instructional article

Celestial Navigation

Every good skill deserves a back up plan. Navigation is no exception. GPS was a game changer when it comes to wilderness navigation. But it does have weaknesses. Batteries die, devices gets dropped, and sometimes you just don't getting reception. Having a back up solution to GPS is a must. Map and compass is essential skill, but sometimes you don't have a compass with you. That's where celestial navigation can come into play. The great thing about using the sun, moon and starts to navigate is that you don't have to pack them.

I would never suggest going on a trip underprepared. Please do take your 10 essentials with you on any outdoor outing. But if your gear starts to act up, or you're not feeling confident in the information it's giving you, it's good to have this in your back pocket.

When I designed the stargazer bandana, it was to help provide a few basic navigation tips in a format that wouldn't be a burden to carry. I'm guessing you take a bandana on every hike. Why not make it a navigation asset as well. We made it glow in the dark not just because it's cool (which it is...) but as a functional aspect. The soft glow of the ink allows your eyes to stay adjusted to the night sky while you are looking for constellations. The following instructions come directly from our stargazer bandana and will help you make the most of your bandana in the field.

TIP 1: Finding the North Star

The North Star (Polaris) is the only star in the Northern Hemisphere that doesn't appear to move during the course of the night. All the other starts change their location in the sky and so using them to navigate can be tricky. Finding the North Star is a foundational celestial navigation tool. 


The most common way to find the North Star is to trace an imaginary line from the two bottom stars on the Big Dipper constellation. The Big Dipper does move around the sky, but the stars in that constellation are fairly bright and are usually pretty easy to pick out. The North Star is also the last star in the handle of the little dipper.

In the event of it being partially obscured by clouds or trees, or if you are having a hard time finding it, you can also remember that the North Star sits in between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia (the big W in the sky):


TIP 2: Finding East West

East and West can be determined in a few ways, including marking shadows over time. Place a stick in the ground and mark where the top of the stick leaves its shadow on the ground with a stone. Wait a half and hour or so and mark the new position of the stick. If you draw a line connecting those stones it will point East/West, the second rock being farther east. You can also determine North and South with a perpendicular line. For obvious reasons this method can be hard to do when it's cloudy. 


Depending on where you are on the planet just watching the path of the sun can be a bit misleading in terms of finding East and West. Living pretty far north in Washington State, the sun rises and sets pretty far south in the winter. And it never really gets near the center of the sky. 

At night a good way to determine East and West is to watch the Orion constellation. The top star in Orion's belt always rises and sets within 1 degree of East and West. Where ever you are on the globe and all seasons. Pretty cool, huh?


TIP 3: Finding South

In addition to the stick shadow method of finding South, you can use the moon. The points on a crescent moon line up to point South. This one is more approximate, but it's a great thing to use on nights when the North Star and other constellations are covered with clouds, but you can still make out the shape of the moon.


All of these methods should be practices when you get a chance. Any time I get a clear view of the sky I always try to find the cardinal points. Like all things, they get easier with practice. If you'd like a convenient way to remember this tips or to pass these skills on to the next generation our Stargazer bandana is the way to go. Get yours here.