Introduction to Navigational Skill and Survival

Navigation is the art and skill of accurately determining ones location and then successfully guiding to a determined destination. Accurate navigation requires a sound assessment of the Earth’s latitude, which is the north-south position measured from the Equator, and the Earth’s longitude, being the east-west position measured from the prime meridian. The prime meridian is the common zero longitude, based at Greenwich United Kingdom, and the standard of time reckoning for the world.

People do die when lost in the wilderness. The vulnerable can even perish getting lost going for a walk, or simply just going to the toilet in the bush (check out our article on bush toilet etiquette). Care must be taking when venturing into the bush, whether four-wheel driving or hiking, and proper preparation can mean the difference between survival and death.


A basic compass and navigational knowledge are a critical minimum if venturing into the wilderness or encountering an emergency. Respect and awareness of the hazards a particular environment can inflict are one aspect of survival preparedness and successful navigation.


Survival Navigation

Traditional People’s Navigation

The Traditional Owner’s of central Australia, for example, often base their artworks on the lay out of the land. In other words, their art are maps of the landscape that an artist has the authority to illustrate, depicting water holes, camp sites, sacred sites, geographical features and locations and aspects of particular creation stories. The Indigenous people of Australia have a strong affiliation to their country and an almost innate ability to navigate across vast distances.

Indigenous art

They travel along what they refer to as ‘song lines’, which are oral maps, and the use of various land marks. These ‘song lines’ would be passed down the generations as stories, songs and through initiations. Indigenous Australians, renowned for having the world’s oldest living culture, were one of the first civilisations to become proficient astronomers and would also navigate by the stars and the movement of the Sun. Much of their art portrayed astrological features representing many of their creation stories.

Traditionally these navigation skills were crucial for survival, particularly when locating the next water source travelling across great expanses of country that is the harsh nature of the Australian outback. These original custodians also needed to accurately navigate to various remote locations to trade, obtain materials for tools and hunting weapons, locate various food sources, for cultural interactions between communities and of course to visit family and friends.

I have personally witnessed Traditional Owner’s amazing navigation skills when facilitating ‘looking after country’ projects, learning traditional ecological land management practices, often travelling large distances completely off-road. A good lesson practised by Traditional Owner’s when navigating across country is based on respect, to respect other’s rights, boundaries and cultural differences.


Survival Navigation

History of Navigation

Numerous navigational techniques have existed throughout history dating back thousands of years. Ancient people recognised landmarks and observed the movement of the Sun and stars. Ancient sailors largely remained in sight of land and studied the constellations to determine their position.

The first magnetic compass was invented by the Chinese as early as 200 BC. However, it was originally used not as a navigational tool but a practice of divining godly direction. It wasn’t until the end of the first millennium that they began to use it for orienteering navigation. The magnetised compass was only introduced in the West in the 13th century (Australian Geographic).

Dead Reckoning

Compasses were implemented in the 1100’s to derive orientation relative to the Earth’s magnetic pole, and were used to navigate on land and at sea. Compasses were used in the early navigational technique of Dead Reckoning, which involved estimating a current position based on a previous position. Speed, time and direction were calculated, using the past position as a reference point. However their was a large potential for error (National Geographic).


Celestial navigation was often a more reliable navigation technique, particularly at sea where wind speeds and ocean currents increased the chance of mistakes with dead reckoning, Celestial navigation was commonly used in conjunction with dead reckoning to ‘fix’ a course and determine a more reliable position. Navigation by observations of the stars and constellations, moon, sun and horizon were used to calculate a position. Navigators needed a sound understanding of the different constellation at different times of the year to aid in orientation (National Geographic).


Navigation by the constellations was vital for sailors on the open seas, which was significantly improved through the invention of an apparatus known as the sextant. The sextant measured angles between objects in the sky and the horizon and was used with an almanac, detailing current information about celestial bodies, and an accurate clock (National Geographic). This method was such a vital skill that some captains of sailing ships would eliminate any others with this ability to ward off mutiny.

Sextant Navigation

Navigation by the Stars

Using the stars on a clear night to identify a direction is a relatively straight forward process, differing depending on which hemisphere one is located in. In the southern hemisphere we can use the Southern Cross, also known as the crux constellation, to locate the celestial south. In the northern hemisphere we can use the North Star, or Polaris, to locate the celestial north.

Southern Cross Navigation

In the southern hemisphere, we need to locate and identify the Southern Cross and the two pointer stars. Simply draw an imaginary line along the longer axis of the cross, from the top of the cross to the bottom star and extend it approximately four and a half times. Directly below the end of this line, vertically to the ground, is your south point.

