Desert Safety: Natural Route-Finding Skills Every Boondocker Should Have

I’ve watched the sunrise over this mountain a thousand times in Quartzsite and because of that I know the four directions like the back of my hand. If you’ll tune into nature around you, and find the joy in it, you’ll never be lost. Even better, the ecstasy of nature will fill your soul.

Last month a friend of mine was leaving for Yuma and left early in the morning before sunup when the desert is very dark and got lost. The desert is riddled with a spider web of little roads and in the dark it’s amazingly easy to confuse them with each other. After you make the initial mistake of turning left instead of right, or turning onto the wrong road, every turn you make after that just takes you deeper back and makes you more lost and confused. When I heard about it I thought, “This could happen to anybody and it could end up very badly.”

Because of his experience and with so many people are coming to the desert Southwest for the RTR, I’m doing a series on staying safe in the desert. This is the second in the series, in the first I wrote about the dangers of Flash Floods, in this one we’re talking about getting lost and stuck. Let’s look at my friends example.

He made the classic mistake of once he wasn’t sure where he was, he just kept moving forward in hopes of finding something familiar. The idea occurs to you that, “Maybe I’m here, and if I go there I’ll find the road.” Almost always that results in you getting more lost in an even more remote area and makes finding  your way out by yourself, or being found by others much more difficult.

Once he was lost and confused about where he was he made another classic mistake, he was starting to feel a little desperate so he tried to drive through a wash that was too deep and too sandy for his van. Of course he was quickly stuck and not getting out by himself. He dug under the tires for a few hours, but every attempt at escape failed and frustrated him even more.

Having no choice but go for help, he headed off into the desert without knowing where he was, where he was going, and worst of all carrying no water. He wandered around in the desert for several hours until he finally found something familiar and walked over to our group’s campsite and asked if we could come pull him out. One of us had a 4×4 truck so they drove over and got him out.

Overall, it was a terrible experience for him and gave him a lot of new respect for the desert. Using his experience as an example I want to give you some tips about how not to get lost or stuck in the desert and what to do if it does happen. Today we’ll look at natural route-finding skills, in future posts we’ll cover everything else he did wrong, what he should have done instead, and spend time on not getting stuck and getting unstuck if you do.

Natural Route-Finding Skills Every Boondocker Should Have:

As you start to read this your eyes may glaze over and you think, “I don’t care about any of this, forget it!” and close the page. I understand your feelings, but please give it a fair chance. If you do, I think you may find yourself enjoying it and one day it may even save your life. If nothing else, go to the links I provide because they generally do a better job of explaining things.

People lived and traveled in nature for millions of years before the invention of the compass or GPS and you can too. It’s not hard and there is virtually no math. All you need is an interest in nature and curiosity about the world around you. Most important is a sense of child-like curiosity and playfulness. Turn finding your way by the sun and stars into a game and you’ll not only be safer you will be happier. Humans are born with a need and desire to connect with nature, by making this connection with it you’ll be more fully human and alive.

Anymore, I never go outside without looking up at the sun and stars and tuning into them. I notice where they are and how it feels outside. Every night when I walk outside I locate Polaris and I find comfort that I always know exactly where true north is.  When the first human began to think, I like to believe her first thoughts were of the sun, sky and stars and the wonder and joy they bring us. Humans have always loved and revered nature and wanted to learn all they could about it. The fact that we have lost that today, bodes very ill for our future. On the other hand, it speaks very highly of you that you have chosen to take a step closer to it.

If you spend time in the backcountry, especially if you do much walking in it, you need to have a basic understanding of route-finding. All you need to have is a very basic understanding for the 4 directions and how the sun and compass work together. I’m not suggesting  you take a class or study books, what I am suggesting is you turn your curiosity lose about wild nature which now surrounds you. Buy a compass and make a game of learning the basics. Every morning when you go for a walk, look around you and tune into your surroundings. Start watching the sun to see where and when it rises and sets. Buy an analog watch and start trying to tell time by the suns location in the sky. Where is the sun above the horizon at any given time? Let it become a hobby and start searching the internet for more information.

