How to actually find your bearing with a sun and a watch

Today, I will teach you how to find the North with the sun and an analog watch. Actually, you can do without the watch, if you know the time.

Why would I want to know that?

It's one of those little tricks that occasionally come very useful, like the rule of three, opening a wine bottle without a corkscrew, or trigonometry in general.

The actual answer

Here's how you actually find the north with the sun and a compass.

In the Northern Hemisphere

First, point the hour hand of your watch towards the sun. Ideally, keep the watch level with the ground.

Using a watch as a compass

The south is halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock. In the morning, it's halfway from hour hand to noon, clockwise. In the afternoon, it's halfway from noon to the hour hand, still clockwise.

Use a clock as a compass

In the morning, you go towards noon, in the afternoon, you go away from it. This is the part I always forget, so I usually keep this sketch in my notebook:

Before noon

Before noon

After noon

After noon

In the Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, you follow the same method, but instead of finding the south, you will find the north.

The scenic route

How can you make sure that you remember this technique correctly, and that you're headed in the right direction?

If you are lost without a working phone, you can't search for this post on Google. If you are lost with a working phone, you should know that it comes with a perfectly serviceable compass, not to mention a GPS, an internet connection and a telephone. Perhaps you should use that instead.

Let's press on.

First, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. There are many ways to remember this. The day starts earlier in New York than in California. At the end of every Western, the cowboy rides into the sunset, towards the Wild West. E comes before W in the alphabet.

A cowboy rides into the sunset, towards the Wild West

In every western, the cowboy rides into the sunset, towards the Wild West

Second, at noon in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is directly south. The sun follows an arc across the sky, going from east, to south, to west.

Sun direction in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres

Third, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun moves clockwise in the sky. Before we had digital clocks, we read the time on the hands of analog clocks. And before that, we read it in the shadow of a stick. The shadow moved from west, to north, to east. Sunwise. When we built the first clocks in the Northern Hemisphere, we kept this convention, and made their hands move in the same direction: clockwise.

Sun rotation in the Northern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, but at noon, it's directly north. The sun moves from east, to north, to west. Anticlockwise. A European-made sundial wouldn't work in Australia, because the shadows there move in the opposite direction: from west, to south, to east.

Sun rotation in the Southern Hemisphere

So let's recap: in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises in the east, is directly south at noon, and sets in the west. From that, we can deduct that at any point in the morning, the sun somewhere in the southeast, and at any point in the afternoon, it's somewhere in the southwest. If the sun is somehow in the north, you either have the wrong method, or you walked all the way to Australia.

If you're not sure you have the technique right, imagine using it at 6AM.

  1. You point the hour hand at the sun. Since the sun rises in the east, the east is now at 6 o'clock.
  2. The west is in the opposite direction, at 12 o'clock.
  3. The north can only be at 3 o'clock, and the south can only be at 9 o'clock.

If you use the same technique at 6PM, you get different results.

  1. You point the hour hand at the sun. Since the sun sets in the west, the west is now at 6 o'clock.
  2. The east is in the opposite direction, at 12 o'clock.
  3. The north can only be at 9 o'clock, and the south can only be at 3 o'clock.

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