To Assist locating the end of this imaginary line, draw a line between the two pointer stars, and midway draw another line extending perpendicular (at a right angle), until it meets the line drawn down along the extended line through the Southern Cross. Directly below where the two lines intersect is south, as displayed in the following image.

North Star Navigation

In the northern hemisphere, to orientate you to the north, one must locate the North Star which indeed directly points to the north. Firstly locate the Big Dipper constellation, also known as Ursa Major. The two stars at the top of the dipper, or the end of the ‘cup’, directly point to the North Star, which is located at the tip of the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor, as displayed in the following image.

An important strategy when determining an orientation at night is to mark your bearing with a stick, rock or any object so that direction can be re-determined when needed, as in the next morning. We recommended practising these basic orientation techniques in case of an emergency.


Compass Skills

A basic compass simply pointing to magnetic north has the ability to provide a rudimentary navigation ability to help you get out of trouble if lost in the wilderness. The hand held compass with a magnetised needle, which lines up with the Earth’s magnetic field, thus points to the Earth’s magnetic north pole. It does not point to whats referred to as the ‘true north pole’ which is shown on maps and is depicted at the point where all the globes longitudinal lines intersect.


The deviation between magnetic north and true north must be calculated when navigating using a map and compass. Magnetic north is constantly moving, and of recent years its positional change is accelerating. Currently, magnetic north is heading towards Siberia. The direction of magnetic north will vary depending on your location on Earth.

Compasses are still the most common navigational tool used today. Getting lost in the bush does happen to many and does occur readily, where orientation becomes confusing. If, for example during a hiking expedition, with the use of a basic compass, where one travels predominantly in one direction, to get back to the starting point, simply follow the compass in the opposite direction.

Survival Navigation

Some compasses have glow in the dark capabilities, useful if lost or need to travel at night. Importantly, there are a few different types of compasses, each having differing abilities and benefits. It is out of the scope of this article to detail how to use a compass and map to navigate, however there are many excellent tutorial videos online to learn how to perform this interesting and potentially vital skill.

Finding Direction Without a Compass

Provided following are a couple of basic techniques to help you out if lost in the wilderness when caught without a compass. Practising these techniques, like all survival skills, before they are needed, will improve ones chances of survival in the event of an emergency.

These methods vary slightly depending on which hemisphere they are being used in. In the northern hemisphere, the sun rotates across the sky in the south. And in the southern hemisphere, the sun rotates across the northern sky. If directly on the equator, the sun will rise and set directly overhead, rising directly east and setting in exact west.


Survival Aid

The Shadow Stick Compass Technique

A simple shadow stick compass will show north on any day with enough light to at least cast a faint shadow. Collect three straight sticks, they do not need to be perfectly straight, but as straight as possible. Collect five small sticks to use as pegs, or alternatively five small rocks. The great aspect of this method is that all the components can be found in nature

Select a straight stick about a metre (three feet) long, and place it into the ground, upright and as vertical as possible in a cleared flat area. This is the ‘shadow stick’, and may require one end to be sharpened, like a spear, to drive it into the ground. Use a rock as a hammer to drive it into the ground if necessary.

Survival Aid

Place a peg into the ground (or place one of the small rocks) at the end of the sticks shadow line. Wait 15 minutes and place another peg / rock at the end of that shadow line. Repeat every fifteen minutes until all five pegs / rocks are in/on the ground. Place a straight stick alongside the pegs (or rocks). This stick points east and west. East being where the sun rises, then traverses across the sky to west where the sun sets in the evening.

Locate north by placing another straight stick at the base of the upright ‘shadow stick’, laying it towards the ‘east-west stick’, ensuring that it is 90 degrees, being perpendicular, to the ‘east-west stick’. In the Southern Hemisphere, the direction of north is from the ‘east-west stick’ to the ‘shadow stick’. In the Northern Hemisphere, north is from the ‘shadow stick’ to the ‘east-west stick’. If in any doubt, check for errors and redo this procedure.

Shadow Stick South

The Analoque Watch Compass Technique

This is a very basic method for finding direction, but requires the use of an analogue watch with hour and minute hands. As with the shadow stick navigation method, this method varies slightly depending on which hemisphere it is being used. If you are not on standard time, such as being in a zone with day-light savings etc, revert the watch, if temporarily, to the local standard time.

In the northern hemisphere, hold the watch horizontally flat with the hour hand pointing to the Sun, south will be halfway between the 12 and the hour hand. Therefore north will be in the opposite direction. For example, if it is 4 o’clock in the afternoon (4pm), point the hour hand to the Sun, dissect between 12 and 4, and thus 2 o’clock will be pointing south, and 8 will be pointing north.

