The story goes that a young reporter found the great surveyor of virgin territory, Daniel Boone, in his retirement in Missouri and asked to interview him. Mr. Boone was never shy about talking about his past, so he agreed. One of the first questions the reporter asked was whether Mr. Boone had ever been lost.
Daniel was said to have considered the question and answered. “No, I ain’t never been lost, I have been confused for a month or two sometimes, but I ain’t never been lost.”
I guess it is all in how you look at it. In the military, where I learned Orienteering, the catch phrase was “miss-oriented”. We never got lost, we were only miss-oriented. Yeah, right.
Whatever name you want to call it, being lost is never any fun, and our ancestors had to deal with the possibility of it because, as Daniel Boone would testify, getting miss-oriented could lead to several months of confusion.
I was raised in the mountains, within walking distance of the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. It is still a part of the country where a boy could walk off in the woods and not be able to find his way back. My Grandfather taught my brother and I a simple truism that works very well in the eastern Appalachians, and has some application to all mountains.
If you find yourself lost, go down hill until you find water, and downstream until you find people.
With that simple formula, at the age of ten, I was not the least bit afraid to walk Little Mountain, Eagle’s Nest, all around the Balsam Gap, Plott Creek, the Little Pigeon river, and points all around there. I probably took a year or two off my poor grandmother’s life but it was fun for me.
I am going to divide this post into two parts:
Orienteering using maps and compasses.
Orienteering using nature. How our ancestors found their way around before cartography and compasses became common, or in places where maps were simply not yet made.
Lets first look at some not so true truisms:
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Unless you are on the equator, NO. For us folks in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the SOUTH EAST and sets in the SOUTH WEST. If you are trying to arrive at a point Due East or West of you, then the problem with navigating by the sun should be obvious. There are ways to adjust for that and we will look at a couple shortly.
Moss grows on the south side of the tree. NO. Moss grows on the most protected side of the tree. Remember, I am a mountain boy. Most time moss grows on the up hill side of the tree in the mountains, and that is normally east or west. While moss growth can be a good indicator of direction, it is not completely accurate.
Water flows south. NO Water flows down hill. Whether that is north, south, east or west is another question.
For basic survival skills in the woods, I recommend to you FM 21-76 U.S. Army Survival Manual. Chapter 11 or 18 (depending on your version,) discusses Field Expedient methods of direction finding. I intend to talk about three of these methods, two using shadows and one using the stars.
For simplicity sake, I am going to stick to how this works in the NORTHERN temperate zone. (between 23.4 degrees and 66.6 degrees north). That would be where most of us live. If you are in the southern hemisphere either seek information elsewhere or contact me and I will get it for you.
The situation: You are lost and you have no idea where the cardinal directions are.
The first method I will discuss, is refereed to as the Shadow Tip Method. It is relatively quick and extremely accurate.
1. Find a spot clear of brush where the sun is shinning and a stick approximately a meter (a yard) long.
2. Drive the stick into the ground and mark the end of the first shadow with a stone. This point is ALWAYS the west end of the line you are going to create.
3. Wait fifteen or twenty minutes. If you are really lost, relax for awhile. Running your body dry on adrenaline is not helpful. When the time has passed, the shadow should have moved a short distance. Mark this movement and then draw a line from the first mark through the second mark, extending the line for some distance.
4. Stand with your left foot on your first mark and your right foot on your second. If you are above the equator you are facing in a northerly direction you left is west, your right is east and south is behind you.
The second method I will discuss is the watch method. This method requires an analog watch. A very good reason to carry my pocket watch to the woods with me. It also uses shadow so we are going to start in a clear place where the sun is shinning and we, again, are going to place or stick in the ground.
1. Place a small stick in the ground that cast a definitive shadow.
2. Place your watch on the ground with the hour hand along the shadow.
3. Find the midway point between 12 O’clock and the hour hand and draw a line through this point. This line is the north-south line with north being in the direction the line is going through the watch. The other directions will be just as we said before. I have used this method while on the move, just to determine if I am going in the right general direction. Just point your hour hand at the sun and look at a point half way between that and 12 going clockwise. That will be generally north.
Lets talk about the stars now. Again I am staying with the Northern Hemisphere. South of the equator you would be looking for the southern cross but where most of us live navigating by the stars is done by the north star. The rest of the stars in the northern heavens revolve around the North Star.
The North Star (Polaris) is the tail end star in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) but that is often hard to find. Look for the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and on the dipper end you will find two stars that act as pointers. Draw an imaginary line out from these stars and you will find another constellation called Cassiopeia or the Lazy W. Between the two the most prominent stars, you will see is the North Star.
In this day and age of GPS, and even the simpler compass and map, it is hard to believe that our ancestors crossed this country with no better guide than the North Star isn’t it? In the old wagon trains, the lead wagon was always set with its wagon tongue facing the North Star so that the next morning there would be no doubt which way they were to go.
Most times, in those cases where we are lost, it is better to conserve your energy, seek some shelter if necessary and wait for help. But while you are waiting you might want to orient yourself, because sometimes it is going to be necessary to walk out.
When that happens, you are going to need to know something about getting yourself oriented to your environment, so you can make reasonable decisions about where and how to go. What I have shown you here is introductory. It is a sampling of ways to find your direction that have been used for years.
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