Long before Mapquest and OnStar, people found their way using the sun, the stars, and the moss on the trees. But modern-day travelers to new cities get lost, too, and while they may not be able to look for tell-tale marks on rocks to orient them, there are some things they can use besides a compass to navigate the urban jungle, writes Tristan Gooley in The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer’s Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill. “The ancient art of natural navigation is the opposite of using a GPS,” he writes in the New York Times. “It is slow and imprecise. But it can also be highly enjoyable.” Here are some of his favorite tricks:
Raise your eyes to the rooftops. TV satellite dishes point toward geostationary satellites, which remain over the same point on the earth’s surface—usually the equator. Although this will vary slightly from city to city, those in the Northern Hemisphere tend to point south.
Use the sun. Just like in the wilderness, the sun can be a reliable signpost. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is due south at noon, when it is highest in the sky. Don’t be fooled by its position at sunrise or sunset, however, as this changes with the seasons.
Follow the crowd. At rush hour, note which way people are walking and you will most likely know which direction to head in order to find a train or bus station.
Tease out weather-related clues. The wind blows even in the city, and while it can do so from any direction, there are usually patterns that leave their stamp on landmarks both urban and natural. For instance, rain will tend to hit a building from the direction of the prevailing wind, staining and corroding on that side more than the other, especially on stonework above the first floor. Similarly, trees will tend to bend slightly in the direction of the wind. In New York, where winds blow mostly from the southwest, the uppermost branches of trees exposed to them will appear to be gently combed over from southwest to northeast.
Look for houses of worship—and tennis courts. Christian churches are usually aligned west to east (and Christian graveyards often have an east-west orientation as well), the Torah ark inside a synagogue tends to be at the eastern end and mosques have a niche in one wall that points towards Mecca (which, given that the earth is a sphere can vary—Mecca is northeast from New York and northwest from Honolulu—but is consistent across a given city). Most tennis courts are laid out on a north-south alignment to minimize the effect of the sun’s glare.