Forget what you’ve heard: moss does not only grow on the north side of a tree. It’s true that moss prefers the shade, and that sun rarely shines on the north-facing side. But there are definitely way too many variables to bet your life on this. In fact, the only accurate direction indicators to use in the outdoors are the sun, wind and stars.
The sun should be your first choice. It’s no more accurate than using the stars, but it’s obviously much easier to travel during the daytime than the night. Morning and evening are the easiest to get a fix on direction since the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.
It’s possible to use the old “stick in the ground” method to determine direction. Plunge a stick into a flat piece of earth or snow, away from any obstacles. Then, mark the tip of the stick’s shadow. Wait for 10 minutes and mark the tip of the shadow again. Remembering that the sun travels from east to west, and taking note that you are in the northern hemisphere, you know that north has to be between the two shadows, south is completely opposite, east must be to the right of the first mark, and west is to the left.
The shadow of a full moon can also be used like the sun. Place a stick in the snow and mark the tip of the shadow. Wait 10 minutes and mark the shadow again. This marks the west-east direction.
If the moon is a crescent shape, create a line along the points of the crescent and continue to the horizon. The point at the horizon is south.
Just like you can look at the outline of an ancient white pine and determine the prevailing wind direction by its outstretched branches, the same goes with snowdrifts. It’s a navigational tool used by the Inuit—living in a land with no trees. They “feel” the snow with their feet. I tried this out on a lake near where I live. I went walking on the ice at night and simply followed the soft side of each snow drift. The prevailing winds on my lake are northwest. I wanted to go southeast. I was able to make it back to my house without a compass.
On a sunny day, an object on the snow (twig, tree stump, exposed rock, or even animal tracks) will absorb heat and melt the snow. In the northern hemisphere, and south of the Arctic Circle, the melted section will be in the shape of a half-circle abutting the object. The arc of the half-circle is pointing south and the straight side of the half circle is aligned east-west.
Snow on south-facing slopes will melt before north-facing slopes due to getting more sunlight and heat.
Reading the Stars
At one time, reading the stars in the night sky was the best way to get yourself around out there; and it’s still possible, as long as you know how to separate the stars from all the blinking satellites, aircraft lights and the odd UFO. Don't try to identify the individual constellations. That’s next to impossible. Keep to the simple ones: the Big Dipper and Little Dipper. These constellations not only look like what they’re named after, but also circle closest to Polaris (North Star) and don’t change their position in the sky throughout the year.
The easiest of the bunch is the Big Dipper, which is the rump and tail of Ursa Major (The Great Bear). It’s made up of seven bright stars, four in the shape of the bowl and three the ladle. The brightest star out from the lip of the ladle is the North Star, shining almost directly over “true” north. When using it for navigation, keep in mind that it’s best not to travel at night—for obvious reasons. Instead, mark the direction with a stick and wait until morning.
The Little Dipper, more commonly known as Ursa Minor (Little Bear) is also an easy one to locate. After you’ve identified the North Star (using your compass might be easier than looking out from the lip of the Big Dipper), you’ll soon realize that it’s also the last star on the Little Dipper’s ladle. This constellation was always thought to be the most important because it actually contains Polaris. Persians called it the “Guiding One.” The Chinese named it Tou Mu, a goddess who saved shipwrecked sailors with her supernatural powers and was later transported into the sky. Ancient Norsemen labelled it the “Hill of Heaven,” home of the guardian of the rainbow bridge joining Heaven and Earth. Some North American First Nations believed it to be a young girl who appeared to a group of lost braves and showed them the way home.