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Survival Myth Busted: Finding directions by tree moss

moss myth busted, find directions from moss
600 300 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

One of the pervasive folk legends about finding directions  in the wilderness or woods, is that moss grows on a certain side of a tree or rock. Just find your way by observing where the moss is,  according to this theory, and you won’t get lost.

According to my compass, the moss was on the west side of this stump. (Leon Pantenburg photo)

According to my compass, the moss was on the west side of this stump. (Leon Pantenburg photos)

by Leon Pantenburg

According to this traditional old “wisdom” the moss is thickest on the north side of a tree in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the moss is thickest on the south side.

Subsequently, this survival tip will help you to find your way in a forest.

But the newspaper guy in me had to ask: What direction does the moss point? Is there a difference in the location of the forest and the way the moss points? What are the variations? Why? Where did this legend come from?

The basis for this directional moss idea may have come from general information about moss. Moss produces spores instead of seeds, and it needs a damp  environment to reproduce.  Moss spores don’t survive in dry areas.

The sun shines from the south in the northern hemisphere, so a tree’s north side is generally more shaded and damp.  It stands to reason that there would be more moss on the damp  – the north – side

The moss myth never got far with me. In the dense, deciduous forests of Mississippi where I used to hunt and ramble, I could never find any pattern for the moss. In any dense, thick forest – where the sun doesn’t penetrate as far – it seems like you’ll see mosses on all sides of the trees. In some of standing water swamp areas where I used to wader-hunt for ducks, the moss was everywhere. It sometimes varied because of the fluctuating water levels!

Moss grows everywhere in this temperate rain forest in Oregon.

Moss grows everywhere in this temperate rain forest in Oregon.

As for rocks, well, mosses will grow on almost anything if conditions are favorable.  I suppose you might find more

moss direction myth, find directions from moss

The moss on these trees at Camp Makulla was also on the west side!

moss on the north side of rocks in an open area, but in a shaded forest, chances are good that the rocks will be completely covered.

There are apparently so many variables about where and when moss grows in a forest  that a firm rule can’t be established.

In July, 2010, I was at Camp Makualla Boy Scout camp in the Cascades with some of the scouts from Troop 18 in Bend. There was a lull in the action, so I took my compass and camera and went walking. The idea was to check out this directional moss theory. (I never need much excuse to ramble through the woods!)

I couldn’t find a consistent pattern anywhere. In one area, the moss grew on the west side of the trees, because there had been some timbering going on that let in more sunlight. A short distance away, the trees and underbrush were so dense that moss was everywhere.

lichen in desert, moss myth, find directions from moss

The lichen on this dead juniper tree in the desert grew on the top!

One of my requirements for a wilderness survival tip is consistency. The skill or technique must work every time, because there is no room for error when it comes to survival.

To me, the bottom line on the moss directional theory is this: Moss grows everywhere in the wilderness. There is not enough consistency, that I could find, to lend credibility to this “survival tip.”

Don’t depend on finding your way, based on directions gotten from the moss on trees. This idea is NOT something to promote or rely on.

Subsequently, I dub direction finding by observing  moss growth a myth. And I proclaim that myth busted!

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7 comments
  • darekk

    In my opinion mosses grow on the less-lit side (damper), what is not necessary the northern side. For example they can grow on southern side in case of bright clearing in north and dense forest in south. So an examination of trees on larger area is needed to recognize the direction correctly. Once I drew special attention on mosses in the forest – almost no correlation with N/S directions.
    (please do not approve my previous comments)

  • Leon

    Great philosophy – provided the sun is out. I also noticed this moss incongruity in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, California and other states where I thought to look. I would never place my faith in moss for finding directions. If you’re already lost, you could go in the wrong direction, further widening the search area for SAR.

  • Big L

    Soooo…what happens inOregon is the norm and nothing else is possible? Great, then I guess all beaches are covered in rocks and “gooey”ducks and really pale people. If it comes to survival in a triple canopy situation, I’d grasp at any straw for a chance to live. I’d rather take a chance on moss than do nothing. But the sun always comes up every day, and without it the moss wouldn’t do jack. So just use the sun if you’re lost. Don’t rely on the direction of water if you’re on terrain or near the continental divide or fault lines. Always use the sun.

  • Paula

    Moss growing in every direction in a dark forest doesn’t disprove the old tale. It just means you can’t tell for sure which north is.

  • Leon

    Just because somebody wrote about something doesn’t make it true. Take all survival advice – including this – with a grain of salt.

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