sun compass

Using a Shadow Board Compass (Viking Sun Compass)

A shadow board is a non-magnetic compass that uses the sun as it’s principal way to determine direction. This discovery is believed to have originated with the Vikings of the eleventh-century and though isn’t practiced today it’s still a valid method. While it’s not as precise as a quality magnetic compass it has proven to be more accurate than most known methods to take a bearing.

Navigation is, by far, one of the most underappreciated survival skills in modern times. The dramatic airplane crash leaving people stranded to survive on a deserted island in highly improbable. The vast majority of people who have found themselves in a survival situation could have easily self-rescued if they were able to navigate back to their last known location.

It can be easy to lose your sense of direction when you’re distracted by adventure. Or if you have to make haste due to a hazard like caught in a storm or panicked by sighting a bear.

If you have to leave a trail or location, best practices would be to take a few moments to memorize the point where you’re leaving the trail, noting the location of the sun or better yet taking a compass bearing can make all the difference when backtracking to the trail. If for some reason you don’t have a compass, or you need to reaffirm the simple shadow board might be just the thing you need.

A simple sun compass can produce accurate cardinal direction with a little sun and knowing the time of day. I would never recommend trekking around without a good magnetic compass like the Suunto MC-2, but knowing how to use a sun compass can be fun, educational and possibly save your life.

To use a shadow board you simply need a shadow board dial and a straight stick about 1 foot in length.

Using a shadow board

  1. Find an area that’s exposed to the sun
  2. Poke a straight stick into the ground
  3. Note the time
  4. Align the shadow produced by the stick through the time marks on the shadow board
  5. Take a bearing
Here I’m demonstrating the shadow board technique.

Below I’ve created a shadow board graphic that you may download and use.

To download, right click and “save image”

The shadow board makes a great backup compass, it weighs practically nothing and can be kept in a book or with a map.

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4 thoughts on “Using a Shadow Board Compass (Viking Sun Compass)

  1. Hi, just a quick question. Do you line the shadow up with the time? On your example I’m assuming it’s between 8-9 and the direction is NW. is that correct?

    1. Yes, you need to align your stick’s shadow through the time, correcting for daylight savings if needed. Once this is done your sun compass should be fairly close to the proper orientation. Where you go from there is up to you. The shadow over the NW is just a coincidence, I hope that makes sense.

    1. If you’re in the northern hemisphere the sun would be southerly and the shadow would strike through with the top of the stick’s shadow pointing northward. Once you establish general north and general south you strike the line through both “times”. So at 3 pm, you’d strike the shadow through both 3s on the outer perimeter. Aligning the sun compass with the proper time is crucial. At noon (1pm with daylight savings) the sun should strike the stick’s shadow from south to north 12 and 12. I hope that helps.

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