Anyone who travels in the terrain, in the forest and in the wilderness has to deal with the topic of orientation sooner or later. Because even in relatively small forests such as those found in Germany or Austria, it can easily happen that you get lost and at some point you no longer know how to find your way back home. Of course, it becomes even more important when you are traveling in countries where there are still real jungle areas. Areas that have not yet been destroyed and / or cultivated by humans and have retained their original, wild character. For example, in Canada there are areas three to four times the size of Germany – and in which not a single person lives. If you lose your bearings in this area and do not know how to find your way in the wilderness, you have little chance of survival!
Dangerous half-knowledge in orientation
The central danger, however, is that most of us hardly understand anything about orientation – but rely on a lot of dangerous half-knowledge. There are a number of legends, errors and false assumptions that have been in our heads for a long time and that we like to remember in an emergency because we picked them up somewhere. Then if we believe them and rely on them, it can lead to us getting lost in the terrain so much that in the end we don’t even know where south and north are. That is why we want to clear up the most popular and common mistakes about orientation once and for all!
Five mistakes in orienting yourself off-road
- The moss-covered side of the trees always faces north!
This is probably the “most popular” misconception about orientation. When you get lost in the forest, it is particularly important to know about the cardinal points. Because if you are clear about this, you can at least get a rough overview of which direction you have to go and which you don’t. But how do you find out which direction is in the terrain if you don’t have a compass?
Most people think of moss growth on tree trunks as one of the first thoughts. The associated theory sounds obvious at first: The sun moves from east to west and is never in the north in the northern hemisphere. The north side of the trees is always in the shade and therefore offers the ideal conditions for moss growth. As is well known, moss loves it cool and damp. So much for the theory. However, there is a crucial catch: The growth of moss on a tree trunk depends on numerous factors – not just the position of the sun. There are shady, damp valleys in which the trees are completely mossed on all sides from top to bottom. In other places, there is no moss on the trees at all. The moisture that the moss needs to grow also depends not only on the absence of sun, but much more on the main wind direction and the air humidity. If there is almost always a strong west wind blowing in a region, which brings a lot of moisture with it, then the moss will mainly form on the west side of the trees. Provided, of course, that the wind can always blow freely from the west. This is especially the case if you are in an open area. In the interior of a forest, however, the wind is diverted by the trees and the undergrowth and sometimes comes from completely different sides than expected. If there is also a stream or a lake nearby that releases moisture, then you have so many “disruptive factors” that you no longer have a reliable basis for orientation. The theory of orientation based on mossy tree trunks sounds tempting and logical, but if you take a closer look, it quickly becomes absurd.
- Ants always build their hills south of the trees!
A similar case applies here as with the moss-covered tree trunks – only that this theory has not become as well known. Probably because anthills are much rarer than moss-covered tree trunks. In fact, this theory has a real core. Ants like as a building site for their hills a warm and sunny, but still protected place. So if you have the opportunity, build your hill on the south side of a tree. But they also have a magnetic sense – very similar to chicks, pigeons and various mammals. The magnetic force of our planet is not the same everywhere, but runs in certain orbits, similar to a grid.
So if you see an anthill in the forest, it may well be that the little builders chose this place because of the sun. However, the magnetic nature of the location could just as well have been the reason for their construction activities. This means that you cannot rely 100 percent on this theory of orientation. There is also the problem that there are naturally many shade providers in a forest. The south side of a tree trunk does not necessarily have to be the “sunniest”. Ants also dodge to the left or right to find the optimal site.
In a dense forest there is another factor that makes orientation based on anthills completely impossible. The trees are so close together that the anthill fills the entire space between them. So how can you tell which tree the insects were referring to when they decided to build the southern location ?! If you have chosen the southern one at all … see above!
- The sun rises in the east and sets in the west!
Every child knows that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west! Or not? How else do we think that this should be a mistake? Quite simply, the error lies in the details. Of course, the sun really rises in the east and sets in the west. But only roughly and also depending on when and where you are.
When we humans divided our days into 24 hours, it wasn’t just done out of the blue. We had a concept behind it. This concept is based on the sun. At 12 noon the sun is at its southernmost point in the northern hemisphere – exactly at the point above the equator where we are. At midnight, however, it is exactly on the opposite side of our earth. In between – i.e. at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m. in the evening – it is exactly in the east and exactly in the west. In summer, however, the sun rises well before 6 a.m. and sets much later. In winter, however, it appears later in the sky and disappears earlier.
For orientation, this ultimately means that the sun rises in the northeast in the summer and sets in the northwest, while it crosses the horizon in the southeast in winter and disappears in the southwest. Only in autumn and spring does it largely adhere exactly to the “requirements” with east and west. At all other times, a look at the watch is necessary to see where it is. It is important, however, that only the winter time is based on the sun. In summer, you have to subtract the artificially added hour.
- You just have to keep going straight, then sooner or later a road will come!
If you are in a relatively small forest area, this idea may not seem too bad. There are always roads and forest paths in our forests. So if we walk straight ahead long enough in the terrain, would we sooner or later have to come across a path that leads us back out of the forest ?!
But there is also a crucial catch here – because everyone has a dominant leg. This means that our legs do not appear equally strong. One leg is our driving leg, with which we transmit the most power. The other is accordingly weaker. So if we walk down a street and use our eyes to constantly orient ourselves based on guidelines, we won’t notice it anymore. However, if we walk through an area in which we do not have these guidelines, then we walk in a circle completely unnoticed because of the unequal steps.
You can easily test this by blindfolding and trying to walk as straight as possible across a meadow. After just a few meters you can see – what feels right now turns into a curve. The same thing happens when we walk through a forest. We believe that we are following a straight line, but in reality we are going in a circle. This means that a forest area of five square kilometers can suffice to never find the way out again because we are constantly running in circles.
To prevent this, you need a guideline that works similar to the curb or road marking that helps us in the city to stay on a straight line. Since forests usually do not have such lines, you have to create one in your mind. The best way to do this is to target three trees that are in a line. When you reach the first of them, you use the other two to find a new, third tree. In this way, you can really walk straight without fooling yourself!
- If I have a GPS device with me, I can’t get lost!
Perhaps the biggest misconception about orientation, however, is the assumption that we actually don’t need it anymore, because there are now a lot of technical aids that do the work for us. Navigational and GPS devices are undoubtedly useful and helpful inventions, but they can easily cost us our heads in an emergency if we only rely on them.
Because in order to function reliably, the devices need two things: electricity – and a satellite signal. However, neither is reliable and, above all, is not permanent. The battery life is relatively short. On multi-day tours, electricity is only available at certain locations and often not at all. If you are not careful, a little unforeseen is enough, which leads to the schedule being extended – and you are in the middle of nowhere without an idea, where you are, where you want to go or how to orientate yourself without technical help …
However, receiving the GPS signal is even more unpredictable. Often half-dense treetops are sufficient to weaken or completely shield the connection to the satellites, so that the device itself also loses its orientation. So it can happen that even in infrastructural areas in Central Europe you suddenly find yourself without a signal, even though you had good reception at the start of the tour. GPS devices often have the greatest difficulty with their reliability when they are needed most – in dense, impenetrable forests or in deeply cut valleys and canyons. In addition, like all other technical devices, they are never completely free of faults and failures.
Especially on long expeditions, it can happen that a properly functioning device suddenly stops working. It is often suggested that with the purchase of an expensive GPS watch or a highly complicated GPS device you acquire a kind of infallible outdoor life insurance, but in reality you should be absolutely firm with the standards of orientation with a map and compass. In the worst case, if one relies exclusively on technical devices for orientation outdoors, this can be fatal. Aids such as GPS devices can always only be an addition, but never the only orientation aids!