How to Find True North? 13 Ways to Find North if You are Lost in the Woods

Have you ever started walking without ever realizing where you were going until you realize you have no idea where you are, and likely walking around in circles? We are so used to knowing where we are using GPS, Google maps, or our wifi connection that we take our sense of location for granted. At any given moment technology can tell us exactly where we are and many of us feel lost without it.

If we get lost in the woods, however, it’s likely we will have to be able to fend for ourselves, and being able to find true north may just help you in finding your way out.

What is the Difference Between North and Magnetic North?

Did you know there is a difference between true north and magnetic north? True North is a fixed point on the globe represented by the north pole.

Magnetic north, on the other hand, is the direction that the needle of a compass points to based on the earth’s magnetic field. And the difference is what is called magnetic declination which comes due to the change in the earth’s magnetic field that makes the magnetic north differ from the true north.

Difference Between Magnetic North and True North

All our GPS and handy dandy devices rely on true north for finding a location whereas a compass relies on magnetic north because the needle is influenced by the magnetic field.

Even though we have devices all around us telling us where we are at any given moment, it is still a good idea to know ways to find north in case you are caught in a jam.

13 Ways to Find North if You Are Lost and Do Not Have a Compass

Moss on south side of truck
Signs of Moss

1. Moss on Trees

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, moss generally grows in shadows where it is more moist. If you know the sun rises in the East then you can figure out that north may be where the moss is all covered. However, it can be tricky and still grow on the south side of trees so beware.

sun rising in the east
Sun Rise in the East

2. Sun Rising in the East

If you get up at sunrise you can see that the sun rises from the East. By knowing that you can come to know that North is just 90 degrees away from there.

Moss and Lichen like areas that are not exposed to direct sun

3. Lichen on Rocks 

Lichen and moss will be found on the north or south side of rocks, depending on where you are in the world. It will be cooler, damper, and less exposed to direct sunlight where moss can thrive.

North and South Facing Bark
Difference between North and South facing bark
photo credit:

4. Bark on Trees 

The bark on trees will be dull on the side that gets less sun. If you are in a wet area – the south side is where the brightest bark will be, and will be drier than on the north which does not receive as much sunlight.

Leaning trees from wind or in search of sun

5. Tree Branches

Branches of the trees will be leaning toward the direction of the sun to get warmth, and if you live in the northern hemisphere it means they will leaning more toward the south. You also need to pay attention to the wind as that can also cause trees to lean, so this again isn’t for certain; but, if you know the direction of the wind then it can help determine north.

snow melting on the south side
Snoe melting faster on the south side

6. Snow Pack 

If you see packs of frozen snow and ice most of the snow will be on the north side as it gets less sun exposure.

any hill facing south
Ant hills usually want some rays

7. Ant Hills 

Ants will often build nests facing south to get more sun as with most creatures they rely on sun for warmth.

8. Stick and Shadow Method

Place a stick in the ground and see where the shadow is made. Place a rock at the tip of the shadow and wait 15 minutes. Mark the position again and draw a line. The line will be East-West as that is the direction the sun moves.

spider web pointing south
spider web can give an indicator

9. Spiders Web

Take a look at spiders, they like to be out of the sun and like south direction-facing locations for their web. So unlike ants who actually like sun, spiders do not (usually).

the north star
Find Polaris

10. North Star

If it is at night and there are no clouds or light pollution find Polaris (or the North Star) which points north. To find Polaris, however, requires you to know where the Big Dipper is located; the two stars on the end of the Big Dippers cup will lead you to Polaris.

11. Southern Cross

If you are in the southern hemisphere look out for the Southern Cross, if you have found that, then the direction of the long cross points south.

If you want to know how to locate the Southern Cross, I suggest watching the video as a picture is worth a thousand words.

12. Magnetized Needle

If you have a needle and magnet. Pass the needle against the magnet (or battery) for several minutes – 50 swipes should do it. Place the needle on a leaf in a small pool of water.

The needle will float and point magnetic north as it is magnetized and if you know the declination then you can find true north. (easier to understand this one if you watch the video)

13. Wristwatch

Hold a watch horizontal with the 12 o’clock mark facing left. Point the hour hand toward the sun. South should be between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock marker. (makes more sense if you watch the video)

If you do not want to rely on any of these methods then the easiest way of course would be to best bring a compass with you.

There are many ways to find true north and even though we have GPS devices all around us they might not always be there when you need them most. Knowing at least some of these different ways can help you get back home when you need it most.

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