Lining up Three Trees When You're Lost

I just finished reading John Grisham’s The Client.

There’s a bit in the book where Mark Sway is talking to Reggie about how smart he is. He mentions how he knows how to (and here’s where my memory fails) “line up three trees when you’re lost” (or something like that).

I also have a vague memory of having learned something along these lines when I was in the Boy Scouts.

Anyway, what, exactly, is the methodology here?


Hmmm lining up trees or any waypoints can work…but if you are lost in the northern hemisphere in a forest, just look at the trees around you…where is the Moss growing? If it is predominently on one side more than another for several trees, you have found the general direction of North…As moss grows on the LEAST sunny side of trees…Or the North side.

It’s been forever since I was in boy scouts, and while we didn’t use that method per se, my guess is that since people tend to walk in circles this is a method of overcoming this.

In forests and other places where you don’t have a clear direction, people will tend to consitantly go slightly one way or the other (right or left) while thinking they are going straight.

My WAG for the methodology:

By lining up three trees, you can make a straight line. Pick a tree you are near, and then two ahead of you in a straight line. When you get to the second or middle tree, you can then find another tree ahead of the orignally third or furthest one. This can allow you to continue in a straight direction.

I;m not sure if this is what you’re talking about, but I learned about ‘dead reckoning’ in several sailing classes and my husband and I used it often when sailing.

I believe your WAG is right - this is exactly how I understand it.

If you go for one tree, but you can’t get directly to it, you’ll be approaching from another angle and that might carry over to your angle leaving the tree unless you’ve got a second bearing - the second tree. You get to the second tree, and candidates for the fourth tree should by now be visible. You can check back - the first tree’s still in view - select your fourth as being the one more directly opposite to the first. Ignore the third.

Why three instead of two? Redundancy, in case you need it because you can’t get a direct line-of-sight to the next one. If you can’t see three, use two.

That’s my understanding, anyway - I’m not an expert.

Three trees ensures you are maintaining the correct (or at least consistent) direction. Two trees will always form a straight line, no telling what direction.

It’s much easier to carry a compass. :slight_smile:

This really doesn’t work that well. In the Pacific Northwest, in some areas, moss grows everywhere. All sides of trees. Also there can be local factors due to mountains, canyons and such where the side that gets the most sun exposure may face east for example. (Which also means that as you go around a hill, the side the moss is on can change.)

It’s certainly for the purpose of keeping a straight line- no small feat in a forest. Doing Land Navigation exercises, soldiers use three points: eye, compass wire, tree. We shoot an azimuth and walk to that tree, shoot another one, walk to the next tree, etc. You’re supposed to get a pace count before you start so you know how many steps it takes to go 100m. If you always know your distance and direction, you can’t get lost.

With no compass, you have to use the trees. You stand at one, look at 2 and 3, then walk to 2. From tree 2, you look at tree 3 and find tree 4. Repeat. The tree you’re at and the next one form a huge compass needle, pointing you to your next waypoint.

Veering off-topic, the best way to manufacture a compass in the wilderness is to find a fixed point w/ a shadow. If you can’t find one, put a stick in the mud. Mark the tip of the shadow w/ a pebble. 15 minutes later, mark where it’s moved. Connect your two points to make a perfect E-W line. This works any time there’s a little sun, even on overcast days.

Wouldn’t that only work at noonish?

Another thing you could do is make a compass out of a needle, a magnet, a cup, and a piece of paper.

Okay Magiver, where do you camp? In your kitchen? In what wilderness are you finding “a needle, a magnet, a cup, and a piece of paper”? If you remeber those things but forget a compass, you deserve to be lost.

Hey, don’t argue with me, argue with the guy who wrote the book where I read that.

I think it’s more advice for if your boat’s compass gets broken. In which case, you might have that stuff below. Of course, if the reason it’s broken is because it, and everything else, is sinking, then we’re back to Magiver.

Always remember to keep a magnet in your dingy.

All right get your butt over here and clean my monitor. :smiley:

I love how that Wikipedia article has as one of its external links this Straight Dope article.

This is why bushwackers carry 2 (or more) compasses.

What’s the trick with the hour hand of a watch and the sun again?

You point the hour hand at the sun and halfway between the hour hand and six is South, is that it?

One thing that I would add if using the three tree method of land navigation, would be if you pass the first tree on your right, pass the next on your left. Alternate each side as you pass the trees. Generally, when lost we tend to walk toward our dominant side. If you pass the trees alternating sides, you know that you are correcting for that tendency.

Cracked my ass up. Hope you didn’t take too much offence TDN

Sgt Schwartz

Yeah, but do you really want to keep that exposed in the forest while you’re following its lead?


I always thought that the simplest way was to use the position of the sun. Decide which direction you want to go, look at where the sun is (like off your left shoulder, for example) and then keep it at that orientation as you go. This seems better, because the sun is always there, while many locations may not have that many trees.

If it’s an overcast, stormy day, you probably shouldn’t be wandering around at all, but staying in whatever shelter you can find. But if you have to be moving around, IntelSoldier’s method using shadows will help you locate the sun’s position.

If you start in the morning and walk through the day keeping the sun over your left shoulder, you’re going to walk in a big circle.

In the morning, the sun is in the eastern part of the sky, so keeping it over your left shoulder means you’re headed in a roughly south direction. In the afternoon the sun is in the western part of the sky, so keeping it over your left shoulder means you’re walking in a roughly North direction.

If you’re in the mountains, keep walking downhill until you find water and follow it downstream. Soon enough you will come to a road or a town.

Almost. Point the hour hand at the sun, then bisect the hour hand and the 12. That is north or south depending on what hemisphere you are in.