You thought you’d be home by dark. Then you had to repair that flat, and then you took that wrong turn. What to do? If you’re without a GPS or compass, look to the sky. You just need to learn two constellations. In the Northern Hemisphere, you need to recognize Polaris, the North Star; in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross. With either of these, you can identify north (or south) and keep yourself on track.
To find Polaris, first look for the Big Dipper, then trace a line upward between the two stars at the end of its “cup,” and you’ll find the North Star—the last star in the Little Dipper. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, look for the Southern Cross, and trace a line downward through its long axis. Find the two bright “pointer stars” near the Southern Cross, and draw a T with the stars as its top bar. The intersection between the bottom of the T and the line from the Southern Cross, will point you south.
If it’s too overcast to see the stars, wait for moonrise. Many people don’t realize this, but the moon always rises in the east, which can help you locate yourself. If it’s so overcast you can’t see the stars or the moon, get ready to stop, shiver through the night, and ride out in the morning.
Navigate Without a Compass
Every trail rider should carry a compass at all times. But you should save money, eat right, and get enough exercise, too—but how many of us do all that? It’s stunning to realize how many riders forget that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west—if there’s enough light to see by, there’s probably enough to navigate by. But here’s a neat trick to give you a more precise fix: the sun-and-watch method.
In the north temperate zone: Take your wristwatch and point the hour hand toward the sun. A line drawn midway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch face will point north/south. (If you’re on daylight saving time, the north-south line is found between the hour hand and the 1.)
In the southern temperate zone, you need a different method: Point the 12 on the watch face toward the sun, and halfway between the 12 and the hour hand is the north/south line (on daylight savings time it’s halfway between the hour hand and the 1 on the clock face.
Got a digital wristwatch? You can still make the method work if you draw a clock face on the ground.