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How to Use Your Watch as a Compass

Use Any Analog Watch and the Sun to find North

Yes, it really works. At least it sort of does. It’s not going to turn you into an expert surveyor or celestial navigator like the polar explorers who took sun spottings to navigate to the poles when magnetic compasses become increasingly useless, but it’s better than nothing at least.

This is an old trick of sorts which allows essentially any analog dial watch to be used as an expedient compass to roughly determine a north/south line, even those not actually equipped with a dedicated compass function.

There are several versions of the technique with minor variations but the general method is mostly the same. Below an excerpt from the US Army Ranger Handbook that details the method I’m most familiar with.

(2) Watch Method. You can also determine direction using a watch (Figure 11-2). The steps you take will depend on whether you are in the northern Temperate Zone or in the southern Temperate Zone. The northern temperate zone is located between 23.4 north and 66.6 north. The southern Temperate Zone is located between 23.4 south and 66.6 south.

Illustration from the Ranger Handbook for using a watch as a compass

c. Northern Temperate Zone. Procedures in the northern temperate zone using a conventional watch are as follows:

(1) Place a small stick in the ground so that it casts a definite shadow.

(2) Place your watch on the ground so that the hour hand points toward and along the shadow of the stick.

(3) Find the point on the watch midway between the hour hand and 12 o’clock and draw an imaginary line from that point through and beyond the center of the watch. This imaginary line is a north-south line. You can then tell the other directions.

Note: If your watch is set on daylight savings time, then use the midway point between the hour hand and 1 o’clock to draw your imaginary line.

d. Southern Temperate Zone. Procedures in the southern temperate zone using a conventional watch are as follows:

(1) Place a small stick in the ground so that it casts a definite shadow.

(2) Place your watch on the ground so that 2 o’clock points to and along the shadow.

(3) Find the midway point between the hour and 12 o’clock and draw an imaginary line from the point through and beyond the center of the watch. This is a north-south line.

e. A hasty shortcut using a conventional watch is simply to point the hour hand at the sun in the northern temperate zone (or point the 12 at the sun in the southern temperate zone) and then follow the last step of the watch method above to find your directions. This shortcut, of course, is not as accurate as the regular method but quicker. Your situation will dictate which method to use.

It can sometimes get confusing which end of the line is which, and if you start thinking about what happens at six o’clock and the implications for which direction you’re supposed to approach twelve o’clock from you’re going to give yourself a headache. The thing to remember is this: the sun tracks over the Equator. So, in the northern hemisphere, the end of the imaginary line you draw that is closest to the sun will point toward the South. Also keep in mind that a rotating bezel (any bezel will work, not just a dedicated “azimuth” type bezel) can be used to help draw that imaginary line.

The technique has some disadvantages though:

  1. In addition to the geographic requirements, it requires that the user be able to observe the sun which can make the technique less useful on overcast days, and of course useless at night.
  2. The complete “stick method” is essentially only useful when stationary and won’t help any more once you move away from that location. If the terrain allows you might be able to sight on a distant terrain feature until you can take a new reading, but this is not always possible in dense vegetation and such. Same is true for the expedient watch-only method once you move your arm.
  3. It gets harder to use and less accurate the closer you get to the equator, when the sun’s direction is harder to determine (i.e., it’s simply “up” for much of the day)
  4. And quite frankly, if the time of day, your geographic position and light and weather conditions allow you to observe the sun well enough to determine its direction beyond just “up” and you know even vaguely if it’s morning or afternoon, you already know the sun’s direction on the compass rose, or at least you probably ought to.

In light of these disadvantages, the shortcut method I have highlighted in yellow is in my estimation the most useful portion of the technique, as the time and effort required for the stick method don’t produce enough marginal accuracy or utility to offset the time or effort required. Point the hour hand at the sun, mentally draw the imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and twelve o’clock, remember that the end of the imaginary line closest to the sun points south (in the northern hemisphere at least). Ta-da. You can now orient yourself on a north-south axis.

Also see note above about using one o’clock instead of twelve o’clock to correct for error introduced by Daylight Savings Time. When using the shortcut method however, in my opinion it’s probably not worth bothering with. While it is true that it can help remove some error, the technique overall is of such limited accuracy anyway that it doesn’t make enough of a difference to offset the extra effort required.

Although it’s better than nothing if you’re really lost and really desperate, for the reasons above in my opinion this technique to use your watch as a compass is mostly Boy Scout novelty. Additionally, in my estimation the technique is not useful enough to justify the NSEW rotating “compass” bezels featured on some outdoor- and military-themed watches. Although they can help with the “mental math” when using the technique, their utility is still lost once the watch is moved, and even a 60-minute or 12-hour bezel is still useful for achieving the same result.

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  1. nick says

    The latitudes for the northern zone are certainly incorrect. It should read 23.4 north and 66.6 north, assuming the southern values are correct.

    • Rrryan says

      Ah yes, thanks for the correction. Seems it was an artifact of a typo in the original document, I’ll go ahead and fix it. Probably of minor importance though, as hopefully one would already have a rough idea. ;)

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