The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs


The modern world is full of knowledge from a whole host of sources. Through smartphones and other handheld devices, we can quickly access all of the Internet’s information from practically anywhere on Earth. At least, we can do that, as long as the entire network continues to work. When the lights go out, so does all that information.

Nevertheless, if you know how to decipher it, there is a lot of information about nature. The cat videos and celebrity gossip are short, though. The problem is that, as a nation, most of us are now so distant from nature that we no longer know how to read those signs.

The early pioneers, the trappers and people of the mountains who helped open up the West, were experts in reading the natural world.

Finding your way around

Nowadays, most of us have GPS, either on our desktop or as a separate handset. It’s a fantastic tool, but you should never be counting on it. The easiest way to navigate is by using a compass and a map, using GPS as backup. This keeps your map-reading skills sharp and you can adjust when your GPS battery fails suddenly – or when the SHTF and the entire network go down. Yet what if you break your compass or you are caught without any navigation equipment? Fortunately, nature has put in a whole lot of navigation devices.

The Sun

When the sun is up, you can still be sure of the direction in which you are heading. What you need is a watch or clock set to the correct time. It’s safer to get an analog watch, if you’ve got a digital one you’ll have to start drawing clock faces in the dirt.

What you need to do is point the hand of the hour to the Light. Going anticlockwise, halfway between the hand of the hour and 12 o’clock is south (if you’re in the northern hemisphere – if you’re south of the equator, it’s going to be north). If you know where you are in the south, you have all the other compass points as well. This system is easily reliable enough for emergency navigation so long as you check every 30 minutes to an hour. If you’re lost in the woods and need to find the way out, for example, this will do it.

sun path orientation

The Pole Star

What if you need to ask regular directions? When the sky is bright, you need just aim for the Ursa Major constellation. It has many names – the Great Bear, the Plough, a couple of them are the Wagon and the Big Dipper. This looks like:

Find the stars at the end of the dipper; these are called the Pointer Stars. Now draw an imaginary line through them. Go up five times the distance between the Pointer Stars; close to where you’re now looking is a bright star; brighter than any others in that part of the sky. This star is Polaris; the North Star or Pole Star. If you’re anywhere in the northern hemisphere Polaris is to your north.


You may have read that the north side of the tree trunks is rising with moss. It does – sort of. It’s easy to go wrong, even a bit of information is a dangerous thing. For only a little more, though, you’ll be able to effectively navigate by looking at moss. This can be very helpful at night if the stars are too dark to see – or if the weather is very bad, too gloomy to see where the sun is.

The explanation why moss typically grows on the north side of the trunks is that it doesn’t like drying out. If the light of the sun is at its peak the north side is in shade, so moss tends to grow there. However, if it’s a sloping part of trunk with a rough bark, then water will lie in it, moss is less fussy. The air below the ground is typically warm, too, so disregard any moose that grows less than two feet above ground level. Look for a vertical trunk with a smooth bark, if one side of it has moss, that side is possibly north.

The same methods work on boulders or stone walls for lichen, if there is no other cause for it to stay moist, it is possibly on the north side.

sun moss orientation

Locating Game

Wild animals are elusive, yet if you know what you’re doing you can read the signs that show you where you are and what they’re doing. This is a huge subject, but it’s not difficult to get some basics and improve your knowledge from there.


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Most animals are creatures of habit. They switch between sleeping, eating and watering areas as part of daily routine, and they prefer to follow the same paths, unless something causes them to change it. Many wilderness areas have game trails which are used daily by several different types of animals. The field can be worn bare or it can reveal plenty of tracks, it can even be worn into a drill. Vegetation along the trail could be battered or if the trail has been in use for a long time, a simple tunnel might be constructed through the vegetation. Look for hair tufts or feathers caught along the trail in branches, particularly at narrow points and corners, that can tell you what kind of animals are using it.

When the field does not show a lot of wear or tracks and the vegetation has been loosely crushed, that means this is probably not a frequently used road. A route disrupted by an animal escaping a predator is more likely to be one.

Beds and Dens

A bed is the location an animal sleeps regularly. This is usually underground or in dense undergrowth, it is used by solitary animals. Animals living in groups can sleep in the open, where they can more easily protect one another.

A den is where an animal gives birth and heightens his youth. When you notice lots of bones or hair around a suspected den, that could indicate a predator with cubs – definitely a good place to avoid.


