It’s a pretty common story. You’re walking through a new town or patch of forest, certain of your path. You panic as everything begins to seem unfamiliar. The light is fading. You need to find your way and you need to find it now.
Study a map
Look at where you’re going, and where you’re going to be. Look for anomalies, particularly large ones. The highest peak, a river, a statue or major street will not only help you get your bearings but set you up for the next step to your preparations.
Note the direction and location of these landmarks. Even a simple tourist map will help you identify boundaries and directions. Johnson Street runs East-West, Dragon’s peak is northeast of your campground, Blood River runs north south and meets the nearest town. All are important facts; write them down, if you can.
In the city, note major, rigid streets. This is particularly important in large, old cities like Dublin, where 90 degree intersections are in short supply.
Finding North in the daytime
In the woods you have many options. The stick method is one quick way to find east and west. Jam a stick in the ground and mark the tip of the shadow in the dirt. Wait 10-15 minutes and mark the tip again. A line drawn between those two goes East to West in the northern hemisphere and West to East in the southern hemisphere.
Nature gives a few indications as well. An old adage is that moss favors the north side of trees while spider webs tend towards the south. Traveler’s Palms’ branches point east-west. The movement of the sun and clouds are very rough indicators, but don’t rely too heavily on them.
In the city, look for grid structure. Even well planned cities will have anomalies, so be aware of angled streets and curves. Pay particular attention to any streets that meet at 90 degree angles, as this will suggest North-South and East-West arrangement. They will also provide a great panic azimuth (more on that later).
Use intersections as reference points and glance behind you periodically. In large urban areas particularly, the path ‘there’ can look remarkably different than the path ‘back’. If you need to ask for help, an intersection will favor you much more than a vague description.
Finding North in the darkness
The North Star has been the trusty tool of navigators in the Northern Hemisphere for eons. Pointing yourself in its direction in the dark will point you north. If you’re following a different course (e.g. West), stop periodically to relocate the star and check your bearings. As long as the North Star stays to your right, then you’re heading West. It is the first star in the little dipper, or if you cannot locate the little dipper, use the “top” of the ladle in the big dipper to draw a line that “points” to it. This only works in the northern hemisphere.
The Southern Cross
In the southern hemisphere the most prominent constellation is Southern Cross. The longer axis of this cross will direct you to an imaginary point in the sky. This point is 5 times the length between the two stars of that axis. A line drawn straight from that “point” to the ground marks South.
The stars will disappear in urban environments, making navigation dependent on landmarks. It took a country bumpkin like me a few years to figure out that not everyone navigates the same way. In small towns and rural areas, street names become relatively ineffective in describing your location to others, but in cities they’re a savior. Like using the grid on a topographic map, intersection will pinpoint your location easily. This is particularly important when calling for help. Larger cross-street signs will also indicate the direction you’re traveling (e.g. “Foster Ave N” indicates that you’re heading northbound and have intersected with Foster Ave.).
The concept of the panic azimuth is that, when all is lost, walking in “x” direction will take you to a key landmark that you can follow to safety. For example, if you’re on a hiking trip west of “Monkey River” and you’re two miles upstream from town, then all you need to do is maintain an azimuth of 90 (or East–azimuths are read in degrees from North) and you’ll run into the Monkey River. Follow that, and you’ll find your way home.
The same principle applies to cities. Noting North-South and East-West streets will give you a reference point for finding your way back. Head east till you hit Johnson street, then walk north till you hit the intersection you recognize. Be weary of unsavory neighborhoods, particularly at night. A large amount of empty lots, an absence of regular lighting or bars on the windows of most buildings should be an indication that you need to get to a phone and get assistance. Note the intersection nearest the phone.
As the saying goes, and ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure. A little bit of research into the place you’re going–whether to downtown Sydney or the Smoky Mountains–will go a long way in keeping you safe, long before you’re lost. A lot of these outdoor tricks will fail you in inclement weather, so having a small compass on you at all times is just good practice. of course, it won’t do you any good to know which direction you’re pointing if you don’t know where you are going.