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Finding Direction at Night Using the North Star

September 3, 2012

It is not a good idea to travel at night in the wilderness unless you are in desert terrain, but night-time is a good time to orient yourself and figure out directions.  In the Northern Hemisphere the North Star (Polaris) has been used for thousands of years to establish which direction is north.  Contrary to popular belief, the North Star is not the brightest star in the night sky.  In fact there are forty-seven stars that are brighter than the North Star, so we must use some method other than brightness to locate the North Star.  The North Star is at the end of the handle of the constellation we call the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor).  Unfortunately, the stars of the little dipper are not very bright, and this constellation can be difficult to locate.  Two easily identifiable constellations will help you locate the North Star.  One of these is the constellation that we call the Big Dipper (Ursa Major).  If you draw a straight line through the two stars at the end of the cup in the dipper (called the pointer stars), the line will point toward the North Star.  The distance to the North Star is about five times the distance between the two pointer stars. 

Depending on the time of night, the month of the year, and your own latitude; the Big Dipper may not be visible to you.  If this is the case you can look for the constellation Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia also revolves around the North Star and is located on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper.  Cassiopeia looks like the letter “W” or the letter “M” depending on where it is in its path around the North Star.

Once you have located the North Star you can take a sharp stick and draw a line on the ground.  Draw the line from where you are standing so that it points toward the north.  Label the end of the line that points toward the star with an “N”.  Label the other end of the line with an “S”.  Now draw another line that crosses your north/south line at a ninety degree angle.  As you face the north, the right end of your second line will be pointing to the east.  Label it with an “E”.  Label the other end of this line with a “W”.  Now get a good night’s sleep and when you wake up in the morning you will have a compass drawn on the ground that will help you get started in the direction you want to travel.

One Comment
  1. Juan permalink

    Thanks a lot for these great posts on navigation! I was just wondering if the north star is visible during most of the year? Kind of like Crux on the southern hemisphere?

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