Perhaps reading the stars is one of the most overlooked survival skills. Knowing how to do so gives you the ability to navigate and to keep time. The best part about this skill is that it requires no expensive equipment, no physical prowess, and everything you literally need is right over your head.
All you have to do is to look up…and observe.
What is does take to obtain this skill is time.
It begins with spending time outdoors at night, and since this is summer in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a great time for many to do that. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, don’t fret. Winter can be a good time for observing as well. In fact, for one to really get this skill down, one should observe the sky at all times of the year since the sky changes each month due to the position of the Earth around the sun.
Once you get outside, look up! Note the positions of the stars. Where are they? Which bright stars do you see? Do you recognize any constellations? If you don’t know the constellations, this is where you need to start learning the sky. The constellations serve as the sky’s landmarks, and their positions change due to the time of night and the time of the year.
The very first constellations you should learn to identify are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, or the Crux if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Why? These constellations help one to find North (or to find South) which is vital for navigation.
The asterism known as the “Big Dipper,” (or “the Plough” or “the Wagon” depending on where you live,) is found within Ursa Major, while Polaris (also known as the North Star) is found within the constellation Ursa Minor. As for the constellation Crux, which is better known as the Southern Cross, it helps direct one towards the Southern Pole.
After you get those important constellations down, the next easiest to remember and to recognize are found within a band of the sky known as the Zodiac. This band of the sky is roughly the same plane as the solar system, and it is also the same plane where the sun, the moon, and the planets are found. One who is familiar with the traditional astrological signs should be familiar with the names of the zodiac constellations (since this is where the signs were derived from.) There are twelve of them.
After you get those down, as you continue to study the sky, you will begin to recognize the other constellations as you fill in the gaps of what you know.
What could help you learn all these constellations is a good night sky field guidebook, a good star chart, or a smartphone app. There are a lot of options available, many of which are free. One of my favorite night sky resources is found at http://www.skymaps.com/. This website publishes star charts each month, and it offers a free pdf chart that can be downloaded for your personal use. Besides having a good star chart, another tool you may consider investing in is called a planisphere. It is a rotating round chart (usually plastic) which you can use to identify what is in the sky at any time of the year. The use of a planisphere can serve the purpose of timekeeping as well. Here are some examples of planispheres below:
One you learn how to read the stars, you will be able to tell not only where North (or South) is, but you will be able to identify all of the other cardinal directions just by looking up. Also, once you really know well the positions of the stars along with where they appear at each time of the year, you can make a pretty good guess at the time also.
As I said, reading the stars is often overlooked as a vital skill. Yet all it takes is to just look up and learn.
So…how well do you know the night sky?