True North Blog

Which Way is North?

Which Way is North?

Being lost … to put it mildly … sucks.  I know.  I’ve been there.  Hopefully, I won’t be returning any time soon.

To help keep you from making the same visit, or, at least, to help you keep it as short as possible, I want to call your attention to a small “road sign” that might someday point you towards the right path.

But, first, a little background information …

Of all of the many stressors that one may suffer in the backcountry, being lost is near the top of the list.  Certainly, it can be a complicating factor, making an already difficult situation worse.  More to the point, though, being lost often forges the first link in a chain of seemingly insignificant and unrelated events that leads to crisis.


Because being lost really doesn’t have so much to do with our physical position as it does with our mental position.  Lost is one the most psychologically insidious influences that one can suffer: it subtly deteriorates our ability to reason, thus pushing us towards the increased likelihood of panic.  In fact, scientific research indicates that a lost hiker suffers the same mental and physical responses as does a drowning swimmer.  Just like a drowning swimmer, then, thrashes in the water to fight to breath so too does a lost hiker thrash.  For example, when lost, the trees, bushes, and hills surrounding the hiker can cause a claustrophobic effect that creates the sensation that one is sinking and suffocating.  Thus, in their fight to “stay above water,” lost hikers rarely backtrack, instead moving forward, becoming more and more lost.  Many hikers have also abandoned their backpacks (which included their tent, sleeping bags, fire making equipment, water, and food); and in one extreme case, a lost hiker had to be literally tackled by a search-and-rescue team.  Panic, after all, has no basis in reason.

Okay, now back to “road signs” …

When you are driving around the city and suddenly find yourself lost, what do you do?  If you are like most drivers, as you approach the next intersection, you probably begin looking for a road sign.  That way, you reason, the name of the street (or streets) printed at the top of the pole may suddenly flag your position on the mental “map” of town that you keep stored in your brain.  At the very least, just knowing what direction to then head can be all that your need to get you to your intended destination.

Well, in the wilderness, Mother Nature often posts road signs too.  Certainly, they may not be obvious, but if you know how, or where, to look, they can can be just as helpful.

Here is one such road sign that I saw this morning at 6:45 a.m. when Harlan and I went for our morning walk:

Using it, can you tell me which way is North?

Granted, my photographic ability is poor, but it should be relatively obvious that this is the Moon that many of you saw on your way to work.

While Harlan sniffed, I looked up and admired it.  And I quickly figured out in which direction was North.

That’s because we were at the intersection of Time & Moon Phase.

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.

In this photograph, since I know that it is 6:45 a.m., the bright side of the Moon must be pointing East (the left side of the frame) so, by extension, we are looking at it facing South … North, then, is right behind us.  Easy!

Why?  Because the Sun, which as we all know rises in the East, is shining its rays off of the setting Moon.  In essence, this Moon was effectively pointing us to the sunrise … East.  Once, we figure out one cardinal point, we can quickly figure out the rest of them.  It is not as accurate as compass needle, but it can work pretty darn well.

What’s the big deal, I can always wait for the Sun to rise or set, right?  But if you are lost in the mountains, you might not be able to see the Sun rise for several hours, or be able to see it set.  The Moon, then, gives you an alternative point of reference.

There are many variations of this technique, and many related tools.  Besides, the real benefit of such knowledge is to keep you from getting lost in the first place.

But my goal today isn’t to give you an authoritative lesson in celestial navigation.  Rather, it is merely to call your attention to one of innumerable sign posts that Mother Nature has erected around us which, regrettably, most of us don’t see or appreciate.


Are you interested in learning more about the fundamentals of land navigation?  Then consider contacting True North to ask about an upcoming Basic Wilderness Navigation course, or setting up a private lesson.

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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