never find you? You need to be able to navigate through any terrain to get to help or civilization.
There are several ways by which you can determine your direction of travel and then maintain that path. Before you set out on your journey, there are a few precautions to take:
- Leave a marker before you go. Always leave some sort of a signal that is large enough to be seen from the ground or the air. It should not just indicate that you need help, but also in which direction you are travelling.
- Blaze a trail. As you travel, use your knife or other bladed tool to chop at the bark on the trunks of trees. As the bark is chopped off, the inner wood will be white and shine against the darker bark surrounding it. You can blaze on the front of the trees so rescuers can follow your path, or you can blaze the back side of the trees to allow you to retrace your steps.
- Adjust for your dominant foot. Most people have a dominant right foot which makes them bear slightly to the left over long distances. This is why people lost in the wilderness often find themselves walking in circles. To accommodate for this, simply step to the right any time you come to an obstacle in your path. This should keep you hiking in a straight line.
For this article I will cover the many ways you can navigate to safety starting with the most accurate and working towards the most primitive methods.
It probably goes without saying, but GPS units are one of the most accurate ways to navigate in the wilderness. These handheld devices can give you a satellite image of your area, your pinpoint location down to about 30 feet, a topographic view of the area, and the nearest roads and landmarks.
However, there are some downsides to GPS. One of the biggest is that the battery will eventually run out. Without a way to charge your unit, it is a temporary solution at best. Be sure to put it on power save mode if it has one. Reception can also be an issue. GPS units typically require a line of sight to the satellite, so dense forests can be a problem. Lastly, GPS units can break or may not be waterproof. I would never rely on a GPS unit for your only means of navigation.
I worked a job for several years that required constant navigation. All my coworkers relied on GPS while I stuck to my trusty map. You should have seen the fear in their eyes as the battery died towards the end of the day.
Map and Compass
With an accurate map of your area along with a compass, you should always be able to navigate in the wilderness. I like to keep a compass in my pack, but I also have a backup compass built into my survival bracelet. In the wilderness, a topographical map is most useful. However, it is smart to make sure roads and bodies of water are marked on the map as well. If you can, laminate your map for the best way to ensure it does not get ruined by moisture.
You can also navigate with just a compass and no map or just a map and no compass. When only using the compass, you simply have to determine your direction of travel and then check periodically to ensure you maintain that direction. Using only the map is a bit more complicated. You have to try to orient yourself using landmarks on the map. This could be bodies of water, valleys, or peaks. Again, you have to check periodically to keep on the right track. This may mean getting to a higher vantage point.
If you are not fortunate enough to have a compass with you, you can still make your own. To do so you will need a small container that will hold water, a float such as a dry leaf, and a steel needle. Fill your container with water and set it on a stable surface. Place your float in the center. Then magnetize your needle by rubbing it with another piece of metal or a magnet. Rest it on the float and stand back. After a few seconds, the needle on the float should rotate and stop on your north/south line. This is not always the most efficient way to determine magnetic north, but it is accurate.
Believe it or not, that old analog wristwatch still has a purpose. Hold your wrist so that the face of your watch lies parallel to the ground. Point the hour hand directly at the sun. Then find the half way point between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark on your watch face. This is true north. If you do not have an analog wrist watch, you can use a stick to draw a watch face in the dirt or snow. The process works exactly the same way.
If you have a few minutes to kill while you take a break, the shadow method may be a good option. Find a flat spot in direct sunlight and shove a straight stick into the ground. Mark the shadow that it casts and wait 15 minutes. Mark the new shadow and then draw a line connecting the two points. This line is your east/west line. Draw a line perpendicular to this, and you have your north/south line.
Use the Stars
Humans have used the stars for navigation for thousands of years. The North Star is the most common way to accomplish this. To locate the North Star, follow the two stars that form the outside edge of the cup from the big dipper. Moving away from that line, follow the two stars pointing away from the opening of the cup. You will then find the North Star. The underground Railroad relied exclusively on this method for nighttime navigation.
It is also possible to use Orion’s Belt to find north. When you locate the constellation, look for the three stars that form the straight line of Orion’s belt. If you walk directly towards it, you will be heading north.
Follow the Water
One of the oldest ways that man has navigated is by following bodies of water. Statistically, the vast majority of the civilized world lives near rivers, lakes, and the sea. Thus, if you find a body of water you will likely find people.
Your best option is to climb to a high vantage point. Even if you cannot see water, you can tell where the lowest points are. You will also be able to tell which trees look the healthiest, and this is normally where the water is found. Once you have found water, follow it downstream. In general, small bodies of water will flow into larger bodies of water. The larger the body of water, the more likely you are to find people.
If you travel with dogs or horses, they often have a better sense of direction than humans. Especially if you travel a similar route on a regular basis, you may just be able to follow your animal home.
However, there is another way animals can help you navigate. If you are having a hard time finding a body of water, following game trails can help you. Most animals will travel to water at least once or twice per day, so following their trails can get you moving in the right direction.
Other Methods of Navigation
There are a few other ways to tell which direction is north. The one discussed the most is that moss is supposed to only grow on the north side of trees. However, this is not always true. Moss can grow anywhere on a tree that has the right amount of shade and moisture. The only real way to use this strategy is to look at several trees that are fairly far apart.
If there is a tree growing out in the open, you will notice that the branches adapt to the sunlight. Branches on the north side will be more vertical, while branches on the south side will grow more laterally towards the south. Also, snow will tend to melt faster on the south side of a hill or peak and slower on the north side.
If you make the decision to leave your camp and head out into the unknown, do not get in a hurry. There are so many more things that can go wrong when you are on the move. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen ‘experienced survivalists’ wander away from their camp and find themselves lost in only an hour or two.
In addition, being mobile increases other concerns. You are more likely to trip and hit your head or twist an ankle. Predators are more likely to pursue a moving target. If you are leaving behind a water source, dehydration could become an issue. If you are setting up a new camp every night, you are also burning through more calories. In a weakened state, it is easy to get sloppy and lose a piece of gear or cut yourself.
It may be the right thing to do, but slow down and focus on every step you take. When you break for camp, be extra cautious and double check that you pick up all your gear. With a little luck and a little skill, you will likely find your way back to civilization.