The ability to find one’s way to safety in the wilderness is obviously a valuable and potentially life-saving skill. Of course, the first step to getting where you’re going is to know where you are and which direction to move. Today, GPS technology is ubiquitous and makes navigation effortless. High-quality compasses, topographic maps, pace beads, and many other tools and techniques are available to add to your navigation tool kit.
When it comes to woodland ability, I’m fond of the adage “Knowledge weighs nothing”. That is, it’s a good idea not to rely solely on gear and technology, especially in matters of life and death. Information, techniques, and the skill developed from practicing them can never break, malfunction, run out of power, or be accidentally left at home. Those tools, once well-honed, will remain in your survival kit forever. The more techniques you learn and practice, the more tools in your kit and the more options you’ll have when the time comes.
Nighttime navigation via celestial bodies is one such skill. The stars will always be up there, and they’re the same stars no matter where on earth you are. Many folks know how to find Polaris, the north star. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as most people go with their knowledge of finding their way by the stars, and may find themselves having trouble when the northern sky is obscured by trees, clouds, hills and mountains, or buildings. For this reason I feel it’s important to learn, understand, and remember several different heavenly bodies that can be used to orient oneself. What follows is a list of my favorite constellations and other methods. They tend to be easy to recognize and easy to remember, and knowing them can afford you the ability to glance at the nighttime sky and instantly know your general bearings. This article is focused on celestial bodies in the northern hemisphere.
Ursa Major and Polaris
Let’s begin with the most popular and well-known of stars used for navigation, Polaris. Known as the “north star”, it’s always visible in the northern hemisphere with clear skies, and never sets. It lies directly above the north pole of our planet, and its height in the sky will correspond with your latitude. Contrary to widely held belief, Polaris is not particularly bright. With a magnitude of 1.97, it’s easily visible to the naked eye even in moderate light pollution, but doesn’t “jump out”.
To find Polaris, we’ll use “pointer stars” in another nearby constellation, Ursa Major, the big bear. Also known as the big dipper, this is a “circumpolar” constellation, meaning it rotates around Polaris and doesn’t set unless seen from near the equator. It consists mostly of bright, easily visible stars and the shape is easily recognizable. Use the two stars on the very end of the dipper, and draw an imaginary line to the next fairly bright star. You’re looking at Polaris, and facing dead north.
Another popular, well-known, and easy to spot constellation, Orion transits the night sky of the northern hemisphere in the winter. Finding direction with it is almost easier than with Polaris, though it doesn’t quite point north. On locating Orion, focus on the “sword” hanging from his belt. It appears as three stars to the eye, but is actually many stars and a hazy, cloud-like nebula in the center.
To find direction, note the tilt of Orion’s sword. When dead south, the sword will be vertical. When Orion’s rising in the east, the sword will be tilted to the left, and the constellation will be lower to the horizon. When he’s setting in the west, the sword will be tilted right and again close to the ground. It doesn’t take long to recognize directions in between, based on the tilt of the sword and Orion’s height in the sky.
Leo, a spring constellation, is another bright grouping of stars easily used for navigation. The stars to pay attention to here are the two in the hip. Like Orion’s sword, these are vertical when dead south, and the same technique of noting the tilt of these two stars applies.
Scorpius is a big constellation seen in the summer. Again, reference stars and their tilt tell us what we want to know. In this case, those stars are the lower two in the scorpion’s head and arms, and that tells us the photo above was taken facing south-southwest.
Taurus, the bull, is just a bit right of Orion in the night sky. Hyades is a cluster of stars in this constellation that represents the bull’s head. You’ll notice when looking at it with the naked eye, that one side of this V-shaped formation is brighter than the other. The dimmer arm is north of the brighter one.
Cassiopeia is another circumpolar constellation, usually visible in the night sky. It’s not quite as well known as some others, but still easy to spot. Five bright stars in a W shape make up this pattern.
The method to find direction with this constellation is a bit trickier. Imagine the five stars as two bows, drawn back and ready to fire arrows. You’ll notice the path of the arrows isn’t parallel; the spot where they would meet is north.
Corona Borealis, the northern crown, is another lesser-known but easily spotted constellation, transiting the night sky in the summer. The “horns” of this constellation point north.
The Crescent Moon
Advantages of this method: everyone knows what the moon looks like. Disadvantages of this method: it’s much less accurate than the others.
If you draw an imaginary line that touches both tips of the crescent moon and follow that line down, it will meet the horizon somewhere between southeast and southwest. Even this general direction can be useful in certain situations, for instance if it’s known that a trail or road runs east-west and lies two miles north. Head away from that southerly quarter, and you’ll hit that road eventually.
Of course, like with any survival skill, it’s a very good idea to practice before you need to use it. Fortunately, this skill is a really easy one to learn and pick up quickly. For in the field, I recommend picking up (or making) a star chart. You can input your date and time, and it will show you where the constellations currently are. Star charts are easy to find and come in a variety of offerings. I also like to carry a green laser pointer, which makes teaching astronomy and navigation to others much easier.
One of my very favorite astronomy resources is Stellarium. This free, open source software allows you to view the night sky from your location and from any time or date. Zoom in on planets and galaxies, speed up or slow down time, plan where and when to expect to see an object at your camp-out next week. Or next month, or next year. Plan ahead, practice, keep looking up, and in no time you’ll find yourself much harder to lose at night.
You may have noticed by the end of this article, that basically any constellation or group of stars can be used for navigation. It only requires memorizing the appearance and orientation of the group as it transits across the sky. The constellations above were chosen for being easily recognized and having at least a couple stars that conveniently align vertically when due south. With the techniques and resources mentioned here, you have the tools to use any constellation to find your way at night.
Thank you for reading!