Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Navigation has been part of human nature since the dawn of exploration, and compasses and maps have played a big role in that. But for many years and for many cultures, these tools were not needed. Nature is full of guides that can help orient ourselves and lead us along our hikes and walks. So what are these guides and how can we find them? Let's get into it.
The biggest guide in nature we will notice is the sun. The sun is the most reliable natural way to orient ourselves. It is common knowledge that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west which is true in the fall and spring around the equinoxes, but this does change throughout the year. The summer sunrises are in the northeast and sunsets in the northwest, and winter sunrises are in the southeast and sunsets in the southwest. But the sun is always in the southern part of the sky around noon, so as long as we know the time, we can figure out where south is, or west, or east. You don’t even need to use your eyes for this. Close your eyes and feel on your body which side is warmer, and if it's around the middle of the day, the warm side of your body is facing south.
The trees can also guide our way in their own unique way. Trees love the sun because it is how they make their food. So it makes sense that they would grow towards the light. As I mentioned earlier, the sun is in the southern part of the sky at noon, and this is when it is shining the brightest. This means that as long as the light is not blocked, the trees will adjust their branches to grow towards the southern light. This translates to more horizontal branches on the southern side of the tree and more diagonal and vertical branches on the northern side of the tree. This isn’t always dependable because if the southern side of the tree is shaded by a larger tree then the smaller tree will angle its branches wherever there is the most light. For evergreen trees, all their branches grow horizontally or angled down, but they grow more branches on the southern side of the tree.
A puddle is a simple, unexpected guide. If you’re walking along a trail that has tire tracks or even footprints in the mud that have filled with water, you can find a pattern to orient yourself in this environment as well. In a small puddle like that formed from a footprint in mud, the sun can reach the northern side of the puddle more easily which leads to more evaporation on that side. This means you’re more likely to find water on the southern side of the puddle. Once you find south, you can find north, east and west as well. Keep in mind this is just for the pattern within the puddle itself. Puddles are commonly found on the northern side of larger obstacles like trees or fences.
Nature has many guides. The sun is the easiest and most reliable, but it is not always visible. Trees can be reliable too but if the light on the southern side of the tree is blocked, then the tree will angle its branches towards wherever the most light is, making it a little less reliable than the sun. This is why trees alone in fields are more reliable than forest trees. Puddles are the most subtle and complex guide of the three, but can be a fun additional skill to have for orientation. The best practice when using nature guides to orient yourself is to use multiple guides to confirm.
“How to Read Water” By Tristan Gooley
“The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs” By Tristan Gooley