The North Star is a beacon that can be used to guide people in the backcountry.
Here is how to find it.
By Blake Miller
Few hikers or backcountry travelers use the celestial bodies in the night sky to navigate by. But on a clear night, the night sky provides a feature that is an excellent source of direction. It doesn’t matter if it is June or November, if you are in Wyoming or Oregon.
The North Star or Polaris is the principle star that I will focus on.
For the backcountry hiker, consider that Polaris is fixed in position over the northern pole. Unique from other celestial stars and planets, Polaris is very closely aligned to the earth’s axis. Stars and planets rotate around Polaris. And like the sun, this rotation is from east to west through the sky. Polaris will be found approximately half way between the northern horizon and straight overhead. In the northern hemisphere, Polaris can found in our northern sky and is never more 1° from true north – the North Pole.
Constellations help locate Polaris. Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper point to Polaris. Uniquely, Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper can be seen in relation to Polaris year round. In winter, the constellation of Orion will also help locate Polaris.
In the case of the Big Dipper (above), an imaginary line is drawn from the two pointer stars to Polaris.
Polaris will be found about at a distance of five times the space between the two pointing stars.
So what does this do for the hiker?
The essence is that Polaris is another visual handrail at night. Large terrain features were identified as “backcountry handrails.” (Handrails can include roads, railroad beds, ridgelines, power transmission lines and streams.) Handrails help align the map and give the traveler a sense of relationship to the topography both on the map and what is nearby.
For example, if the hiker determines that Butler Butte will always be to the left and west of the trail then that butte becomes a visual aid for navigation. At night geographic features may not be quite so visible and distinct. So on a clear dark night Polaris can aid the wilderness navigator by providing direction to true north.
This visual reference compliments a magnetic compass. (Ideally the hiker uses a declination adjustable magnetic compass.)
It’s always right there in the same place (even if you can’t see it at the moment) and doesn’t require batteries.
Cloud cover and forest canopy will limit the ability to navigate and use Polaris. If Polaris is completely obscured but some sky is visible, attempt to find east. Like the sun, stars and planets rotate through the sky from east to west. Find a star and monitor its movement over a period of a few minutes. Once you’ve determined where east is, north is to the left.
Like all navigation skills, using the night sky takes practice. Before heading out on your next adventure, practice at home, look for Polaris at varying times. Observe the star’s relationship to the other celestial bodies.
Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973. He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his twenty-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator. Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new satellite positioning systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.
In 1998 Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival. Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians. He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.
As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes to students in the local school districts, and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.
If you have any questions about land navigation or wilderness survival, you can contact Blake through SurvivalCommonSense.firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to his website.
To hear the Blake Miller interview about choosing a magnetic compass and GPS on SurvivalCommonSense.com Radio, click here.
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