If this diagram makes sense to you , then todays post is going to be easy to understand. If it's just gobbledygook, then you are much too out of touch with nature.

If this diagram makes sense to you , then today’s post is going to be easy to understand. If it’s just gobbledygook, then you are too out of touch with nature. You’ll be happier and safer by understanding it.

Know how to use the sun to locate the four basic directions. If you learn this simple skill you’ll always know the compass directions around you if the sun is casting a shadow. You aren’t going to know precisely, but you’ll have a good basic idea. Most of the time if you can see the sun you can tell where south is fairly easily because the sun is basically due south at noon. At sunrise it’s basically in the east (although you should be aware that in the summer it will be slightly north of east and in the winter it will be slightly south of east). At sunset it will be basically due west (but in the summer it will be slightly north of west and in the winter it will be slightly south of west). The further north your latitude, the further north and south the sun will be at summer and winter solstice.

If this is all you know about navigation by the sun, it would almost be enough.

If this is all you know about navigation by the sun, it would basically be enough. For example, if you stand looking straight at the sun at 9:00 am you are looking Southeast. If you turn so you are looking the opposite way (using your shadow) you are heading Northwest. If you are looking directly at the sun at 3:00 pm, you are looking Southwest.  If you hold your hands straight out to your side, the right finger is pointing Northwest and your left finger is pointing Southeast. 

In between sunrise/sunset and noon, you are just going to have to guess as the sun travels across the sky. If the sun rises or sets at 6:00 am or 6:00 pm, you know that’s 6 hours between them and noon. So 9:00 am or 3:00 pm is half way between noon and sunrise/sunset and the sun is either in the southeast or in the southwest, depending on the time of the year. The sun travels at 15 degrees an hour. To try to visualize that stand with one arm straight ahead of you pointing toward the sun and the other arm pointing out to your side. That distance is 90 degrees on the horizon.  Now move your head to what looks like half that distance. You can do that surprisingly accurately. You are now looking at 45 degrees away from the horizon point below the sun. Now cut that distance in half again and that’s 22 ½ degrees off the original point. You can use this system to split the differences at any time.

To get very good at this, buy a compass and make a game of it. Use the sun to make your best guess at the directions and then compare it to the compass. Do it throughout the year so you get a feel for how it works as the seasons and your location changes. When you get to any new area be sure to practice with your compass so you can always find the 4 directions as long as there is a shadow.

This is a map to the RTR campsite in Quartzsite. If you look closely you'll see all you ever have to do is walk north and you'll come to Interstate 10 or walk east and you'll come to Highway 95. Even if you don't know where you are, you know by walking to either of those directions you'll come to help.

This is a map to the RTR campsite in Quartzsite. If you look closely you’ll see all you ever have to do is walk north and you’ll come to Interstate 10 or walk west and you’ll come to Highway 95. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know by walking in either of those directions you’ll come to help.

Study your area and know where to go for safety if you get lost. I need to be connected to the internet so I am never far from the Interstate or a major road with the internet. I’ve found that if I’m within 3-5 miles of the Interstate, I can always get a good Verizon signal. By knowing where the freeway is, I know if I get lost I can walk just a few miles and know exactly where I am and can get help or get home. So when I get to any new location I watch carefully on my first trip into the new camp so I know exactly where the Interstate is.  I also study the area to know where other landmarks are. For example, here in Ehrenberg if I head north I’ll run into the Interstate and if I head west I’ll run into the Colorado River.  Once I hit it all I have to do is walk north and I’ll run into the Flying J on Interstate 10. At the Quartzsite camp if I head north I’ll run into the freeway, if I head west I’ll run into Highway 95. By knowing my area I know I’m never truly lost, just temporarily confused.

Know your horizon. One thing I love about the desert is its wide open space; you can nearly always see the distant horizon. The best thing about that is it gives every day the chance to have a mind-blowing sunrise or sunset. But the next best thing is it makes it very easy to walk in a straight line. For many years I was in a part of the desert with few roads, so every morning for a walk I would pick a point on a distant mountain and walk toward to it. I made a game out of it and tried to return to the exact same spot that was almost 3 miles away and I got so I could walk right to it fairly often.  Over the course of the winter I did that in a semi-circle around my camp and knew my surroundings very well. Since then I’ve made it a point that whenever I get to a new camp I study the horizon around me and know where everything is. At any time I can use those points to triangulate my current location and where I need to go to get home or to safety.

