We went for a tracking camp a week ago. While collecting wood for a fire, I discovered that I was lost. My mobile was not receiving a signal and I felt hopeless. If I could only only have found the north side, I could have found my way back. Luckily, my mates discovered me after a while.

Is there any way to figure out your current direction when you have lost your way?

  • The title isn't entirely correct although your question body makes it more clear. A compass doesn't help to locate yourself anyway, it helps you going into a specific direction. I also hardly see how just going to the North from an unknown point would lead you to a specific other point nor how you could get lost but know for sure going to the north will help you, but that's another matter...
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 24, 2015 at 9:36
  • that said, here's an article on how to build a rudimentary compass.
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 24, 2015 at 9:40
  • @LaurentS. It's exactly like a substitute tool for compass.This should be an answer instead of comment.
    – joey rohan
    Jul 24, 2015 at 15:54
  • 1
    I didn't want to just copy/paste this post and "link only" answers are not suited on SE sites, that's why I made it a remark, but maybe you're right, I'll make it a more complete answer.
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 24, 2015 at 18:32
  • Why isn't there an answer with polaris here?
    – Aron
    Aug 11, 2015 at 11:13

9 Answers 9


This article pretty much explains how to build a compass with everyday things. Here is a summary with some additions:

The principle

Let a magnetised metallic "needle" float on some still water.

Step by step

  1. Create a still surface of water with a large enough opening to put something on it. You could for example use a hat, a hole in the groud, some carved piece of wood.
  2. Find something light that will float on it. The article speaks about a slice of a cork but you don't usually have that with you. I would rather use a leaf, some piece of paper (that won't soak too fast) or plastic, a very small piece of wood. It should be light and flat.
  3. Get a metallic "needle-ish" thingy. Could be an actual needle, a watch needle, a belt buccle needle,... It should be metallic as you'll need to magetize it.
  4. Magnetize the thing by rubbing it against an actual magnet, some fur, silk or even your own hair.
  5. Put the needle on the floating thing. If you did well it will rotate until indicating a north-south direction.
  6. Identify the North using any trick from other answers here. Technique in the article is more elaborate but technically if you happen to see the sun it's not that hard to figure out. Sun moves from east to west.
  7. Move on and bring that wood back :-)

Here you go !

  • While certainly doable, the fact that you still need to figure out which way is north in step 6 makes this a little less useful. It seems you could just use the shadow, watch, or stars method to find north without ever having to build the compass. Jul 28, 2015 at 7:50
  • 2
    The shadow method as any sun-related method is an easy one and provides just a rough indication of where the North could be, while the needle provides more precision. Now I must admit anyway than knowing where north is, even very precisely, is anyway somewhat useless without a map. I don't even understand how OP could be lost while knowing that going North will bring him back... it means he headed south from the camp, and therefore knew where he was going, so how did he get lost ?
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 8:47
  • Rubbing onto silk or hair has some chance of forming an electrostatic charge on some insulators (plastics, amber, ebony, rubber) but will not magnetize anything. Stroking a steel needle with a magnetic item will magnetize it somewhat. OBVIOUSLY the metallic thing you are trying to magnetise HAS to be a suitable ferromagnetic metal like iron, nickel, cobalt or their alloys and NOT aluminium, zinc, copper or many stainless steels or a host of other 'metallic "neede-lish" thingie's you might find. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferromagnetism
    – KalleMP
    Sep 3, 2015 at 7:05

You can orient yourself without technology in a number of ways:

  1. moss grows on the north side of the tree (in the northern hemisphere)
  2. the sun travels from east to west — if you know what time it is (roughly), you can roughly determine north based on the line perpendicular to the arc of the sun's path
  3. at night, look for the Big Dipper — the two stars on the end of the scoop point to Polaris (the north star)

If you are lacking a map, simply knowing your orientation will likely not help you much. Look for landmarks or other points of interest in order to help determine which way you should head to find your way back. Any stream that you may have crossed is a good starting point since they are usually quite long and can divide the area into "home side" and "lost side". If you crossed a stream only once, you're not on the "home side".

  • I am sorry for disrespecting by undoing this as an accepting answer.Basically I wanted to know what is mentioned in current accepted answer :)
    – joey rohan
    Jul 25, 2015 at 5:09
  • I am not sure, but I learned that moss grows on the western side of trees, not the northern. I am from Germany, and here most of the wind and rain come from the west. This may differ from region to region, where are you located? Jul 25, 2015 at 12:23
  • Moss grows where it is cool and damp. These conditions are common on the Northern side of trees because the trunk shields them from direct sunlight.
    – Gdalya
    Jul 27, 2015 at 21:01
  • 2
    @Gdalya: Not necessarily true. In drier climates (as much of where I live), moss does not grow on trees, period. It much more humid areas, it may grow all around the tree.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 28, 2015 at 0:21
  • @jamesqf: Thank you for your comment. The point you made is the same as the point that I was trying to make -- that while conditions for moss tend to be good on the North sides of trees, there are many other places that moss is happy to grow as well, which sometimes includes non-North sides of trees. Clearly I was unclear.
    – Gdalya
    Jul 29, 2015 at 16:40

Here are couple of handy Things:

Describing how to use an analog watch to find south

When you put your fingers between the sun and the horizon you can count the hours of daylight left:

using count of fingers between sun and horizon to determine approx time of day

  • +1 for the finger method to find out the time until dawn, but the method with the watch is the same I described in my answer... Jul 29, 2015 at 8:59

Your watch and the sun make a perfect compass!

First, you need to make sure your watch is set to normal/winter/non-daylight-saving time. (You don't have to actually change its time, just keep in mind that during the summer months, you might have to subtract one hour, depending on your country's time politics...)

Then, hold the watch flat and let the hour clock hand (or where it would be without daylight-saving time) point to the sun.

After that, look where the 12 o'clock label points.

If you now take the direction in between of 12 o'clock and your current clock hand's direction, this is the south!


It's 8PM (20:00) and summer in a country using daylight-saving time, so the normal time would be 7PM (19:00). We let the 7 o'clock label point to the sun's position. The south is where the 3:30 label would point to (if we had one ;D), because that's the time in the middle of 12 o'clock and 7 o'clock.

  • A good suggestion indeed :)
    – joey rohan
    Jul 25, 2015 at 18:59
  • These days, how many people have a watch? And of those who do, how often is it just jewelery? Would you wear your Rolex on a camping trip?
    – jamesqf
    Jul 27, 2015 at 17:33
  • This is the exact reason why I insist that all my watches be either analog, have an analog face too (besides, under or over the digital one) or be able to display an analog watchface too (as with my Pebble right now).
    – zovits
    Jul 27, 2015 at 22:02
  • @zovits Well, I guess you can also just imagine a clock face, right? 12 is on top, 6 on bottom, 3 right, 9 left and the rest in between. That's not hard! Jul 28, 2015 at 7:10
  • @jamesqf Well, but most people have a smartphone at least - and which smartphone does not have a clock built-in? Besides, I don't know where you're from, but in my region, there are still not few people with actual watches. It's more likely to have any kind of watch with you than all of the other tools suggested to build a water compass... Jul 28, 2015 at 7:12

The guide for lost people.

You are moving (by foot, by car, by whatever) through the landscape until, well, this area does not look right....where am I ?

  • First and most important rule: Do not panic. Stay where you are and think. When did you lose the track ? What is the last location which you definitely can locate ?
  • Second rule: There is no "direction sense". No, no even natives like Inuit or Aborigines have it. Once you are blind, you cannot locate directions. Make the following experiment: Start in the middle of a football field, close your eyes and try to move out of the field by walking straight, a seeing partner walks with you and tells you when you are out of it. Just try it. It does not work, you are not walking straight, it is even likely that you cannot leave the field at all. Tricks like limping with the stronger leg do not work either, forget it.
  • Third rule: Do not leave the trail. No shortcuts, no "I am sure it must be meters away".

How do I find directions (north and south) ?
I must admit that I find the idea of building an own compass not so hot. The problem is: Commercial compasses are calibrated against deviation (disturbances of the magnetic field), so your self-built compass could easily deceive you. Even good compasses can be deceived if you are in the vicinity of iron (iron ore). Another problem is that the compass has a magnetic declination, an angle between true north and magnetic north: enter image description here

The tips using indicators like moss on trees etc. are very uncertain indicators. Do not use them.

Better is the sun and the stars: They cannot show the wrong direction. Find Polaris to find north and the Southern Cross to find south. If you have forgotten how both look: aim at a star at the horizon, it will normally move. The more it is goes exactly vertical up/down, the more it is near East or West, if it is going up, it is East, if it going down, it is West.

The method of ByteCommander with the watch is a thumb rule. It works because we defined noon as the time when the sun is at its highest point and in this case the sun is always exactly in the south/north. Because we have DST and time zones be aware that the local sun time can have a considerable difference (one or even two hours with DST) from your watch time ! The sun is moving around in 24 hours while the clock moves two times in 24 hours, so we need to half the angle between 12 o' clock and the hour hand.

North and South could be also found exactly with the sun if you have time. You need at least know at which hemisphere you are currently, north or south. Stick a stick into the ground and draw a circle around it. Mark where the shadow crosses when it lengthens and when it shortens. The exact middle between those points and the origin of the stick marks south (northern hemisphere) or north (southern hemisphere) !

The following tips assume that your GPS device is broken. It is quite seldom, but people unlearn navigation if they are too dependent on the device.

I am in the wilderness, but I have a map.
Stay where you are and look for outstanding points (mountain peaks, railroads, roads, rivers). If you have a compass and can measure the direction, the better. You simply find out the direction for the line of sight from your point for two outstanding points, their crossing is your position. If you do not have a compass, mark the positions of the points with something (needles would be ideal). Hold the map steady and sight out with one eye so that outstanding point and map point are in a beeline. Mark the line of direction without moving the map and move your eye so that the other point/map point are in line. The crossing point is your current position.

If possible, try to get as many points as possible. Maps could contain errors, sometimes even deliberately to expose if someone makes a copy. The map could be outdated. It could contain buildings which have been demolished.

So with a map you need to make an effort to get lost. You may walk unnecessary ways, but getting lost is pretty hard.

I do not have a map or there is limited visibility (sandstorm, fog, inside wood)
If you have only limited vision, you are in trouble. If possible, it is better to stay where you are if it is likely that the condition will improve in time. If you see that something is up (The sight worsens, a cloud is coming, it begins to rain or snow) try to locate yourself if you are in unknown territority and prepare to rest.

If you are in a blizzard, a whiteout or dense fog moving without orientation is asking for suicide. No joking.

If that is not possible, you have some options if limited visibility is available.

Strategy 1: Follow a trail. It does not matter if it is a river, a road, a railroad, a line of powerpoles, whatever. If it is made by humans it will lead to humans. If you get to a crossing, choose the path which is bigger or has the most visible activity. Follow the footsteps. The "direction sense" of native people is simply the ability to follow the own or other tracks back.

A river is not made by humans, but humans need water, so towns and cities are located on rivers. Follow the river downstream (In case you are in a desert, follow upstream ! Rivers are likely to ooze away).

Strategy 2: Restore sight. If you are on flat ground (not mountains !!) and you have a trail available (remember rule 3 ?), get higher. You not only increase your sighting distance, sometimes you are able to get out of the visibility limitation. Fog is most dense at the ground. You can climb an outstanding tree to see out of the wood (careful). Moving higher on mountains is generally a bad idea, because you are moving away from possible help.

Strategy 3: Perk up your ears and eyes. Human activity is often noisy or visible. You have noise of machines, trains, road traffic. If you can locate noise or light, move to it (Faint lights is swamps are not such a great idea, see will-o'-the-wisp). Do not be surprised if they are absent when expected during fog or snow or in a wood, these circumstances can dampen noise strongly.

The following tips are for use inside cities.

Finding the city center (train station) in a big (European) city.

Move along the road. If you have a crossing, switch to the bigger road. If it is indicated that you are moving away from the center (less noisy, sign), revert direction. I do not know if it works for rectangle grid cities like in the USA, but it will work for most European cities.

I know where I am but I lost my partner or my group.

Move to the last safe location where you were together (In case you were visiting an area with a high crime rate). Make this the standard procedure for everyone so you can count that everyone knows what to do.

The tricky one: Two or more people want to meet urgently but are unable to communicate their meeting point or time.

Meet at the train station (if it is missing, the most important point in the city) at either noon or midnight at the main entrance. If the day is missing: Sunday. If the month is missing: February. If the city is not known: The capital. The strategy is simple: Use something which stands out as location or time.

  • Your answer is getting mighty long, and not really answering the OPs question. Please try to restrict yourself to what the OP is really asking about. If you want to write blog entries/articles/guides on how to recover, well, Lifehacks SE is not the place.
    – holroy
    Sep 24, 2015 at 0:28
  • @holroy The OP asked "How to find my way without a compass", not "I need a compass". It does answer this question, even finding the direction. I have reformatted and rearranged the answer to put it more prominently. The OP's real problem was not that he needed to find north. His problem (and the problem of almost all who want this information) was that he was lost and he needed a very specific information for his case. There is no limit how long an answer should be (apart from the 30k limit) and please show me that "Lifehacks SE is not the place" for this answer. Sep 24, 2015 at 9:51

Things you'll need: a needle, a bit paper, and some water.

Rub the needle on your hair and pour some water on a cup. Place the bit paper on the surface of the water. Now place the needle on the paper. The needle now turns and shows the north direction.

Concept: Static Electricity

Source: Bear Grylls

  • 1
    ...or the south :-)
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 24, 2015 at 19:37

The simple way is not to become lost in the first place. Stay aware of the shape of the land around you, and keep landmarks in your head. Where is the sun? Did you go up or down a slope from your camp? And so on...

Unless you are on bare rock or hard-packed dirt, you'll have probably left some footmarks on the ground, so back-track on those. If you walked through deep grass, you'll have bent it down and left a track. And so on, with variations depending on your local terrain.


If you're in the northern hemisphere and it's snowed enough in the last few days to where snow is sticking to tree trunks, if the snow is predominantly on one side of the trees, that way points north. Since the last snowfall, direct sunlight has melted snow on the other sides of the trees.

If you are in the southern hemisphere, the snow side points south.

  • 1
    Not sure, but wind direction probably also affects this, especially as long as the snow is fresh. The effect might shrink over time when the snow has time to melt, but fresh snow is in that direction the wind comes from. Your answer assumes however that in the beginning, there is snow all around the tree. In Europe e.g. we live in a west wind zone, so because of the jet streams and the Atlantic and whatever, most wind (and therefore most rain and snow) comes from the west here. Aug 18, 2015 at 18:20

I agree with BC if the ice is completely melted, you can get its main idea where the south is if a large tree or a mountain can be a building or a building for the city. If you have 1200 feet in particular, then the ice will melt, I really know where you are before the storm hit or there are some signs where you are. If there is a big storm, if you can survive during this storm especially during the storm and you are waiting for long time and electronics. Power and solar charger will not help. I also find a map physically, whereas marks on electronics are targeted and indicated at the point of view of your expected route.

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