Show Me the Way
April 16, 2008 10:25 AM   Subscribe

What are some ways to tell the direction [North, East, South, West] you are headed? And more generally, what are some cool nature tricks you've learned through the years?

I know of ones such as looking at where the moss is growing or where the sun is relative to the time of day, but there must be tons of direcitonal tips that I do not know. It would be great to hear of them, even ones that only apply to certain localities.

Additionally, nature tricks would be great to know as I set out into the great expanse. I know neat things like making whistles out of acorn tops and other semi-useful miscellany, but the more you know the better!

Perhaps a zine could come of all this information.
posted by cloeburner to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

While the site mostly links to books to buy, the site contains a lot of suggestions on what to search for on google.
For example, food from nature.
You can run a search for edible plants and bugs in your area using google.
posted by PowerCat at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2008

You can use any watch (correctly set) as a compass:

Compass direction using a watch
posted by meowzilla at 10:38 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can use any watch (correctly set) as a compass

Try it with a digital watch and see how far you get.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2008

In the northern hemisphere (far enough above the equator), moss grows on the North side of trees.
posted by catkins at 10:47 AM on April 16, 2008

Constellations, man, look to the sky. North of the equator you need to be able to locate Polaris (use the outer edge of the big dipper, which lines up to point right at it). South of the equator, the Southern Cross is your key.

If you really get them down, you'll be able to tell what time of night it is, by where the constellations are in the sky, as long as you know what season you're in and where on the planet you are. I.e. here in South Africa during their "summer" (winter north of the equator) - Scorpio comes out early at night and then is "chased across the sky" as the legend has it by Orion, who rises much later at night.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:48 AM on April 16, 2008

Ah yes, I've heard the watch one before. I've heard it can be inaccurate to an extent. I've also heard of this device called a com-pass, perhaps I'll look into it. Anymore tips would be much appreciated.

I'd especially like to hear neat nature tricks [things that make sounds, where to find water, what certain vegetation means and so on]. I know it's vague, but I'm sure we've all learned at least one cool thing about nature that we like to show people when we go on hikes.
posted by cloeburner at 10:49 AM on April 16, 2008

If you don’t already know how to find Polaris (the North Star) from the big dipper, learn it. Careful about the moss as it’s not always true.

This Book has quite a few rules of thumb about nature.
posted by bondcliff at 10:49 AM on April 16, 2008

Here in the UK, Sky satellite dishes point approximately South-South-West. Putting this fact to good use was one of my geekiest ever moments.
posted by malevolent at 10:53 AM on April 16, 2008

(oops, I mean South-South-East)
posted by malevolent at 10:54 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can polish the concave bottom of a soda can with toothpaste or chocolate to create a mirror finish to reflect the sun and start a fire.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:55 AM on April 16, 2008

Not quite in the same vein as what you're referring to, but in my home city, as well as other cities that I frequent, I memorize which busy streets travel in which direction.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:57 AM on April 16, 2008

Common satellite dishes have to point at satellites that are in geostationary orbit, in order to avoid constantly having to reaim the dish.

Geostationary orbit necessarily implies that the satellite is directly above the equator.

Hence, if you see a satellite dish on some guy's house, you can be certain that (unless the guy doesn't like having his dish be useful) it's pointing south(ish) if you're in the northern hemisphere, and north(ish) if you're in the southern hemisphere.

By "south(ish)", I don't mean "almost directly south". I mean "southern half of the compass".

However, if you know where the satellites for common satellite TV companies are (such as DirecTV or the Dish Network), you can be more exact: "That dish is pointing 13 degrees south of southeast", or whatever.
posted by Flunkie at 10:59 AM on April 16, 2008

You can approximate hours remaining before sunset by holding your hand to the horizon. The number of palm-widths between the horizon line and the sun is the number of hours you have left.
posted by judith at 11:05 AM on April 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

The number of palm-widths

Each finger is 15 minutes. Very useful for estimating when to head home to avoid having to find your way back in the dark. It's so reliable, I wonder if this is where hours came from.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:07 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Amending catkins comment...

In the northern hemisphere, moss grows on all sides of anything (especially in the pacific northwest). Moss will often grow thicker and lusher on the North side of a tree.

You should really only use moss to help confirm that you have North right, after trying to figure it out using other methods. Also, never use a single tree as your north indicator. If there's a whole bunch of trees of rocks with moss growing heavily on one side, that's a pretty good indicator - however it could still be just a quirk of the particluar micro-climate you're in at the moment. Areas with lots of valleys and ravines can be especially sneaky about growing lots of moss on non-north facing sides and having very little moss on the actual north facing side.

The three best (nature) navigational skills anyone can have are:
Compass and map triangulation
Stars - learn to recognize polaris (the north star) via the big dipper or Orion.
Patrol Maps.

