Natural Navigation – how to read the stars

Before google tracked every street corner, or the compass showed us our east from our west, early-day adventurers had only one means of getting from A-B – nature itself; The sun, the stars, the lay of the land, the weather, the way plants grow and the direction animals travel.  Natural Navigation is a skill that’ll not only save you from getting lost in the wilderness but will also help you reconnect with the world around you. In the first of our series, we take to the night, and learn how to use the stars to guide us.

Reading the Stars 

There’s nothing finer than a clear, star-filled sky – on the perfect night, away from the glare of city lights, you can see up to 2,500 at any one time. And once you learn a how to identify a few constellations, they can become much more than just a pretty sight.

The North Star or Polaris, is the Rosetta Stone of the nat-nav world, as it lines up almost exactly with the celestial North Pole (an imaginary axis running out above the pole). Finding it can be the key to unlocking the night’s sky.

Finding the North Star

First off, you need to locate the plough (sometimes known as the big dipper/saucepan) which can be seen anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Find the two bottom stars (the “pointer stars”) and gauge the width between them. Then look along the pointer stars to a point around five times the distance between them. You should see a solitary star, the brightest in that patch of sky. That’s the North Star.

The star directly below the North Star is with one degree of due north. To follow it, hold your thumbnail up to Polaris and suspend a string with a weight at the bottom from your thumb and follow it. This will bring you closer to true north than the best GPS on the market (and it costs a lot less too!)

Read more from Part One of our Natural Navigation series in issue 105 of OAG, out on the 19th April. We’ll be finding the Southern Cross and using Orion’s belt to follow East and West. 

Adapted from The Natural Navigator, by Tristan Gooley.

Photo Credit: Jyrki Kymäläinen via Creative Commons