Help! I'm lost!

I searched the archives but couldn’t find anything on this.

I have THE WORST sense of direction. When some people say that they often just mean they get lost occasionally. No. I get lost ALL THE TIME. I can be out driving somewhere, make 3 turns (e.g. left, left, right) and be TOTALLY UNABLE to reverse those directions to return. I can pull into a fast food restaurant, then when leaving the parking lot I have no idea whether to turn left or right to continue where I was going.

This is somewhat embarassing as we men are supposed to always know where we’re going. Usually the woman I’m with has a much better sense of direction than me. It’s like having a disability.

I’ve heard various explanations for this - lack of spacial reasoning ability, inattention, inability to mentally rotate images. I even try noting landmarks with great conscious effort, to no avail.

Does anyone know what causes such an awful sense of direction? And can anything be done about it? I could only find one book on Amazon and it apparently doesn’t offer remedies.

Um, get a compass or one of thoses car GPS systems :slight_smile: Technology will save us all.

I just had a long conversation about this with a friend (yes, I actually do have friends, and no, they are not imaginary). I contend that a sense of direction is nothing more than a skill. Some people had good reason to learn this skill, so they did and now they can navigate. Others didn’t have much use for it, so they run around like mice in a maze. Given the lack of evidence for gyroscopic DNA, try these hints:

You can always navigate by the sun, kinda. If you are in the US, the sun will always be south. As the day goes on, the sun will process from southeast to southwest. Without making this into an astronomy lesson, you can sort of figure out which way you are headed, at least when the sun is up.

You could also look at the shadows that objects create to determine which way you are headed, but again, this requires sunlight.

You could also look for signs of darkness (i.e. more snow on one side of a hill than another, more moss on one side of a tree than another) to figure out north from south.

Of course, you could also look at a map. :slight_smile:

In any case, there are plenty of books on how to navigate in the middle of nowhere; I’ve found these interesting at worst and useful at best.

Seth, thinking about your response I decided that the kind of direction-finding skills you’re talking about, while useful in some contexts, are not really what the OP needs for finding his way around a street grid.

What DarrenS seems to be lacking is the ability to visualise his route in the form of a mental map, and relate his immediate surroundings to that map. Knowing which way is south is only slightly useful when you don’t know where you are.

The only suggestion I have for the OP is: if you can’t visualise the route spatially, plan it and learn it in word form before you set off. “Drive one mile along Maple Street, turn left at the traffic lights onto Pine Avenue…”

And always carry a map, so that when you get lost, you can stop, find out where you are, and plan your corrected route.

On a minor nitpick, the sun (at least where I live), rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest between March and September, so it’s not always south.

A far more useful direction-finder than moss on trees etc in an urban setting is satellite dishes. They’ll always point approximately south (plus or minus maybe 30 degrees).

hibernicus writes:

> On a minor nitpick, the sun (at least where I live),
> rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest between
> March and September, so it’s not always south.

Excuse me, but, no, it doesn’t. You live (according to your profile) in Dublin, which is at latitude about 53 degrees north. The sun is never directly above anyone at noon who lives further north than about 23 degrees latitude. Even at summer solstice, the sun rises in the southwest and sets in the southeast for you.

Oh, but it does rise/set above the E/W line, Wendell! (And hibernicus said nothing about the sun being overhead at any time.)

At the equinoxes (both Spring and Fall), the sun pretty much rises due east and set due west of everywhere on the planet. But where it goes in between is a different story.

North of the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern hemisphere, the sun follows an arc from rise to set that is “tilted” to the south. But that arc can and does start north of east in the spring and summer and sets north of west in that same time.

Greatest example: above the Arctic Circle, around Summer Solstice, the sun rises from almost due north, makes a low arc towards east, then south (where it reaches its high at around noon), then west, then north, just dipping below the horizon before rerising.

Hmm, let me think about this . . .

Thanks for the answers guys. Most of these techniques (observing the sun, even the North Star at night (!), carrying a detailed map, memorizing the directions verbally) I’ve already come to use out of necessity. The satellite dish things is a new one on me - clever idea.

I still wonder if there’s anyway of fixing the root problem…some kind of mental exercise or technique.

I have a nifty program (not with me; I’m on business travel) called GeoClock that shows a map of the world (plus various zoomed views) with the daytime/nighttime marked. And for whatever city you have set as default, it lists the sun’s azimuth/altitude at any given time. It’s neat to see how these parameters change as the day progresses (you can set the time to go at any rate). And it definately has shown me that the azimuth of the sun at spring and summer sunrises is less than 90[sup]o[/sup], i.e., north of east.