If you can master these three things, you'll be damn near competent at finding your way around. The rest comes with practice and tricks that I've never learned.
posted by terpia at 11:11 AM on April 16, 2008

Yup, the "moss on north side" of things is fairly unreliable. You end up overanalzying one tiny patch on one tiny tree and trying to verify cardinality based upon that. Totally not useful. There is some slight relevance to the idea that in the northern hemisphere trees and other large vegetation have most of their leaves on the side pointing toward the sun (which will be the southern side of the tree) but even that is pushing it.

It helps to get a good sense of how the Sun works in relation to where you are. For instance, you can tell east and west fairly well based upon time of day and the hemisphere you are in. So, if you are in the northern hemisphere and it is morning the sun should be over to the east, right? Well, if it is high in the sky then it is probably around noon-time and it'll still be somewhat south of your position (in the No. hemisphere) so you know that is south when you are facing the sun at noon...and then when it starts to go down for sunset you know that is west. Put all three of these together and you know it is north. (On preview the OP mentioned he/she already knew about this)

Another thing that helps me when I'm traveling through the woods is to keep track of distance by counting steps. The average person takes 60 left footsteps to travel 100 meters on flat ground. So, using basic multiplication (what?! you have to use math in the woods?!) then 120 left footsteps is 200 meters, 300 left footsteps is 500 meters, 600 to go exactly one kilometer. This can help you keep track of distance in case you need to travel to a specific point or need to backtrack to your basecamp, etc.

A better way to think of navigation is what I like to call the GoogleMaps Zoom approach. First think of the macro-level navigational elements in the area you are in. So, for where I live, near San Francisco, the elements that I have are the Pacific Ocean to west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, Los Padres national forest to the south, and the Marin Headlands to the north. Well, that is the beginning to me creating a sense of place of where I am located in the world. Next you gotta thing about the mid-level elements of your area. These could be large roads or a mountain near near your location. Think about which of these elements gives you a sense of north, south, east, west and use them to provide a frame or a box around your presumed location. This will give you a finer sense of place. Do a couple more steps of this to come up with a finer granularity of where you actually are and then finally do micro-level analysis of your location; the lake that you passed by earlier, or a ridgeline to south, or whatever. What you are doing is creating a mental map of the terrain from the micro level to the macro level. Once you have that terrain map created and you have a better sense of where you are specifically on the land and on the map you can make better and more rational decisions to make further progress in the wilderness.

Wilderness tips/tricks sometimes work in the woods and sometimes they don't so I think it's better to learn the basics of navigation (compass usage, map reading, terrain featuring, expedition planning) and the theories behind wilderness survival before jumping into a "don't eat the red leaves!" or "Magnetize the needle and float it!" kind of approach. You'll get yourself into a heap of trouble that way. :-)

Have fun and stay safe while learning all this cool stuff!
posted by rlef98 at 11:28 AM on April 16, 2008

Go downhill when lost. If you've gone past the tree line, you're going the wrong direction.
posted by fiercekitten at 12:01 PM on April 16, 2008

Let's amend what fiercekitten said...

Don't always go downhill when lost. For instance, you may be more visible above the tree line to potential rescuers looking for you in helicopters and airplanes. Go downhill if situation deems it but it's not always clear-cut like that. In fact, it's highly plausible if just "go downhill" you'll end-up heading right over a cliff or to the wrong side of the mountain.

All depends on the situation...
posted by rlef98 at 12:09 PM on April 16, 2008

If it's overcast and you can't see where the sun is, hold your thumb out, thumbnail up. Take a tiny stick or grass stem and hold it upright on your thumbnail. It will cast a shadow on your slightly reflective thumbnail which will point out the sun's direction.
posted by bricoleur at 12:10 PM on April 16, 2008

I'm always amazed by the people who get disoriented in certain front range (Colorado) towns. Everything's flat, except the giant mountains to the west, and you can see them from almost anywhere.

If you're in an area with lots of mountains/hills, you can get a general sense of north/south based on snowmelt - the south sides (in the northern hemisphere) usually melt earlier than the north sides, because they get so much more sun. This works for orienting yourself in the city in early spring, too - look for houses that have snow on one side of the yard and not the other. The shadow of the house keeps the north side from melting as quickly as the exposed south side.
posted by vytae at 12:11 PM on April 16, 2008

Further to the palm-widths measure thing, you can estimate angles in degrees by using an outstretched arm. With your index finger extended from your closed fist at the end of your arm, the tip of your index finger covers approximately 1 degree. Closing the fist, the distance from your index knuckle to your pinky knuckle is 5 approx. 5 degrees, and if you stretch out your thumb and pinky, similar to the "hang loose" gesture, the distance between the thumbtip and pinky tip is approx 15 degrees.
posted by barc0001 at 12:55 PM on April 16, 2008

not nature related, but handy nonetheless....

MileMarkers and exit numbers. If you are traveling a highway that runs north and south, you are usually traveling north if the numbers get higher, south if they get lower.

