I’d like to explain how to make an intelligent guess about where north, south, east and west are. It’s more useful than you think. If you are driving in a city, you can imagine the map in your head and orient yourself much better if you have a rough idea about the points of the compass.

Remember that well. Now, practice orienting yourself as if you’re standing on the ground and say, south is right in front of you. Which way would you turn to go west?

Left, of course. What if you should then turn north after walking west for a while? Well, turn left again. Now you should go south one more time. What to do? Turn directly around and face the other way.

Try this everywhere. Soon you’ll feel much better if you simply know one of the directions. All you need is one! The rest follow from it. Extend this to other things you know. For example, in the city of Munich, Germany, Prinzregentenstrasse runs east / west. If it’s evening, and you are driving along it, and the sun is in your eyes, then you are traveling west. If you have a dinner appointment in the Schwabing neighborhood, and you find yourself making a left turn off of Prinzregentenstrasse, then clearly something is wrong! You would be heading south…and imagining a map of Munich in your head, it becomes clear that Schwabing is a bit to the north of your street. And therefore…

You should be making a right turn off of this street.

Practice this exercise enough and a sense of direction will become a part of your background task. People will think of you as someone who has a good “feel” for orientation. No: it’s because you did the work.

Guessing the compass points from “nothing”

There are a few “magic” tricks you can apply. In the morning, the sun rises in the east. It sets in the west. So you can orient yourself in the morning and evening. But what about in the middle hours of the day?

In summer, it’s hard to tell. But in the European or North American winter, it’s made easier by the fact that the sun is arcing across the southern sky. At noon in January in Munich (same goes for Portland, Oregon), the sun never really attains the “top” of the sky: it is still rather weak, and when you face it you will be looking generally to the south.

It follows then, that if the afternoon is wearing on, the sun is to the right of south, so you should turn a bit left if you want to face south. If it’s still morning then the sun is to the left of south, so you should turn a bit right if you want to face south. Remember: you only need one point of the compass and the rest follow from that!

There are other tricks. In a natural landscape, north slopes are shady and they’ll have snow much earlier in the fall and later in the spring than southern slopes. At lower elevations in the mountains, northern slopes will probably have more trees. At higher elevations, they’ll have less than southern slopes. Generally, the mountain slopes are steeper on the north because long-dead glaciers carved and dug out those slopes. When you think of interesting and dramatic mountain slopes, you are thinking of northern slopes.

Guessing your direction is fun! Set up little tests and try it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you can hazily guess that south is anywhere within a general “region” then you are probably doing okay. Have fun!