Think of it this way: I live in the Washington DC area, at about 40[sup]o[/sup]N, 77[sup]o[/sup]W. At the June Solstice, the Earth is tilted so that the North Pole is tilted towards the Sun. The sunrise terminator runs from 67[sup]o[/sup]N 167[sup]o[/sup]W to 67[sup]o[/sup]S 13[sup]o[/sup]E through DC. From above DC (in space), it’s apparant that the Sun’s light is coming from the northeast of DC relative to them.

I’ll talk about this later; I’ve got to get back into a meeting. :rolleyes:

But like any skill, some people have greater or lesser innate ability. Chances are you have some natural ability if you have a grasp of geometry and can visualize problems.

I know you’re specifically speaking of car travel, but my own experinces on foot may help. I spend a lot of time backpacking in the mountains and forests of northern New England, ofnte for many days at a time. It’s obviously very useful to know where you are at all times, and if you wander off your route, know how to find it again. The best way to improve your direction-finding skill is to practice. You also need to develop situational awareness. Pay attention to your surroundings, particularly your orientation, not just N/S/E/W, but relative to landmarks in your vicinity and the direction of the sun. Also, pay attention to how long it takes to travel to a location, and practice guessing the distance travelled. Then check it. In your car, reset your trip odometer often. If on foot, pay attention to your pacing. A stopwatch is very handy. After awhile, you’ll know the difference between a 3 mph pace and 3.5. Try to keep a mental map of your travels. It’s difficult at first, but will get easier. If you know it should take 2 hours to reach a trail junction, start looking for it 10 or 15 minutes before then. Stop and check your position if you’ve gone 2 hours and 15 minutes without seeing it, though. What the heck, join an orienteering club!

After awhile, you will start to “feel” that you’re on the wrong path, whether in your car or on foot. I can’t describe it, but even when you’re travelling to an unknown location, things should “click” if you’re on the right path. If you’re not paying attention, or you let too many environmental signals pass by unheeded, you’ll get lost.

Even the most skilled woodsman can get lost, so always, always have a map of any area you’re travelling through. If you’re in the backcountry, bring a compass and know how to use it. A GPS can’t save you if the batteries are dead or it gets wet.

Bottom line, technology isn’t going to help you improve this skill. It’ll just make you more dependent. None of the experienced backcountry travellers I know stake their lives on a fragile bit of electronics. A map, a compass, and a well-honed sense of direction are all that’s required.

One other thing I forgot to mention. GPS tends to fail when you need it most. While travelling along a mountain ridge or above treeline, it’s easy to determine where you are. However, once you’re in a densely forested valley or a narrow ravine, the GPS will have a much more difficult time locking on to the satellites.

I picked up an auto compass at a duty free shop (around $70US) and have found it to be extremely useful at times. I always kind of snickered at folks who had them, but not anymore. I also use a Garmin GPS, but it’s not always necessary to know my exact location, I just want to make sure I’m going the right direction!

I love to travel, and backroads are no exception, a compass can save a lot of backtracking. I hate to admit this, but I’ve even gotten back on the Interstate on long highway trips going the “wrong” way before. Of course, I didn’t notice till “Say, honey, didn’t we eat in Minneapolis this morning??”

As random as this may sound, I attribute 95% of my direction following capabilities to cheating at old TSR RPGs for the PC. More specifically, Curse of the Azure Bonds (or something to that effect) had a number of underground areas where there was no overhead map, instead employing something of a first-person one instead. Being a cheater (and 8 years old at the time), I had the hint book that had the overhead map. To navigate these areas with any kind of success, I had to be able to orient myself in the game with where I was in the map, including such logic puzzles as “If I’m going south, to go left/west on the map I have to turn right at this point.”

Who knows, it may help. If nothing else, it’s an excuse to play more video games. :slight_smile:

Here’s a wild theory. What if those who have directional aptitude were able to hone this skill because their brain was able to sense the earth’s magnetic field? Thus, after years of experience, direction became easy because your brain can sense where north is (or where south is depending on where you live…wonder if those on the equator are challenged by this?) I remember theories of this to explain how birds know where south is during the winter.

Maybe your problem is that despite numerous experiences, a neuron is firing in your brain in such a way that randomly disrupts the magnetic field and makes it impossible for your brain to sense it consistently. Luckily, as the others have said, there’s plenty of technology out there to overcome it.

Hahaha! yes, same here - except they were mostly homemade maps. I would often find myself flipping those sheets of graph paper around or twisting in my chair until the level was oriented correctly and made sense.

That reminds me of another direction-finding trick. Follow follow your location with respect to local landmarks incrementally. It’s easier to retrace your route if you understand what landmarks to follow. Church, baseball field rotary… etc. It’s much easier than remembering street names. I’ve lived in the same city for many years, but I can’t remember street names to give directions with.

