The Night Sky Is Your Map: How to Navigate By the Stars

Jun 18, 2023

compass against the sky

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Are you an avid explorer or just looking to be one with nature? Learning how to navigate by the stars lets you confidently explore the wilderness. The night sky is a permanent map you can use wherever your travels take you.

The Basics of Star Navigation

Navigating with constellations might seem reserved for old-timey sea captains or astronomers, but it’s actually super useful. Most traditional navigation tools like a compass, phone or GPS can run out of batteries or be impossible to use at night. Although all the terms and processes might seem like a lot at first, you can get the hang of it quickly.

You need to know some of the basic terms before beginning:

  • Latitude: Your latitude is how far north or south you are. The measurement starts at 0° at the equator. It reaches 90° at the North Pole and -90° at the South.
  • Longitude: Longitude is a measurement of distance represented by degrees. It’s based on an imaginary line called the Prime Meridian that splits the Earth into equal halves. It gets up to -90° West and 90° East.
  • Declination: The night sky has an imaginary equator you can use to measure the distance between stars. Declination is like latitude — it goes from 0° to 90° and can be positive or negative. The star Polaris has a declination of over 89°, just shy of true north.
  • Right ascension: Right ascension (RA) is the night sky equivalent of longitude. The major difference is that the measurement is in time rather than degrees. Basically, the sky looks like it spins in a full circle — 360° to be exact — in 24 hours, meaning 15° of sky rotation is one hour of RA. The RA of Polaris is two hours and 59 minutes. 

Each term is more involved than that, but you only need to know the basics to navigate well in the wilderness. You can use declination and RA to find and track celestial bodies in the sky. Also, remember that stars rise directly upward in the East and set straight downward in the West. Even when clouds obscure most of your vision, you can get a general idea of directions.

Which Stars Can You Rely On?

Circumpolar constellations are celestial bodies that stay in the same place on the horizon — they don’t rise or set. Although they’re not essential for nighttime navigation, they make it much easier because they’re always there. Every star at the Earth’s North and South Pole is circumpolar, while the ones at the equator move. 

How close you are to one of the poles determines how many stars in your eye line stay in the same place. For example, every star within a 45° radius of Polaris would appear fixed in the sky if you were at 45° North latitude. Traveling farther up or down changes what’s visible to you.

You can put it in perspective using a basketball and a pair of socks. The ball is supposed to be the Earth, while the socks are two different constellations. Line one up with the middle of the ball and hang the other directly above it. They represent the equator and the North Pole. 

Mark a small “x” on the ball’s surface to represent where you are on the globe. Now slowly rotate it while keeping it in the same place. The equator sock eventually moves out of your line of sight, but the one up top is always visible. That’s the idea of circumpolar stars — some will always appear in the same places in the night sky even though the Earth moves. 

You can move the “x” up and down to represent a change in latitude. The closer it is to the top, the more of the sock it would see. It also works in reverse — it can’t see anything above the ball if it’s at the bottom. Basically, you can see more circumpolar constellations the closer you are to one of the poles.

How to Navigate by the Stars

You should memorize a few constellations if you want to know how to navigate by the stars. It’s not entirely necessary, but it may be useful in a survival situation. They differ depending on which hemisphere you’re in. 

  1. Northern Hemisphere Navigation

The north star — Polaris — is the most critical object in the sky for nighttime explorers in the northern hemisphere. You’ve probably seen it before, even if you haven’t heard of it. Do you recognize the Little Dipper? It’s the star on the tip of the handle. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the brightest star in the sky. Even so, it’s still a powerful tool any guy can take advantage of. 

It lines up closely with True North, meaning you can use it as a reference point. It’s challenging to spot sometimes, but you can use the Big Dipper as a guide. The two stars on the end of its cup point to Polaris. Once you face it, you’re facing almost directly North. 

You can also use a constellation called Cassiopeia. It’s on the opposite side of the Little Dipper, so it’s helpful if clouds or mountains obscure your vision. It makes a loose, crooked “w” shape made up of five stars at each point. The one on the left end kind of lines up with Polaris. It’s not a straight shot, but you’re more than capable of finding it once you know where to look.

Once you’ve found due North, face it and hold your arms out in a “T-pose.” Your right arm points East, your left points West and your back is to the South. Find your latitude by holding your fist straight out in the direction of Polaris. Put each fist on top of the other until you get to it. Add up the number it took. One is 10° — roughly — so multiply the number you get by 10 to estimate your latitude. 

  1. Southern Hemisphere Navigation

The southern hemisphere presents a stronger challenge. You’re not alone in wondering how to navigate by the stars when you can’t see Polaris — that’s why two orientation methods exist just for this half of the Earth. The first involves using a constellation called “crux” to find due South.

Another name for it is “southern cross” because it’s made up of four stars and looks just like a big “x” in the sky. It’s circumpolar, so you can always see it at any time of year. Usually, it appears directly on the horizon. Its longer line points straight South after it reaches its highest point. 

If it’s any lower, draw an imaginary line between the star at the bottom and the top of it. Memorize that length and stretch it out four more times. Once you connect that line to the horizon, congratulate yourself — you just found due South. 

Face it and hold a “T-pose” to find the other directions. Your right arm points West, your left East and your back is to the North.  

Be One With Nature: How to Navigate by the Stars
stars orange blue night

How to Use Any Star as a Guide

While many people overlook traditional maps as a tool, most don’t pay attention to the stars. Constellations are incredibly powerful survival tools for hikers who get lost in the dark. They’re almost always visible at night, unlike paper guides. On top of that, it’s super easy to orient yourself even if you aren’t familiar with the surrounding area. 

Surprisingly, you can use any star to navigate. You first must pick something that stands out to you — something obvious and bright. Drive two sticks into the ground about three feet apart. Get behind one of them and mark your spot with an “x” in the dirt. 

Then, raise and lower each one until both tops look like they’re touching the star from your vantage point. All you have to do now is wait for it to move out of alignment. If it moves left, you’re facing North. Right means South, up is East and down is West. After you find which direction you’re facing, you know which way to go.

Nighttime Navigation

There’s a lot to nighttime navigation, but you only need the essentials. These tips cover harnessing nothing but your body and mind to explore in the dark. You can connect with nature as long as you keep a few key constellations in mind and pay attention to the stars.

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Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.