Navigate by the sun

sunset over lake santa fe

An ability to navigate by the sun makes you a better navigator and increases your competence in the great outdoors.

Picture This 

You're following a westerly compass course through dense, swampy woods late in the morning on a sunny day. Your catching feature is the more or less north-south road where you left your Jeep. A blister develops on your foot, and you stop to treat it before it gets worse. After taking care of your foot, you enjoy a snack and some water. Some time later, you once again head out for the road. After walking a short way, you reach into your pocket for your compass. It's NOT there! Maybe you set it down when you stopped a while back. You backtrack but can't find it. In the slight panic, you've gotten turned around, and aren't sure which way is back to the road. 


jaynes scenic drive


Now what? How will you find your Jeep?

  • Scenario 1. You can't navigate by the sun. With no ability to navigate by the sun, you're in trouble. You set out for the road, making your best guess where it is. Unbeknownst to you, you're actually not following a straight path, but wandering in a wide circle because that's what disoriented humans tend to do. Night falls, and you can't navigate by the stars or the moon either. Eventually, a couple of days later, a Search and Rescue Team locates you--tired, dehydrated, hungry, and embarrassed.

  • Scenario 2. You can navigate by the sun. Since it's at least a partly sunny day, the loss of your compass is only a minor inconvenience. It's shortly before noon, and knowing the sun in your part of the world (the northern hemisphere) is more or less in the south around 1200 (24-hour time for 12 pm) clock time, you use its position to re-orient yourself. Then, keeping the south-bearing sun off your left shoulder, you continue walking in a westerly direction, arriving at the road about 45 minutes later. Rocket science? No way. Just the good sense of a competent wilderness navigator.

The Sun Provides Back-up Navigational Information

Even with a compass, a good navigator will take notice of the sun when it's available, since a good navigator never likes to rely on any one piece of information. The sun's position reassures that the compass is accurate--or inaccurate, as the case may be. 

Having determined your intended direction with a compass or maybe a GPS, notice where the sun is while heading in that direction. Then, instead of following either instrument, you may find it easier to use the sun as a temporary directional guide. Since the sun moves across the sky at 15 degrees per hour (360 degrees in a circle / 24 hours in a day), you can use the sun's guidance with reasonable accuracy for at least 20 minutes.

Or instead of using the sun, use shadows to guide you. In Scenario 2, to keep the south-bearing sun off your left shoulder, make sure your shadow falls to your right, and guide off your shadow instead of off the sun. In this situation, the shadows of trees and other objects should lie across your path. If they begin to lie parallel to your path, you'll know you're going in the wrong direction.

Accurately Navigating by the Sun

After learning to navigate by the sun (to do this, be sure to see the other sun-related links on the Celestial Navigation page), and after some practice, you should usually be able to find directions by the sun to within about 10 degrees. If you make good use of pathfinding skills, such accuracy should be sufficient to find your way across the terrain.

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