Finding North & Understanding Nature’s Clues

From reading the night sky to watching the sun, to mapping where the moss grows, there are indications across the natural world that help to determine the direction of north. Being able to accurately plot courses and understand navigation has been crucial throughout history.

From exploring new lands to finding the way home again, navigation has played a part on every page of humanity’s story.

Many phones and other handheld digital devices now come equipped with an accurate compass that can inform direction anywhere in the world. However, for much of history, this wasn’t the case.

A theory exists that the sunstone had polarizing attributes and was used as a navigational instrument by seafarers in the Viking Age. A stone found in 2002 off Alderney, in the wreck of a 16th-century warship, may lend evidence of the existence of sunstones as navigational devices

People, more often than not, had to know how to read their natural environment to find their way. By finding north, the other cardinal directions can be determined, and as a result people can successfully navigate over large distances.

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Evidence of ancient compasses have been found in China, while sunstones helped the Vikings navigate across the sea, possibly contributing to the Viking Age of Britain. 

North has held significance throughout history, and when it comes to navigation, north is commonly viewed as the primary direction. On maps, globes and other navigation tools, this primary direction is generally marked with an upward facing arrow.


The Invention of the Compass

Magnetic compasses rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to function. A magnetised needle rotates to align with the Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in the ends of the needle pointing to the magnetic north and south.

Magnetic compasses have always operated using this same method, and the exact origins of the compass have not been conclusively determined.

ther features found on modern orienteering compasses are map and romer scales for measuring distances and plotting positions on maps, luminous markings on the face or bezels

In Ancient Greece, the concept of magnetism that compasses rely on is thought to have been understood, while in China, versions of ancient compasses made with an iron needle, magnetised by rubbing it with iodestone, have been discovered.

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Many early compasses required wood or cork and a bucket or dish of water. A magnetised needle was attached to the buoyant wood and placed in the water where it would align with the magnetic poles.

As understanding of directional principles and technology developed further, the compass was made more accurate, reliable, long lasting and portable. However, magnetic compasses today still rely on the same base principles that they have for centuries.

Explorers of Old

Knowing how to find north has been a vital part of exploration for generations. It has allowed explorers to chart an accurate course, be able to find their way home again, and to understand where the places they were discovering were in the world to be able to find them again. Understanding direction and how to find north allowed explorers to travel across both land and the open sea.

Vikings navigated With translucent crystals?

The Vikings were able to cross open ocean, something viewed as an incredibly risky activity, by using the sun to determine direction and placement.

Rumoured to have used a device called a sun stone, a mineral deposit with light polarising properties, these seafaring warriors were able to locate the sun on cloudy days to remain on course.

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Such inventions allowed them to reach places as far afield as Iceland and North America, and made the Viking Age of Britain possible.

The North Star

A method that has been trusted throughout history to find north has been locating the North Star (Polaris). Also called the Pole Star, the North Star is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

This star holds such an important part in navigational history as it lies in an almost direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis, positioned less than one degree from the northern celestial pole.

On a clear night in the northern hemisphere, you can find north with a little bit of stellar constellation knowledge. If you can find the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) then it is simple to find the North Star (Polaris)

Due to its unique positioning in line with Earth’s axis, the North Star stays as a fixed point in the night sky. The North Star always points to the north, making it a reliable way of finding north on starry nights.

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One of the easiest ways to find the north star is by locating the two stars on the outermost edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper. By drawing a line through these stars and continuing it on to the next brightest star, the North Star can be located. Once located heading north is as simple as following the North Star.

Reading the Night Sky

Reading the stars has represented a way to navigate throughout human history. Being able to recognise constellations and how these can be used for navigational purposes has been effective for both land and sea navigation and continues to be effective to this day. As well as the North Star, Orion’s Belt marks another way to use the night sky to navigate.

The three bright stars that together make up Orion’s Belt are positioned in a line that runs approximately east to west. Below these three bright stars, are three slightly dimmer stars, appearing as if they are hanging down from the belt.

Orion’s belt at top left, Orion’s sword at bottom right

These three stars are known as Orion’s Sword, the sword points to the south, so by travelling in the opposite direction that the sword points, it is possible to navigate to the north.

It is important to note that Orion’s sword is not the most useful navigational tool at every point in the year. In the Northern Hemisphere the Orion constellation is most visible high in sky during winter.

Where the Moss Grows

Taking note of clues in nature can help to determine where north is located. Moss is one good example of nature providing some directional clues. Moss loves damp, shadowy areas that stay somewhat hidden from the sun.

In the Northern Hemisphere, as the sun moves from east to west from a slightly southerly position due to the placement of the equator, the northern side of trees often remains wetter and shadier than the southern side. As such, moss often grows on the northern side of trees, giving a possible indication of north.

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However, it is important to note that while looking for moss may give an indication of direction, it is by no means a sure process of navigation, as a variety of factors can influence moss growth. This means that if moss growth is used as the primary method of navigation it can lead travellers astray.

The Sun and the Moon

When the sun is shining, north can be located with the use of a stick or rod that is approximately two feet in length. By securing one end of the stick in the ground in a relatively flat area, free from bushes and trees, the stick will create a strong shadow. It is important that the stick is as straight as possible for this method to work accurately.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west

In this method, the top of the shadow the stick creates is marked, such as with a rock, and then half an hour later, as the shadow moves with the sun, the top point of the shadow is again marked.

These two marks will show east and west, as this is the direction the sun moves. The original mark is west and the second point marks east. By standing with the left foot at the west mark and the right foot by the east mark, north will be directly ahead.

Stick method to find east and west

If the timing of noon can be determined, then this provides another way for the sun to lend itself to navigation. As the sun travels from east to west across the sky, it reaches its highest point at noon.


As the sun follows the path of the equator, which is south of the Northern Hemisphere, when the sun is at its highest, it points due south. This means that at this time, the direction opposite to the sun is to the north.

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A wrist watch can also be used to help find north with the aid of the sun. Line up the hour hand of the watch with the sun and then find the angle halfway between the hour hand and the twelve o’clock mark (counting clockwise if it is before noon).

Drawing a line along this angle marks the north south line, with the point opposite the mark between the hour hand and twelve o’clock marking north.

After the sun has set, the moon offers another method, albeit not perfectly accurate, for finding north. If a crescent moon is in the sky, then tracing an imaginary line between the two horns of the crescent down to the horizon can point south, and from this guide, north can be found.

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Although this method is not perfectly accurate, it is most accurate when the moon is high in the night sky, as opposed to near moonrise or moonset.

Finding Home

Knowing how to find north has been a key part of effective navigation across human history. From reading the stars to watching the shadows the sun casts, people have found ways to determine north and find their place in the world.

The invention and development of the compass marked a vital turning point in maritime history, providing the basis for navigational technology that is still used today. Knowing how to find north helped the people cross the ocean and facilitated exploration across the world.

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Understanding how to find north and navigate without the use of digital technology is a useful skill even in the age of modern devices. Observing the natural world, it is possible to find clues to indicate north and that provide the basis for successful navigation, with or without a compass.

Over the course of human history, knowing how to find north has helped to ensure that people across the world have been able to find their place in the world and know how to find their way back home.