Orienteering is a skill that involves the use of a compass and map usually to aid you in navigating your way from one point to a predetermined destination. Key to successfully orienteering is knowing which direction you face. A compass is a great tool and unlike a GPS it doesn't require batteries. A compass is invaluable in a survival situation. In the absence of a compass there are several methods by which you can determine your orientation. Using the sun is one and stars are another. Lesser known methods are using the terrain to show you direction can be done, assuming you know the geologic features surrounding you. Any of these methods simply tell you which direction is which and by itself this knowledge is basically useless but still it is required for successful orienteering.
HOW TO USE THE SUN TO DETERMINE DIRECTION
The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, but not
exactly due east or due west. The sun rises further north on the horizon in the summertime than it does in the winter time. But it can also be helpful to know that in the northern hemisphere, the sun will be due in line with due south when at its highest point in the sky, or when an object casts no appreciable shadow. In the
northern hemisphere, shadows will move clockwise. Shadows will move
counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. With practice, you can use
shadows to determine both direction and time of day.
You can also determine direction using a common or analog watch (one
that has hands). The direction will be accurate if you are using true local
time, without any changes for daylight savings time. Remember, the further
you are from the equator, the more accurate this method will be. If
you only have a digital watch, you can overcome this obstacle. Quickly
draw a watch on a circle of paper with the correct time on it and use it
to determine your direction at that time.
In the northern hemisphere, hold the watch horizontal and point the
hour hand at the sun. Bisect the angle between the hour hand and the
12 o'clock mark to get the north-south line. If there is any
doubt as to which end of the line is north, remember that the sun rises
in the east, sets in the west, and is due south at noon. The sun is in the
east before noon and in the west after noon.
Note: If your watch is set on daylight savings time, use the midway point
between the hour hand and 1 o'clock to determine the north-south line.
In the southern hemisphere, point the watch's 12 o'clock mark toward
the sun and a midpoint halfway between 12 and the hour hand will give
you the north-south line.
USING THE MOON
As the moon orbits the earth. A new moon or no moon is when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. Then, as it moves away from the earth's shadow, it begins to reflect light from its right side and waxes to become a full moon before waning, to appear as a crescent on the left side. You can use this information to identify direction.
If the moon rises before the sun has set, the illuminated side will be the
west. If the moon rises after midnight, the illuminated side will be the
east. This obvious discovery provides us with a rough east-west reference
during the night.
USING THE STARS
The main constellations to learn are the Ursa Major, also known as the
Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. Both of these constellations are visible in the northern hemisphere year round assuming there is a clear sky.
Each of these constellations can be used to locate the North Star. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are always directly opposite each other and rotate counterclockwise around
the North Star. Mentally draw a line from the outer bottom star to the outer top
star of the Big Dipper's bucket. Extend this line about five times the
distance between the pointer stars. You will find the North Star along
Cassiopeia has five stars that form a shape like a "W" on its side. The
North Star is straight out from Cassiopeia's center star. After locating the North Star drop down straight to the horizon and that direction is North.
Stars are actually more accurate than a compass in determining true North. This is because a compass works of magnetism and therefore it can be affect by metal and magnetic anomalies in the earth. But of course you don't need a clear sky to use one so each method has its inherit advantages and disadvantages.
MAKING IMPROVISED COMPASSES
You can construct improvised compasses using a piece of ferrous metal. Ferrous meaning that a magnet will stick to it and that means it contains iron. To make the compass you need a small piece of metal ideally shaped something like a needle. Magnetize the ferrous metal with a magnet or by stroking it with a piece of silk or even repeatedly through your hair. Best method is with the magnet by stroking one end of the ferrous metal with the magnet. Always rub in the same direction.
Once you have magnetized the ferrous metal suspend it from a piece of string or from a long human hair or float it on a very small piece of wood in water. The metal will align itself in a north south direction.
There are other much less reliable methods such as the unreliable moss on the side of the tree method. Forget this one. Another method which is a bit more reliable is using prevailing wind direction. But I would hate to bet my life on either one of these methods.
Tips for successful orienteering in a survival situation:
1. When reading the map always keep the northern edge of the map pointed north. Sounds trivial but as soon as you put the map away its features start to fade from your memory. Not having to do extra brain gymnastics of rotating what you have seen on the map to your surroundings will greatly eliminate orientation mistakes.
2. Stay in contact with the map. Not always possible, where possible alway know where you are on the map. If you loose orientation on the map stop and figure out where you are.
3. When reacquiring your spot on a map take your time and really think things through. Don't take off without thoroughly establishing your position as best as possible.
4. Use handrails. What this means is even if you have to alter you straight line course to follow a feature such as a powerline, do so. The theoretical time lost by not heading straight to you target will usually be justly compensated by you having almost no chance of being lost and your speed can be increased because staying in contact with the map is a no brainer when using rails. So you can concentrate on just making tracks. And those tracks will be very efficient straight line tracks that do not meander much.
5. And don't freak out. Use logic if you get disoriented. Note your last know location. And use features such as rivers and roads etc that you know you did or did not cross to eliminate vast areas of the map. Usually when disoriented the map to you will not appear to match your surroundings. But after careful study you have an "oooohh" moment when you see that it does all fit together.