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Natural Navigation, Part II

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp

The previous article contained the first installment about natural navigation. Readers of that piece understand how this basic skill could mean survival in the bush in an emergency situation.

The first article established some easy-to-observe ways that nature assists us in finding our direction -- if we only take the time to learn. I also stressed that all findings/practice runs must be verified with a compass until you are absolutely confident of your accuracy in reading natural signs. There is always the exception to the rule, so be alert.

If you spent time in practicing these skills -- dirt time -- then this installment will bring its own rewards. We're now going to spend some time on our hands and knees. Careful, close observation will greatly increase your ability to observe natural signs at a much greater distance. I am still amazed how much I learn every time I go into the swamp or bush. Small things will catch my eye, and I have to go and see it for myself. Nature is truly amazing!


Photo 1

Let's look at photo 1. First, we see the windswept grasses. We remember from the first article that the prevailing winds are from the northwest in this area (northern Ontario, Canada). (You will have to ascertain the prevailing winds for your own area.)
This seems to indicate to us that we are looking from a northern direction. Secondly we see shadows, and we know that the direction of shadows is also an indicator. Does this confirm our first conclusion? The shadows are close to the little poplar saplings and fall to the left side. Based on the time of day for this photo (early afternoon), this confirms our initial findings. We are indeed standing north of this photo, facing a southern direction.

What else can nature tell us here? At the bottom left hand corner of this photo, we now see some pitting in the snow. The constant sweeping action of the plant (with the prevailing winds) will smooth the snow away from the plant. This again confirms our decision regarding the prevailing winds for this area, and thus the direction these plants indicate.


Photo 2

In photo 2, what is evident? Look at the direction small grasses point in the wind. Also, in the background, we see a rock. The snow has melted from this side. From the last article we remember two things about rocks: that the hottest (southern) side will have snow melt first, and that lichens prefer to grow on the hottest/southern side. The compass in the photo confirms our findings (the mirrored end is toward the north).

When looking for natural indicators, we want to look at both the foreground and background, near and far, and use two or more techniques that compliment the other. Using many natural indicators gives us the greatest certainty of coming to the right conclusions.

Remember the hands-and-knees time promised you? Let's look back at photo 1 and see if we missed anything. At the bottom of the plant, we see how the snow is being mounded at the base of each little plant. (When viewed up close, on your knees, this would seem more prominent.) This snow is piled as a result of the prevailing winds. Does the side that faces the sun (south) have less snow? You should now start seeing how all are connected.


Photo 3

The three little plants in photo 3 have much to tell us if we stop to observe. First and foremost, we see a shadow. Knowing the time of day, this is an obvious clue. If at this point you still need the compass, it is okay; soon this should be elementary.

When we examine the snow beside the plants, we see that it has formed a natural ridge. This assists us in seeing the prevailing wind direction. Now as you walk across the windswept areas, you will have something else to view and add to your list of natural indicators.

At the bottom of these three plants, we again see that the snow is more on one side than the other. Now the terms "windward" side and "lee" side have new meaning for the navigator. If we again study our little indicators closer, we will see small particles that have fallen from this plant and will blow away in the wind; these will be on which side? Again these small, minute indicators are best viewed from as close as you can get to them. While walking past, pause for a minute on one knee and you will gain insights into these as direction indicators.

While the shadow was the most obvious indicator, it was dependent on a sunny day. The snow ridging and blown seeds/particles would have been evident any day or at night with artificial light. Let's talk about the shadow again. Are the shadows cast by these three plants short or long? Can we use this as a time estimator? If you were to recall from the previous article, we know that the sun this time of year follows a southeast to southwest path. If we stayed at the three plants all day, we would observe the sun being cast along a line from west to east past the plant. As mentioned in the previous article, this was the basis for the shadow tip method. But this would take a full day and, at this point, we want to examine some techniques for short observation stops.

It is possible we can simplify this technique to save some time? Will we still be accurate? Let's say we use the little ridges in the snow as a quick direction indicator following the same principles as the shadow tip method. When we view the compass we can see that the snow-formed ridges were made as the wind swept along the surface of the snow in the northern direction. The sun has cast a shadow over our little plant, and we observe this to be in a westerly direction.

As the sun rises in the east, the first shadows will be cast towards the west. (Is this a hint as to the time of day for this photo?) Since we are so far north, and the sun shines from the southeast to southwest as the day progresses, all shadows cast will move from the northwest to northeast as the day progresses. The shadow we see is on the westerly side and the windswept ridge formed from the prevailing winds is in a northerly direction. This will give us our walking shadow tip method.


Photo 4

What if you're where you can see nothing but snow? Photo 4 has the answer. Here you see a snow pile made for training purposes. Look, an instant shadow indicator. While your body obviously also casts a shadow, it is not a stationary object. To mark the path the sun is traveling, you need a stationary object. This has to be the easiest-to-make indicator ever.

Photo 5

Photo 5 shows a stump. As this is early in the day, the shadow is cast to the west. What if I hadn't told you the time the photo was taken, could nature provide us with an answer? Well, let's find out.

The stump here is a very plain stump, nothing special, right? Well, the shadow being cast by it points to the west, or does it? Because the compass says so? What if my compass was sitting on a big mineral deposit just under the snow? Let's prove that all things are working correctly.

One thing I would always stress is don't trust just the one thing. Trust the many things. That will give you the right answer.

First, the stump has more snow melted on one side as opposed to the other. This can be confirmed with my folding ruler. We know that the sun is hottest on the southeast to southwest side. This will cause more melting on that side.

Secondly, as the sun rises in the east, the shadow gets cast to the west. If the shadow is being cast to the east, then it will be an evening shadow. If the shadow is more of a circle formed around the bottom of the stump, this concludes that it is more around noon. Simple, Ah! No magic, just observing nature's indicators.

My hope is that now you are starting to see some of the small natural indicators that you would have previously overlooked. A natural navigator sees much more than the casual, untrained observer.

Photo 6

Photo 6 is somewhat dark but has something to offer. What do we see? Just two footprints, one from a man and one from a moose. What could these possibly tell us about direction or time?

The man's footprint is from my size eleven shoe. The moose's shoe size is harder to guess. Just trust me when I say he is a "big" bull moose. If you hang around the swamp much, you will be amazed at what nature will show you. This bull moose and I play a trailing game year-round. Anytime I come to the swamp to study, we are trailing each other.

The tracks show a shadow, but this time it is a sub-surface shadow.

Now you are getting the idea of how small and detailed you can be to navigate. As a natural navigator, you should not overlook even the smallest of details. Up until now, you have seen natural indicators from walking by or by being on your knees. To really see some, however, you will have to spend a great deal of time on your stomach.

What can we learn from a sub-surface shadow? At the back of my track, we see a small shadow. As the sun will be from the southeast to south west, this indicates that the track is heading in a northern direction.


A moose is a very large animal, especially an old bull, so we have a larger impression to study. Examine this huge print. Remember that objects tend to be hotter on the side that faces the sun, which is the southeast to the southwest side. The huge print seen here is starting to distort in the heel area, agreeing with the conclusion drawn from the human footprint that the heel is the southern side of the footprint. This is also supported by the shadow within the moose track.

Once again, I encourage the reader to go into the bush and practice. Only then will you truly see what I am trying to convey. Nature will teach you something but you have to go into her classroom to learn it.

Article and Photos Copyright Allan "Bow" Beauchamp.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3