Predators leave distinctive signs and among the most useful are kills. Torn away carcasses suggest wolves or other canids. Neater bodies sometimes with muscles almost surgically stripped away, or the innards removed through a hole burrowed through the anus, means a cat, perhaps. Stay wary of discovering kills of fresh animal. If there is meat left on the carcass, the animal might still be around and in close country you might not get a lot of warning if it thinks you’re trying to steal its kill.

Watching the Weather

Nature has several indicators which can help you with weather predictions for both the short and the long term. These are not 100 % reliable, but then modern science predictions are not either. Even some have an edge, but nature will serve you very well.

Sky Signs

Weather basically comes out of the sky, so this is a good place to start looking for clues. Remember the old rhyme:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight

Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning

It’s not foolproof, but a good rough guide. A red or pink sunset typically indicates that the sun illuminates the atmosphere with dust, which basically means a high-pressure and warm system, dry air. A red sunrise means something very special. That’s more likely to be air moisture, indicating low pressure coming from the east – where most storms come from in the United States.

Study it carefully if the moon is up. If it has an orange hue, dust is likely in the air – which means good weather. When there is a fuzzy ring around it, this usually means that rain is on its way, dust in the air refracts the light of the moon. If it’s bright and clear especially in the summer, that doesn’t tell you a lot. However in winter, this typically means cold, dry air.

A wind coming from the east can mean an incoming storm, if it’s from the west, there’s much less chance of that. Any wind means that air travels from high to low pressure areas, however, so it is typically a warning that the weather is about to change.

Animal Antics

Animals can tell you a lot about the weather. They are much more sensitive than we are to shifts in pressure, so sometimes they will tell you what is to come. If you have a cat, if it washes, watch it. Usually they don’t wash their ears, but the ears of a cat are very sensitive to pressure, and if it’s rubbing them, it means the weather is likely to change soon.

Birds have sensitive ears too. When they fly high you can possibly rely on good weather for at least two or three days. ,When the pressure drops, signalling bad weather approach they may travel less to prevent pain in their ears. When they stop fully flying and take shelter in trees when you would expect them to be active, a storm may be just a few hours away.

Seasonal Signals

Similarly, other species tend to be able to predict the weather on a longer scale. Scientists have no idea how they are doing this, but it does happen nonetheless. When squirrels and other rodents start stockpiling food early on, this can mean a long, rough winter is coming. The same goes for those hibernating animals. When they calm down earlier in the year, then expect a long spell of cold. Learn when your local migratory birds usually fly south. If they go early, stand by for a freeze.

Also, animals can foresee difficult winters. If the coats grow thicker than average when they reach late fall, winter may be colder than normal.

Poison Plants

Lastly, there are signs that could stop you from taking a fatal dose of cyanide or alkaloids. Most plants developed poisons as a defense against being eaten. Until the toxic vengeance of the plant kicks in and kills it, the problem with this is an animal can eat quite a lot, so it makes sense for poisonous plants to advertise the fact that they are unsafe for food. A good way to do this is with bright colors – so if you don’t know a fruit and it’s bright red or yellow, it’s probably safer to avoid it.poisonous-plants

When you need plant forage and there’s an unfamiliar one you think might be edible, try a tiny slice then spit it out immediately. If it tastes almond, steer clear, it contains cyanide,and you don’t even want to eat that. If your tongue has a burning or stinging feeling that is a sign of alkaloids and that’s something else you definitely want to stop. If you don’t get any of these signals, eat a smaller piece and wait for half an hour. No sign of nausea, dizziness or any other discomforting sensations? Eat a handful of them and wait for another hour. If you do not yet have any signs of poisoning, the plant is healthy to consume.

Don’t try these mushroom or other fungi experiments -they’re not effective. Fungi aren’t plants, hence poisonous plant experiments aren’t effective on them. Some of the most deadly mushrooms have bland or even drab colors and there’s no distinctive taste or irritation in the toxins they produce, they just destroy you. Do not eat any fungus that you can not classify confidently as a safe species, you are essentially playing Russian Roulette, but Death Cap poisoning is even less enjoyable than shooting in the head.

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This is just a tiny sampling of what you will learn from reading the signs of nature. When you’re spending time outside, you’ll soon begin to gain even more valuable information. Speak to people outdoors any chance you get; even if you’re a veteran hunter or stockman, there’s still something to learn. And, unlike much of the trash on the internet, it’s all really useful, functional forms.

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