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Earth Sense: 2 tips for finding your way when lost

POSTED: March 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Outdoor season is starting just about now. When one hikes in the woods of North Georgia, it often becomes difficult to keep track of the direction. If you don’t have a compass, but brought a watch with hands and a dial, you can locate south with it.

Ignore the large hand and point the small hand at the sun. If it’s after noon, the approximate south direction is halfway between the 12 and the small hand of the watch (in the space through which the hand has already traveled). If the time is before noon, point the small hand at the sun and south will be halfway between it and the 12 (the space through which it still needs to travel).

This simple method I learned from a German geology professor works by assuming that we’re approximately in the center of our time zone, with the sun being exactly to the south at noon. Farther west, at the Alabama border, or near the sea to the east, it loses some accuracy because the earth doesn’t really turn in one-hour intervals as our time zones would have it. But it’s still usable.

Divide the space between the clock hand and the 12 in half because the hand makes two complete circles a day, while the Earth only makes one.

But what if the sky is overcast and you’re totally lost in a heavily wooded mountain area? In the movies, young and inexperienced hikers often struggle uphill “to see where we are.” That’s likely to get you more lost than before.

One direction that’s always apparent is downhill. Just follow the water. Valleys never end in a cul-de-sac around here because running water finds its way to the ocean, and valleys can only end in desert areas where there’s no stream to erode the slopes and cut through the ridges. Keep going downhill in the Appalachians, and you will inevitably find a creek. Follow it and it will join a larger creek. Farther down, it’ll flow into a small river. Eventually, you’ll end up in a town because no river in the U.S. Southeast is without any.

Another benefit of going downhill when lost is that the air gets progressively warmer when you descend into the valleys. This minimizes the risk of hikers, especially young students, having to spend a chilly night on a mountaintop without knowing where to go.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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