How to Navigate by the Stars

A guest post from Jenn over at

Long before iPhones and GPS existed, even before the invention of the compass, ancient peoples across the world had to rely on other methods to successfully navigate and explore. One of the primary methods, particularly amongst seafaring adventurers was celestial navigation.

With the advancement of technology, this ancient art has gradually faded, however, it is still a good skill to have. Batteries die, compasses can be dropped, you never know when you may need to rely on your natural navigation instincts. Navigation by the stars isn’t difficult, but it does require some knowledge and a little practice.
Important Northern Hemisphere Constellations

To begin, you will have to learn a few key constellations. In the northern hemisphere the most important are:

  • Polaris (the North Star)
  • Ursa Major (Great Bear/Big Dipper)
  • Ursa Minor (Little Bear/Little Dipper)
  • Cepheus (the King)
  • Cassiopeia (the Queen)
  • Draco (the Dragon)
  • Orion


How to Navigate by the Stars in the Northern Hemisphere

Once you have learned a few of the key constellations you can begin to navigate by them! Learn how to navigate by the stars.

Finding North

Polaris or the North Star always sits within about one degree of the celestial north pole. If you can find this star then you know (pretty much) exactly which way is north.

To begin locating Polaris, find the Big Dipper and the two stars that make up the bucket that are not connected to the handle. Draw a line through these, and follow this line upwards and you should find the last star at the end of the Little Dippers handle. This star is Polaris!

Finding your Latitude

Short of having a sextant with you, you can make a rough estimate of your latitude by using the north star and your fists. Extend a fist towards the horizon, and place your fists hand-over-hand up to the north star. Every fist you make is approximately ten degrees of latitude.

Finding South

To correctly determine south, you first must find the constellation Orion. Orion, or the hunter, is made up of a collection of stars that look like a hunter with a bow. The key to finding south is to look for the three stars that make up Orion’s belt. If you look closely at the middle start, you should also see several stars hanging down to form Orion’s sword. Orion’s sword points to the south.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are doing it for fun, to show off to your friends or as an important skill, navigating by the stars helps you connect with the stories and way of life of our ancestors that has long gone. For more information and tips, please check out the full article on celestial navigation at MyOpenCountry.

This entry was posted in Back To Basics, Navigation and Signaling. Bookmark the permalink.

Join in on the discussion!