Daytime Navigation Using The Stick And Shadow Method

Generally the best advice for the lost victim is to stay put and wait for Search And Rescue (SAR) personnel to find you. Attempting to find your own way out of the wilderness can make their job much more difficult. If you want to go home soon, stay where you are, the saying goes.

However, there are times when you must move, when staying put is not an option.

If the immediate area where you are trying to effect survival is not safe, or if there is no available shelter or water source, moving to an area more suitable for survival is a must. This is especially true if the SAR team doesn’t know where to begin looking or worse, you failed to file a trip plan with the park rangers and they don’t know that you are missing.

Which Way To Go?

Before you set out looking for a way out of the wilderness, it’s important to consider where you are and the most likely route to civilization.

If you are somewhat familiar with the area, and you should be before venturing out, you should have a pretty good idea of the direction where help may lie.

For example, if you know that an East-West road runs just a few miles to the South of you, it makes sense to head in that direction; help will likely be available there. Or perhaps you know that a river is generally West of your current location. Heading in that direction will likely lead you to safety.

Determining Direction Without A Compass

Preppers and survivalists often carry a compass in their Every Day Carry (EDC) kit or have one built into their watch or mobile phone. However, devices can fail, can be misplaced, or may become damaged. Exclusively relying on any one method or device can lead to trouble if that device fails at a critical time. Knowing how to determine direction without a compass is a good skill to possess.

There are several ways this can be done. I’ll share with you one method known as the Stick & Shadow method. In later articles, I’ll share some other methods for determining direction in both the daytime and at night without using a compass.

Using A Stick & Shadow

To begin, find a relatively straight stick approximately three feet long and perhaps one inch in diameter; the exact dimensions are not really that important. Strip off any leaves or small limbs so that the stick is bare and will cast a well-defined shadow.

Find a sunny area that’s relatively flat and unobstructed. Shove one end of the stick into the ground so that it’s sticking straight up. Mark with a rock where the end of the shadow falls. This is the starting position.

Wait approximately 15 minutes and again mark the end of the shadow. Repeat this process a couple of more times until you have four or five marks at the points where the end of the stick’s shadow once rested.

Interpreting The Results

At the end of the hour or so that you’ve invested in determining direction, you’ll have a four or five marks in a straight line.

Since the sun rises in the East and traverses on a Westward arc across the sky, the marked line will also run along that route. The first position will point to the West and the last mark will be East.

Now draw a line perpendicular to the existing line. The new line will give you North and South.

Of course these are just very general directions and will not be accurate enough to lead you to an exact point on map. However, if you don’t have any other way for determining direction, the Stick & Shadow method will give you enough of a sense of direction to help lead you to safety.

Mark Your Route

Before packing up and leaving your current location, it’s important to leave behind some kind of signal or sign for the SAR team. Find some rocks and sticks and align them in an arrow to indicate to the searchers the direction you travelled.

Mark your trail along the way by breaking tree branches, dragging your feet, or some other clues, so they’ll be able to find you.

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18 Comments on “Daytime Navigation Using The Stick And Shadow Method”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    I’ve used this method as a training exercise, but haven’t done it in years. Thanks for a great refresher course and clear explantion. I used to use just two marks about fifteen or twenty minutes apart though. It does make sense to make more marks if you have the time. Thanks!


  2. donnie n Says:

    Hey Joe, a refresher is OK!


    • Joe Says:

      Thanks, Donnie! I agree; there are skills that I use almost daily and then there are skills that I’ve learned but haven’t had to rely on in years. It’s good to have a bit of a refresher on those skills to make sure I can still recall them if needed.



  3. Andrew G. Plourde Says:

    Actually, it takes you about three degrees from the North Celestial Pole (toward Vega), if you can accurately bisect the Epsilon Cas-Delta Cas-Gamma Cas angle and you know where to stop. Bisecting that angle can be difficult. But since you give no stopping point, you must be able to see, and recognize, Polaris. Cloudy? Tough!

    A better way is to lay off the distance between the two end stars, Epsilon Cas and Beta Cas, using your fingers. At right angles to the Beta Cas-Epsilon Cas line, mark two of these distances. You will wind up three degrees toward Vega, but there will be no guessing. And, you won’t care if a cloud is hiding the North Star. There are several other “cloudy Polaris” methods.



  4. Andrew G. Plourde Says:

    Oops! I put this in the wrong place. It belongs in the Cassiopeia section. Feel free to dump it.



  5. GOUVEIA Says:

    yes very GOOD explanation. I learned this in Boy Scouts and have used it in hiking situations for fun.



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