How to start

Learning to Navigate

While you should always bring a map or a compass when you explore, there are many ways to find your bearings when you’re out in the woods.

Step 1

While you’re at a forest or trail, place a stick or branch in the ground. Make sure you’re in a clear, level spot where you’ll be able to see the shadow cast by the branch. Mark the tip of the shadow with something small, like a rock or twig.

Step 2

Wait about 15 minutes, then mark the tip of the shadow again (it will have moved).

Step 3

Now draw a straight line from one mark to the other. You’ve just created an approximate east-west line.

Step 4

Stand with the west mark to your left. North is in front of you, east to the right and south behind.

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Exploration Ideas

  • Use Moss to Find Your Way

    Moss often (but not always) grows on the north side of trees, because the north side gets less sunlight. Try heading out in the morning (with a compass or map as backup) with your kids and see if they can find north just by taking note of the moss on the trees.

  • Use the Watch Method

    Place a watch on the ground or a flat surface, with the hour hand pointed at the sun. Find the center point between the hour hand and the 12:00 mark on the watch. That’s the north/south line. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, facing north, the sun will be on your right (east) in the morning, and your left (west) in the afternoon. Learn more by watching this video.

What to Bring

  • Plenty of water, even for short hikes — a gallon per person per day is a good guide
  • Snacks such as fruit or trail mix and empty bags to collect any garbage
  • Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Lightweight rain jacket


Safety Tips

  • Before you get on the trail make sure you have the local Forest Service Ranger District’s or Supervisor’s Office phone number with you. If someone gets hurt this should be the first number you call.
  • Always let someone know where you're going and what time you expect to be back.
  • Avoid going if a thunderstorm is in the forecast. Seek shelter in a car or house if you’re caught in a thunderstorm. If you're caught outside, the safest place to be is crouching in a cluster of trees — not in a clearing, out on water, or next to a lone tree.
  • Be mindful of the sun. Use sunscreen, seek shade, and drink plenty of water — even in the winter.
  • Animals have their own natural food supply so please don’t feed them.
  • Fruits and mushrooms can look tasty, but some are poisonous. To be safe, do not eat anything you find growing in the forest.
  • Railroad tracks are for trains only. Keep to the side and stay off the tracks.
  • Set a turnaround time when heading out that gives you plenty of time to get back before it gets dark. Expect to spend at least the same amount of time hiking back as you did hiking out.
  • Bring a small flashlight or another source of light with you if you'll be out close to sunset.
  • Remember to be mindful of cars when you’re in a park near a road. Wear bright colors for extra visibility.