People often ask me how I can tell so quickly which way is north, south, east or west. Well, the straight answer is that I just pay attention to the orientation of things wherever I go, and I also pay attention to the time of day and the position of the sun. But what happens if you have no compass or GPS, you weren’t paying attention, and it’s the middle of the day so you cannot use sunrise or sunset to gain your bearings?
Never fear, the sun moves enough at midday that we can find our direction by sticking a few twigs in the ground to make a sun compass.
It’s easy to make and easy to use a sun compass (aka “shadow stick”). Just stick a twig into soft ground in an open area that is receiving direct sun light. Then stick a smaller twig into the ground, or set a small stone, at the point where the first stick’s shadow ends on the ground. The sun moves east to west at about 15 degrees per hour.
Wait 3 hours and make another mark to record the current tip of the shadow from the shadow stick. Lay a stick or draw a line between the marks of the two shadow tips and you have established a rough east-west line. Add small stones or more twigs over the course of the day and you’ll have a sun dial to tell time, plus you’ll still have your compass. Simple, yet effective.