I rarely carry a compass, but I always have an analog watch on. Fortunately it’s a very good compass. Go to this website for lots of good info on navigation:

Wear an Analog wristwatch, and you’ll always have a compass with you. It’s actually pretty simple to turn your watch into a compass. Find instructions here:

Know how to walk by the sun. It’s a well-established fact that humans aren’t reliably able to walk in a straight line; unless we’re careful, we almost always end up walking in circles. That’s easily solved by picking a point on the horizon and walking toward it. But, what if I can’t see the horizon? I can walk mostly straight by using the sun as my guide. First you determine the direction of the sun and stand looking directly away from the sun and in line with your shadow. If it’s noon you are looking due north because the shadow falls due north.   Hold your arms out straight to your sides and you know east and west are at your fingertips. Turn to the direction you want to travel. Look down at your shadow, whatever angle it’s at to your body, you want to keep an eye on it and keep it there as you walk. You must be aware that as the sun tracks across the sky, the angle will change by 15 degrees an hour so you’re going to have to make slight adjustments as you walk.  At least once an hour stop and re-determine the direction you want to walk and place the shadow where you want it. This is where you’ll be really glad you have an analog watch.

Both Cassiopeia (it looks like a big “W”)and the Big Dipper are easy to find in the north sky. If you can find them, you can find the North Star. I took this graphic from here:

Learn how to locate Polaris, the North Star. In the Northern Hemisphere Polaris is always due north. If you can find it you can find all the directions. It’s easier shown than told so use the picture above and go out on a clear night and locate Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper and  you’ll find Polaris between them. They rotate in a circle around it so you’ll have to study them over a period of time to get the whole picture. At the bottom of the post is another picture that should help.

Putting it all together. I get lost lost anywhere near my camp and can’t figure out how to get back to it I don’t have to be concerned because I know my safe spot and which direction I need to walk to get there. To find directions I take a look at my compass if I have one, my wristwatch if I have one, or use the sun if I don’t have either of those.  Once I know which direction I need to walk I want to find a point on the horizon and walk toward it. If I’m in a gully or a flat spot and can’t see the horizon, I find a hill and climb it to be able to see it. Then I pick a spot and walk toward it.  As I walk I use the sun to keep me walking in the right general direction. As I’m walking I’m very likely to find my way back to camp, but if not I can always get to the freeway, river or some other road and follow it back to camp.

This graphic shows where sunrise is through a whole years cycle. You can see it travels from Northeast to East to Southeast with the seasons. That’s why you need to study all those things through out the year so you get a good feel for where it’s at any season or time of the day. I got this graphic from: A site you should study if you’re interested in his topic.

Sadly, many people don’t understand the stars rotation in the sky. This graphic does a good job of showing how the Big Dipper revolves around the North Star (Polaris). Polaris is at due north and never moves. I got this graphic from the same site and it also is worth studying:    Be aware that Polaris moves up and down above the horizon with your latitude. For example, at the North Pole it is 90 degrees directly above you and at the Equator it’s exactly on the horizon. Here in Quartzsite, the Big Dipper drops completely below the horizon at it’s lowest point.


I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

47 comments on “Desert Safety: Natural Route-Finding Skills Every Boondocker Should Have
  1. Avatar lucy says:

    It sounds complicated to me Bob !!

    Regards, Lucy.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Lucy, it sounds complicated when you try to type it out, but in reality it’s much simpler. The main thing is getting the astronomy, once you have that it’s very simple.

  2. Avatar Andy says:

    Hi Bob
    Would a portable GPS in your vehicle have helped find ones way? I doubt all those small dirt roads are on any map but sometimes you can zoom out on the GPS to see any major roads near by. It would be interesting to know if a GPS would help when you when your vehicle is off in the desert somewhere. Getting lost could be really bad.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Andy, there are situations where a GPS would be critical.