Here’s some approximate stats on the Sun’s position for Alexandria, VA on 6/22/2001:

City's Long/Lat: 38.82[sup]o[/sup]N 77.15[sup]o[/sup]W

Time   Azimuth   Elevation    Notes
05:48   58.75[sup]o[/sup]    0.00[sup]o[/sup]        just after sunrise
09:21   90.00[sup]o[/sup]   39.51[sup]o[/sup]        due east
13:09  180.00[sup]o[/sup]   74.60[sup]o[/sup]        due south
17:00  270.00[sup]o[/sup]   39.40[sup]o[/sup]        due west
20:32  300.00[sup]o[/sup]    0.00[sup]o[/sup]        just before sunset

So you see, the Sun’s position is north of east for half the morning and north of west for half the evening near Summer Solstice, at least in Alexandria, VA.

I think it may be partly hereditary as to whether you have a sense of direction or not. My mother and sister both do (my sister can find her way exactly if shes ever been someplace once before – even if it was years before!) My father and I, however, do not have any sort of sense of direction. I have, over the years, learned to navigate somewhat by the position of the sun, but living in Seattle makes that system not exactly perfect – it’s usually cloudy from October through May, so I’m more likely to get lost in the winter. Meanwhile, my father has perfected his map reading skills, so he keeps maps to use for direction.

However, his lack of direction sense (and natural male reluctance to ask directions when lost) explains why we spent so many hours on family car trips driving through the residential areas. Mom always claimed it was “so she could see the houses and see how people lived.” Now I realize it was because Dad was bumbling around trying to find his way by psychic means again.

And if you want posibly more information than you can handle, here’s a site that you can plug in any Lat/Long coordinates plus the date and get the Altitude and Azimuth of the sun in 10 minute increments.


Hi DarrenS, and sympathies.

First of all, unless you have professional psychiatric opinion to the contrary, I strongly doubt there is anything wrong with you or your mind’s abilities. Secondly, next time anyone comes out with those ‘lack of spatial reasoning’ lines, may I suggest you put them in a sack, jump up and down on them, and make them recite: “Browsing a few articles in the popular press does not make me a friggin’ psychologist”.

Here’s a couple of things that might help. First off, there’s a useful comparison with people who say they are always forgetting things. In many cases, this is not actually the problem. The problem is, they don’t remember things in the first place. There is a difference.

Some people, when they drive around, take notes (mentally) of the things they see and pass, major landmarks, handy things to recall and so on. As they pull in somewhere by turning right, for example, they mentally notice that they are making a right, and so it’s a cinch on the way out to know that they need to make a left (if they want to go back the way they came). What you are probably doing is failing to take this information in to start with, which is why you can’t recall it, which is why your sense of navigation is so poor.

So that’s tip #1. Try to re-train yourself. Spark up your attention a little. Don’t just let the scenery pass you by. LOOK at handy landmarks and route-fixers, NOTICE them, train yourself to develop AWARENESS of them. To begin with, talk to yourself out loud: “Big Coke billboard on the LEFT as I set off from the lights”. That kind of thing. (I guess you only want to do this when you’re on your own!) Eventally, you will get the hang of it without having to say anything out loud. In time, it will be second-nature.

Two notes on this: (1) pay attention to what YOU feel is a good route-marker. If your mind works best with street names (wordy information), notice street names. If it works best with big visual landmarks (visual/spatial information) notice them instead of the street names. Some people pay lots of attention to sounds. (2) It sounds kinda obvious, but remember you only need to notice two landmarks on any line to fix a direction. If you pass X and then Y, then anytime you are on that road again you can only pass them in one of two sequences: XY or YX. Either way, you’ll know whether you are going in the same direction you were before, or the opposite.

Tip #2. Any good book on memory techniques will tell you how to store sequential information by visualising exaggerated, memorable images in your mind. I recommend any book by my good friend Dominic O’Brien, 7 times world memory champion. Harry Lorayne is another memory expert with several books available, although personally I prefer O’Brien’s work (I find it a bit more up to date).

Good luck!

My train of thought just derailed…

If you are in DC @ 40N, and the sun never comes higher in the horizon than 23.5N, how can it ever appear to come out of the north(east)?? The tilt of the earth with respect to the sun is the derivation of the tropical lines (isn’t it?).

Nothing to contribute except to confess that I, too, am usually lost. If I’m going someplace I haven’t been before I can usually find my way back again if I really pay attention to what I’m doing. But I have no/none/zip/zilch/nada sense of direction. I honestly used to take one of my kids with me when I went somewhere just so they could help me find the way back.

I’m good at maps and I have good spatial reasoning (you know those tests where they have you mentally fold up an unfolded figure?) but I just don’t know which way I’m headed most of the time.

It’s usually just a minor inconvenience, and I’m aware that I have the problem so if I think it might come up I can take someone with me or bring a map or something.

My question is: How can I make my wife stop laughing at me?