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How to navigate by the stars: the basics of celestial navigation

man hiking at night
Learn how to navigate by the stars in both the northern and southern hemispheres (Image credit: Steven Robinson Pictures)

Most campers love nothing more than kicking back after a day on the trails and aiming their eyes up to the firmament for an hour or so of stargazing. 

Not so many are aware, however, that stars aren’t only good for gazing at, but also make for highly reliable, convenient, and – of course – free navigational tools. Learning how to navigate by the stars takes a little practice, granted, but once you’d got the basics down, on clear nights you’ll be able to do your nocturnal wandering with confidence and without the aid of a map and compass.

Before we get down to our explainer on celestial navigation, we’ll preface what follows by stating that we always recommend the following: that you learn how to read a map and how to use a compass, bring a GPS as backup (see our guide to the best GPS watch), set some aside time to learn how to navigate without a compass using methods available during the daytime, and never head into the wilds relying on the stars are your sole source of navigation.  

man hiking at night

Learning how to navigate by the stars could come in handy - if the night skies are as clear as this (Image credit: Carlos Fernandez (Getty))

How to navigate by the stars in the Northern Hemisphere 

The most fundamental step to learning how to navigate by the stars is familiarizing yourself with the night sky’s most notable constellations.

While there are many constellations that can come in handy, the most easily identifiable – and those most useful for backcountry navigators in the northern hemisphere – are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Ursa Major: Also known as the Great Bear, this constellation is home to a group of seven bright stars that are easily located on clear nights in the northern hemisphere. Collectively, these stars are known as the “Big Dipper” and form the shape of a roughly hewn saucepan or ladle. The two stars that form the outward side of the pan’s container (called Merak and Dubhe) can be used to find Polaris, aka the North Star.

The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper (Image credit: Christophe Lehenaff (Getty))

Ursa Minor: This smaller sibling of the Ursa Major, cutely known as the “Little Bear”, contains a group of stars dubbed the Little Dipper. Like the Big Dipper, this collection of stars has a saucepan-like shape, making it fairly easy to identify. The Little Dipper is also essential for celestial navigation in the northern hemisphere because the North Star is the last star on the Little Dipper’s “handle”.

The Little Dipper

The Little Dipper - the North Star is the furthest on the right (Image credit: Cristophe Lehenaff)

If you’re a budding stargazer, check out our guide to the northern hemisphere night sky, where you’ll find a more detailed explanation of the stars, planets and galaxies visible north of 0° latitude.

How to find true north using the Big Dipper and Little Dipper

  1. Start by locating the Big Dipper. As mentioned above, this group of stars looks like a large, slightly crooked saucepan. 
  2. Draw an imaginary line between the two outermost stars in the constellation, which together form the outer edge of the pan. 
  3. Extend your imaginary line roughly five times the distance between these two stars and you should be just a fraction to the left of the North Star (Polaris). 
  4. For confirmation that the star you’ve located is indeed Polaris, check that it lies at the tip of the 7 stars that form the Little Dipper. 

How to navigate by the stars in the Southern Hemisphere

The southern hemisphere’s lack of an equivalent to the North Star makes celestial navigation down south a little bit trickier than in the upper portion of the planet. However, a south bearing can be found using the constellation Crux.

Crux: Better known as the Southern Cross, this is a tiny constellation of five stars that vaguely form the shape of a cross or, to some eyes, a kite. Crux contains one of the southern hemisphere’s brightest stars – Acrux – and is visible from latitudes of about 33 degrees south and southward.  

Crux (the Southern Cross)

Crux (the Southern Cross) (Image credit: Phil Clark (Getty))

How to find celestial south using the Southern Cross

  1. Start by locating the Southern Cross 
  2. Draw an imaginary line from the top of the cross to the bottom 
  3. Continue south, extending your line by roughly five times the cross’s height
  4. The end of this imaginary line gives you a ballpark bearing on south that can then be used to establish the other cardinal directions 

How to navigate by the stars using constellations visible in both hemispheres

Whichever side of the Equator you happen to be doing your navigating in, the constellation Orion – aka “The Hunter” – can be used to determine the direction of True North.

Here’s how it’s done: 

Orion

(Image credit: Jamie Cooper (Getty))
  1. Start by finding Orion and the bright trio of stars that form Orion’s Belt. 
  2. Find the three stars above Orion’s Belt that form Orion’s shoulders and neck. The central star in this trio is called Meissa. 
  3. Trace an imaginary line from the central star in Orion’s belt towards Meissa, missing Meissa a fraction to the right. This line gives you the rough direction of True North.  

Kieran Cunningham is Advnture's Channel Editor. Kieran is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran is the author of Climbing the Walls, an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors.

kieran.cunningham@futurenet.com