Finding Your Way at Night
As I was coming home tonight, the moon was a beautiful crescent with the tips of the crescents almost perfectly aligned to point towards south (which I will explain in a minute). It made me think of all the different ways to find direction in the wild, or if you are just lost on a country road. Of course I always carry a compass, but it still interests me knowing how to find direction without one.
A GPS (Global Positioning System) device is the most accurate way to find direction. I wrote a post on February 5, 2013 about using a GPS, and they can be a life saver, but you have to have faith in them. I remember the first time I used one was on an elk hunt in the Colorado Rockies. My best friend Rich had just purchased one, and I was skeptical, even though at the time I was in the Air Force programming satellites to detect missile launches. I don’t know why I was skeptical; I was very knowledgeable about satellite technology. I guess maybe because this was something new that I was unfamiliar with, so I doubted it, but luckily Rich didn’t.
On a stormy September night, Rich had shot an elk about an hour before sunset. We dressed the animal almost completely, even into the dark of night, but a thunderstorm was upon us, and we were three miles from camp, at least. The rain began to fall in heavy sheets, the lightning was striking trees all around us, and we decided to head back to camp and come back for the elk the next day. We used the GPS to mark our camp when we left that morning, and used it to mark the elk when we left it that night. The only problem was that in between the two points we hiked through some of the roughest timber I have ever seen, up and down some steep slopes, over boulder fields, and there was no easy way back.
After about two hours in the pouring rain and lightning, I was beginning to question if the GPS was pointing us in the right direction. We were tired, soaking wet, and cold. I was sure the direction we were going was not the right way, but Rich persisted that it was. One of the reasons Rich and I are best friends is that we can disagree without fighting or getting our feelings hurt, and that night in the pouring rain I made him stop so we could look at a map with a compass. I clearly pointed out to him where our camp was, and it was not in the direction we were going. But he insisted the GPS said we were only a half mile away, in a different direction, and we should give it a chance.
Sure enough, a half mile later we arrived at camp. We had gotten so twisted around throughout the day and through the night and the storm, even within a hundred yards of the camp I was not convinced. Boy was I wrong, and Rich was a hero with his GPS. Getting into that wall tent out of the storm, getting a fire going, a warm meal on the stove, and I was a believer in the GPS. What was hard for me to accept was that the GPS takes you straight to where you need to go, regardless of terrain (at least at that time, they are more sophisticated these days). The next day was a horrendous trip to get that elk out, but I’ll save that for another story.
My intent of this post was to talk about night time navigation, and I got distracted on that story about the elk. So I will tell you about what inspired this in the first place. Using the moon can be another way of determining direction at night. The moon follows the sun; it rises in the east and sets in the west, that’s a simple way of determining east and west.
Because the moon has no light of its own, we can only see it when it reflects the sun’s light. As it orbits the earth on its 28-day circuit, the shape of the reflected light varies according to its position. A new moon (or no moon) is when it is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, and we can’t see it at all. Then, as it moves away from the earth’s shadow, it begins to reflect light from its right side and waxes to become a full moon before waning, or losing its lighted shape, to appear as a sliver on the left side. You can use this information to identify direction.
Any time there is a partial shadow on the moon, between Full and New Moon, you can draw an imaginary line through the points where the shadow touches the bright surface on each side of the moon. Then extend that line down to the horizon for a general position of South. For example, draw a line connecting the two “horns” of the crescent moon, and continue it down to the ground on that same angle and that will point you to South.
If the moon rises before the sun has set, the illuminated side will be the west. If the moon rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be the east. This obvious discovery provides us with a rough east-west reference during the night.