Six ways to never get lost in a city again

Blank direction signs in city

Many people now rely on their smartphones, sat-navs or other GPS devices to find their way around. But when these fail us, and there's no-one to ask for directions, there's a more natural way to navigate, says Tristan Gooley.

It's not every week that a massive solar flare knocks out the GPS network, but all it takes is a flat battery or a mechanical fault to hobble your automated orientation aids.

And if there's no-one around to ask and no paper map on hand, you could be in trouble.

Natural navigation may be just what you need. This involves working out which way to go without using maps, compasses or any other instruments. It relies on awareness and deduction, so does depend on retaining some awareness of direction throughout each journey.

1. TV satellite dishes

Satellite dishes on homes in a Welsh town Look for satellite dishes and signs of weathering

These really are the "get out of jail free" cards in an urban area.

This is because the dishes point at a geostationary satellite, one that stays over the same point on the Earth's surface.

In the UK there is a dominant satellite broadcaster, hence nearly all the dishes tend to point in the same direction - close to southeast.

The same applies in rural areas - especially those blessed with pubs screening sport.

2. Religious buildings

Aerial view of a church East is east

From earliest times, religious buildings and sacred sites have been laid out to give clues as to direction.

Christian churches are normally aligned west-east, with the main altar at the eastern end to face the sunrise. Gravestones, too, are aligned west-east.

To find direction from a mosque, you need to go inside and look for the niche in one wall, which indicates the direction for prayer. This niche, known as al-Qibla, will be the direction of Mecca, wherever you are in the world.

And synagogues normally place the Torah Ark at the eastern end, positioned so worshippers face towards Jerusalem. (Synagogues in countries east of Israel will face west.)

3. Weathering

Start Quote

Tristan Gooley

I teach people to find their way using only the sun, stars, moon, plants, animals, weather and buildings”

End Quote Tristan Gooley

The prevailing winds carry rain and pollution. These then hit the buildings, leaving patterns.

The wind comes from the southwest in the UK more often than from any other direction. This results in asymmetrical weathering patterns on buildings - similar to the erosion seen in nature.

Look up, above the cleaned glass and metals of the lower floors, to the natural stone or weathered bricks higher up.

Notice how the building's corners all show subtly different weathering patterns.

The contrast between southwest and northeast corners is the greatest. But the shifts in colours, where the rain and pollutants have left their mark, can be read on all sides with a little practice.

Trees, too, indicate direction, with the very tops combed over by the prevailing wind.

4. Flow of people

Commuters leave Waterloo Station, London Rush hour crowds point the way

Pacific navigators learned to follow the birds in their search of land. They quickly realised that while an individual bird can behave eccentrically, a pair - or even better a flock - will follow a pattern.

The same is true of human beings. There is no point following an individual, you could end up anywhere. But following a crowd in the late afternoon will take you towards a station or other transport hub. In the mornings, walk against the flow to find these stations.

At lunchtime in sunny weather, crowds move from office blocks towards the open spaces of parks and rivers.

5. Road alignment

Hot air balloon over Bristol Wind direction and road layout can help

Roads do not spring up randomly, they grow to carry traffic - and the bulk of traffic is either heading into or out of a town. So the biggest roads tend to be aligned in a certain way, depending on whether you are in the centre or on the outskirts.

In the north or south of town, the major roads will tend to be aligned north/south. In the northwest or southeast, they will have a bias towards northwest/southeast. This is why road maps of big towns show a radial pattern.

It is common sense, but very few people realise this when they feel lost in a big city.

6. Clouds

Edinburgh with clouds above Look up into the skies

One of the best ways not to lose your sense of direction is to hold onto it. My favourite way of doing this in a city is to orientate myself - using some of the clues above - and then note the direction the clouds are moving.

The wind pushing the clouds will remain fairly constant, providing there's no dramatic change in the weather.

This technique really earns its keep on underground journeys, especially to a new part of town. Simply look up before you head underground, and remember the direction of the clouds. When you emerge in a strange part of the city, look up again and you'll be able to work out which way is which from the clouds overhead.

