Skip to main content

How To Find Compass Points

Liz has always loved camping; her dad was an avid outdoorsman who taught her many skills that are also adaptable to disaster preparedness.

Compass Found On an Old Aircraft Carrier

Compass aboard the USS Hornet, a floating museum docked at Alameda, CA

Compass aboard the USS Hornet, a floating museum docked at Alameda, CA

Elementary Finding North

Mention compass points to most people, and they will run off screaming in terror and confusion.  However, a compass is a very useful piece of equipment to own. However, if you do not have one, there are simple guides that can point you in the right direction regardless.

We’ll begin with an obvious piece of information that just about everyone is sure to know: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Therefore, if you have some idea of the time of day, you can easily find the compass point you need to determine where you are going.

If it is morning, the sun will generally be in an easterly direction until the earth spins toward high noon. At noon, things get a bit tricky, but we’ll skip that for now. So, let’s suppose you want to travel to the north. In the morning, if you are facing east (toward the direction of the sunrise), north will be on your left hand, and south will be to your right. To travel in a northerly direction, then, simply make a one-quarter turn to your left, and proceed. The sun will be on your right. Keep it in that relative position, and you’ll continue in a northerly direction.

Simple if you are walking, sometimes a bit more complex when driving, as roads are seldom straight. Generally, twists, turns and detours from your chosen direction are thrust into your path. No worries. As long as you keep going generally in the direction of choice, you’ll get where you want to be.

Left-Right Can Be Confusing

I prefer to use compass points to give directions to people, because they are fixed points. Otherwise, things quickly get very muddled. For example, Felix wants to know how to get to Herb’s house. Let’s listen in to the phone conversation:

Felix: “So, how do I get there?”

Herb: “Well, you start out on Main Street, and you take a left, then you go 2 blocks and take the first right.”

Felix: “Is that left coming from the pier, or left coming from downtown?”

Herb: “Coming from downtown. Where are you coming from?”

Felix: “Actually, I’m coming from the bay side.”

Herb: “Oh. You mean the piers?”

Felix: “No, the bay. The piers are on the river.”

Herb. “Oh. Let me see… Ok, you want to take a right at Crossover Street, then a left into Main…

Felix: “Left into Main? That’s going toward downtown?”

And on it goes. Why is this so difficult for these fellows? Because, when you use right/left reference points, you have only 2, and they shift back and forth faster than a politician’s platform. The ‘which way’ question depends entirely on your starting point.

Compass Points Are Exact

With compass points, you have 4 main points of reference (360 of them, actually, the number of degrees around a full circle), and north is north is always north, no matter which direction you are headed or starting from. Now, let’s visit a better educated Felix and Herb:

Felix: “So, how do I get to your place?”

Herb: “Do you know how to get to Main Street from your house?”

Scroll to Continue

Felix: “Yeah.”

Herb: “Ok, do you live north or south of the freeway?”

Felix: “North.”

Herb: “Ok. When you get to Main Street, turn south for 3 blocks, then turn west onto 4th Street, and after 2 blocks, turn back north onto Firecracker Drive. I’m at number 123, about halfway down the block on the east side of the street.”

Felix: “Great! See you in about 15 minutes, then.”

See how much simpler that was? A couple of questions to determine if Felix would need to head north or south to get to his friend’s house…and the rest was equally straightforward. It did not matter whether Felix was coming from one side of Main Street or the other; no need to figure out if a right or left turn would be needed. All Herb had to tell him was ‘turn south.’ South is south, no matter what.

Ancient mariners, and even sailors today all must learn all 360 compass points. It is vital to not getting lost at sea. (There are other computations involved there, as well, but far beyond the scope of this article.) They must learn how to do what is called “boxing the compass,” which means being able to recite off every single major point in order. There are 32 major points included within the full 360 degrees. These are all the more familiar points most of us have heard. The recitation goes something like this: North, north by east, north-northeast, northeast by north, northeast.. etc..

That Noontime Thing...

Now, for that pesky noontime thing: we say the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This is ‘generally and approximately’ true. The only place the sun rises exactly east and sets exactly west is at the equator.

Therefore, at noon, the sun is actually to the south of this generally east/west line (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). So, if you have an accurate watch, and know it is noon, you can adjust for the sun’s position being toward the south at noon. In this case, if you are facing the sun, north is behind you. In the summer, it is higher in the sky, and can appear to be almost right overhead, but it is not, unless you are at the equator.

