Relative Direction Versus Compass Direction

Caitlin Dempsey


When somebody asks for directions in order to get from point A to point B, the answer can be provided in one of two ways: relative direction or compass direction.  A person providing relative directions will use commons terms such as leftrightforwardbackwardup, and down.  

For example, you may ask the way to the local park and the person will tell you to walk down Street A and then turn left when you see the pond.  They may further explain that the park is on the other side of the pond.  

Egocentric Coordinates

Relative directions are also known as egocentric coordinates.  Relative directions can be useful to people who are unfamiliar with the location of cardinal directions (east, west, south, and north).

Compass directions involve the use of cardinal directions (north, south, west, and east) to describe the location of one point from another.  In the same example, the person may explain that to get to the local park, you have to go south down street A, turn east at the pond, and that the park is located on the northwest side of the pond.

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Cardinal points: north, south, east, and west.
Cardinal points: north, south, east, and west.

Related Resources

Cardinal Directions and Ordinal Directions
Learn about the four points of the compass.

Geocentric Direction Systems
Not all culture understand direction the same way.

Cardinal versus Relative Directions
What is the difference between relative and cardinal directions?

Understanding Direction Based on the Sun
A simple lesson plan that shows young children how to find cardinal directions based on the location of the sun.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.