Is it possible for humans to walk in a straight line?

Ok, so I know for short distances this is perfectly possible, but consider the following hypothetical.

You wake up one day on a hard, completely white surface. As you rub your eyes and get your bearings, all you can see is a complete vast whiteness. Everywhere you look, in every direction, looks exactly the same. There is no sky, no floor, no horizon… just whiteness everywhere you look.

A big booming voice tells you that you are in the center of a giant white dome, and if you can walk to the edge, you can make it out alive, but the walk is pretty far. It’s going to take you a couple of days of walking to make it out, so get going!

You are told that you have enough food/water within you to make the journey if you walk briskly, but you don’t have a compass or anything with which to check your bearings. You do not leave any footprints of any kind, and you are not allowed to leave a trail of anything as you travel.
So my factual question is basically this: is it possible for a human to walk in a completely straight line to safety given these constraints? If it is impossible, what tools/tricks could help guarantee your survival?

I’ve heard that when people get lost in the wilderness, they tend to travel around in circles, never really end up getting anywhere, and then they die. Everyone always talks about needing a compass, map, etc to get out of the wilderness alive. I always thought this had to do with panicking and having obstructions that you have to go around, etc. So without any obstructions, and with the reassurance that you could make it out alive given enough time, would you be able to walk out of the Big White Dome? Or is it just inevitable that humans will always veer a little bit to the left or to the right and end up walking in big circles?

Any sort of facts/studies would be greatly appreciated. Personal experiences or situations are always welcome as well. WAGs aren’t bad either of course.

“Completely” straight over a couple of days? I wouldn’t think so - but an arc of great enough radius would still get you to the edge eventually.

this isn’t straight dope, just personal experience:

in surveying class, we were required to walk back and forth, counting our paces each time, and measuring the distance with a tape to get our respective pace factors. we all walked reasonably straight on a road or a basketball court since we can see references. and mind you, this was in less than 20 meters. surprisingly, all of us still walked reasonably straight on the grass marching field. the instructor told us our eyes synchronize with our legs. the stiffer your legs are when walking (like in military march) the better they will align with our eyes forward. of course, our eyes are locked onto something in the distance.

don’t know how it will be in your scenario with nothing for the eyes to lock on to. i will look down at my feet, make sure the legs swing straight forward, the feet maintaining a gap of around four inches from each other, and concentrate on putting one foot ahead of the other.

The bit about people walking in circles is a bit of an urban legend. The idea is that just about everyone has one leg slightly longer than the other which makes you walk in a circle instead of going straight. In reality, the landscape is going to affect which way you go much more significantly. Any variation due to leg length is going to get lost in the noise of other factors.

You absolutely do not need a map and compass to find your way out of the wilderness. You do need to have a rough idea of what is around you, but you don’t need a detailed map. In 1971, a 17 year old girl named Juliane Koepcke was in a plane that came apart in mid-air. She fell 2 miles into the Amazon rain forest and somehow survived the fall. She had no map or compass. All she did was follow the water downstream until she came to civilization (a survival trick her father had taught her).

Wikipedia article:

I personally have followed streams to find my way home after hiking in the woods. It works. It’s a good idea to check the local waterways to find out where they end up before hiking through some unknown wilderness.

If you are in the desert and there aren’t any rivers and streams to follow, you can aim for roads instead, so make sure you have a rough idea of where some major roads are before heading off into the desert wilderness.

You can figure out your basic directions (north, south, east, and west) by looking at the position of the sun. This doesn’t work so well at midday, so then you’ll just want to go straight in whatever direction you have chosen.

In order to keep going straight, pick an object in the distance in the direction you wan to go, and walk to it. When you get close to it, pick another object in the distance in the same direction, and so forth. That will keep you on a reasonably straight path.

People die in the wilderness because they panic and don’t know how to pick a direction like that.

Getting back to the OP, the bit about walking in circles may be UL in real life, but in a perfectly whitewashed environment like that it probably will come into play. Over two days you may arc a bit, but I think you’ll probably stay close enough to a straight line that you’ll hit the edge of the dome. That’s just a WAG though. I don’t have anything to back it up and I don’t know how much a typical person’s walking path would arc under circumstances like that.

Are we allowed to practice/calibrate before we get sent off to the dome? If I find out in my practice runs that, say, I veer 10 degrees left for every 1000 paces, I can correct for that.

Walking Straight into Circles


So your article seems to imply that you’d probably die in the Great White Dome? Interesting answers you guys! I appreciate all the extra info about wilderness survival and such too, and the surveying class story.

Doing night nav exercises with the army, you find that people have a pretty wicked turn in their walking, sometimes even when they have a compass with them. our navigation was fairly short legs, i.e. 100-800m, and then we would try and find a little light that could only be seen from about 10m away. If you could see a reference mark, that was OK, but often the only way to do it was to have someone walk 30-40m in front of you,have them line up with the compass bearing, and repeat. Usually they would be about 5-10m off the bearing, sometimes more, once you knew this, you could correct for your turn and get a little more accurate.

The surveyor in me would like to know how you get your bearings without a reference point… :stuck_out_tongue:

In Biology we learned that slaters and other insects use turn alternation to move in a particular direction. Random study from Google

One issue here not yet raised: two days is a good while to keep on one’s feet. When you sit down, be careful how you do it; likewise if you get tired enough to sleep. It’s going to be tough to simply sit down or lie down and be reasonably sure that when you get up, you’re still going in the same direction.

oh man… that’s a terrible repercussion of my constraints that I hadn’t considered. I guess you could take your shirt off and leave it “pointing” in the direction you were headed by stretching it out in front of you… but that kind of breaks the rules of not “leaving a trail.”

I am starting to feel like anyone in The Great White Dome is doomed :frowning:

it’ll be a lot more interesting if you were both blindfolded and wearing ear covers. that’s considering all the facts and cites mentioned here.

in that dome, i’ve a feeling a steady jog will create a straighter line than a “controlled fall” walk since momentum is helping you draw the straight line. but whether or not you can reach the edge in run is still a question. i know from experience you will likely reach a far-far place easier by walking but that’s another SD question.

Blindfolded, earmuffed, and told to walk/jog for your life. This is beginning to sound like a Saw movie more and more!!

I don’t think sleeping would be too much of a problem: Just lie down with your head (or toes-- Make sure to remember which) pointing in the direction you’re going. You might be a bit off, but not enough for your path to close back on itself, after only a couple of nights.

You must be a far sounder sleeper than I am. I routinely wake up in a completely different orientation to the one I went to sleep in.

pluck a few strands of hair and align them straight. that’ll solve the moving-in-your-sleep problem.

Walking around in an urban environment has convinced me that people are NOT able to walk in a straight line. I take a pride in doing it, but there are always people who try to walk through me.

There has been some interesting work on using haptic feedback for night navigation - a belt with 8 cell phone vibrators that indicate the intended direction. Not only is this hands free and no-light, it is faster and silent. I’ve also seen something similar where the belt just indicates the direction to north. It integrates into the sensory framework really well and provides a massive assist with navigation.


I’ll take the Great White Dome over the Cube any day.
Any notion if the blind have a different steady-as-she-goes directional sense?

If you had string and something reasonably throwable, you’d be fine.

For example, if you had a t-shirt and a baseball, throw the baseball in some random direction, unravel enough of the shirt to have a string that stretches to where the ball landed, knotted so that it won’t unravel any more, but still connected to the shirt. Leave the shirt at your starting point and walk to the ball, then throw the ball again, away from the shirt. Real the shirt in to your current position, and go fetch the ball again.

My fear is being blindfolded, earmuffed, and jogging for my life and then running smack into the wall :smack: