Apr 14

Toto, Where’s Kansas? Tips for Navigating in Survival Situations


Photo by Calsidyrose. Used under Creative Commons.

You’ve been following the yellow dirt road for hours. A few miles back you left the wicked wolf of the West crushed underneath a huge boulder that came flying off the ledge of a nearby cliff. Now you’re faced with the unfortunate truth that you’re lost in the wild. No GPS. Your trusty compass was broken in frantic fleet from the tumbling boulder. The only thing you know for certain is that you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. So, how will you be able to get back to civilization? (Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with ruby slippers). Really, it’s pretty simple. To get back home, you are going to put to use some survival navigation techniques. While a compass is definitely a more accurate way to pinpoint cardinal direction, these simple techniques can make navigating in the wild a hell of a lot easier.

Survival Navigation Techniques

To use this method, you’ll need to be in a fairly flat or level area and a sunny sky. You’ll also need a fairly straight stick that’s 12 to 18 inches in length and has a narrow tip on one end. (Don’t kill yourself looking for the perfect stick though. You can always use your survival knife to narrow the tip if you can’t find one that way naturally).

Stick and Shadow Method

To use this method, you’ll need to be in a fairly flat or level area and a sunny sky. You’ll also need a fairly straight stick that’s 12 to 18 inches in length and has a narrow tip on one end. (Don’t kill yourself looking for the perfect stick though. You can always use your survival knife to narrow the tip if you can’t find one that way naturally).


Photo by treehouse1977. Used under Creative Commons.

Set the stick on the ground and then mark the point where the stick’s shadow ends. You can use small marker sticks, pebbles, or create a small distinct scratch on the ground using your survival knife. Wait for about 10 to 15 minutes.

The shadow tip will have moved a little bit by then, from west to east. Mark the shadow tip again. Wait another 10-15 minutes and then do the same thing. Once you have around 3 or so markers in place, take the long stick and draw a straight line between the marks.

This line is an approximate of the east-west line. Remember, the sun moves generally from east to west (it varies a little depending on the time of year), so the shadow the stick casts will move generally from west to east.The west side will be nearest the first marking and the east side will be near the last marking you made. Then, place another stick that intersects the east-west line, creating a cross. The point above the line is North while the one below the line is South.

To get a better idea of how to use this method, watch the video below:

The Watch Method

This method involves using your analog watch, the kind of watch that has the hour and minute hands. To get the basic directions (North, South, East, and West), you can hold it in the palm of your hand or place it on the ground.

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, make sure that the hour hand is pointing towards the sun. Then, find the center point between the hour hand and the number 12 on the watch (use number 1 if your watch is set to Daylight Savings Time). Imagine a straight line that passes through that point. That line is the north-south line. If you don’t know which way is north and south, just remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (so it is important to have a general idea as to whether it’s morning or afternoon). If you face north, east should be on your right while your left side is the west side.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll need to point the 12 o’clock mark to the sun instead of the hour hand. Then, get the center point between the 12 o’clock mark and the hour hand to find the north-south line.

Improvised compass

There are several ways to make a DIY compass, but you’ll need to have some sort of mostly iron (ferrous) object like a needle, razor blade, or pin and something to magnetize the ferrous object. The easiest way to magnetize a ferrous object is to rub it with a magnet in one direction only. The direction of your strokes will indicate which point of the object will point to North.

If you don’t have a magnet on you, you’ve got a few more options that can work to magnetize your “compass” needle.

1.) Silk

You can use silk to magnetize your carefully selected compass needle in the same way as you would use a magnet except, rather than using a magnet to rub the compass needle, you’ll use the silk. Since it’s not actually a magnet and is only creating a temporary static charge, you’ll need to repeat this process regularly to keep the object magnetized.

2.) Copper wire and battery


Photo by oskay. Used under Creative Commons.

If you don’t have silk or a magnet, you can still magnetize your needle using an insulated copper wire and a battery that has 2 volts or more. Simply coil the wire around your needle with both ends of the wire attached to the terminals of the battery. It will take about 5-10 minutes for your needle to become magnetized.

Once magnetized, your needle needs to be suspended (either in air or water) in order for it to point freely towards north. You can tie a piece of thread to a small branch and then tie the other end to the needle. Make sure that the needle is balanced while it hangs and that it isn’t getting blown this way or that by the wind. Another option is to suspend your needle in a still pool of water such as water in a bowl. Place your needle on top of some bark, paper, or a leaf and then place both on top of the water. Make sure that your makeshift compass is protected from the wind and is far from nearby metals to ensure accuracy.

The Moon Method


Photo by bossco. Used under Creative Commons.

So, what happens when the sun goes down? That throws out the stick method and makes it pretty hard to see which way your make-shift compass needle is pointing. First, let me say that you should generally be using night time to rest so you have energy to travel the next day, but if you are stubborn or desperate and want to navigate in the dark, you can use the moon as your reference point.

Now, we all know (I assume) that the moon’s light is from the reflection of the sun’s light. As it orbits the earth, the shape of the moon varies due to its position. When there’s no moon, then you know that the earth is standing between the moon and the earth. As the moon continues to move, its right side will start to reflect light until it becomes a full moon. Then, it will start to lose shape until just a sliver of light is reflected on its left side. Knowing this will help you roughly identify east and west.

If you see the moon before sunset, the side that is currently reflecting the sun’s light is the west side. If the moon doesn’t rise until after midnight, the side that is reflecting light is the east.

Keep in mind that knowing North, South, East, and West can only help you navigate your way to survival if you know which direction you need to be going! That’s why it’s incredibly important that you have knowledge of the terrain before you go into it. Add to your preparedness one or two of these methods of navigation and you won’t find yourself looking for a Wizard high in the mountains to help you get home. It’ll be you and your bad self navigating the wild, successfully following your own carefully-navigated yellow dirt road back to Kansas.

About the Author

Leighton Taylor is an outdoor enthusiast, writer, entrepreneur, and expert knife gawker.  He occasionally writes something interesting at Survivalknifeexperts.com.


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1 comment

  1. J

    knowing basic constellations can also help. Finding the north star at night can help you remain oriented.

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