Wildwood Survival website

Tracker Knife
Pitch & Glue
Lyme Disease
Native People
Emergency Prep
Young People
Wilderness Mind
Site Disclaimer
About this site
Use of material
Privacy Policy

Natural Navigation, Part I

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp

I have always been amazed when I hear individuals refer to natural navigation techniques -- I am amazed at how little we know of this subject. In our modem era, man has come to rely on all sorts of fancy tools, from a compass and map to a global positioning system (GPS). While these Will aid the bush traveler in keeping his bearings, I have come to realize that they are not always there when you need them the most. I personally prefer to have more options to ensure my safe return home.

Try a personal test. Get into your car and drive down a bush road away from town. Take a pencil and paper. Go into the bush, sit down, and ask yourself, "What do I see that will assist me in finding my bearings?" The more you write, the less chance you have of getting lost if you become disoriented when you are separated from your gear. The less you write, the greater the chance you have of getting lost if you become detached from your gear.

So the more natural navigating techniques one has to find his bearings, the more success the individual has of making it home safely.

In this article, I will try to show you some of my ways of using nature to keep my bearings. We will start this topic off with simple visual clues. Later articles will go more into minute visual clues.

An article cannot teach you all nature has to offer for assisting the traveler in staying on course. This you will have to do on your own, aided by some exercises by which I will assist you in seeing some indicators. The more time you put into this "Dirt Time" as I call it, the more rewards you will see. Every time I go into the bush, something new will catch my eye, and I have to go examine and verify these findings.

I have a saying I use when taking individuals into the bush: I am not here to teach you. I am here to show you where you can find your own answer if you seek it. Nature does the teaching.

As a small boy, I got lost during the middle of winter in a place that stays about forty degrees below zero for two weeks straight. I still recall wandering aimlessly through the snow, then looking across a swamp and deciding that direction is where I should go.

After walking the better part of the night, I eventually came out of the bush to a place that I recognized. It was a remote sand hill on the outskirts of town where my dad had taken me sledding.

I went up onto the highway, and a police officer on patrol picked me up and brought me home. As a small six year old, lost with no formal skills and insufficient intellect to analyze the situation and develop a plan, I was driven more by instinct than logic. I survived, and so can you as you have the opportunity to learn more about natural navigating, thus increasing your instincts. You too will have more options for surviving.

I recently took some helicopter pilots into a remote bush site we could reach only by plane. The fears of being lost, then of being in the bush, took over. Understanding this, so as not to make it too rough on them, they were allowed to bring their choice of equipment -- as long as it would all fit into the palm of their hand.

After four days in the bush at thirty-three degrees below zero, they realized that nature has more to offer them than they could have imagined. The fear of being lost after a crash has been alleviated; they now look at being in the wild as a learning experience. As pilots, navigating is a big factor in their jobs; they saw firsthand the advantages of some of the techniques that I will try to convey to you. By the end of the training, each of the pilots could walk around the bush and show me at least ten natural navigating techniques very easily.

These pilots were from around the world: Switzerland, France, Germany, China, and Canada. These natural navigating techniques have to be capable of being brought back to where they will fly and be effective, as without a doubt lives will depend on them.

What is it that will keep these pilots and you from getting lost? Nature's indicators, plain and simple. We have to be aware of what nature is saying. when you first look at something in the bush, ask yourself, "What is this telling me?"

Some of course, will see just the object. After this three-part article, it is my hope that you see what I see.
I tell people to find at least ten indicators to increase their accuracy. The more you know, the less you go wrong.

When you first look for markers in the bush, be aware of things that are happening all around you every day, all year long. For instance, the wind, sun, moon, rains, the changes of seasons, etc.; all of these will assist the knowledgeable bush traveler.

Let's start with the most basic facts: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The moon also rises and sets the same way.

Find out about the prevailing winds in your area or the area into which you will be traveling; the prevailing winds here (northern Ontario, Canada) are from the northwest.

Now let's use some of these facts to gain insights into natural navigating. When you first start trying some of the practical exercises, take your compass along to verify your results. This will instill confidence in the techniques and your abilities. Eventually, this will be just a carry-along item.

As with all things, natural navigating has some exceptions to the rule. A canyon can create its own wind. This will change your prevailing winds' direction. A naturally sheltered area, from a mountain or large stand of trees, can also change the accuracy of your direction indicators. This article will try to illustrate some of these exceptions.

The accompanying photos highlight what I am trying to explain. This is sometimes very hard -- there is nothing like being there. I encourage individuals to go into the bush for themselves and see/experience what it is I am talking about. With any technique, experience is the best teacher.

Photo 1

[Unfortunately, the first page of the article is printed right over the photo, so the details referred to in the text are hard to see.]