On east-west highways numbers usually get larger as you head east

it helps and surprising how many people don't know this
posted by Mr_Chips at 1:02 PM on April 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Urban Navigation: Look at where the buses are going to figure out where the major thoroughfares and population centers are. If lost, look at a bus map, or a map inside a telephone book inside a payphone (getting rarer).
posted by Brian James at 1:08 PM on April 16, 2008

If you are in the southwest US, keep an eye out for barrel Cactus. They can act as a compass. Don't rely on a single plant, get an idea looking at several. They grow towards the south.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 3:54 PM on April 16, 2008

At sunset, make a cross out of two sticks. Point one stick end at the setting sun. That's west. At night, find the North Star (or the Southern Cross in the southern hemisphere). There are easy ways to do this -- like finding the Big Dipper and using it as a pointer to the North Star. Figure out which point on your sticks point to it.

So, now you know west and north (or south). East and south (or north) would be the other two directions on your stick cross.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:28 PM on April 16, 2008

I'm kind of tired, so I'm not going to read the previous posts, so I apologize if this method has already been stated.

This one works really well, I've done it a couple of times and it's fairly accurate:

Draw a circle in the sand/ground and stand up a stick in the middle. Make a little mark where the shadow of the stick intersects with the circle. Now, imagine you have just drawn a clock on the ground and the little mark you made is 12 o'clock; make another mark where the hour hand of whatever time it is should be. A line drawn from the middle of the circle to the point on the circle that is exactly between your two marks should point north.

[note: Okay, to be fair, I'm not 100% sure this is correct. It's definitely either this or that you make the first mark you draw whatever time it is and THEN you mark 12 o'clock in relation to that, and their bisector points north... You can try this in your backyard just to make sure. I can't as it's dark out]
posted by limon at 4:49 PM on April 16, 2008

Finding south from the south pole

I was taught the second one, which is pretty straightforward.

There's also the very important mnenomic "Never eat soggy weetbix", to help remember which way east and west go round. Also an important reminder to eat your weetbix quickly before they dissolve into slimy goo.
posted by kjs4 at 8:31 PM on April 16, 2008

When I was in elementary school we were taughted the mnemonic, Never Eat Sour Worms.

Wheetabix never played a role in mnemonics, perhaps due to my American upbringing and the prevalence of sour worms throughout the Piedmont Valley.
posted by cloeburner at 7:06 AM on April 17, 2008

On a tangent, there was a post earlier this month about the feelSpace compass belt which buzzes the waist of the wearer in the direction of North.
posted by enfa at 7:45 AM on April 17, 2008

That little compass on my rear view mirror is an excellent way for me to get around. But now, my Garmin can tell me in 15 different languages how to get somewhere. It's kind of like cell phones. Does anyone know their friend's phone numbers anymore? If my phone died, I would have no way to call them. The same will happen with directions. Soon, we'll be so addicted to our GPS, we won't be able to get around without them.
posted by Brent Mitchell at 9:35 PM on April 17, 2008

re: moss growing on the north side of trees

chiming in with others above to say that this is simply not true, or at least not always true - there are multiple factors that determine where & how moss grows - it very much depends on the particular climate/microclimate that you happen to be in (e.g., using this method anywhere in the pacific northwest would have you running in circles) - even where it does happen, it can be a subtle effect - not one you want to bet your life on

here's the thing about survival tricks: general knowledge can be helpful, but local knowledge is usually best

here's a non-survival nature trick - if you live where there are maple trees you can take the green seed pods & peel apart the seed end which will leave you with two sticky flaps attached to a long fanlike wing - attach to the end of your nose & you've got a pollynose

another, more interesting, natural phenomenon is that of the "bee-line" - if you find honeybees macking out on some choice blossoms, & you can see that their little legs are loaded with pollen, watch for when they decide to leave - if they don't just meander to another plant but instead buzz off in a certain direction it is highly likely they are headed directly in a straight line to their hive

posted by jammy at 6:35 AM on April 18, 2008

A pine needle contains as much vitamin C as an entire orange, including the peel. Or so I was told.
posted by proj08 at 8:22 PM on April 18, 2008

re: pine needles & vitamin C

pine needles are very rich in vitamin C but you need a bit more than a single needle - if you make a cup of pine needle tea (a handful of needles chopped up & steeped in hot water for 20 minutes or so, then strain & drink) this will net you about as much vitamin C as 4-5 lemons

another natural source of vitamin C (in late summer/early autumn) is staghorn sumac berries - you can nibble them raw or make them into a kind of lemonade

but beware! use only staghorn sumac berries, which are red - poison sumac has white berries which, if you ate them, would make you a very unhappy camper


on a completely different note, not really a trick but a useful skill nonetheless: teach yourself how to identify animal tracks & scat - here's a good field guide

posted by jammy at 2:06 PM on April 19, 2008

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