Tristan Gooley is on BBC Two's All Roads Lead Home, which started Wednesday 5 October at 2000 BST - or catch up with iPlayer.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    There's an even better method of navigation. Tell everyone to purchase a street map and then teach them how to read it. I navigate myself all around the world, don't drive, down own a smartphone but never get lost because i can read a map. Simple! The article is interesting but the information is taken directly from a book i've just read. SatNav is a cop-out and spoils the fun of map-reading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    If you can't read road signs, you should probably consider staying at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Those who complain that there's no mention of maps clearly didn't bother to read paragraph three of this story.

    I for one found the article interesting and will find the clouds idea particularly useful. Many's the time I have emerged from a Tube or NY Subway station and needed to orient myself; having an immediate point of reference will be so much quicker than having to stop someone and ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    In the country, look at trees. They are not symetrical, the branches on the west side, prevailing wind side, grow more upright. Also the trunk is more green on the north due to moss and lichen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    According the David Lewis, in his book "We the Navigators: the Ancient art of Landfinding in the Pacific" (1994), Polynesian navigators would dip their testicles to determine swell direction as this is a good indicator of where the nearest land can be found.

    In an urban environment you could try this trick in a pond or fountain. Just ask the policeman directions when he comes to arrest you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    And what's wrong with that most basic of guides, the sun? Even on a cloudy day there can be telltale signs. Really funny to see Sue Wotsits trying to find her direction on Watch all Roads on TV last night by all sorts of 'country ways' when the sun was casting bright shadows!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I have found in England that the direction of Qibla is the same as the direction of sky dish; ie south _east

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    And if all else fails, you can always muster up the courage to ask one of the natives. Which is also the only method that could work outside this solar system (well, provided you speak Galactic Basic, at least).

    I kid, I will watch your interesting programme, magnificent BBC people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I love getting lost, that way you find new places to see. In the UK, especially in London where I used to live, I just followed the street signs. These tips are great to know though!

  • Comment number 47.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I think No. 41 Kudos proves my point

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Mike Higham's method of finding south using the sun and an alanlogue watch only works in the northern hemisphere, and then only at temperate or arctic latitudes. At the equivalent southern hemisphere latitudes point the "12" at the sun and bisect the angle to find NORTH. At equitorial and tropical latitudes, assume that the is either east or west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    (For 41 Kudos) One huge Solar Storm and all the Sat Navs and iPhones in the world will not help you. Anyone who depends on technology implicitly in my view is an accident waiting to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Handy to know, even if some of it's UK-specific. When lost on my first day in Buenos Aires, I navigated by the sun, and it was only when I got back to the hotel that I realised it shouldn't have worked. I pulled out the map that I should have had in my pocket, and realised that my whole idea of the city was upside down. Classic case of two wrongs making a right!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Fascinating........ Proof that basic common sense is truly a thing of the past at the BBC. If I don't know where I am in a city then knowing North East South or West is only of limited use.... My destination could be at any of these points relevant to me. I think that I might use the tongue in my head too ask - or a trusty map - which in most cities can be obtained for a few pence

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Quite interesting and potentially of some use if the smartphone battery goes flat.

    Coming from the country, I know a few tricks to find my way through the woods and should really be smart enough to realised similar tactics could be used in cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    It paid for the weed, not the wages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    If you have an analogue watch, hold it flat and point the hour hand towards the direction of the sun. Half way between the hour-hand and the 12 on the dial is the north-South line - pointing south in the northern hemisphere.

    Another one to remember is that streams/rivers always run down-hill, follow them and you'll reach a coast & probably habited areas,

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    It is interesting to apply bushlore to citylore - and what a lovely way to navigate the urban jungle by observation of the weathering patterns on buildings! My dire need however is for 'instant' advice as I barrel up to a corner in a strange city: left, right, or forward? That's where keeping the sense of direction active would be most useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    @28. headrush
    Sky dishes are 28° East of South, from Greenwich, It has nothing to do with the Equator, that's the bit they hover over whilst in geostationary orbit.
    28° East of South is between South South East and South East so closer to South east than South.
    Just to remind you 28° East is East of the Greenwich Meridian no matter where along it you stand.


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