Survival Navigation
Survival Navigation

And in the southern hemisphere, with the watch held horizontally flat, point the 12 towards the Sun. Dissect between 12 and the hour hand, and the result will be pointing north. South will be in the opposite direction. For example, if it is 8 o’clock in the morning (8am) and the 12 is pointing to the Sun, then the 10 o’clock will be pointing north, and 4 will be pointing south.

Basic Survival Navigation Recommedations

  • Undertake navigation training and practice to develop these skills.
  • Purchase a Quick Reference Navigation Card Set to show you how to navigate effectively.
  • If venturing into the wilderness, whether for recreation or work, procure a good quality compass and suitable topographic map of the region.
  • A 1:25,000 scale topographic map will have greater detail than a topographic map with a scale of 1:50,000, but will only cover half the area. A 1:100,000 scale topographic map will cover the largest area but will have the least amount of detail.
  • Consider using a clear plastic water proof map case to protect your maps from the elements. Purpose designed map cases allow the use of the map for navigation whilst protecting them from water and dirt.
  • If lost in arid environments, minimise as much as possible traversing the landscape during the day. Dehydration can occur at a vastly greater rate during the day, and people have died in a matter of hours when exposed to the hot sun.
  • If broken down in a vehicle in the arid outback, always stay with the vehicle. A vehicle is far more likely to be located either from the air, on-ground rescuers or by passers-by, than are individual people just walking off.
  • If lost in very cold regions, minimise perspiring as wet inner clothing will increase hypothermia.
  • Observe weather forecasts and don’t risk venturing into wild natural landscapes when conditions can potentially turn severe. Bad conditions can make directional finding difficult, and greatly impede being rescued.
  • If travelling without a compass when visibility is poor, it may be preferable to seek suitable shelter and wait for conditions to improve (check out our shelter article).
  • Procure a waterproof spiral notebook and waterproof pen or pencil, an essential for any emergency preparedness kit. Useful for leaving notes to inform rescuers or friends of your whereabouts, and to write down down important messages, instructions etc.
  • Protect your compass with an inexpensive compass pouch.
  • Always pack a good quality torch, preferrably waterproof and at least water resistant, particularly a head torch for hands free operation. A must for any outdoor expedition and emergency preparedness kit.

Modern Technology

Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, is a satellite navigation system controlled by the US Department of Defence, with about 24 satellites orbiting the Earth. Though very commonly used by anyone with a GPS device, a GPS unit receives signals from these satellites and calculates an exact position on the Earths surface, based on time differentials of signals sent from different satellites (National Geographic).

GPS Navigation

GPS is employed in satellite navigation systems (Nav Sat units) that help us drive to destinations desired locations. GPS units do the same but are more used to record exact locations for future reference and to guide back accurately to that location. GPS units and ‘nav sats’ are very useful for sharing locations with other people. The technology is advancing to the point that wrist watches now have GPS features.

One example of the real value that is provided by GPS navigational systems is there ability to vastly improve the efficiency in environmental conservation protection to improve ecological integrity. Particularly useful in large natural regions, such is the outback of Australia, is the use of GPS to tag or mark sites that require ecological monitoring.

Mallee Fowl Nest

Examples include helping protect the allusive giant mound nests of the Mallee fowl, or the ever declining famous Quandong tree being destroyed by feral camels. Once the coordinates are logged, the GPS unit will directly guide future monitoring excursions back to the exact location, saving significant time and effort.



Traditional peoples for tens of thousands of years relied upon natural phenomena to help navigate across the landscape. These skills we can all use now to survive in case of emergencies. Today however we have technologies that automatically provide a way to navigate. However, we have become too complacent and reliant on such technology, and have no real natural navigation and survival knowledge and abilities.


To find a direction, we don’t need a compass or any navigational gadget, but do need to acquire a few basic skills for both emergency navigation and wilderness orientation. However, compasses don’t need batteries or a signal to operate, making them potentially far more valuable than GPS devices. They are also very light weight and compact, and with a suitable map, take up virtually no space and weight, perfect to keep in your back-pack.

The ability to navigate in an emergency, to find a particular direction to orientate to safety, will require the development of these skills before they are needed. Preparedness and education is the key. An enjoyable way to develop these skill would be to practice them when out exploring the wilderness, pursuing either four-wheel driving, camping or hiking. However, the trusted magnetic compass and a suitable map will always be an invaluable tool for learning and performing the art and science of navigation.

Some Recommended Navigation Equipment


Brunton Key Ring Compass

Compact. Includes a thermometer. Hang on your pack or jacket.

Petzl headlamp

Petzl Compact Headlamp

250 Lumens, 81 grams, weather resistant and a range of accessories.

Silva compass

Silva Ranger S MS Compass

Mirror sighting fuction for more accurate reading with magnifier.

Garmin GPS

Garmin ETREX Handheld GPS

Extra battery life. Access multiple GPS satellites. Compass display.

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