In our walk through the swamp to find natural indicators, we see some poplar trees (photo 1). First, we ask ourselves, "What do we see?" Let's think of nature's factors that are at work. First, we will determine the winds; they are prevailing from the northwest.

As we view this photo, we can see that the bare trees at the left side of the photo are not too bent. But, as you look at the right side of the photo, you will see the bend in trees is very great. What you can't see just left of the camera's range is a natural windbreak, sheltering the trees in the left side of this photo. This windbreak has created an exception to the indicator about the prevailing wind. However, on the right side of the photo, the poplar trees have a great bend to them. This "bending" is caused by a constant pressure on the tree over the course of its life cycle. After being thus forced, it has grown a natural curve.

So we know the prevailing winds are from the northwest. We determine that the bend of the tree causes it to point to the southeast. This technique will also work in the dark, as all one has to do is point one's flashlight up into the tree and gain a direction indicator. On a bright moonlit night, you will not even need a flashlight. From viewing one photo, we now have gained a day technique and a night technique.

There are no special secrets to this natural navigating, just look at what nature is telling you. The only thing necessary is to practice seeing it. Some dirt time training will, without a doubt, increase your observations. Are we done with this photo? We will see.

Think back to all the times you have seen a big old pine tree with a big bend to it out on a point. All this time, it's giving an indicator and people never see it. Some have been lost in the bush beside trees like these and died there.


Photo 2

In photo 2, we see a small poplar tree at the bottom of the larger stand we just viewed. We ask again, "What is this little tree telling us?" Again, we see a small bend to the sapling echoing the other trees, so we know this is caused by the prevailing wind. This is our wind indicator, helpful in daytime or night. Now, look closely at the little sapling; you can see a whitish area on the right side of the tree, and a darker green side on the left. What does this tell us?

Let's think about what natural factors are working on this little tree during its life cycle. The sun's rays are hitting this tree all day; in this part of the world, we know that the sun's path is from the southeast to southwest every day. So, the little sapling is warmer on one side (south) and cooler on the other side. On the hottest side, the little sapling is developing a natural sunscreen to protect the tree. This protection does not allow premature rising of the sap, which would kill the little tree. (The whitish powder that the tree is producing as a natural sunscreen is worth trying when you are walking around the bush and have forgotten your own sunscreen. If all that walking is getting you chaffed, you can also try this whitish powder as a talc to eliminate the friction.)

So, the side where we can see this soft fine powder is on the southeast to southwest axis. This gives us another natural indicator. It is worth mentioning that older trees often have a hard whitish layer of bark that you should not confuse with this. Go find a sapling out in the open, exposed to the elements all day, with no natural shelter. This will give you the most accurate indicator.

So, is this all for our photos? We will come back to them from time to time so you may see what you are learning.


Photo 3

In photo 3 we again ask, "What can we learn from what we see?"

In the background, we see a big spruce; from knowing the sun's path, we now know the hottest side all day long. This hottest side will enhance the tree's growth, so the spruce tree you see in the background has thicker limbs and brush on one side. The thickest side is the left side of the tree. By determining this, we know that the left side of the tree is on the side of the southeast to southwest axis. There doesn't seem to be a bend to this spruce, so we know that wind is not a factor here. There are small saplings in front of the spruce, however, unlike those in photo 1 & photo 2, there is not much bend to these saplings. You will note, though, that the tips are trying to grow in the direction of the sun's path.

Seeing a little sapling like this is of value to the bush traveler who might have to make a decision as to where in a winter storm to put up a shelter. With no strong, constant wind, wouldn't you want to stop there? What if it were mosquito season, and you needed a breeze to ward off the little bugs? Noticing small details will make your travel into the bush an enjoyable time or a real learning experience.

What else can be learned from this photo? We will come back to it.

Photo 4

In photo 4 we again ask, "What we can learn from this tree?" This repeated question is to ingrain into the reader the questions needed when walking around the bush. Small things we notice will make the difference. When I stopped to rest against this tree, I noticed something that gave me an indicator.

The warm winter sun heated one side of this birch tree. As a result, melted water and slush dripped predominately on one side, accumulating at the bottom of the tree where it refroze during the cold night. Thus a small pile provides a natural indicator as to the southern path of the sun. Note the compass on the ground, verifying this assessment.

In this same photo, we see a shadow. What does this tell us? First, what is the sun's path all day? How will it cast a shadow on this tree? If the sun is on one side and the shadows on the other side, this shadow image will be where? If you thought it to be somewhere on the northwest to northeast side, depending on the time of day, you would be correct.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west so any shadows made will be in the opposite direction, again, dependent on the time. Thus, the shadow tip method is also a natural indicator, helping you confirm directions.

