How to Use a Watch as a Compass at Night and 8 Compass Alternatives

Last Updated on 04/04/2022

can you use a watch as a compass at night

Before learning how to use a watch as a compass at night you will need to understand how to do it during the day. In this guide, we share the method of wristwatch navigation and what to do at night when you can’t use the sun. You will learn about the nighttime navigation alternatives and hopefully pick up a new skill by the end.

It is easy to take for granted how easy navigation has become with the development of smartphones that can pinpoint you on a map in real-time and tell you where to go. But relying too heavily on technology is dangerous and having the knowledge to get by without it is an asset. Watches that have navigation built-in are a good piece of kit to have like these solar watches with compass features on some of them.

You can learn to navigate by nature, using signs like the side of a tree moss grows on or by understanding local wind currents. These are not always the most reliable so if you can find 2 or 3 different signals then you will have better results.

Using a Watch as a Compass During the Day

The method to use an analog watch as a compass is easy and can also be applied to digital watches with an extra step or two. Simply hold the watch horizontally and line up the hour hand with the sun and the point between the hour hand and 12 o’clock will be roughly south. In the morning this means that 12 o’clock will be on your right and between 12 and 6 it will be on your left.

how to use a watch as a compass at night

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The above technique is used in the northern hemisphere however if you live in the southern hemisphere then you basically do the opposite. Hold the watch horizontally and point the twelve o’clock mark towards the sun and then rough north will be halfway between the sun and the hour mark.

If you have a digital watch without hands then you can use the same method using your imagination of where the hour hand would be if your watch had one. If you struggle with this then draw a watch on the ground with a stick in the dirt or use water on a rock or anything you like.

How to Use a Watch as a Compass at Night

So you might be wondering how you can use a watch as a compass at night when you don’t have the sun to help you. Well, there are a few ways to navigate at night but none of them really need a wristwatch. An outdoor watch will help with one or two of the nighttime navigational tactics though so this article is still relevant. Watch, we’ll prove it.

Using two sticks about 2 and 3 feet long, stick them into the ground and align both tips with the brightest star in the sky. Once you have found your mark, wait 15 minutes using your watch to time yourself and note which direction the star has moved. Common sense should tell you that it is the earth that is moving and not the star and so we can work out a rough idea of the direction in the dark.

If the star moves up, you are facing east. If the star moves down, you are facing west. if the star moves to the right, you are facing south. Or if the star moves to the left of the two sticks, you are facing north.

Using a watch as a compass at night

How to Navigate Without a Compass at Night

You could argue that you don’t need a watch to execute the two sticks method and that is true. If you wait roughly 15-20 minutes without timing yourself you will get the same result. So if we can’t use a watch as a compass at night then how can we navigate in the dark? Well it isn’t always easy but there are a few alternatives to using a watch as a compass without the sun:

Use the Stars

Using the big dipper or “plow” to find the north star is probably the easiest way to find your way at night but only works if your view isn’t hindered by cloud. The big dipper is the saucepan shape constellation that rotates anti-clockwise around the north star and is easy to spot on a clear night. To find the north star you can look for the little dipper as seen in the diagram below.

NPS big dipper little dipper north star navigation at night using stars

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If the north star were the tip of a compass needle it would be pointing north.

Bushcraft a Needle Compass

You can actually make a compass out of items often found in first aid or sewing kits. All you need is a needle and either something made from silk or wool. Carefully, rub the needle against the silk or wool as many times as you can for about 2 – 3 minutes to charge it with static electricity. Then you need a small leaf that will float when carefully placed on the surface of some water.

Place the statically charged needle on top of the floating leaf in some still water and you will see that the fat end of the needle with the eye will consistently point to magnetic north if you repeat it 5 times.

Clues from Nature

Nature leaves subtle clues everywhere that can direct you in the dark with a watch including plant growth and animal behavior.

Moss Growth

Moss prefers dark moist conditions and so it will often grow on the northern side of the tree which gets the least sun. So if you can confirm moss growing on one side of multiple trees that are exposed to the sun and not too wet at the base, then this is a good indication of north and south. At night it might be hard to see moss but if you can use a headlamp or the moonlight is bright enough then give this one a go.

Xanthoria Parientina (Lichen)

Xanthoria Parientina is a rust-colored lichen you see growing on rocks and trees sometimes. While most other lichens prefer shaded conditions this one prefers to be facing south towards the sun. If you can confirm this as you walk it can help keep you course at night without a compass or being able to see the North Star.

Ant Hills and Termite Mounds

There are thousands of different species of ants and so this tip is no guarantee but it has been found that ants build their nests on the south side of trees with their entrance facing south. It has also been proven that termites in Australia build their mounds with a thin edge facing the magnetic south. We don’t recommend trusting this completely but if you can use it in conjunction with another natural sign then it provides a stronger signal.

Landmark Intelligence

If you can use your watch as a compass before it gets too dark at night and also keeps a visual of a landmark in the distance or to your side, you will still be able to travel at night. Mountains in the distance are a good feature to aim for as well as any body of water or distinguishing feature in the landscape. If you have a rotating dial on your watch then you can set it to the direction you should be heading.

Forest Navigation

One good tip for navigating through a forest at night to try and keep a straight line is to create a visual line of 3 trees in the direction you are heading. When you get to the first tree you need to line up a new third tree and so on. You should also weave between points so that you don’t end up curving of course. If you are in a survival situation then you should also be blazing notches onto those tress as you go so that you can always retrace your steps.

Smartphone Apps

It sounds obvious that you wouldn’t have already thought about using your smartphone but some people assume that because their phone has no signal that it is useless. Sometimes your phone will store data that can help you navigate at night wearing a watch. Google maps for example might not be able to pinpoint you but it might have a basic map you can zoom in on.  You may have several other apps that may be able to provide you with some kind of information you can use.

navigation at night without a compass

How Do You Find North with A Watch at Night?

Because you can’t use the sun with your watch to create a compass you will have to use one or a combination of other techniques. Because none of them are as accurate as a compass you should try and confirm things 3 or more times and use multiple signals if you can. The North Star is the best way to navigate at night without a compass but if you can’t see that then you may be forced to look for natural signals or bed down for the night, even if you don’t have a tent you can try and get a fire going or find some shelter.


We hope you found this little guide helpful and now you know that you can’t use a watch as a compass at night but you can use it to help you navigate.

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This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

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