Getting lost in the forest during the day can be frightening. Staying lost while the Sun sets can present a dangerous situation to any hiker. No one ever wants to find themselves lost, cold and hungry. Thankfully, finding your way home may be as simple as looking up into the evening sky. Man has been using the stars for navigation for thousands of years.
Look above us on a cloudless evening, and we might see thousands of stars. We only need to know how to locate one star in particular, to regain our orientation anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. It's commonly called the North Star. The star's scientific name is Polaris. Contrary to a common legend, it's not the brightest star in the sky. Actually, it barely cracks the list for the Top 50 Brightest Stars, coming in at #46.
While the Sun is still high in the afternoon sky, you usually have an abundance of heat and light. As the Sun sets, the forest begins to get dark and cold, and the shadows begin to deepen; things don't look quite the same. As this happens, it is easy to become disoriented and frightened. Don't panic - keep a level head. Remember - orientation is a separate issue from that of light levels. Although you are out of sunlight, you should still able to find your sense of direction in the dark forest. The Sun is just another star. After it sets, thousands of others stars will take its place in the evening sky.
Everyone uses the Sun every day for orientation. Because of it proximity to Earth, we often think of our planet's sun differently than the other stars in the sky. It 'rises and sets' in our sky because of it's close proximity to Earth. The other stars seem to stay static. This is because of their extreme distance from our planet.
In order to understand how a star can help us find our way home, we'll follow the example of a hiker on the trail. He has decided to try a new trailhead north of town. After sunset, our hiker finds himself lost in the forest. Without sunlight, he has no idea what direction he's facing. This can be a challenging situation. In order to find a safe exit from the forest, our hiker must orient his direction so he won't waste time and energy.
His goal is to find the North Star. This too, is your 'secret weapon' to finding your way home. Dependent upon the time of year, time of night, and where you are on the earth, it may appear to be in a different location in the sky. Remember, that despite its appearance in the sky, it's going to show you roughly which direction is North.
Allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Use your night-time vision. If you use your flashlight, your eyes will not adjust properly to the dark. Turn off all light sources and close your eyes for thirty seconds. When you open your eyes, you should be able to see further into the darkness than before. This is because your eyes have physically adjusted to the shift in light. Remember, never shine a flashlight into someone's eyes, especially at a time like this. It can hurt their eyes. Point your flashlight only at the ground.
The key is to locate two constellations in the northern sky - the "Big Dipper" and the "Little Dipper". They face each other; both dippers look as though they are 'pouring water into the other'. The stars of the "Little Dipper" are a bit more faint, so you might be able to locate the "Big Dipper" first. Polaris, the "North Star" is located at the very end of the handle of the "Little Dipper". Another set of constellation names that you may hear are the "Big Bear" and the "Little Bear". Don't worry, they're talking about the same stars. Look around. They could be turned upside-down, but that won't matter. All of the stars will appear to move around together.
Look for a series of stars that create what looks like a handle, and follow them to the four stars that create the bowl of the "Big Dipper". Draw a line between the two outside corners of the bowl. Start on the outside, bottom corner of the bowl. Then continue up to the top, outer lip of the bowl. Follow that line out for about 6x the length of your original line (between those the two outer stars in the bowl of the Dipper – Dubhe and Merak), and you will be in the neighborhood of Polaris. The first star you see in that line will be the end of the handle on the "Little Dipper". Congratulations! You just found the North Star! By finding the North Star, you just identified the direction 'North'. Another easy thing to remember while identifying Polaris (The North Star), is that it may appear to sit off by itself. Again, sometimes it's difficult to see the rest of the "Little Dipper" because the other stars in that constellation are a bit more faint.
Good news - our hiker is looking up at the North Star (or Polaris). So now he knows which direction is 'North'. Since he lives in the city; and the city is to the south of the hiking trail, he knows that the city is behind him. Now he has a solid reference point to help find his car and his way home. The location of the North Star (Polaris) is not exactly true magnetic North, but it's close enough to help a hiker find his way from wandering around aimlessly in the dark.
Preparing for your hike is an important step toward a safe and enjoyable outing. If you have an iPad or iPhone, SkyView Free is a great app to teach someone the constellations in the sky. Hold your mobile device up to the sky, and the screen displays the names and images hidden in the stars above you. You can use this app to identify stars, constellations, satellites, and the planets far beyond our own home. This is a great teaching tool. Learning the stars in the sky is a lot of fun. Keep in mind, you might not always have your phone with you, on the trail, to do the work for you.
Learn the position of the North Star (Polaris), and you'll always have an advantage - the ability to orient yourself long after the sun has set. Enjoy the trials and the night sky!