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By June 7, 2012 Read More →

Myth Buster: Can you use moss in the woods to determine directions?

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One of the pervasive folk legends about finding directions in the wilderness or woods, is that moss grows on a certain side of a tree or rock. Just find your way by observing where the moss is, according to this theory, and you won’t get lost.

According to my compass, the moss was on the west side of this stump. (Leon Pantenburg photo)

According to my compass, the moss was on the west side of this stump. (Leon Pantenburg photos)

by Leon Pantenburg

According to this traditional old “wisdom” the moss is thickest on the north side of a tree in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the moss is thickest on the south side.

Subsequently, this survival tip will help you to find your way in a forest. Here’s one opinion about that: finding directions with moss

But the newspaper guy in me had to ask: What direction does the moss point? Is there a difference in the location of the forest and the way the moss points? What are the variations? Why? Where did this legend come from?

The basis for this directional moss idea may have come from general information about moss. Moss produces spores instead of seeds, and it needs a damp environment to reproduce. Moss spores don’t survive in dry areas.

The sun shines from the south in the northern hemisphere, so a tree’s north side is generally more shaded and damp. It stands to reason that there would be more moss on the damp – the north – side

The moss myth never got far with me. In the dense, deciduous forests of Mississippi where I used to hunt and ramble, I could never find any pattern for the moss. In any dense, thick forest – where the sun doesn’t penetrate as far – it seems like you’ll see mosses on all sides of the trees. In some of standing water swamp areas where I used to wader-hunt for ducks, the moss was everywhere. It sometimes varied because of the fluctuating water levels!

Moss grows everywhere in this temperate rain forest in Oregon.

Moss grows everywhere in this temperate rain forest in Oregon.

As for rocks, well, mosses will grow on almost anything if conditions are favorable. I suppose you might find more

The moss on these trees at Camp Makulla was also on the west side!

The moss on these trees at Camp Makulla was also on the west side!

moss on the north side of rocks in an open area, but in a shaded forest, chances are good that the rocks will be completely covered.

There are apparently so many variables about where and when moss grows in a forest that a firm rule can’t be established.

In July, 2010, I was at Camp Makualla Boy Scout camp in the Cascades with some of the scouts from Troop 18 in Bend. There was a lull in the action, so I took my compass and camera and went walking. The idea was to check out this directional moss theory. (And, I love to ramble through the woods, and never need much of an excuse! )

I couldn’t find a consistent pattern anywhere. In one area, the moss grew on the west side of the trees, because there had been some timbering going on that let in more sunlight. A short distance away, the trees and underbrush were so dense that moss was everywhere.

The lichen on this dead juniper tree in the desert grew on the top!

The lichen on this dead juniper tree in the desert grew on the top!

One of my requirements for a wilderness survival tip is consistency. The skill or technique must work every time, because there is no room for error when it comes to survival.

To me, the bottom line on the moss directional theory is this: Moss grows everywhere in the wilderness. There is not enough consistency, that I could find, to lend creditability to this “survival tip.”

Don’t depend on finding your way, based on directions gotten from the moss on trees. This idea is NOT something to promote or rely on.

Subsequently, I dub direction finding by observing moss growth a myth. And I proclaim that myth busted!

 

Recommended Reading:
Surviving a Wilderness Emergency
Build the Perfect Survival Kit

GPS Made Easy (GPS Made Easy: Using Global Positioning Systems in the Outdoors)

Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook

 

All time best-selling preparedness book by James Talmage Stevens -- Doctor Prepper



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9 Comments on "Myth Buster: Can you use moss in the woods to determine directions?"

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  1. Good one! I am going to spend all night thinking of survival myths I want you to bust now…

  2. Leon says:

    Go for it! I’m already working on the solar still myth and a story on mylar blankets. But I could use some more ideas – I love the idea of survival myth busting!

  3. Mike Engel says:

    I noticed the same thing about moss growing all around the base of trees when I grew up in the woods behind my parents and learned the value of a compass!

    Nice post! Glad to put that one to rest!

    • Leon says:

      That moss myth needed to be put down. Hard to tell how many have been lost relying on that bit of mis-information!

  4. Mike Engel says:

    @Leon Yeah you’re darn right! Even using the sun is tricky midday if you don’t have a good line of site for a few hours walk till you’re sure the direction it is setting.

    When I first got my tree farm is was really dense and I got lost in the middle of it for five hours and was late for a college class hahahhaha! Showed up all covered with scrapes from thorns! If I was capable of wearing a watch for more than a week without banging it against something and breaking the crystal, I’d make a point of getting one with a built in compass…

  5. Leon – How about that one where you put a slight static charge on a needle in an effort to magnetize it and set it on a leaf in water to get it to point south? That came to me last night. It’s been on a few movies. 

    I have another idea too – can I PM you somewhere? Wish the authors had a easy way to communicate…

  6. Leon – you have to do ‘drinking your own urine’ to survive. I just debated someone about this till I was blue in the face. The concentrations of salt are nearly 7 times higher – unless you can remove the salt, it will only dehydrate you faster – I don’t care WHAT Bear Gryls does on TV, its not your wisest move….