      The best thing about GPS is it’s ability to do “trackback” You set a landmark at your camp and then give it the command to backtrack and it points the way exactly back to your camp. There are time when that is invaluable!

  3. Avatar Rogue says:

    That was a good read and an important article. Thank you. The animation was helpful.

    Been lost twice. Once was waaay out there in the desert on motorcycles, 5 or more miles deep into the huge sand dunes in Glamis, CA. One of us broke down. The dunes are so soft and steep that an ATC motorcycle could only carry one person outta there. Even as we were young, and even if we knew which direction to walk or ride, we had no water and would have to transverse mountainous Sahara desert size sand dunes. It was not looking good as we did not know which way to go. No clue! A little bit off course and we would still be lost and very thirsty. And it was almost dark and the temperature was dropping fast toward freezing and hypothermia, as we were only dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Then suddenly, out of the sea of sand a sand buggy appeared…how he ended up in our sand dune I’ll never know. And how he went to town and then returned to that same sand dune with help, I’ll never figure out. I do not believe in coincidence. I was however educated by the experience.

    Sometimes it is necessary to have both a map and a compass and to be able to orient the map to at least give one a general direction back home. My day pack will have at a minimum, one to two gallons of water, warm clothing and the ability to start fire and cut fuel, 30′ of cordage and a small tarp for shade. And a compass, or better yet, a map and a compass and a 2 meter hand held radio. Food is optional. If you can’t carry that load very far, then that is as far as you need to go!

  4. Avatar Rogue says:

    As an aside, the first time I used a GPS unit to do some serious direction finding in the woods, the batteries gave out. 2 compasses are better than one as they can verify that the other is accurate and one can get lost or broken and leave you with at least one. GPS is good for geo-cashing and for around town, but it is no good for the woods. Use a map and compass to get there and to get home, and use the GPS to verify, or to identify a location with precision only.

  5. Avatar Canine says:

    I got lost this year. I was on a mountain with scores of mines and miles of tailings in this ravine. I was walking straight up the mountain looking at all the abandoned buildings- it was a giant ghost town. One building was a 4 story hotel that was still standing! Very cool. Anyway, I was zig-zagging down the mountain checking out as many buildings and old trucks as I could when I realized I had went down the wrong ravine. I knew I was OK as I didn’t go over the mountain, but staying the night with just my dog was going to be a hungry night. I had a couple lighters, a couple flashlights, etc. if I needed to wait the night out. All I needed to do was get to the bottom of the mountain to orient myself then walk back up to where I parked the truck. That took 3 extra hours on top of already hiking 2 hours on an extremely steep mountain.

    It was dark by the time I got out. Man, my old-man hips were sore! The dog was limping, too. If I had had a compass, I would’ve saved myself a lot of grief. I had good visual references, but once I got in the trees, I couldn’t see the other mountains and the ravine I was lost in looked exactly like the other one. I couldn’t believe that such a large ghost town existed.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Canine, I bet you look back on that as an adventure your glad you had! It’s those memories that become our best ones, not another night setting in front of the TV.

      The forest is much tougher to navigate than the desert because you can’t see around you. But you did what you had to do. You followed a track to someplace you knew then got home from there. That’s basically my message.

      • Avatar Canine says:

        Exactly! I would not have seen the 4 story motel if I had not gotten lost. And who knows? Maybe the hotel will give way to a mud slide this spring? I consider myself fortunate to have gotten lost. Except for a couple weeks of limping around! Lol.

        Now that I’m older, I look back on what I have done and what I’ve enjoyed the most. I don’t look back on the Atari I had and think, “Those were some good memories. Loved that Frogger!” My best memories are of driving all over the place and shooting gophers with my dog. There was a time where I had a TV and rented a lot of movies and hung around at the house for the most part. What a waste. I do remember and greatly enjoyed some of those shows, but most I can’t really remember.

