orientation in the field

7 tips for orientation in the field without tools

Being on the road without any aids – that is part of the high art of orientation. The wilderness experts Tobias Krüger and Heiko Gärtner explain how to find your way around the terrain using landmarks, waypoints and the position of the sun.

When you are out in the wilderness, there is hardly a topic that is as important as orientation in the field. Orientation – that is the art of always knowing where you are, where you want to go and how to find your way back. Orientation is always about three central questions:

  • “Where am I?”
  • “Where do I want to go?”
  • “How do I do it?”

To answer these questions, there are a lot of technical aids today such as maps, compasses, navigation systems and GPS devices. But if you really want to move freely in nature and determine your location, you have to be able to orient yourself without these aids. We have put together some tips for this below.

  1. With open eyes on the road
    It sounds succinct – but attention is essential when it comes to outdoor orientation. Especially when you have no compass, no map and no GPS device. We usually get lost only because we don’t remember where we came from. And this happens because we don’t pay close attention to our surroundings.

For example, the first time you roam a new city, it is easy to get lost. However, if you stay in the city longer, the individual streets and corners get a kind of personality. You perceive them more closely, link them with memories. An image, a relief, gradually emerges in the head.

The more attentive you roam, the faster this image will be memorized. The less it happens that you get lost. If you walk through the streets attentively from the start and consciously perceive their peculiarities, you ideally remember the route without repetition and can hardly get lost.

Looking back is important
One should always bear in mind that on the way back you come from the other direction. It is therefore important to take a look every now and then and see what the streets, trees and buildings look like from the other direction!

The orientation in the forest is ultimately no different from that in the city. The only difficulty is that for our superficial look, trees are much more alike than houses and streets. We have the feeling that everything looks the same anyway, so our minds usually switch off and no longer try to remember the way.

So it is particularly important here to be on the move with your senses open. One should always try to perceive as much as possible. Not only with the eyes – but also with the nose, ears and feet. The more information about the environment comes into your consciousness, the easier it will be to remember the way home later.

  1. Outdoor orientation by “Songline”
    To make it easier to remember the way back, there is an ancient method – the so-called Songline. It comes from the Aboriginal people of Australia.

With this orientation method, you always peek out striking points while walking. Especially when you change your direction. These terrain points – a striking tree, a striking rock, a huge anthill – are built into a story that is as lively as possible.

In the beginning it is helpful to speak the story out loud. This is how you build an even more intensive relationship with her. It is particularly important that the imagined story evokes images, colors and feelings that are as intense as possible. So it sticks particularly well in the head.

If you now make your way back, you go through the individual stations in history in reverse order. The Songline guides a section back to the starting point.

However, the method has the disadvantage that – at least if you are not already a Songline veteran – you have to concentrate very much on the history and the path. This means that there is hardly any opportunity to see the area to the right and left of the route.

  1. Mark the path in the area yourself

If you are traveling without a compass and without a map in an area where there are few noticeable landmarks, you can mark your path at regular intervals. Branches or stones that are arranged in unusual formations or where they stand out are best suited for this.

Depending on where and how you are traveling, you have to weigh up whether it is more helpful in the current situation to lay a trail that is as conspicuous as possible, but which can then be followed by anyone else, or rather one that can only be recognized if you know that it is there and how it is laid out. But be careful: the latter variant naturally harbors the risk of being overlooked!

  1. Orientation based on landmarks
    The most important means of orientation are the so-called landmarks. These are striking terrain features that make up a landscape. As a rule, they can be easily recognized. Because they are so big that you can orientate yourself over a longer distance.

The landmarks include ridges, rivers, forest edges, gorges – and of course paths and roads in our forests. In some areas – such as the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia – the mountains are relatively straight and parallel (in this case from southwest to northeast). Once you have determined the direction of such a terrain mark, you automatically know in which direction you are running, e.g. if you follows a valley.

Once you have recognized this, you can move around relatively freely in the terrain. Because you know that you can come back to the camp if, for example, you walk so that the ridge is always to your right. Only when you cross the mountain is it important to look for new landmarks that can lead you back to the starting point.

Ideally, rivers lead to settlements
Rivers are also particularly good orientation aids, as they not only provide you with a long-term point of view, but also show the direction you have to go in the direction of the flow. So if you are lost in the wilderness and looking for a way back to civilization, a river can also do an excellent job. People have always preferred to settle on the water and sooner or later you will automatically find a town or city if you follow a river down.

