Compass Bearings: Definition & Types

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

Before GPS, navigation was accomplished using compass bearings. In this lesson, we'll discover how to find locations using the following methods: standard compass bearings, other compass bearings, and true bearings.

Buried Treasure

Two elderly people passed away and left their son, Greg, a house. When he went to clean it out, he found a hand-drawn map that resembled a diagram of the backyard. It was scrawled with compass bearings and had a few figures that appeared to be distances, but it ultimately was a guide to something buried in the ground. Fortunately, Greg remembered learning to read compass bearings as a teenager, while he was in boy scouts.

Grabbing a shovel, he headed out to the yard and began to navigate until he found the spot! He frantically began digging, but was surprised when the tip of the shovel stopped after only a few feet. Greg got down and began clearing the dirt away, when he uncovered several paint cans full of gold and silver coins! We heard he's still counting, and maybe later in the lesson we'll find out how much Greg found, but in the meantime, let's navigate different types of compass bearings!

Imagine finding this using a treasure map!

Compass Bearings

Compass bearings are used as methods of navigation in relation to the north direction by angles. They help locate objects or positions within a two-dimensional plane, such as a map or diagram. Bearings indicate a straight line from one position to another. Three types of these navigational possibilities include standard compass bearings, other compass bearings, and true bearings.

Standard Compass Bearings

North, south, east and west are the standard cardinal directions depicted in Diagram 1:

Diagram 1. Standard cardinal directions

Standard compass bearings are divided into sixteen different directions around the compass, each located 22.5° apart. If we start at the north arrow and move 22.5° clockwise, we reach the north-north-east (NNE) direction. Continuing another 22.5°, we reach north-east (NE). This continues all the way around the compass, until we end up back at the beginning.

When at 45° between two pure directions, the name of the direction always starts with north or south, as in: north-east or south-west. Directions closest to a pure direction are named based on which pure direction they are closest to, followed by north or south, followed by the first direction named. For example, east-northeast or south-southwest.

Diagram 2 shows the angles and names of each of the sixteen standard compass bearings:

compass bearings

The advantage of this system is the simplicity of general direction to navigate to or locate something, but it isn't the best system if an extremely specific direction is required. Other compass bearings give more specific directions, and we'll look at them next.

Other Compass Bearings

If a more specific heading, we can use the other compass bearings method. This method calls for a specific angle in between two of the four main headings, such as S22°W. Let's learn how to determine these directions.

  1. Start at pure north or south.
  2. Rotate through the angle needed.
  3. Pinpoint that number between north or south and the other direction needed.

Diagram 2 shows a compass bearing:

Diagram 2

The angle given in Diagram 1 is 30° north of the east direction. Since the general rule is to begin with a pure north or south direction, let's choose north and determine the angle we need to turn through to get to the red compass bearing. There are 90° between each successive pure direction, so subtracting the provided angle from 90 is the calculation process we should perform.

90° - 30° = 60°

We can now represent our angle as N60°E.

True Bearings

True bearings are the last navigation method we will be discussing. Often used in navigation, angles are given in three digits, clockwise from pure north. Let's learn how to report true bearings.

  1. Start at true north, and sweep through the angle clockwise. If the angle is less than three digits, report it with a zero in front.
  2. Report the bearing with three digits and follow it with a capital ''T''.

Diagram 3 shows the bearing represented for the true bearing method:

Diagram 3
compass angle

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