Return to photo 2 for a moment. About three-quarters of the way down the picture on the right hand side of the tree, we now see a small bent grass that has cast a shadow. Does this confirm our assessment from the natural sunscreen technique discussed earlier? Remember, don't use just one natural indicator, look at many.


Photo 5

In photo 5, we see a ravine, and we ask again, "What does this tell us?" Well, we've established that the hottest side is where the sun rays hit during the sun's southeast to southwest path. On the left side of the photo, we see an almost dry area, while on the right side of the photo the snow is still very much covering the ground.

We determine from this that the sun will hit the left side of the area in this photo for a longer period of the day than the sun hits the right side. So, the left side of the slope is the warmer side and the right side is the colder side. The lack of snow here is another natural indicator to help us get our bearings.

Photo 6

In photo 6, we see a rock. Nothing special, But we ask ourselves again, "What does this have to teach us?"

First, notice a shadow being cast by the rock. The sun is traveling southeast to southwest, so the shadow will be sent from the northwest to northeast. If we look at the top of the photo, there is no shadow. We know this
to be the southeast to southwest side of the rock. The shadow side is at the bottom of the picture, which we've determined must be the northwest to northeast side. Check the compass in the photo; this will give you confidence in your findings. What else will this rock photo tell us?

We see lichens growing on the rock. They will capitalize on the sun's hottest side, which we have determined to be the southeast to southwest side. Just a quick viewing of this rock makes it easy for a bush traveler to check his direction just in passing. These findings are confirmed by the compass; the mirrored end indicates the direction of north.

We've gotten two clues from this rock. Is there a third? Look at the bottom of the rock. Snow has been pulling away from the rock. This we know is affected by the sun's rays heating the rock during the day. The rock will hold this heat, and the hottest (or southern) side will melt the most and the quickest.

Let's take this clue back to our earlier photos. In photo 2, we now see in the bottom right corner of the photo, snow being melted from the bank. This will again confirm our assessment that this must be the warmest side or the southeast to southwest side. Returning to photo 3, do the rocks in the foreground confirm that the thickest side of the spruce was on the southeast to southwest side? Again, if you look at the little saplings in the foreground, you will see a shadow being cast -- more confirmation.

As you are starting to notice with all these photos, there is no special trick to natural navigating; you just have to be in tune with nature's lessons.


Photo 7

Now, on to photo 7. We again ask, "what is this telling us"? The first thing you may notice is that the rock has a dark side and a lighter side. Well, if the sun is beating down on one side all day, every day, year after year, we know that the sun's rays will have a bleaching effect. Therefore, we might conclude that the lighter side of this rock is sun-bleached and indicates the southern face of the rock.

Again we don't want to use just one indicator, so look in the center of the photo. Go up to about the quarter mark and you will see a small pile of stones between two bigger stones. The left-hand side is lighter than the right side. Look at the little sapling in front of the pile of stones; we see a shadow, another indicator.

In our last photo, again ask yourself the big question, "What is this telling me?"

First, we see a rock, nothing special to most, but to the bush traveler, it is a vast storehouse of information. What do we see? Half of the rock is covered with snow; can we determine our direction from this? The left side of the rock is the southeast to southwest side. The darker side of the rock is partly being covered by snow; we know this is not getting heated as much, and the amount of snow will confirm this. So the cooler side is the northwest to northeast side of this rock.

Now if you view the bottom of the rock, you will see that the snow has melted quite a bit more on the hottest side than the other side -- more information for our multi-level indicators. Are there other clues?

If we go back to photo 7, we see that the bleached side of the rock is smoother. Will this assist us in navigation? What if you were to sit down on this rock for a break? By just feeling the rock, would you gain information about your directions? If you were in the bush at night and found a stone in the dark, say, out in the open, taking nature's weather all day long, year after year, could you feel the difference?


Photo 8

In photo 8, did you see the top of the poplar trees above the big rock? Which way were they facing? Does this add to our findings?
Did you notice that all these techniques dealt with information you could gather while passing by? None required an in-depth analysis of nature's teachings. There is more to see in all eight of these photos, but you must first spend some "dirt time" to gain firsthand experience. The next installment of this series will take you farther down the natural navigation trail. Be sure to keep this article to re-read along with the next one which will provide even more detail.

In conclusion, I am confident you will soon feel a sense of home in the bush. I hope you have found this interesting and that you take the time "to see" what is out there.

Nature is the teacher. Man can just steer you to where the answer can be found if only you seek it. Nature will never steer you wrong.

Article and Photos Copyright Allan "Bow" Beauchamp.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, Volume 5, Issue 2