        This summer as I was falling asleep at my makeshift campground, I saw a white fuzz being blown by the wind across the tarp. Except that white fuzz was some type of Mayfly that had evolved to camouflage itself to look like and walk like a piece of fuzz blowing in the wind. I remember that better than the movie I watched 3 days ago.

        Now that you mention it, I did what you recommended in this blog. Didn’t think about it that way. While I didn’t bring a compass, I had enough sense to stay on one side of the mountain to maintain some sense of bearing. If I had gotten lost on the other side of the mountain, that could have been a bad deal. Might have resorted to eating the dog! Or maybe she would’ve eaten me!! Lol.

        • Bob Bob says:

          Canine, I think most of us have residual natural way-finding abilities we are just so seperated from using them they are virtually dormant. It sounds like you have spent enough time outside you’re intuitively doing the right things.

          Keep making those memories! He who dies with the most memories wins!

  6. Avatar Melanie says:

    Thank you, Bob. !’m going to try your suggestions. I live in a city, but I have a backyard and I can see the stars. I was ignorant concerning most of this information.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Melanie, most modern people are unaware of how the world around them works. To me it’s just fascinating to understand it and watch it work. It honestly makes me feel more connected to it, which makes me feel much better about everything.

  7. Avatar John says:

    Every smart phone is a compass, map, and more. Knowing your way around is good, batteries don’t last forever, accidents happen, and the walk back is more fun if you only have to check your phone occasionally to adjust your path. But smartphones are powerful navigation tools even off road in no service areas.

    I always mark my campsite first thing on arrival. I try to never wander off alone without my phone and an idea of my battery power.

    Natural and technological skills compliment each other and make you far safer than either alone.

    • Bob Bob says:

      John, yeah, i have a compass on my Samsung Note 3 and it’s very good. In fact it has built in GPS and I can call up a Google Satellite view of my location at any time.

      But I still think everyone should learn these simple things. I truly believe that anything that connects you deeper with nature is very, very good for you. Your nose to a Smartphone disconnects most of us from nature.

  8. Avatar anni says:

    Thanks so much for this important information, very useful!!

  9. I had a coworker with almost zero sense of direction. His job often required him to drive to clients and vendors. Since this was back before GPS was available to ordinary people, he had a binder filled with written directions to clients and vendors — and directions back to the office. It didn’t matter how many times he went to those other offices, he could never remember the way. I suspect he also had directions from his home to his own office and back.
    Al Christensen recently posted…Snug as a bugMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Al, there is a part of your brain that does spatial reasoning, and for some people it’s just lacking. It can be improved with practice but there is a limit.

      You have to wonder if your friend was in the right line of work for him!

    • Avatar Canine says:

      I wonder if he had had a stroke or some kind of traumatic brain injury.

  10. Avatar Ming says:

    if it’s just gobbledygook… that’s hilarious! Thank you for a good summary of various orienting and wayfinding techniques. It’s good to see them on the same page, there’s a few here I should practice. Do you have any more for deep forests where you can’t see landmarks or the sky? I do carry map and compass and haven’t gotten lost yet, but it could always happen tomorrow.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Ming, you weren’t supposed to ask abut that! My advice for the forest is don’t get lost. I’ve heard stores of some dense forests where people walked just a little way from camp and go so lost they never found they’re way back.

      Unless I have clear landmarks to guide me, I don’t go offroad.

      • Avatar Calvin R says:

        I spent my early childhood in the woods, and I camp and hike enough to stay in touch. I have been “turned around” in the woods but never truly lost. Unfortunately, I have never learned to use a compass, but I have maps when I can get them and I’m good at using them. Some people have a genuine inability to read maps, but most can learn enough to help themselves in these situations.

        The key thing, as it is anywhere, is awareness. Besides avoiding danger, awareness also makes the experience of nature deeper.

        It seems obvious that one needs to pay attention to landmarks, but maybe that’s because I’m used to doing that. Double tree trunks, odd-looking anything, boulders, streams, abandoned (or not) roads or other signs of habitation can all serve as “bread crumbs” that make a path back to your starting point. Noticing those keeps me on track most of the time. Most of the times I’ve been turned around involve trails. My brain tends to assume the trail will be clear and well marked, and I don’t pay close enough attention. Sometimes I’m wrong.

