If you’ve ever watched movies or shows where people are stranded in the woods, at sea, or in the middle of the desert, you’re tempted to think about what you would do if you were in a similar situation. Without a compass or map to guide you, it would be easy to feel hopelessly lost and helpless. However, if you know how to navigate by the stars, you can find your way home from almost anywhere.
Navigating by the stars is actually easier than you might think, but it takes some practice. However, no matter how long it takes to master, knowing how to navigate by the stars could very well save your life one day.
The Importance of Learning How to Navigate by the Stars
Whether you’re an adventurer, an explorer, a mariner, or do anything else where you’re in uncharted areas, navigating by the stars might be your only means of direction. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when stars were the only navigation system that mariners had.
In modern days, we’ve become extremely reliant on technology and GPS systems. However, should anything happen to these systems, most people won’t know how to get anywhere. But, if you know how to navigate by the stars, there’s no type of power outage or technology breakdown that can get in your way.
Navigating by the stars isn’t just a good skill to have. It’s also a fun way to expand your knowledge of the world and learn more about our expansive universe. A major part of learning how to navigate by the stars is memorizing and recognizing various constellations. Knowing these constellations will help give you a better understanding of the world and will also give you the chance to show off to your friends!
While being a show-off and expanding your knowledge of the universe are all good and well, the main reason to learn how to navigate by the stars is for your personal safety. Having this skill can get you out of a wide variety of jams where you’re lost and can’t rely on modern technology.
Learn the Major Constellations
Ursa Major, better known as the Big Dipper, consists of a group of seven stars. This constellation is aptly nicknamed the Big Dipper because of its stark resemblance to a large ladle or dipping spoon. Ursa Major is located in the northern hemisphere and is easy to spot on clear nights. By using the last two stars in the handle portion of the Big Dipper, you can find the North Star.
As you might have guessed from the name, Ursa Minor is a smaller version of Ursa Major. Like its bigger relative, Ursa Minor is in the shape of a ladle or dipping spoon but smaller than Ursa Major. As such, it’s better known as the Little Dipper. This constellation consists of seven stars, including the North Star, which is the last star on the handle portion of the dipper.
While the Big and Little Dippers play an important role in navigation, Crux plays the most important role if you’re in the southern hemisphere. Crux is also known as the Southern Cross and is the best way to find “due south.” This constellation consists of a tight group of five stars that form a crooked but decipherable cross.
Cassiopeia is one of the lesser-known navigational tools, but it can get you out of a jam if you can’t find the Big Dipper. Cassiopeia is in the shape of a rough W, and you can use it to find the North Star if the Big Dipper isn’t visible.
Also known as Orion the Hunter or Hunter, Orion is one of the most famous and easily recognizable constellations in the universe. It’s located in the Northern Hemisphere and consists of eleven stars in total. There are five stars that make up Orion’s head, limbs, and torso, plus three stars that make up his belt and three smaller stars that form a sword. Orion has served as a navigation tool for sailers and adventurers for thousands of years.
If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll want to know how to identify Centaurus. It’s a massive constellation in the southern hemisphere that you can use in conjunction with the Southern Cross to find due south.
If you know how to identify each of these six constellations, you’ll know how to navigate by the stars in no time.
1. How to Navigate by the Stars Using The North Star
The most common and easiest way to learn how to navigate by the stars is to use the North Star, aka Polaris, as your guide. The North Star is usually one of the most radiant stars in the Northern Hemisphere and is always the brightest star in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) constellation.
If you can spot the Little Dipper on a clear, cloudless night, the North Star is the last star on the handle end of the constellation. However, because of how small the Little Dipper is, it can be tough to pinpoint it on its own. Instead, you might have to use tracer constellations and stars to guide you to it. Here are a few possible options you have.
- Locate the Big Dipper.
- Find the two outermost stars on the pan portion of the constellation opposite the handle.
- Form an imaginary line starting with the bottom star and going straight through the upper star.
- Take your imaginary line roughly five times further than the distance from the top and bottom stars in the Big Dipper.
- Your line should lead you directly to the North Star.
- To confirm your suspicions, make sure that the North Star is part of the Little Dipper constellation and forms the tip of the handle.
While the Big Dipper is the best way to find the North Star, it won’t always be visible. In early fall, for example, the Big Dipper is usually too low in the sky to be visible. In these cases, you’ll have to use Cassiopeia.
- Cassiopeia is on the opposite side of the Little Dipper as that of the Big Dipper, which means that when the Big Dipper is low, Cassiopeia will be high in the sky.
- Cassiopeia consists of five stars that form two back-to-back Vs, with one being wider than the other.
