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Finding North with the Moon

Finding North with the Moon

Many of us have learned various field expedient methods to determine North without a compass. Probably three of the most common are looking to Polaris in the night sky, using a Shadow Stick, or even an analog watch. But these methods all share a common weakness — They don’t work when the sky is overcast.  After all, these methods aren’t of much use if you can’t see the stars, sun, or even a shadow.

Another option that you should consider, then, is to look to the Moon.

Common Methods to Find North

Of course, granted, the Moon is only visible for a part of each month and it can’t often be seen on very cloudy days.  Still — as I have a “glass is half full” mindset — the Moon is visible for a good hunk of each month and, better yet, it can very often be seen through the clouds.

So, here is a quick-start method to using the Moon to get your bearings:

As a general rule, between sunset and midnight, the bright side of the moon points West, while between midnight and sunrise, the bright side points East.  More specifically, follow the direction that the Moon’s face is pointing towards the horizon and where it intersects will be either of those two cardinal points.  From there, you can quickly extrapolate North and get your bearings.

As an example, I took the photograph below of the rising Crescent Moon this past Friday at 0617 hours.  As many of you also living in the Pittsburgh area may remember, it was a crisp, cloudy morning.  We couldn’t see any stars, but the Moon was unmistakeable.

Crescent Moon at 6:17 A.M.

Using the technique that I just explained, I easily found East (just off the Lower-Left corner of this photograph).  As I looked straight at that point, that meant that West was directly behind me, North to to my left side and South to my right side.

How does this work?  Because the Sun, which as we all know rises in the East, is shining its rays off of the rising Moon.  In effect, this Moon was looking at the sunrise … East. So once we figure out that cardinal point, we can quickly figure out the rest.  It may not be as accurate as compass needle, but it is very darn close, very quick, and very easy.

Admittedly, this technique requires a bit of practice and an understanding of other subtle variables, especially when the Moon is in it’s fuller stages or at other times of the day, but it is still a great tool to keep handy in your survival “toolbox.”

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Would you like to learn more about this and other celestial navigation techniques, or finally learn how to use a map and compass? Then consider taking a Land Navigation course at True North.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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