Survival Myth: Moss Only Grows on the North Side of a Tree

April 27, 2012

Navigation, Survival Myths

moss covered trees don't always point to north

Relying on Technology and Getting Lost

A few weeks ago, I was teaching primitive navigational techniques to a group of young men and their fathers. I presented them with a scenario at the beginning of the class.

One Saturday morning you decide to go for a hike in the woods. You’ve never been to this national park before but it looks like a great area to explore. Before leaving your vehicle in the parking lot, you set a waypoint on your GPS so you can find your way back to your car. Then you set off to explore the great unknown.

You hike more or less in an Easterly direction for a few hours until you find a stream. You carefully begin to cross the stream when your foot slips on a slippery rock and ka-splash, you’re flat on your back in the water. You get up and once you reach other side, you assess the results of fall. You’re fine, just a little shaken. You reach to your back pocket for your GPS only to find that the screen is cracked and it’s full of water. It’s useless.

The waypoint that marks your car is gone. So is the only compass you have with you. How can you find your way back to the car now? You’ve been hiking for hours in the forrest without a trail to guide you.

You STOP to take stock of your situation. You know that to get here, you walked in a general Easterly direction. By walking West, for a few hours, you can get back to the parking lot, or at least to the road that leads to the parking lot.

So the questions is: without a compass, how can you determine which was is West?

Invariably, one of the very first responses when I teach this class is: “Moss only grows on the North side of a tree.” Fathers and sons have both advocated this method without hesitation. Unfortunately, is not true.

But It Makes Sense

Like most good misconceptions, this myth is based on what seems to be some sound logic. It goes something like this: We know that moss grows best in cool, damp, shady places. Moss doesn’t grow very well in direct sunlight. In fact, too much sun will retard its growth.

sun in the skyWe also know that in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun travels an arc across the sky that is not directly overhead. Instead, its path is slightly South of overheard. The further away from the equator you are, the further South the fiery orb appears in the daytime sky. It varies a bit by season as well.

If we combine those two facts, we can reasonably draw the conclusion that the North side of a tree will receive less sunlight than the Southern side and therefore, moss will only grow on that side. Sound logic, so it seems. But wrong.

There’s More to It

As with many things in life, there are more factors in play than just the ones we’ve considered. Moss does indeed prefer shady places, however, there are many things that can create a shady environment for it. Other trees, rock formations, and mounds of earth can all offer the shade that moss needs to thrive. And all of those can cast shadows on the South side of a tree, not to mention the West or East sides as well.

The next time you’re in the woods, have a look around. Moss can grow on any side of a tree. All things being equal, it may be slightly more prevalent on the Northern side, but that’s not enough to make a decision about your direction of travel. You need to be more sure than that.

In prior posts, I’ve shared how to use the Stick and Shadow method during the daytime, and using Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper to find Polaris at night. I’ll talk about other methods in future posts.

Have you had to use primitive navigational techniques to find your way home? 

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8 Comments on “Survival Myth: Moss Only Grows on the North Side of a Tree”

  1. Anisah of South Dakota Says:

    I just had this discussion last week with some people! Not only is the moss myth true, so is the myth that the sun “sets in the west”. I live in S.Dakota. In the summer months, the sun “sets” in the Northwest here. I know that sounds odd, but if you follow the sun in my region as it crosses the sky in the summer… you’d be off by several miles from true west as it sets. This could be quite a disaster if you were trying to reach a community for help.


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