Make a Shadow Stick to Determine Direction

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Using the Sun and Shadows to Find Direction

The sun casts shadows that move in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

If you’re lost without a compass and you need to determine the direction of travel, first remember a few key principles about the earth’s relationship to the sun. In the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And when the sun it at its highest point, it will be due south in the sky. Seasonal variation affects the accuracy of these general rules; they are not exact although these principles can help you determine direction.

When the sun is at his highest point in the sky, objects directly below don’t cast shadows. But at any other time of day, the sun creates shadows that move in a clockwise manner in the northern hemisphere. Knowing this relationship between the sun and shadows, it’s possible to determine both direction and general time of day. Follow these steps to learn how.

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Gather Materials and Choose a Location

Find a stick or branch, and choose a location that’s free of debris. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

Find a straight stick or branch pole that is about three feet in length. This stick or branch pole is the only item that you will need to determine direction based on the sun’s shadows. Using a stick to determine direction is often called the shadow-tip method.

If you’ve found a branch that has several other branches attached to a central pole, break or cut off accessory branches so that you have a single pole remaining. If you are not able to find a branch in your surroundings, improvise by using another long, slender object, such as a trekking pole.

Choose a location that is a level area free of brush or debris. This area should be one in which you’ll be able to see a shadow clearly. Test the area by standing with the sun at your back, and make sure that you’re able to see your own shadow clearly.

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Place the Stick and Mark the Shadow

The first mark on a shadow stick corresponds to the western direction. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

Now, put the stick or branch you’ve chosen into the ground at a level spot where it will cast a shadow on the ground. Tap the stick into the ground so that it won’t shift or move with the wind. If necessary, stack rocks around the base of the stick to keep it in place.

Mark the tip of the shadow by using a rock or a stick to draw a line or arrow in the ground at the shadow tip’s location. This first shadow mark will correspond to the western direction, anywhere on the earth.

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Wait and Make a Second Mark

Make a second mark on the ground that corresponds to the new location of the shadow. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

Wait for 15 minutes, and now make another mark at the shadow’s tip in the same way that you marked the shadow’s tip in its first location. Notice that if you are in the northern hemisphere, the shadow will move in a clockwise direction that corresponds to the sun’s trajectory across the sky.

Note: this photograph was taken in the southern hemisphere, so the shadow has moved in a counter-clockwise direction; however, at all locations on earth the first mark always corresponds to the western direction, and the second mark corresponds to the eastern direction.

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Determine the East-West Line

A line between the first and second marks creates a general east-west line. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara

After you have marked the first and second shadow tip locations, draw a line between the two marks to create an approximate east-west line. The first mark corresponds to the western direction, and the second mark corresponds to the eastern direction.

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Determine North and South

Use the east-west line to determine all other compass directions. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

In order to determine the other points of the compass, stand along the east-west line with the first mark (west) to your left side and the second mark (east) to your right side. Now, you will be facing north, and behind you will be south.

Use the information you’ve gained with the shadow-tip method along with other tips for finding north in the northern hemisphere to verify direction and to proceed accordingly in your desired direction.