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post #12 of (permalink) Old 11-16-2011, 10:36 PM
High on the Mountain Top
Join Date: Jan 2004
Location: North Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Interest: Mountain biking, hiking, nature photography, astronomy, music...
Posts: 1,581

The 10 degree fist method is taught in basic astronomy/stargazing courses for estimating angles across the night sky, but it works for daytime directions too. The sun travels west across the sky at a rate of approximately 15 degrees per hour (stars are exactly 15 degrees per hour). The width of your closed fist at arms length is approximately 10 degrees. This value works well for all sizes of people, as smaller people have shorter arms and smaller hands. If you know the time, face-watch or not, knowing that the sun is south at noon allows you to find south by counting fist-widths forwards/right or backwards/left from the current sun position. If it is 10 AM, three fist widths to the right of the sun, along the path of the sun rather than horizontally, will find approximate south. If it is 5 PM, a bit less than two widths to the right will find approximate west. Daylight savings screws this up of course (as it does the face-watch method), so you have to account for that too, but not in the summer.
Astronomy has been a long-time hobby for me and I learned basic navigation by star and constelation positions. This is how people navigated for thousands of years, particularly at sea. Modern culture has left it somewhat of a lost art, practiced by few other than telescope geeks (which is also dying off due to computer controlled scopes - sigh).
If you can find Polaris, the north star, you've got it made, as that star is within 1/4 degree of true north. If you can't see the north star, a bit more knowledge is required, as the positions of stars change throughout the year as well as throughout the night - for a given time of night, everything appears 30 degrees (three fist widths) west of where it was at the same time a month earlier. Knowing where a few key stars and planets are in a given season at a given time of night is the key. Jupiter, for example, is very close to due south at around 11:30 right now, also moving west across the sky at very close to 15 degrees per hour (look high to the east in the early evening - its the brightest object). It will gradually move westward throughout the winter and early spring.
In the absence of a compass, a simple star wheel, also known as a planisphere, can be used to find directions.
In one of the videos there was a comment stating that the sun sets in the west. This depends on where you are in the world and what time of year it is. At our latitude the sun sets in the WNW in June and in the WSW in December. The direction it sets varies by more than 45 degrees thoughout the year
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