How to Read a Compass

Finding Your Way

How to Read a Compass

In order to know how to read a map and give directions, and how to find out where something is, you need to know how to use a compass. Most people think of a compass as having 4 points, North, South, East and West, but there is far more to a compass than you would think.

It isn’t enough to tell someone to go right or left, because right or left changes depending on which way you are standing. Stand up now and face the computer screen. Find something on your left. Turn around, with your back to the computer screen and look at the same object. Now it is on your right. How about describing where a building is? Suppose there is a bank, with a post office next to it. Is the bank on the left or right of the post office? That depends on whether you are standing on the street looking at them both, or inside one of them, looking out at the street. As you can probably tell, this isn’t a very good way of describing where a place is at all.

This is where the compass comes into it. First of all we need to know just what a compass is, and how it works. A compass is a tool that shows direction. It has a small, magnetized needle in it that swings. The needle can swing because it is balanced on a post, or because it is floating on oil or water, sometimes it is balanced and floating at the same time.

The needle swings so that one end of it is always pointing to the magnetic north pole. Since the needle has two ends the end that points to the north has some sort of mark on it. Sometimes it is colored red, or has N printed on it and sometimes it just has a fancy arrow on the end.

The compass has four main points, or cardinal points. These are North, South East and West. If you think of a compass like a clock, the North is a 12, East at 3, South at 6 and West at 9. North and South are easy to remember, but East and West are a little trickier. Picture the compass in your head and remember that it spells we, across the middle, so West is on the Left and East on the right, of the compass face as you look at it.

Take a large circular object, place it on a piece of paper, and draw round it. Mark North, South East and West on the paper, and then mark lines coming from the center of the circle to each of the cardinal points. Imagine that you are standing in the middle of the circle, and you are told to travel North, that’s easy; you just follow the line going North. The same thing happens with the other cardinal points. Now take a marker and mark a point on the circle between North and East. How would you tell someone to find that, if they were in the middle of the circle, and couldn’t see it? You couldn’t say go north or east, since they would end up in the wrong place. This is where the intercardinal points come in. These are the points half way between the cardinal points. They are named for the points they lie between. They always begin with North or South. They are Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest.

Now we are almost done. There are eight more points on the compass, with names. They are called the secondary intercardinal points. They lie half way between the cardinal points (N, S, W, & E) and the intercardinal points (NE, SE, SW & NW). They are named according to the points they lie between. The cardinal point comes first, and then the intercardinal point. The first four are:
North-northeast East northeast East southeast South-southeast

Can you name the rest?

Now you can tell someone fairly accurately, how to get to the point that you marked on your circle. Try drawing some more circles, and marking North on them. Then see if you can name the other points of the compass.

Extra Activity For Older Students

Degrees on a Compass

The compass is divided into 360 degrees, the same as any other circle. If north is at 0 degrees, can you say where the other points are, in terms of degrees?


The degrees increase in a clockwise direction. It is probably easier if you work out all the cardinal points first, then the intercardinal points, then the secondary intercardinal points.

Check your answers here.

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