How to Navigate Using the Stars, Sun and Moon

Written by The Ready Store

Knowing how to navigate using the stars, sun and moon can be a great skill to have in an emergency.

Many people are interested in knowing how to navigate using the stars, moon and the sun but feel that will be too hard. However, this article will give you a few easy-to-use tips that will be practical and useful in an emergency.

Stars and Constellations
Pole Stars. Polaris, also known as the North Star or Polar Star, is one of the brightest stars in the sky and never moves within one degree of true north. To find Polaris, first find the Big Dipper – part of the Ursa Major constellation. The two stars that form the right side of the dipper’s cup when lined up point directly to Polaris. Interestingly, the distance between the Big Dipper and Polaris is roughly equal to your current latitude.

Star navigationCassiopeia. Many star navigators will also recommend that you find the constellation Cassiopeia in the sky. This will allow you to double check the Polaris star. The North Star sits right between Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper. Cassiopeia is shaped like a rough W.

Orion’s Belt. Orion’s Belt is a helpful constellation to locate in order to help you navigate your way south. The belt roughly runs east to west. However, to determine south, follow the sword that hangs from Orion’s Belt. If you follow this belt, it will point you directly south.

Star Movements. At night, stars will rise in the east and set in the west. If you’re disoriented, place two sticks into the ground about 2-3 feet apart. Line up the edges of the two sticks with a bright star that you can track. Follow the path of the star for 15-30 minutes and you’ll be able to determine which way you’re facing.

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The Moon
The moon rises in the east. That means that at midnight, it will be in the south and then set in the west. However, the angle of the moon’s orbit is less reliable than other objects in order to help you navigate.

You can however, use a crescent moon to navigate. If you draw an imaginary line down the side of the crescent moon (from tip to tip), that line will point you south. If the moon rises before sunset, the illuminated side of the moon will face west. If the moon rises after midnight, the bright side will face east.

The Sun
Setting and Rising. We all know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. However, due to the tilt of the earth, the direction might not lead you in a true east or true west direction. The sun rises and sets closest to east-west during the equinoxes (March and September). During the summer, the sun will rise in a more northeasterly direction and set in the north-western direction. During the winter, the sun will rise in the southeast and set in the south west.

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Using a Watch. Hold your watch horizontal and level to the ground. Point the hour hand directly towards the sun. The imaginary line that sits between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark will run north to south. By using the shadow test above, you’ll be able to determine which way is east and west and navigate as you wish.

Shadows. Place a stick in the ground and mark where the shadow of the stick is on the ground. Wait about 15-30 minutes and place another rock where the shadow has moved. If you line up those two rocks it will point roughly east to west.

What do you use?
Besides buying a compass or downloading William Shatner’s voice on your navigation system (Get it? Navigating with the STARS?), how do you navigate in an emergency? Comment below to tell us what tricks or tips you have that might help others.

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Updated February 8, 2013

24 Comments

  1. Griptilian wrote:

    Wow, awesome breakdown. I’ve always been curious about how to navigate with stars but never actually gone to the trouble of looking it up. Happened to stumble upon this by accident. Cool post!

    February 8th, 2013 at 7:48 pm
  2. chamayo wrote:

    is also good for south america?, I´m chilean, living in Chile.
    in all case, this information is very practical.
    regards, carlos.-

    February 11th, 2013 at 6:50 am
  3. jack geyer wrote:

    Do you sell parsley in the gallon can.

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:08 am
  4. Ricardo wrote:

    This article implies that the moon will always be due south at midnight…not true. The moon’s schedule changes constantly. It can even be seen during broad daylight during certain cycles. Google a moonrise/moonset schedule to know when the moon will be visible. Also the constellation Orion is only visible during certain times of the year (late autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere). Stay prepared! Peace.

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:22 am
  5. richard ramey wrote:

    The north star is always at a constant (about)20° above the horizon. Summer or winter / night or day.

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:31 am
  6. The Ready Store wrote:

    @jack geyer. At the moment, we do not sell parsley in a large can. However, we come out with new products every week and we’d recommend that you keep checking back to see when we release more spices and seasonings.

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:33 am
  7. The Ready Store wrote:

    Hey Carlos, These items probably wouldn’t be ideal for South America. Particularly locating constellations in the southern hemisphere.

    (Chi- Chi- Chi- le le le!)

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:36 am
  8. JeannieC wrote:

    wow- about Orion. Hmmm, I guess I’m going to have to pay more attention- I grew up in Oregon and Orion was my most favorite constellation – I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t find it in the sky. Very interesting.

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:37 am
  9. richard ramey wrote:

    The north star will always be (about) 20° above the horizon. Summer or winter / night or day.
    I did not read that it implied due south. Just before and after sunset.
    Brightest star in the morn. is in the east – forgot , its mercury or venus ??

    February 11th, 2013 at 9:40 am
  10. Oscar wrote:

    Also for the star movements. If the star loops right you are looking south, if the star loops left you are looking north. “The Encylopedia of Survival Techniques pg 161.”

    February 11th, 2013 at 11:00 am
  11. Dan wrote:

    We have obtained terrain charts of our area and have printed out Google Earth of the same area. That and a compass will get us around no problem. If we are reduced to using those items to get around we won’t be going far to start with.

    February 11th, 2013 at 12:14 pm
  12. jean wrote:

    we use to tell time by our shadow and using the stars for direction. still use it today.excellent info.

