Night sky full of stars with silhouettes of trees

How to do anything: navigate using the stars

Every so often, you wind up outside on one of those perfect nights – when the moon is shining bright and the stars are out, lighting up the sky in a way you don’t see from the city. Imagine if you could point out directions to your friends using only the stars as your guide. Turns out it’s not as challenging as it might sound. All you need to do is familiarize yourself with a few constellations, and you can impress your pals with a navigation trick that few people know.

Of course, there’s no substitute for learning to navigate using a GPS or map and compass – but if you want to add more skills to your navigation toolkit, here are some ways to start:

1. Look for Polaris, the North Star, to find north

Big Dipper, Little Dipper and Polaris (North Star)

Polaris, also known as the North Star, is the brightest star at the tip of the Little Dipper’s “handle.” It’s the only star that appears to remain static in the night sky, thanks to its position right above true north – the direction of the North Pole.

If you’re having a hard time finding the North Star, you can use other constellations, like the Big Dipper, to help locate it. Find the Big Dipper’s “ladle” and imagine that soup is pouring out from it. The flow from this hypothetical space soup will lead right to the North Star. If you see a constellation that resembles a “w,” that means you’ve found Cassiopeia and have gone too far. Backtrack a bit and you’ll spot Polaris, nestled cozily between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.

2. Use Polaris to find your latitude in the Northern Hemisphere

If you’re north of the equator, you can use Polaris to determine your latitude. Normally, a sextant or a quadrant is used to measure the angle between Polaris’ position and the northern horizon, but that’s not an object that we tend to keep handy on a camping trip. If you happen to be outside without a sextant, you can use your fists to measure the angle.

Stretch your right or left arm out in front of you, with your hand closed in a fist, towards the horizon. Place your other fist above and continue stacking one over the other until one of your fists meets Polaris. Each fist approximates 10 degrees, so you can use them to help count how many degrees separate the North Star from the horizon to find your latitude.

3. Seek help from Orion to find south

Orion constellation

To find south, you’ll need to locate the constellation Orion, which looks a bit like a bent hourglass. In the Northern Hemisphere, Orion is visible primarily during winter. Eight major stars make up Orion’s body: one star – Meissa – represents the head; two stars – Betelgeuse and Bellatrix – represent the shoulders; another two – Saiph and Rigel – serve as the feet; and three – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka in the middle – make up Orion’s belt.

You’ll want to look for Orion’s sword, which is made up of three stars that hang off of the belt. Follow its point and it will show you south when Orion is oriented close to vertical (like the image above).

Not sure if it’s Orion you see in the sky? You can use a star dial or a stargazing app to help you identify different constellations.

5. Follow the stars for direction

Just like the sun, stars travel across the sky from east to west. Keep track of which direction they seem to be moving to determine which way you’re facing. If you want something more precise, look for Mintaka, the star located on the right side of Orion’s belt – it rises close to true east and sets close to true west.

A compass or GPS device is essential for serious navigation, but it can be refreshing to take a tech-free approach by looking to the stars above for guidance. Whether you’re out exploring the wilderness late at night or you’re just looking to show off a cool party trick at your campsite, consider the sky your celestial road map.

Want to improve your navigation skills?

Browse some books or come to our backcountry 101 workshops; they cover everything from map reading to digital navigation. If you’re looking for more on natural navigation, check out The Natural Navigator.

Photo credits: Ryan Hutton, Vector FX / Shutterstock.com, Yuriy Kulik / Shutterstock.com

Joanie Gaudreau

Writer and fitness enthusiast always chasing her next mountain peak. Also coffee. She chases coffee, too.