For navigation in the out of doors when you live in the northern hemisphere, remember this short mnemonic:

Northwest in the morning,

North at noon,

Northeast in the evening.

Here’s the full explanation. When you hike – or bike, or do anything outdoors in the northern hemisphere, you can just look at your shadow to determine which way is north. In the northern hemisphere, the sun travels in the southern half of the sky. The sunlight casts your shadow in the opposite direction: to the north.

Here’s an example:

A shadow stick is a more accurate way of navigation with the sun

Throughout the day, the sun casts shadows in a northerly direction when you live in the northern hemisphere.

To navigate this way, you don’t need to plant a shadow stick. You can use your own body’s shadow. In the drawing above, the sun has passed its zenith at noon, and it beginning its afternoon descent toward the horizon. Thus your shadow points several degrees to the right of true north. To navigate accurately, you don’t need to determine true north precisely. You only need to know generally where north is to stay oriented.

For instance, let’s say you set out on a hike. On the outbound leg, you find yourself heading south and west along various paths and roads. That means you need to head generally north and east on the return trip. As long as you maintain the right general direction on your return trip, you’ll find yourself back in familiar territory – that is, the area around your starting point.

I used to travel in the southern hemisphere when I was in the navy, but I didn’t verify that the opposite is true in that hemisphere. Given that the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere, I expect the sun’s travel is opposite as well. It will travel in the northern half of the sky, and cast your shadow to the south.


When you’re travelling in your car, the shadows cast by other cars and even trees can be a little hard to figure. In any case, your attention has to be on the road. When you’re out in a vehicle, telephone poles are the best shadow sticks around.

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Forgotten your compass? Use the sun to navigate