Celestial Navigation: 2 Reliable Methods To Easily Find Your Way

Before the insane invention of GPS was even a thought in somebody’s mind, ancient sailors had to count on crude tactics to get around. They used many methods like always keeping land in sight, following the direction fish swam, where the birds were flying, and how the ocean currents flowed and shifted, but as you can easily guess, these crude tactics were not so safe or reliable.

Celestial Navigation

Guess what never changed though? Stars! Celestial Navigation has been the navigational crutch every sailor has used in antiquity. They always shined brightly back at them. Stormy weather and cloud cover could prove frustrating, but a good navigator knew how to use The Milky Way to find their way.

During daylight hours the sun was the main resource. Its movement across the open sky indicated East from West and North and South could be determined using the direction of shadows at noon.

What about at night? I’m glad you asked! You see there are two major methods that old sea fairing folk practiced. The catch is only one could be implemented at a time, depending on which side of the equator they found themselves.

If a mariner was in the Northern Hemisphere, they looked out for Polaris, better known as “The North Star”. This twinkling beast stays relatively still in the celestial North Pole. In the Southern Hemisphere, however, things got a little trickier. Since there isn’t a singular star that stays put, two constellations were needed. The Southern Cross (Crux) AND Centaurus.

Celestial Navigation

You may be asking yourself, “Ok, so why do I need to know this?”. One, I feel it’s pretty cool to know and two, learning how to find and use both methods could possible save your life one day, so that’s kind of important no?

What if you go hiking and become disoriented in the woods? You wouldn’t be the first. Maybe you lost your map and/or compass, the batteries in your GPS device fail you or some other unforeseen circumstance happens. I bet you’ll be happy that you read this article then won’t ya!? Ready to learn? Great! Let’s get started.

Polaris and the Northern Hemisphere

Almost everybody has heard of “The North Star”, but I guarantee not many know where it is or how to spot it. It’s quite easy once you know the trick.

Finding the North Star

The steps are –

  1. Find the Big Dipper:
    • The Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, is one of the most recognizable star formations in the northern sky.
    • It consists of seven bright stars that resemble a ladle or a dipper. Look for it in the northern part of the sky.
  2. Identify the “Pointer Stars”:
    • Within the Big Dipper, locate the two stars at the end of the ladle, farthest from the handle.
    • These two stars are called the “Pointer Stars” because they point toward Polaris.
  3. Trace a Line:
    • Mentally trace a line from the bottom of the ladle (the end opposite the handle) through the Pointer Stars.
    • Extend this line approximately five times the distance between the Pointer Stars.
  4. Locate Polaris:
    • Along the traced line, you’ll find a moderately bright star. This star is Polaris, the North Star, part of the constellation Ursa Minor.
    • It’s not the brightest star in the sky, but it’s relatively bright and stands out due to its position near the celestial north pole. It’s
  5. Confirm Polaris:
    • To ensure you’ve found Polaris, you can use other methods such as observing its stationary position while other stars appear to rotate around it.
    • Polaris remains nearly fixed while other stars appear to revolve around it due to the Earth’s rotation.

The Southern Cross and the Southern Hemisphere

It’s not quite as straightforward when you’re below the equator. As I previously mentioned, you must locate two separate star constellations. Unlike the North Star (Polaris), there isn’t a single bright star marking the South Pole. You’ll have to use a bit more brain power for this one.

Using stars to find the South Pole

Here’s what you do –

  1. Identify the Southern Cross (Crux):
    • The Southern Cross is one of the most prominent constellations in the southern hemisphere sky. It consists of four bright stars arranged in the shape of a cross.
    • It’s visible from latitudes south of 25 degrees north, becoming more prominent the farther south you go.
  2. Use the Pointers:
    • The Southern Cross is often accompanied by two bright stars known as the “Pointers.” These stars are Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (part of the constellation Centaurus).
    • Draw an imaginary line from the longer axis of the Southern Cross, extending towards the horizon. The Pointers are located along this line.
  3. Estimate the South Pole’s Location:
    • Extend a line from the midpoint of the Southern Cross to the horizon, perpendicular to the line formed by the Pointers.
    • The point where this line intersects the horizon approximates the direction of the South Pole.
  4. Locate the Magellanic Clouds:
    • The Large Magellanic and Small Magellanic Clouds are irregular dwarf galaxies visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere.
    • These clouds appear as faint, diffuse patches of light past the cross-section of the two imaginary lines.
  5. Consider Other Indicators:
    • While the Southern Cross and the Pointers are the primary celestial markers for finding the South Pole, other constellations and stars in the southern sky can provide additional guidance.
    • Familiarize yourself with prominent southern hemisphere constellations like Crux, Centaurus, Scorpius, and others to aid in navigation.
  6. Practice and Familiarization:
    • Practice identifying the Southern Cross and other relevant celestial formations under different sky conditions and seasons.
    • Familiarize yourself with the general direction of the South Pole to enhance your navigational skills.

Final Thoughts

See I told you it wasn’t too difficult! It might feel like a mini puzzle when you first start looking out for these constellations, but not to fret. I guarantee once you familiarize yourself and figure it out, your identification troubles will disappear!

If you’re planning on venturing out into the wild, I highly recommend that you bring other navigational tools with you. It’s not too difficult to learn how to read a map or use a compass, and there’s no such thing as being too safe. Hopefully, this additional piece of knowledge will bring some extra peace of mind on your next exploration in the woods. Happy hiking and happy trails!


  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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