The only exception, of course, are desert areas. If you encounter a river or trickle in a desert, follow it upriver. Unlike in other areas, the water here does not collect into ever larger rivers, but sooner or later dries up in the sand or an inland delta. However, if you go towards the water, sooner or later you will find the source and, ideally, a settlement.

However, it is important to be aware that you will not be the only one to choose rivers as a guide. Depending on which regions of the world you are traveling in, it can be risky to walk right next to the river. In Canada, Russia and other bear regions, the best chance is to meet one of the furry giants!

  1. Orientation with acoustic signals
    If you are at a point where none of the above methods of orientation are available, it may be that the ears help a lot! You can stop for a moment at certain intervals and pay attention to distinctive noises such as water noise, street noise and the like – this can also help with orientation.

If you want to find your way back to a city, there is usually a whole range of sounds that indicate whether you are getting closer to it and in which direction you should move on. It is important that you listen very carefully and carefully. Because the sound of the wind in the leaves of the trees, the sound of the water in a river or on a coast and the sound of cars passing by on a freeway often sound very similar from a distance. So it can quickly happen that you let yourself be misled!

  1. Navigation with distinctive waypoints
    Minor abnormalities in the landscape also play an important role, which you may not be able to see from a distance. But which, if you can get right past them, can mark a certain path.

These include, for example, conspicuously grown trees, special rocks, large stones or boulders and all other unusual natural phenomena that can be found on the way. You can either install them in your songline or note them as important waypoints. A river or a ridge as a guide is good and important – but if you have not set up your camp right next to them, then you need something that shows you in which direction to turn.

  1. Orientation with the help of the sun
    The earth rotates counterclockwise (from west to east) exactly once on its own axis within 24 hours. As a result, the sun seems to move across the sky from east to west – moving about 15 ° to the west per hour.

When the sun has reached its highest point, it stands exactly in the south in the northern hemisphere, in the north in the southern hemisphere and almost exactly perpendicularly above the viewer in the equatorial region (i.e. in the so-called zenith).

This basic rule can be used to determine the cardinal directions using the sun. So you can reorient yourself when you no longer know which direction to go. The easiest way to do this is to have a GPS watch with you. However, one should take into account that our summer time advances by one hour contrary to the “real” time.

So you have to deduct one hour from the time shown on the watch. If you only have a digital clock at hand, you can also use paper and pen to make an improvised analog clock by drawing on the clock face and entering the 12 o’clock mark and the hour hand at the current time. This technique is more accurate the further you are from the equator.

Casting shadows as an aid
You have to keep the watch horizontal and point the hour hand exactly at the sun. To be more precise, you can also align it using the shadow of a straight object. Now imagine a line that divides the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark exactly in half. This imaginary line points south in the northern hemisphere.

The time before 6 a.m. and after 6 p.m. is an exception. Here the imaginary line points north – provided that you can already see the sun at this time. In the southern hemisphere, on the other hand, you point the 12 o’clock mark towards the sun and halve the angle up to the hour hand. The resulting imaginary line points (between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.) to the north.

If you don’t have a clock but you have some time, you can also use a stick to determine the cardinal points. This is stuck vertically into the ground at a flat point so that its shadow is clearly visible. Now mark the end of the shadow with a stone or something similar and wait until the shadow has moved on a good distance.

The longer you wait, the more precise the determination becomes. But you should have at least a quarter of an hour for this method to work. When the quarter of an hour has passed, mark the “new end” of the shadow with a stone and connect both markings with a line or a straight stick. This line now runs roughly in an east-west direction, with the first mark pointing west and the second pointing east.

Conclusion for orientation in the field
No matter which method (s) you use now – whoever has internalized the simplest of all orientation rules will do better in the field. This basic rule is simply to be on the road with “open senses”. Although we as “civilized” people have many technical devices available, it is attractive to rely on your senses, instinct and natural aids when you start off-road.

Nevertheless, a short warning at the end: We expressly point out that outdoor orientation and location determination without tools requires a good level of practice and routine. We advise all wilderness adventurers to take any available aids such as GPS, compass and map with them on mountain and off-road tours.

Now we have piqued your interest and you want to know more about survival and the individual survival tactics. We can recommend you some very good books that go into every single detail of survival in the wild. If you are planning an outdoor trip, you should definitely be familiar with these survival tactics. You can also take these books with you on your e-book and read them on site, so you always know how to behave in a particular situation.

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