NWP105A: Use maps, plans and drawings


Compass directions

One way of finding which direction to go or where you are is by using a compass.

A compass is a navigational instrument. It has a magnetised pointer which lines itself up accurately with the Earth's magnetic field. This means that if the compass is lying on a flat surface the pointer will always point north.

Compass directions are useful for finding your way around a map. There are four main directions shown on a compass rose: north, east, south and west. Between each of these are intermediate points: north-east, south-east, south-west and north-west.

Please download the Adobe Flash Player from www.adobe.com to view this interaction, or use the text alternative instead.

Three norths

North arrow from a map

When using maps and compasses it's important to know that there are three norths:

  • True north is the direction of the north geographical pole of the Earth. It never changes.
  • Magnetic north is where the compass needle points. It changes depending on where you are.
  • Grid north is used on maps. It is usually at the top of the page, but not always.

Orient a map

It is best to orient your map before reading it.

To do this, stand holding the map horizontally in front of you and them turn it until the features on the map match the direction and position of the landmarks and features around you.

If you are unable to match any of the features you see with the features on the map, you can use the compass instead.


If you stand at your front door looking out, what direction would you be facing?

Step 1: Lay your map out on a smooth flat surface.

Step 2: Place your compass on the map so the left side edge lies along one of the north-south grid lines on the map. Notice that the Direction of Travel arrow on the compass is now parallel with the north grid lines on the map.

Step 3: Turn both the compass and map together until the magnetic arrow is below the fixed black index line on the compass. Now the map is close to being oriented.

Step 4: Remember, there is a difference between the magnetic north and grid north. You will need to identify whether the magnetic north is now sitting to the left or right of the grid north on the map, and adjust your direction accordingly. You can do this by looking at the Grid/Magnetic angle shown in the margin of your map.

Ask your teacher for more information on the three norths to assist you here.

Find a direction

Sometimes you will need to find a direction between two points on a map.

View the demonstration below to find out how to do this.

Text alternative
  1. Draw a straight line between the two points.
  2. Indicate your direction of travel.
  3. Lay the compass along the line with the directional arrow pointing towards the destination.
  4. Using the grid north on the map line up north on the dial with grid north, at the top of the page. (Ignore the magnetic north needle as it doesn't necessarily correspond to north on a map).
  5. Read the dial at the base of the directional arrow (in degrees).

Please download the Adobe Flash Player from www.adobe.com to view this interaction, or use the text alternative instead.