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Teach your kids these two Natural Navigation techniques

Posted by Shell Grayston.
First Published Jan 2016; updated May 2023.

Navigating with what's in nature is a simple activity to do when outside and an important life skill. Get our FREE Natural Navigation activity pack.

When we go hiking up the hills, we navigate using the OS Maps app if we are not walking a route we know well.

Is it possible to navigate without modern technology? We set up a little challenge to navigate by nature.

The Natural Navigation Challenge Map

To get started on this challenge, we picked out a route on an OS map with points of interest to head for and sketched out a very rough map with basic instructions for the kids to follow.

They had to work out which way was North, South, etc. using the sun! Easy?

Navigation Challenge Map

Our first navigation technique used nothing more than the sun and a watch.

How to use a watch to navigate

All you need is a watch and the sun!

How you do it depends on if you are in the northern or southern hemisphere. As we are in the northern hemisphere, we'll start with that method first.

Lay the watch flat and face up. The face should be parallel to the ground.

Point the hour hand and yourself in the direction of the sun.

Now bisect the angle between 12 and the hour hand. This gives you the South-North line. If you are in the southern hemisphere, you will need to point 12'o'clock at the sun to give you a north-south line.

Navigation using a watch

We used this method to reach our first via point and were soon off again on our adventure.

The next method we tried was using a shadow stick ( my favourite as there was something visual to see )

How to use a shadow stick

Using a shadow stick

All that is needed is a long stick ( needs to be at least 1 meter tall ), a couple of stones and, of course, the sun!

Place the stick into the ground. Note that the sun casts a shadow of the stick.

Mark shadow with a stone

Mark shadow with a stone

With a stone marking the end of the shadow. This is your West line.

You then have to wait 15-20 mins for the shadow to move.

We took advantage of the wait by having a drink and snack!

The temptation of moving the stone was hard for my youngest one, but watching the shadow move was a welcome distraction.

After 15 or 20 minutes, place another stone on the new shadow point. This becomes your East point.

Mark the new shadow position

Mark the new shadow position.

If you stand on the East-West shadow line with West to your left, you are now looking North.

After working out our bearings, we moved on to the next point.

Failed at step 1 - The Map!

The challenge was to reach the waterfall, but we never quite made it.

Somewhere at the beginning of the route, we had taken the wrong path, not through natural navigation but due to an error plotting the instructions!

The map we had initially used was old, and the path we should have taken was no longer there. Somehow we had taken a different path!!

It didn't matter, though, as the challenge was to navigate by nature, which is what we achieved and learnt.

It was good to try something new and leave a sense of achievement not relying on technology. Funnily, it felt like you had travelled back in time!

Mission Accomplished - sort of

Natural Navigation is a great little activity that the whole family can get involved in.

You could try it on a walk or set up a challenge (suitable for the age group) as we did.

Having a go doesn't cost a penny; you never know when you might need these navigation skills.

There are other natural ways to navigate using nature - using the stars and observing trees and moss growth. Why not have a go and see if you can find your direction?