How to Navigate by the Stars

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Photo by Luke Boushee

Believe it or not, people used to find their way across thousands of miles before the GPS was invented and even before they had compasses. Folks tend to think that navigating by the stars is one of those things that can only be done if you wear an eye patch, carry a sword, or have a parrot on your shoulder. Fact is, celestial navigation can be learned in less time than it takes to learn how to read a compass, and it’s just as accurate. Best part is, no eye patch, sword, or parrot necessary (which is not to say they wouldn’t be pretty cool to have around).

The first step toward celestial navigation is locating and identifying Polaris, aka the North Star. That’s because Polaris is the one star in the night sky that does not appear to move; it hangs out within a degree of the north celestial pole, and it is always in a northerly direction. One easy way to find Polaris is to first locate the famous star formation known as the Big Dipper (part of the constellation Ursus Major), which looks like a cup with a long handle. Since the Big Dipper rotates counterclockwise around Polaris, it will sometimes appear to be on its side, or upside down, or anywhere in between. But one thing that never changes is its relationship to the North Star.

Next, locate the “pointer” stars in the Big Dipper’s cup; these are the two stars that liquid would spill from if you were actually using the Dipper as a dipper. If you continue an imaginary line off these two stars for five times the distance between them, the line will end at the North Star (which is actually the brightest star in the constellation known as the Little Dipper).

Now that you’ve located your steadfast waypoint, all you need to do is face directly toward it. Hold your left arm straight to the left. That’s west. Hold your right arm straight to the right. That’s east. Your butt is facing south.

 If you forget how to find Polaris, don’t sweat it. You can actually find north using any old star:

  • Drive two stakes in the ground 3 feet apart.
  • Pick any star, but the brighter the easier.
  • Line the star up with the tops of both stakes.

The Earth’s rotation from west to east causes the stars in the sky to rotate from east to west. If you wait for the star to move out of position and note which way it moved, it will tell you which direction you are facing:

  • If it rose, you are facing east
  • If it sank, you are facing west
  • If it moved to the left, you are facing north
  • If it moved to the right, you are facing south

More from The Young Adventurer’s Guide to (Almost) Everything:

From The Young Adventurer’s Guide to (Almost) Everything by Ben and Penny Hewitt © 2019 by Ben Hewitt. Illustrations © 2019 by Luke Boushee. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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