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Find Your Way Home: The Basics of Celestial Navigation

*** Note: I’ve now added a downloadable Celestial Navigation Chart to the Resources page

Long before the Garmins and the TomToms and the myriad other handheld GPS devices out there ever came onto the scene, long before ships were equipped with sonar and satellite guidance systems, travelers were forced to rely on a different method of finding their way from point A to point B. So what did our ancestors do without these technological crutches to lean on? Their guide, like ours, is up there in the sky, but, unlike us, it wasn’t a satellite they were looking for. They navigated using the stars.

Just to lay some groundwork, let me first state that navigation isn’t simply a matter of knowing how to get from one place to the other. Reaching your destination is obviously the goal of any travel, however long or short it may be, but knowing where you want to arrive is only half of the equation. The other, and just as vital, half is knowing where you are RIGHT NOW. Duh, right? Think about it though. If you don’t know where you are at the moment you set out for any destination, you have no idea in which direction to travel. It’s a concept that, I think, especially in the technological age, we have taken for granted. A classic example of this – and when I say “classic” I mean I probably saw it in a movie at one point – is the guy who stumbles into what he thinks is his own bed with his sleeping wife next to him only to have the lights go on and discover he’s in the wrong bedroom and has just been snuggling with grandma. The source of his error? In his confusion, he didn’t know where he was to being with (that, and he was probably drunk…but I digress).

The ability to navigate oneself to safety is an essential survival skill. Like many other survival skills, under the right circumstances it could mean the difference between life and death. It matters not whether the circumstances are natural (you got lost in the woods while hiking) or man-made (the grid is down and you need to move your family to a safer location), being able to ascertain where you currently are and in which direction to travel is more than half the battle for survival and safety when you need to get mobile.

Introducing, Celestial Navigation

Like I mentioned before, our forefathers didn’t have the technology we have today, but they weren’t just winging it either. At sea, navigators would use an instrument called a sextant. This tool was used in conjunction with the position of the stars in the sky to determine a ship’s location in the ocean. The mathematics and measurements were very precise when used correctly and could determine a very close proximity on a map to a ship’s actual location.

celestial navigation - sextant

Where the heck do you plug this thing in?

The good thing is, you don’t have to be out on the high seas in order to utilize celestial navigation. If you find yourself in a predicament in which you don’t know which way is out, you can use the instructions I’ve laid out here to put yourself heading in the right direction.

If you can find the location of the North Star and use the constellations, knowledge of the rising and setting sun, and other celestial bodies to figure out your direction, you have a much greater chance of surviving an unexpected event. Things like car wrecks, plane crashes, and getting lost while camping in an unknown location happen more often than we would care to admit and getting to safety is the key.

The Basics of Celestial Navigation

Tips for Locating North in the Dark:

Easy answer right? Just find the north star! Ok cool, but what if it’s cloudy? The easiest way to locate directions in the dark besides the North Star is the moon. When using celestial navigation you often have to deal with various issues such as weather so this idea is particularly helpful for cloudy nights. If the moon rises before the sun has set, the side you can see points towards the West, but if it rises closer too or after midnight the illuminated side is pointing East. If you remember that the compass directions are North, East, South, and West in a clockwise manner you can figure out which way to face for North. East should always be on your right hand side when you’re facing North.

Once You’ve Found North, Use the Constellations:

The North Star is one of the brightest stars in the sky but the difference to the naked eye is often negligible. When you can’t find the North Star just by glancing at the sky, you can try searching for The Little Dipper. If you still can’t find The Little Dipper, you can use other constellations to find it. The two easiest constellations to use are The Big Dipper and The Little Dipper. Finding The Big Dipper and Little Dipper are often games we play with our children on clear starry nights, but this game can be turned into a survival skill very easily.
The Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor, is definitely the easiest way to find the North Star since the last star of its handle is Polaris (a.k.a. the North Star). This constellation is comprised of 7 stars and if those stars were connected with imaginary lines they imply an image that looks like a ladle with a square shaped bowl instead of a rounded one. It rotates around Polaris as the seasons change so it may not always be facing the same direction, but its last star is always the North Star.

The Big Dipper is a series of seven stars that align in such a way as to make what appears to be a larger old fashioned water dipper. When found and connected correctly, the opening of the dipper points in the direction of the North Star. The last two stars that make up the cup portion of the dipper connect in a straight line that passes extremely close to, if not exactly through, the North Star.

celestial navigation chart

A USNO Celestial Navigation Chart (click to enlarge)

The tricky part about using The Big Dipper is that it rotates around the North Star along with the rotation of the Earth. It is always lined up with the North Star, but the spin of the Earth means that it does not always appear on the same side if you’re standing in the same place season after season. This is actually a great thing for practicing with your children, but the farther south you live, the more difficult it is to locate The Big Dipper during the fall so make sure you practice.

Celestial Navigation if You Know Your Latitude:

Mathematically, if you know roughly your latitude, say 40 degrees if your plane crashes in the Appalachian Mountains, you would turn North, find the horizon, and look up about 2/5 (a little less than 1/2) of the way up the sky and begin searching for the little dipper. You have to do a simple math conversion to figure out where to look mathematically. You take the approximate latitude of your location, in this case 40 and turn it into a decimal, 0.40. Once you know the decimal you have 2 options;

  • Use 0.40 to make a percent, 40% and look that percent of the way from the horizon up the sky or
  • Use 0.40 to figure out your closest fraction, 1/3 is 0.33 and 1/2 is 0.5, and then look that far up from the horizon in the sky.

Once you’ve done the simple math, you have an easier path to finding the North Star. A quick tip for figuring out if you’re looking in the correct area, hold both arms up in a v shape like a cheerleader and that splits the sky into roughly thirds, or hold your hand directly above your head and that splits the sky in half, and if you’re looking for 1/4 of the sky hold one arm straight up and the other arm out in front with your hand at the same level as the other elbow.

If you can do simple math and raise your arms, or picture where your arms would be pointing where they raised, you and your children could easily use this tool to find north. It is a good idea to study the relative latitudes of all camping destinations, of major landmarks you may find yourself near, and your home. Should you need to escape quickly on foot, for whatever reason, you may not be able to bug out the way you plan to and back up plans are never a bad idea.

How Does Finding the North Star Equal Celestial Navigation:

Once you’ve found Polaris, no matter which way you choose to find it, you should turn to face North. At that point, going directly to your right will take you in the direction East. Going directly left will take you in the direction West, and doing an about face will take you South. Even if you use the moon trick to find your directions, locating the North Star is still a great idea because it will help you journey at night once the moon is gone. For example, if you know heading due East is the way to safety, keeping the North Star in line with your left side will help you keep traveling in the right direction.

Celestial navigation has been around for centuries, and will continue to exist as long as there is a need to survive in the wilderness. Whether it’s just practicing for a future scare, or your career puts you in the position to need these skills, celestial navigation is a wonderful weight free tool to carry wherever you go. For more questions, check out some of these resources:

Practicing Latitude and Longitude:

Daytime tricks for finding your direction:

Information about finding the dippers:

And finally, check out our Resources page for a downloadable USNO Star Chart. Print it out and get studying!

Chart provided by the Astronomical Applications Department of the US Naval Observatory. Visit their site at




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