Shadow stick navigation 3

Being able to find your way is crucial for outdoor activities and bushcraft is no exception.  Whilst many mobile phones and devices have GPS capabilities, I still prefer an old fashioned map and compass.  But what if you lose or break your compass?  How then would you find your way.  There are many techniques you can use to find which way is north, such as using your watch.  Here though, I want to show how shadow stick navigation works.  The photo below was taken at about 3:30pm at the end of March.

shadow stick navigation

How shadow stick navigation works

Put a stick in the ground in a sunny spot.  I put this one  in the field adjacent our ancient woodland camp at around 2:30pm (you could use a telegraph pole or even yourself to create a shadow, just mark where you stood).  Use a stone to mark where the end of the shadow created comes to – this is the top circle in the photo below. The middle circle marks where the shadow ended at 3pm and the bottom circle marks the end of the shadow at 3:30.  Three is probably a minimum for getting an accurate bearing.

shadow stick navigation

If you draw an imaginary line through the centres of the stones you get an east/west direction.  Because the sun rises in the east the first marker will always be at the western end of the imaginary line.

The sun casts its longest shadow when it first rises and again just before sunset.  The shadow cast is shortest when the sun is directly overhead, at midday, when the shadow cast will be pointing due north.

You can see from where the stones are placed in the photos that the shadows cast have become longer.  This means that if you place your stones at regular intervals they will get closer together as midday approaches and then further apart again after midday.  But note, the midday I refer to here is not going to be when your watch says 12 noon, it’s the half way point between sunrise and sunset, true midday instead of our artificially created one.

shadow stick navigation

Add a line at 90º and you have north/south.

shadow stick navigation

We teach this technique on many of our bushcraft courses. You can see photos of previous participants on our website here, and many, many more on our Facebook page.

About Gary

Lead Instructor at Jack Raven Bushcraft, teaching bushcraft, wilderness and survival skills to groups and individuals.

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3 thoughts on “Shadow stick navigation

  • Stephen

    RE: ‘Stick shadow navigation’
    Hi Gary
    I don’t know how I got onto stick shadows! But anyway, I did! It looks like fun and I might just do an activity with my kids (since it’s holidays and there is lots of sunshine around at the moment.
    Hey, it seems to be that your method would be extremely rough, so far as finding East/West. I’m saying extremely rough, not just a little bit rough! Well, it would be very accurate around the time of the equinoxes (approx 21 Mar and 23 Sept). Or, I suspect, it would work OK if you happen to live around about the equator. (see pp 8 & 9)
    If you look at Fig 1b in the link, then I think, early morning or late evening at summer solstice, your stones are going to be indicating more North/South than East/West.
    I’m no expert, just learning, but what do you think?

    • Gary Post author

      Hi Stephen, sorry for the delay in replying, just been a bit busy of late.

      Tell most people that the sun only rises in the east twice a year and they look at you in disbelief, but as you point out this is indeed the case. The sun only rises due east on the spring and autumn equinoxes. Between the spring equinox and autumn equinox the sun rises in the north east quadrant; between autumn equinox and spring equinox it rises in the south east quadrant. So shadow sticks can be out, but not by as much as you suggest. To the best of my knowldege, the maximum from east the sun rises is 22.5 degrees. Still a substantial margin of error, but used in conjunction with other methods is still useful.

      As I say in the post, to get real accuracy you need to put out a shadow stick at midday. This isn’t 12 noon according to your watch, but exactly half way between sun rise and sun set, or when the sun is highest in the sky. At this time the shadow is exactly north – south, with the base of the shadow at the southern end and the tip of the shadow at the northern end.