In these days of GPS devices even built into many cell phones, we’ve become so dependent upon the technology, that these skill sets are getting lost. They are, however, still very useful, and important to finding your way if you don't have a GPS device, or if your cell phone's battery has died. A backup plan is always a good thing.

Now, to continue our direction finding: as the sun progresses through the day, and toward the western horizon, the compass points do not change—only our personal reference points, that is, our hands. In the afternoon and early evening, to travel north, keep the sun on your left hand. It’s that simple. Even if it is a cloudy day, you can generally tell where the sun is by the bright spot behind the clouds. If it’s a terrible dark thunderstorm, you probably don’t want to be out and about anyway. ;-)

Nighttime Direction-Finding

Now—guess what? If you want/need to travel at night, exactly the same guidelines are true for the moon. What’s that, you say? Sometimes the moon isn’t out? It’s a ‘new’ moon, also called ‘the dark of the moon’? No problem. You simply fall back on the stars. Find the big dipper, and it will point to the North Star (Polaris) which conveniently parks itself right above true north.

The two stars making up the forward edge of the ‘bowl’ of the dipper are called the pointer stars. By drawing an imaginary line through these two stars, and on out across the sky, you aim a beeline right at the North Star. Now, don’t be fooled: Polaris is not the first star you come to—that will be quite a bright star. Surprisingly, the actual North Star is a fairly distant and faint one, and depending on time of year, can sit quite low in the sky.

Most likely you will not have to rely on the stars…which can, admittedly, be fairly difficult in a large city with its tall buildings and glaring lights obliterating all but the very brightest stars. If you can find Polaris, however, you’ve found at least part of the smaller brother of the Big Dipper--the Little Dipper. The North Star is the last star in the handle of the smaller “dipper” constellation.

Finding the North Star

Finding the North Star uses two "pointer stars" in the bowl of the Big Dipper constellation

Finding the North Star uses two "pointer stars" in the bowl of the Big Dipper constellation

Compasss Sports and Activities

In summer and even pleasant fall weather is a perfect time to go outdoors and practice these skills. It can be a lot of fun, and is certainly an educational activity for kids, whether out in the yard or off on a camping trip. There are many kinds of compass-related games and sports for all ages. Orienteering and geocaching are two of the most popular. Orienteering has been around for a very long time; geocaching is a much newer sport, and does rely on GPS devices. But that’s another article entirely.

Just for grins and giggles, you might want to invest in an inexpensive compass to try out these things. Using a compass is, again, another article, but I’ll start you off with this: most people know that the red end of the compass needle will always swing to point north.

The mistake many folks make is to assume that this must also be lined up with the ‘north’ marker on the face of the compass. Not so, unless north is the chosen direction of travel. Like your left and right hands, the compass needle is merely a reference point. Now, go have some fun, and impress your friends!

I've also written a more in-depth article on How to use a compass, and one on How to read a map. The hobby of geocaching is explained in yet another of my related articles.

I hope you will find them interesting and informative.

© 2010 Liz Elias


billyaustindillon on August 06, 2010:

I had a good chuckle thanks for that reminded me of cadets at school :)

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 03, 2010:

Not horrid memories, I hope, Micky Dee.. And thanks for serving!

Micky Dee on August 03, 2010:

Oh DzyMsLizzy! We had so many "map" classes in the USMC. I can't forget. Thanks for the memories.

Sa`ge from Barefoot Island on July 19, 2010:

Evening Dizy. every time I go out it is an adventure. LOL

my kids use to say it was a quest just finding me in a shop. My grand daughters on the other hand, love going out with me. go figure! LOL Drop me in a teacup and i most assuredly would end up in the country the tea is grown in. catch you on the flip side my dear! ~aloha~

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 18, 2010:

Hi, Sa'ge. Well, you're in luck--I've also just published a hub on how to use a compass. ;-)

You crack me up--remind me of my mother...she used to get lost/disoriented, and I'd tell her I was going to buy her a compass. Her reply? "I'd think it was wrong!"

Hahahaha! She could get lost in a teacup!

Sa`ge from Barefoot Island on July 18, 2010:

I get lst even with a compass, really, I do!LOL Great hub, maybe if i read it a few times over I won't get lost ever again. ~aloha jui~

Related Articles