- To find the North Star, form a straight line with the last two stars that help form the wider V in the constellation.
- Following your line, it will lead you directly to the North Star.
- To confirm your findings, make sure the North Star is connected to the rest of the Little Dipper.
The North Star indicates which direction is “true north,” which is the northernmost point on earth. By heading toward the north star, you can always be sure you’re going straight north. You can also use Polaris to find out which way is south, east, and west, essentially forming a compass.
2. How to Navigate by the Stars Using Latitude
If you need a fairly precise estimation of your current location and want to know your latitude, this is the method for you. Learning how to navigate by the stars using this method will require a sextant or quadrant and knowing how to use it. Here’s how it works.
- Using one of the two methods listed above, locate the North Star.
- Next, you’ll have to find out what the North Stars position is in the Northern Hemisphere by degrees.
- If you have a quadrant or sextant, you can get a fairly close fix on the North Stars location based on the angle at which you have to hold the sextant.
- If you don’t have a sextant or quadrant, however, you’ll have to use another method.
- Extend a closed fist straight out in front of your face toward the endless horizon in the direction of the North Star.
- Stacking one fist on top of the other, count how many fists it takes until your fist is directly in line with the North Star.
- Each fist represents roughly ten degrees. By adding up the number of fists it takes to get in line with the North Star and multiplying by 10, you can estimate the latitude of your current position.
3. How to Navigate by the Stars by Finding South
The first two methods we’ve looked at are perfect in the Northern Hemisphere. However, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, you won’t be able to see the North Star. Instead, you’ll have to be able to find “due south” if you hope to know how to navigate by the stars.
- To find true south, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll have to locate Orion the Hunter.
- Once you’ve located Orion, find the three stars that compose Orion’s sword.
- Of the three stars, the top one will be bright, the middle one will be less bright, and the bottom star will be fuzzy at best and appear as a blur.
- The three stars that make up Orion’s belt will always point south and are the best way to find true south if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere.
Naturally, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, it’s much easier to find true south. To do so, you’ll have to locate the Southern Cross, aka Crux.
- As its name indicates, the Southern Cross consists of four stars that form an almost perfect cross.
- Once you find the cross, draw an imaginary line between the shorter gap in the cross that forms the crossbars of the cross.
- By following the imaginary line between the shorter gap in Crux and following it to roughly five times past the length of the cross, you’ll be able to find true south. The imaginary line won’t take you directly to another star but rather point in a southerly direction.
- If you want a more precise direction to follow, here are a few more steps you can employ.
- There are two pointer stars in the constellation Centaurus. Find the two brightest stars in Centaurus and pinpoint the location directly in the center of them.
- You’re really going to have to use your imaginary lines here. Extend a line from the center point between the two brightest stars in Centaurus and take it through an imaginary line from Southern Cross. The point where these lines intersect is the celestial south pole which is the southern equivalent of the North Star.
- The south celestial pole will be true south which can then help you establish your other directions.
4. How to Navigate by the Stars by Finding East and West
To find true east or west, we return again to the Orion constellation. This time around, however, you’ll have to locate Orion’s belt, which is much easier than finding the other parts of his body. It consists of three stars in a straight line in the middle of the constellation. The right-most star in the belt, in general, will rise and set within one degree of true west and east.
You’ll use a similar concept as you do with the sun to determine east and west with Orion’s belt. The star will rise in the east and set in the west, just like the sun does. Using this method will require some patience and the ability to track Orion as it moves through the night sky.
5. How to Navigate by the Stars Using a Random Star
Learning how to navigate by the stars using a random star takes a little patience and a keen eye, but it’s a good way to know your directions if you can’t find any specific constellations. Here’s how it works.
- Pick any random star in the sky, preferably a bright one, so that you can keep track of it.
- Drive two stakes into the ground roughly one yard or three feet apart.
- Stand behind one of the stakes and make it so that the stakes are directly in line with the star you chose.
- Wait for several minutes or hours until the star moves either right, left, up, or down from where it was when you first started tracking it with the stakes.
- If the star has risen higher, it means you’re facing east.
- If the star has fallen lower in the sky, it means you’re facing west.
- If the star has moved to your left, it means that you’re facing north.
- If the star has moved to your right, it means you’re facing south.
Using this method is a little less common than the other methods we’ve looked at, but it works.
Wrapping Up How to Navigate by the Stars
As you can see, there are several different ways that you can learn how to navigate by the stars. Some of them work better than others, and not all of them are applicable in all parts of the world or at all times of the year. Therefore, you would be wise to learn several or all of the methods so that you know how to navigate by the stars no matter where you are or what time of year it is.
Check out our Navigation Page for more information on navigation.