Use #1 for a Stick: Find North

SO. It’s Saturday morning. You and your little ones head out on a hike; into the Great Outdoors in search of dinosaur bones, owl pellets, and the yellowest dandelion. At the trailhead your offspring reaches into his pack to pull out a compass—“Let’s head north!” s/he proclaims, fumbling past granola bars, kleenex, a g.i. joe figurine, and the forgotten-about-rocks from last week’s hike.

Alas, it seems the compass has been left on the back lawn, where it was last used during a make-believe game of cowboys and aliens. While your child laments this tragedy, you laugh. Being the wise and experienced parent, you scoff at your child’s need for technology. You don’t need no stinkin’ compass to find north, now do you? Of course not: you read and know how to find north using only a stick and the sun.


Step 1 Get a stick.

Step 2. Plant the stick in the ground. Make sure it is tall stick that will cast a good shadow. Also make sure the ground is flat and relatively free of obstacles. And finally make sure the stick is as straight up and down as possible.

Step 3. Mark where the end of the shadow of the stick is on the ground. You can draw on the ground, or use a rock. But make sure to mark the exact end of the shadow.

Step 4. Eat some trail mix, play a quick game of king of the hill, throw a few rocks, whistle a duet and attempt to keep your offspring from plucking the stick out of the ground and walking all over your experiment.

Step 5. Check the stick again in about 20 minutes (the longer you leave it the more accurate it will be) and mark where the end of the shadow of the stick is now. (As a side note, you can also tell if it is before or after noon: did the shadow get longer? If yes, then it is after noon. If no, it is still before noon).

Step 6. Draw a line between the two marks you have made on the ground (or connect them with another nice, straight stick). You have just made your east/west line, the first mark you made will be west and the second mark will be east.

Step 7. Draw another line bisecting the line you just drew on the ground. Make sure that this new line is perpendicular to the first line (it will look like a big plus sign). That line, my friends, points north and south.

Step 8. Which way is north, you ask? Place your left foot near your west mark, and your right foot near your east mark. You are now looking north. Pat yourself on the back. Relish the look of awe on your child’s face. And continue on your merry way.

Note: This is the first post in a series we’re calling “30ish Ways to Use a Stick” more uses will be added throughout the year. If you have ‘stick’ ideas for this series, please leave them in the comments.

14 Comments so far

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  1. I’m excited for this series! We love sticks, of course & one thing I’d love to try doing is playing a game of pick up sticks.

    • Debi – Hummm, pick-up sticks… The outdoor make your own game version. I like it…

  2. I think my kids might be slightly impressed by this BUT it would totally wow some of the kids at the park. Yes, I like to be *that* Mom at the park – the one who can rattle off natural history details on bugs, plants, fungi, etc. I love it when a small friend yells “Kristal, you have to come see this scary thing!!!” So thanks for this, Liv. Now I can wow them with my awesome direction-finding skillz too. :)

    • Mamabee: You are such a cool mom. I love the thought of little ones turning to you for input on all things natural!

  3. I love this tip! Thanks for sharing it.
    What a fun coincidence: I too recently posted a reflection on the many little things one can do with a stick, part of my series, 101 Tips On How to Be In the Moment.
    I enjoy your blog — keep up the great work!

    • Jeffery – Thanks for stopping by and for sharing that great post! You have a way of making sticks sound so simply complex….

  4. What a great way to enhance your outdoor explorations without technology! I look forward to learning more ways to use a stick. Oh, and your photographs are beautiful!

    • City Sights for Kids – Thanks. The more we can teach without technology the better! After all, if your lost your cell phone batteries will eventually run out… leaving you compass-less.

  5. Love this post! I’m excited for the series… Im not a kid, and I’m not a mom, but I still like reading these posts. Good work Lindsey/Olivia. Hi-5

  6. Daktari

    I doubt I’ve ever been more impressed by Liv than after reading this. Who knew?

    • Dakari. I know, apparently Liv knew… And maybe a few boy scouts?

  7. […] the generation that will grow up thinking they need a GPS to find their own nose: show them how to find north using a stick.  I’m also loving the other posts in OutsideMom’s series “30 Uses for a […]

  8. […] and find out how they can use a shadow made by a stick to tell the time. There is a lovely post on Outside Mom blog which explains how to work out compass directions using a shadow […]


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia