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 76.

    Hey guys, the satnav's failed - we're driving - we shouldn't be examining all these things, we should be concentrating on what we are doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I taught land navigation with map & compass to students preparing for public service. They all said, "But we'll just use GPS..." but soon got fascinated by the myriad of ways of finding your way around, especially once the limitations of GPS were pointed out. Always navigate by pubs and churches, even if you don't want to go into either of them: good landmarks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    If it is sunny I usually look for a lamppost that is catching the sun and then look at the shadow that it casts. Thanks, I like the satellite tip!

  • Comment number 73.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    So there you are completely lost in a City but magically if you know which way is North (or South and so on) you'll not be lost anymore. Hmm, mostly I consider myself lost if I don't know where I am, not if I don't know which way is which. (and yes I too love the article ignoring the ability to read signs, purchase maps or just plain ask the flow of people).

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Watched the programme last night in which Tristan appeared and have to admit I was looking at the trees on my way to work.

    As for navigation in the cities - most I've been to have signs and people. So unless I'm in say China (can't read Chinese) and there's been a nuclear war (no people) I think I'll walk until I find a sign and follow them or ask someone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Navigating in a city and 'there's no-one to ask'. Presumably it's about three in the morning, so the direction of the moon might be marginally more helpful than that of the sun. Oh, and the numbers of buildings generally increment radiating up from the centre, and the more historically prosperous parts are generally in the west because the prevailing wind blows the smell and the smoke east.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    None of these clues are 100% reliable, and some are a bit contrived, but most of humanity lives in cities. We can see how they work, in a way which we can't for the old-fashioned rules which apply in rural areas.

    Knowing how these things work is more useful than just knowing some rules.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    5. Road alignment

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

    This is obviously complete nonsense if you are lost IN the big city - you won't be able to see the arterial roads leading to and from the city itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I've always been fascinated by navigation techniques and use them in open countryside (actually preferably hilly woodland). This is a novel urban twist. However, a part of me feels that maybe Tristan Gooley has a little too much spare time on his hands...

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Actually point 4 is one of the best ones there, to get to a major travel area or centre of town follow rush hour people. Makes a lot of sense and you don't have to try and find a communter who can be bothered giving directions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Zidane: "What do you do if there are no clouds?"

    You use the sun! The other methods, though useful, are only necessary if it's cloudy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    The best way to discover a city is to get lost in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    When I was a postman, people were forever asking me for directions. After telling them I had no clue where Xyz Street was, I was often met with shock and disbelief. How could a postman not know where a street is?

    My round consisted of one long street with hundreds of houses.

    It amused me for a week before getting it got annoying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    1.If there is a flow of people,ask one of them.
    2.Not all churches are laid out in the fashion described therefore you could be going completely the wrong way and how would you know?
    3.Ditto road allignment.
    4.If you walk into a mosque uninvited you will need a fabulous excuse ready and anyway if its open it will occupied so you could ask the occupant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    You can use a watch as a compass..point the hour hand towards the sun. The point half way between the 12 and the hour hand will indicate due South (but make an allowance for DST). Also, in coastal cities, walking downhill will eventually lead you to the sea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    "...and there's no-one around to ask..."

    yet Solution 4 = 'Flow of People'

    Run that one by me again........?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    My wife has no sense of direction and I being male will of course will drive/walk miles rather than ask for directions...

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    "and there's no-one to ask for directions,"

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

    "4. Flow of people"

    Eh? There ARE no people, I thought we'd agreed that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    There's some good stuff here, but also some sheer nonsense.

    Buildings weather on the most exposed side, and this is not necessarilly any particular direction. Buildings will weather on the side facing the sea also, in coastal areas.

    As for flows of people, the easiest way to navigate then is simply to ask someone for directions!

    What do you do if there are no clouds?

    Just buy a map!


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