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Natural Navigation: Using Nature’s Clues to Help You Find Your Way

Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00 Written by  Craig Caudill

If you are in an unfamiliar area, can you determine direction without using a compass? Okay, let me add to that. Can you do it without the use of the sun or stars because of heavy cloud cover? If you answered no, you need to keep reading. I am going to explain how to use trees, moss, and hillsides as a navigational tool.

Using Trees

There is one very important bit of information you need to realize before we get started. You cannot simply pick any tree. It needs to be a tree that is in the open. You want a tree that has been allowed to grow freely in nature. Preferably the biggest tree in the area. Because most plants need the sun to survive, they will grow towards the direction of the sun. If you are in the northern hemisphere, that means the sun is usually to the south.

When you look at a tree that has been allowed to grow freely,  you will probably notice a side that seems a bit heavier or fuller, this is likely the southern side. Unfortunately, this is not a sure thing because there could have been scarring or a lack of nutrients that prevented the full branches on that side. However, it is more often than not that you will be able to find the heavier growth on the southern-facing side.

You can check out this video to get a better idea of what I am talking about. Although this method is not quite as exact as a GPS or compass, it will certainly give you a good starting point. I suggest you get outdoors and practice this with your compass to help you identify the southern facing sides of trees.


Using Moss

It is a common misconception that moss only grows on the North side of trees. This is not necessarily true.However, there is a tiny element of truth to the original idea. Moss is more obvious on the north side of the tree. Moss thrives in moist, shady areas. Just because the sun, which is on the southern side of anything (when you are in the northern hemisphere) shines on the tree trunk , it does not mean moss will not grow at all. It will, but there will be a difference between the moss on the north side and the south side.

Moss that is on the northern side will be more lush and green because it will be in the shade most of the time. The moss growing on the southern sunny side will be a lighter green and will be dried out. You can watch this video to get a good visual in the different types of moss growth.

I need to also point out that several trees end up living in the shadow of larger trees. These smaller trees will be shaded thus allowing moss to grow all around the tree trunk.

Take the time to get out there and study moss growth and understand how this theory is somewhat helpful to helping you navigate. I hope you realize that moss is not picky about where it grows. You cannot rely on the theory that it only grows on the northern side. You could get very lost if you did.



You can also use observe and use a entire hillside as a navigational tool. If you happen to be outdoors during a snowy winter, you can use melting snow as a direction tool. The side where the snow melts first is typically your southern facing side.

If there is no snow, you can still use this method by looking at the vegetation on the hill. We know plants and trees need and want the sunlight. An area where you see a lot of foliage and tree starts indicates it receives direct sunlight and is facing the south. You will notice more “pioneer” species popping up on the southern side. Things like pine and cedar trees and rhizome plants will pop up when there is adequate sun and of course, water. These plants are what keep the earth in place.

Check out this video to see a good example of trees popping up on the southern-facing side of a clearing. If you are out in nature, I suggest you try using this method to test your abilities. Once you think you have determined which way is south and north, pull out your compass and check your skills.

Craig Caudill is an outdoors enthusiast who freely shares his knowledge at the survival forum on Dan’s Depot. He is also the chief instructor at his Nature Reliance School.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 17:39
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