        If it’s hilly, a person can learn the contours of the land in much the same way as mountains but on a smaller scale. Choosing to walk along the foot of a ridge or try to climb it sticks in my mind. Climbing a slope gives a more open view where I can gaze at the scenery for a while, and keeping those pictures in my mind gives me the lay of the land much like a map. Higher is better as far as seeing the land. I often see roads or towns while I’m up there. I live in Ohio, and it’s not especially wild in most of the state. I check the weather while I’m up there. Storms move in quickly sometimes, and I might need shelter more than getting “un-lost.”

        Probably more important in crisis, where there are trees there is water. It’s necessary for the trees to grow. If push comes to shove, usually a person can follow a stream to a road, a lake or ocean, or even a town. With small streams, go downstream; people live near larger bodies of water.

        Just be careful. Swampy ground or other large obstacles are better skirted. For those with a strong sense of direction, this is not a problem. New landmarks appear continually in the woods, and all one need do is align the prior landmarks, oneself, and the new landmark carefully. Others might check the sun angle. (Over the stream is usually at least a little sunlight.) I can keep the sun in one direction (to my right or left, behind or ahead) in anything but the deepest woods. Cloudy days call for more caution and are more common than in deserts. I would not move if lost at night except in storms or some situation so dramatic as to be really unlikely.

        Finally, I’ll repeat what Bob said. If you have the least suspicion that you are not where you need to be, stop. Use your senses and your wits before you get into deep trouble. I think this is the underlying reason I have never been “really” lost.

      • Avatar Ming says:

        lol, so it’s not my imagination that it’s tricky in the forest. GPS doesn’t work that well under tree canopy either. That’s why I tend to stay on trails and check my map frequently.

      • Avatar Douglas says:

        I have started being able, maybe it’s a little more courage, to go into areas that are quite a bit denser than I used to. Sometimes to the point that I can hardly fit between some trees. It doesn’t help i’m about 70 lbs overweight.
        Douglas recently posted…Ammunition and electronicsMy Profile

  11. “At noon the sun is always due south.” Except during Daylight Saving Time. Then you’d need to wait until 1PM for the sun to be due south.
    Al Christensen recently posted…By the frozen yogurt shopMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      That’s very true Al. But it was already a fact filed post and I thought that was overload.

      For our purpose, it’s within 15 degrees of due South and that’s plenty good enough for the rough navigation we need to do.

  12. Avatar Myddy says:

    I have a GPS but it doesn’t always give a reliable signal, it’s not the top brand. With that said, I’m very thankful that I have lived in the east where there are plenty of landmarks to find my way. However, when I make it out to the desert I’ll have to revisit this post and try to gain a better understanding so that I can navigate! I’m sure it’s easy once you’ve practiced a bit.
    Myddy recently posted…Reflectix: insulating the vanMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Myddy, there are some places in the desert that are flat and barren, but not many. For the most part there are many landmarks to follow. You will find it easy.

  13. Besides looking at a landmark on the horizon, or looking at the sky, it’s also good to look at the ground. Follow the footprints, trails and tire tracks of those who have been that way before. Watch for your own footprints. “Ah! This is the way I came in. I’ll follow it back.” Even if your intended route was a loop, if you’re seriously lost it might be better to turn around and go back the way you came, even if you’re well past half way.

    If, while outbound, you choose to leave a road or trail, pick a landmark — or make one — at the spot you diverged. Look for it on your way back. In fact, after you diverge, turn around and see the landmark from the direction you’d be returning, so it will be familiar.

    If there’s a chance you won’t be returning until after dark, have some solar-powered lights at your vehicle or campsite to serve as a landmark. It’s much harder to find what you can’t see.
    Al Christensen recently posted…An experiment in traditional gender rolesMy Profile

  14. Avatar Lightfoot says:

    Really cool graphics and great info as usual! Thanks so much, Bob. Wishing you a joyous New Year!

  15. Avatar Omar Storm says:

    Hi Bob,

    Wishing you and the Tribe a happy and healthy New Year.


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