Determining wind direction in savannas

Determining wind direction it is an absolutely necessity when on a hunt or trail in Southern African wilderness areas. Besides of being constantly aware of the wind direction, also the own relation to the sun has to be checked all the time. Only when wind is not carrying our smell towards game, it is possible to stalk them closely. There are animals whose hearing or sights are more acute than smell, but as a groundline, all animals should be stalked from downwind. And, any noise has to be avoided and the stalker should not be illuminated by the sun.

There are various methods to determine wind direction on the move in Southern African wilderness environments. All of them have to be very sensitive, as wind is often not directly sensible, but nevertheless carries our odor fast and far enough for animals to smell.

Movement of grasses, wind on skin or use of a lighter

Easiest method is an observation of moving grass heads. Again, these have to be very sensitive grasses, like Natal Redtop (Melinis repens), Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus) or Common Fingergrass (Digitaria eriantha) – which is quite top-heavy – and others. And it has to be taken into consideration, that moving grasses are fixed on the lower point, which restricts their movement.

Another common method, especially in colder climates, is exposure of skin to the wind. Normally, someone can feel on his cheeks if wind is blowing from this or that direction. Or a finger is wetted with spit and held into the wind. And logically, the side from where the wind blows will feel cooler. Both of these methods are not recommended for Southern African conditions. Because they are too insensitive for practical use.

Better is using a lighter and watch the direction the flame is moving to. Disadvantage of using a lighter is the possibility that game will hear the flick of the steel wheel on the flintstone. If this short noise is acceptable, it’s a good method of determining wind direction.

Ash bag or sand

Another common method amongst Professional Hunters is to use an ash bag. They cut off an old, thin sock, fill it with wood ash from a cold fire, knot it up and hang it on their ammunition belt. When using, they just take it off the belt, hold it up into air and tip it on with a finger. It is amazing how clearly these fine ash particles show the wind movement – which in many cases is very slow and even curly. And the refill of the bag costs nothing.

An even easier method is the use of fine particles on the go. Which even does not spoil the shorts. In some very sandy areas, the sand has got either a fine consistence, or a grain size distribution with a high fraction of very fine particles. Such sand can be just taken from the ground, held up high and left to fall down. Depending on the amount of very fine particles, the wind direction can be determined immediately.

Scrub hare droppings for determining wind direction

My personal favorite however is a different one. Its Scrub hare (Lepus saxatilis) poo. These scrub hare droppings are omnipresent in African savannah areas. And they do not care about geology or hardness of the ground surface or whatever – they are just there. Scrub hares have got the nice (for us) habit of feeding on their own droppings when freshly deposited. Biologists call it ‘coprophagy’ and it serves to keep as many vitamins, minerals, and enzymes as possible back in the hares body. Due to this double-chewing behavior however, scrub hare droppings contain exceptional fine particles. Taking up a scrub hare dropping and crumbling it in the air will give a highly visible and sensitive indication of wind direction.

Scrub hare droppings - distance spitting competition
Scrub hare droppings – distance spitting competition

On the lighter side: if kids like to play in Southern African savannahs, they take such hare droppings into their mouth (no vitamins, minerals & enzymes are inside any more) and start a scrub hare-poo distance spitting competition!

Lessons learned from determining wind direction in nature:

  • When hunting or trailing in African savannah wilderness areas, someone must be constantly aware of wind direction.
  • Checking wind direction on open skin (face, wetted finger) is often too insensitive.
  • Better methods are open flames of lighters, ash bags or throwing sand into the air.
  • Best method however is crumbling scrub hare droppings for checking wind direction.