What are cardinal directions and sixteen-point compasses?

Cardinal directions are the four main points of a compass, which are north, south, east, and west. A sixteen-point compass shows these four cardinal directions and the directions in-between. For example, between north and east is northeast, and between north and northeast is north northeast. The sixteen-point compass offers more precise directions than the four main cardinal directions.

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The compass, invented during the Han Dynasty in China, is an important tool that allows for travelers to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field as a guide. Generally speaking, the magnet in the magnetic compass will always point to magnetic north. This in turn shows the traveler where north is relative to the position they are traveling; if one knows where north is, they can figure out all directions from their current location.

The cardinal directions are the four main points of a compass: north, east, south, and west. You will see them on the attached image. They are abbreviated as N, E, S, and W (respectively).

Between each of these cardinal directions are the inter-cardinal directions: northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. They are the midpoint between each of the cardinal directions; northeast is halfway between north and east.

On a sixteen-point compass, we see the cardinal directions (N, E, S, W), the inter-cardinal directions (NE, SE, SW, NW), and the points in between the inter-cardinal points. You will see all of them labeled on the attached image. So, going clockwise from north, we have:

North (N)

North Northeast (NNE)

Northeast (NE)

East Northeast (ENE)

East (E)

This pattern continues until we get back to north. So, if you are heading in a direction halfway between north and east, you would be heading northeast. If you then went halfway between north and northeast, it would be north northeast.

The reason for the sixteen-point compass, instead of relying on just the four main cardinal directions, is accuracy. It provides the traveler with much greater accuracy when following directions (or giving directions) to be able to use the intercardinal or secondary intercardinal directions (the midpoints between the intercardinal directions).

Mathematically speaking, we can think of the compass as a 360° circle, with north at both 0 degrees and 360°. Going clockwise from north, below are all the points of the 16 point compass as well as their points in degrees.

  • North (N) - 0° / 360°
  • North Northeast (NNE) - 22.5°
  • Northeast (NE) - 45°
  • East Northeast (ENE) - 67.5°
  • East (E) - 90°
  • East Southeast (ESE) - 112.5°
  • Southeast (SE) - 135°
  • South Southeast (SSE) - 157.5°
  • South (S) - 180°
  • South Southwest (SSW) - 202.5°
  • Southwest (SW) - 225°
  • West Southwest (WSW) - 247.5
  • West (W) - 270°
  • West Northwest -(WNW) 292.5°
  • Northwest (NW) - 315°
  • North Northwest (NNW) - 337.5°
  • North (N) - 360° / 0°
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