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Find Your Bearing: Mapping

Geologists, cartographers (map makers), and surveyors use compasses to make maps and determine where they are. Hikers use compasses to find their bearing in the wilderness in hopes that they won’t get lost. Sailors used to use compasses to find their way across the ocean and explore new territories.

Many people now often use a Global Positioning System (GPS), but it is important to know how to use a compass because there are still many applications of compasses — and not everyone can afford a GPS. Mapping is also a very important tool for Earth scientists. Maps can show everything from roads and buildings to the rock layers beneath the surface of the Earth. In this exercise, students will make a map of the school’s campus.

Grade Level: 7-12

Wear sunscreen if outside for an extended period. Wear sunglasses on a sunny day. Taking a first aid kit is a good idea. No flip-flops should be worn outside. Be aware of the weather, and check for ticks after returning to the classroom.


  • Compass or several compasses (Nothing too fancy, just a simple plastic compass will do. However, it’s best to have a compass with azimuth readings instead of quadrants. An azimuth compass goes from 0 to 360 degrees. A quadrant compass has four quadrants of 0-90 degrees each.)
  • A handout with predetermined bearings, a starting point, and paces between 4-6 bearings for each student (see samples)
  • A site marker or prize for the end of the exercise
  • Sheets of standard 8.5”x 11” white paper for each student
  • Pencils

For the Teacher
Prior to conducting the activity, the teacher should create a handout of predetermined bearings and paces between bearings. Give a copy of the handout to each student, along with a pencil and a plain sheet of 8.5”x 11” white paper. Show students how to use a compass to get bearings. A bearing is simply a direction in degrees on a compass. For example, 0 degrees is due north, 180 degrees is due south, 90 degrees is due east, and 270 degrees is due west. Any bearing between 0 and 90 degrees is a northeasterly direction, and so on. Ask for volunteers to use the compasses.


  1. Use your compass to determine the direction you must walk the number of paces specified on the handout. For example, if the first bearing from a designated starting point is 75 degrees and 25 paces, hold the compass at eye level and turn in place until the north arrow is pointing to 75 degrees. Then walk in a straight line for 25 paces along that bearing. Continue to the next step.

  2. After you complete the exercise and reach your final destination, draw a map of the school campus. Create the map in such detail that a new student would be able to easily find his or her way around. Items to include are buildings, trees, tables, blacktops, playing fields, and surrounding roads. Also important maps components are scale, legend, a north arrow, and the title of the map.

  3. Use your compass skills to make your map more accurate in scale and more realistic. For example, you can turn paces into actual measurements. Maybe your pace is 0.3 meters, or about 1 foot. If you walk 102 paces along a wall of the school holding your compass at a bearing of 90 degrees, you could determine that 102 paces x 0.3 meters = 30.6 meters. Therefore, your map must include a line representing a wall that is 30.6 meters long, or about 100 feet, running from east to west (because the bearing is 90 degrees).

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