    February 11th, 2013 at 3:02 pm
  13. Ditte wrote:

    Orion is usually only seen during the winter months, at least at night. I think you can see it in the summer, but only really early in the morning. Be aware of what time of year it is. Also in the southern hemisphere, you can use The Southern Cross for navigation.

    February 11th, 2013 at 5:21 pm
  14. Jill wrote:

    Is the picture of Orion labeled wrong? Should the East and West labels be flipped?

    February 11th, 2013 at 5:55 pm
  15. survival food wrote:

    On my experience and knowledge in order to know the time of day, one must stand in the open and see whats your shadow’s direction will be. Just like a normal clock, we must view it like how we read time.

    February 12th, 2013 at 9:46 am
  16. Mr. Prepper wrote:

    I HOPE ANYONE TAKING PREPAREDNESS SERIOUSLY HAS A COMPASS OF TWO. GREAT INFO THOUGH JUST IN CASE YOUR LOSE OR DONT HAVE ONE.

    February 13th, 2013 at 9:49 am
  17. Mary wrote:

    hey, no good for me (Australia) & you did not point that out, That it is no good for PEOPLE IN the south of the globe. we follow the Southern Cross and the two sisters down here

    February 14th, 2013 at 8:41 pm
  18. Ray wrote:

    Jill,

    The picture of Orion is labelled correctly.

    February 15th, 2013 at 5:51 pm
  19. Captain Call wrote:

    @ Ramey… Whatever LATITUDE you live on (Houston is at ~ 29 degrees LATTITUDE) YOU WILL SEE POLARIS (North Star) the same number of degrees above the horizon. In Austin, TX, one finds Polaris at ~30.5 deg. Understand that ALL THE CONSTELLATIONS (Including the Big Dipper) all rotate AROUND POLARIS THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT, at least that’s way it is to us in the Northern Hemisphere. If you can’t see the Big Dipper, it’s probably too early/late and it’s below the horizon. Just wait a couple of hours and look again. I’m goin’ back to Lonesome Dove. Saddle up boys.

    February 16th, 2013 at 5:56 pm
  20. Aptitude Design wrote:

    Orion:line through middle star of belt &the sword is North-South, the Belt stars run East-west:
    THE Moon: the Earth turns at 15 degrees per hour:
    the Moon seems to roll across the sky at the same rate, if one know the face of the Moon, he is able to tell both Time & Direction by it BY the Way::: it is only South of one be North of the Tropic of Capricorn, It is North is one if one be South of the Tropic of Cancer, in the Tropics, it can be either. Have a look at Scorpius, too.

    September 18th, 2013 at 1:25 am
  21. SANTA FRANCIS wrote:

    Once you locate the north star you can determine south east and west. Draw a circle around you on the ground.about 3ft dia. take one step out of the circle toward the north star. Mark the circle just where you stepped. take 2 more steps toward the north star turn around lay a pole or stick across the circle to opposite side of your north mark. Now you have north and south , east and west are obvious from there..May not be exact but close enough.. You can use Orion’s belt and sword to possibly confirm south. Now the circle is your compass. Now pick you direction of travel by land mark in the distance and walk toward that landmark. When you get there make you compass again . use the rising or setting sun the came way..

    February 10th, 2014 at 9:41 am
  22. Captain Call wrote:

    @ Chamayo -

    In the southern hemisphere “The Southern Cross” (3 across, 1 down) act almost like Polaris in the north. If you are SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR any amount, you WILL NOT SEE POLARIS (North Star). Understand that the earth “is the shape of a circle” (quote from the Bible), so the farther you MOVE AWAY FROM an object, the lower said object “sinks on the horizon”. OK Hoss. It’s time to punch some doogies. Saddle UP!

    February 11th, 2014 at 7:54 pm
  23. Captain Call wrote:

    If you think this is hard, you should try navigating at sea, even with a compass. Not many landmarks out there and it can get pretty rough. I’ve never used GPS because I’m an old guy and started sailing with a compass and plotting positions on the charts. It’s called “deduced reckoning” or “Dead Reckoning” for short. If you’re on land, it always helps to have a good dog with you, for many reasons. I’m headin’ for the hills. Saddle Up!

    February 11th, 2014 at 8:19 pm
  24. PattyP wrote:

    Hey Chamayo, here’s how to find due south by the Southern Cross: Find it, it’s quite bright; it also isn’t perfectly balanced, the arms are a bit crooked. (There is a group of stars that could be confused for the Southern Cross. That cross is bigger, the stars aren’t as bright, & the two stars beside the cross aren’t there.) The Southern Cross may be upright or upside down or sideways depending on the time of night and the season. From the perspective of the Cross being upright then on the left of it will be two stars, also quite bright. They will be side-by-side next to the cross. Draw an imaginary line that runs perpendicular to a line drawn between the two stars. Then draw another imaginary line through the two stars that form the upright post of the Cross, the post that holds the arms. Extend these two lines to where they intersect: this will be in a particularly black area of the sky, devoid of any bright stars, called the “coal sack.” That intersection point is due south. More accurate than a compass. It’s visible to me in Hawaii but only in the winter. I can’t see the coal sack from here. In Chile you’ll be able to see this configuration any clear night. I lived in Australia for twenty years and used this many times to get oriented and find my way home from bushwalks that ran too long.

    February 12th, 2014 at 5:59 pm

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