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Directions & Distance

After doing this section, try the Directions Quiz.

In order to find where you are going and how far away it is, you need to know what direction you are going and need to be able to figure the distance between the place you are and the place you are going. One important device that can help you with that is a compass. A compass, as pictured below, is a device that helps the user know what direction one is headed.

The earth actually behaves as a giant magnet with a north magnetic pole and a south magnetic pole. If a magnet is allowed to swing freely on a string, it will eventually line up in a north-south position in alignment with the north and south poles of the earth, although slightly to one side of the poles.

The needle on a compass is magnetized to point to the earth's north magnetic pole. Thus with a compass, a person can roughly tell which direction they are headed.

There are four major or cardinal directions on a compass- north, south, east & west. In between are the directions northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest.

Below is a model of a compass and the cardinal directions indicated.


Northwest (NW)
North (N)
Northeast (NE)



East (E)
Southwest (SW)
South (S)
Southeast (SE)


Measuring distance on a map is done with a map scale. Since a map is basically a drawing of a place, it is much, much smaller than that actual place. In order to know how far distances on a map are equal to on the ground, it is necessary to use a map scale. The map scale shows for example, how many miles an inch is equal to on a map. On the map below, the mainland United States would be about 3000 miles across from coast to coast since the United States measures 3 inches across and 3 inches equals 1000 miles.

United States physical map
map ruler image
1 INCH = 1000 MILES


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