The Arabs did it. The Polynesians did it. Almost anyone who traveled in the wilderness probably did it at some time. How else would you find your way in a featureless landscape, especially at night when visibility is limited to maybe 20 feet at best? Well, now I can say that I have entered that club, because the stars are what got me back to camp early this morning.
It started at 4:45 AM when I had to, ahem, take care of some urgent business, and walked some distance from camp with only my red headlamp for a light. The light wasn't much good except for dodging creosote bushes and avoiding rabbit holes. I wandered off in a general direction I usually take for such business, and wound up in an area indistinguishable from myriad other areas near my camp. It was dark and the stars were bright, the Moon having set hours ago.
After taking care of said business, I started back for camp. I walked for what I thought was the right distance and guess what? No camp. Hmm. That was embarrassing. How could I possibly get lost in the desert not more than 200 feet from camp? Well, it turns out to be surprisingly easy when there are creosote bushes every 10 feet and my light is only good for about that distance. The landscape was relatively flat, so there were no clues from slopes or drainages.
Standing in the dark in the early morning, not knowing where I was or which way to go, was an unnerving experience. It would be hours yet before sunrise. I didn't want to wait that long to find camp. I couldn't just keep walking, though. I could wind up miles from camp. That much was clear.
Then I looked up and saw all the constellations. Scorpius had been high in the sky outside my tent window. What direction was that, southeast? Oh, it was the opposite direction from which I started walking away from camp not ten minutes ago. Okay, there was the Dipper and the North Star. So East was to my right. Let me think. My camp was south of Highway 9, on a gravel road that ran pretty much north-south. The dirt two-track to my camp branched off the gravel road towards the west. If I could intersect this two-track that would lead me either to the gravel road, or to my campsite which was only 20 feet or so off the track.
I had walked northwest for my business appointment, so I needed to walk southeast to return to camp. If I overshot, I would hit either the two-track or the gravel road. Sure bet. Start walking toward Scorpius. Okay, there's the two-track. Turn left and follow it. Okay, there's the gravel road. Ah, too far. Turn around and follow the two-track back the way I came. Top the slight rise and go down into the bowl ahead. Yay! There is the reflection from my car's taillight. Home in sight!
The moral of the story? Don't think you can't get lost just because you are close to your camp. You could miss it by 40 feet in the dark and brush. Stop when you realize you are lost. Use the most powerful tool that you have: your mind. Reason out your directions and make a plan. Then act on the plan. If your thinking was sound, you will be back in camp cooking breakfast before long.