How to Determine North and South using the Sun and how to use a Watch as a Compass

Not everyone has a very good sense of direction. When travelling, especially in new places, it can be easy to become disorientated. Which way is North? There are some simple ways to improve your sense of direction, using the Sun’s journey throughout the day.

It is generally known that the Sun rises in the East in the morning and sets in the West. There is some seasonal variation but if you live in the northern hemisphere, the Sun is roughly in the south in the middle of the day. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, by mid-day the Sun will be north.

To determine the direction of the Sun’s movement depends on the direction you are facing. If you are facing north and the sun moves from right to left or east to west, you are likely to be in the Southern Hemisphere. Shadows will move counter clockwise. However if you are facing north and the Sun moves from left to right, you are likely to be in the Northern Hemisphere. Shadows will be moving clockwise.

Why do the hands of a clock move in a ‘clockwise’ direction? This is because clocks are likely to have been invented in the north equator and the dials on clocks were designed to follow the direction of the shadows. South of the equator, everything is reversed.

Watching shadows can therefore help determine direction and time of day. For a make-shift clock/compass, find a reasonably long stick and a level spot where a definite shadow will be cast. Place the stick in the ground and mark the tip of the shadow it makes with a stone. Wherever you are on earth, this first shadow mark is always west.

Slowly the shadow will start moving. After around fifteen minutes, mark the tip with another stone, like you did with the first. Now trace a straight line through the ground through the two marks using a stone or sharp object. This line will give an approximate east-to-west line.

No matter where in the world you might be, if you stand with the first (west) mark to your left and the second mark to your right, you will now be facing north. If you are facing North, behind you is South. The height of the Sun above the horizon determines the speed of the shadow’s rotation. And because this varies depending on time of the day and seasons, the hours of your shadow clock will not keep the same length all of the time. When you are facing north, the east is to your right and to your left is west.

Another method to determine cardinal points using the changing position of the Sun is by using an analogue watch; this is a watch that has hands. Hold your watch in front of you and point the hour hand at the Sun. The angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock position will point south. This method will be more accurate if you use true local time. So, for instance where an hour has been put back for daylight saving, use the midway point between the 1 o’clock position and the hour hand (still pointing to the sun) to determine the north-south line.