Bearing vs Heading vs Azimuth vs Course

Bearing Vs Heading Vs Azimuth Vs Course

Brian Connelly
Last Updated: October 12, 2020

Looking to Clear Up Your Bearings from Your Headings?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • The correct definitions of the terms
    • Examples of how and when to use the right term
    • Common errors when using each of the terms

When learning navigation for the first time, it is easy to get lost in the technical jargon. Some words that may have left you scratching your head include azimuthbearingcourse, and heading.

Much of the confusion stems from the fact that many people tend to use the terms interchangeably. This, as you might expect, is something that can easily lead to (potentially serious) misunderstandings. While each term generally refers to direction, each one is used in specific situations to make communication and navigation easier and less confusing.

In this article, we’ve prepared a short guide to help you understand the difference between the four terms and clear up any questions you may have. 

Do

  • Internalize the correct definition and usage of each term
  • Use the correct term from now on
  • Get your map and compass out for some hands-on practice

Don’t

  • Avoid confusing one word for another
  • If you’ve forgotten, never hesitate to ask for help rather than give the wrong information

What Do They Mean?

As mentioned above, the terms azimuth, bearing, heading, and course are often—and incorrectly—used interchangeably. Below, we’ve included a short definition of each term that should highlight their differences. 

Azimuth

The word azimuth originated from the Arabic word “as-sumut”, the plural of “as-samt”, which was used to refer to “the way” or “the direction”.

Today, “azimuth” refers to the angle measured in degrees from a reference direction and to a designated point in a clockwise movement. Azimuth can be any angle between 0° to 360 °. Most commonly, the reference direction is north, though there are some sources that use the south as the point of reference.

Bearing

The term “bearing” can mean two different things. It can mean the angle between a hiker’s current position and the position of a different object. It can also mean the angle between the object and True North.

These are specifically referred to as the absolute bearing and the relative bearing.

  • Absolute bearing can be indicated in two ways: the magnetic bearing (using magnetic north as a reference) and true bearing (using true north as a reference)
  • Relative bearing is used to indicate the direction or angle between the hiker’s forward direction and another location

Heading

Among the terms given here, the term “heading” is most likely to cause confusion.

By definition, the heading is the direction in which you are facing. It is typically based on the directions on your compass and is also indicated using degrees (i.e. a heading of 45° means you are facing directly northeast).

With this in mind, 0° refers to the direction of True North, 90° refers to east, 180° to south, and 280° to west.

Because you’re always on the move when hiking, your heading will change constantly.

Course

In navigation, “course” refers to the direction in which you intend to travel. This can be referred to either in degrees or in the cardinal and intercardinal directions (north, south, southeast, northwest, etc.).

In a Nutshell…

Azimuth simply refers to any angle between 0° and 360° used to indicate a point in the horizontal plane. In other words, this is just a format commonly used to indicate the direction of compass bearings. Unlike quadrant bearings, which divide the bearings on a compass into four equal parts of 0° to 90°, the azimuth utilizes the full 360° of a compass.

Bearing is the direction or angle of an object from a point of reference. It can either be compass bearings which use north as the point of reference or it can be relative bearings, which use two points of reference in the field (usually the hiker and a distant landmark or feature).

Bearing is different from “course” because the latter is the intended route or direction of travel while the former is simply the angle or direction between two points.

Heading refers to the direction you are facing at any given moment. It is also expressed in degrees and using the azimuth format and is subject to constant change as you adjust your direction.

Heading is different from course and bearing as it only refers to the direction you are pointing towards. Ideally, heading and course should be of the same values but this rarely happens because the terrain is likely to force you to navigate around obstacles such as ponds, dense vegetation, steep inclines, or curves in the trail.

Course, to put it simply, refers to the planned direction of travel. Ideally, it should be the same as the heading. However, obstacles (cliffs, boulders, bodies of water, snaking trails) maybe force you to change course when traveling between two points.

Course and bearing are alike because they both indicate the direction between two different points. However, bearing refers to your “real-time” and actual direction whereas course refers to your intended direction of travel.

How to Use Them

Now that you know the meaning of each of these terms, it’s always a good idea to practice so you know them by heart and reduce the chances of making mistakes in the field.

Below, we’ve added a simple example to help you along:

Example #1: You’re out on a hike. You spot a lake in the distance with a small beach where you’d like to set up camp for the night. The direction of the beach from your current location relative to north is called your bearing.

Once you have decided which way to travel to get to the beach, your intended route is called the course.

Once you have started moving, the direction in which you are facing is called your heading.

You Have Successfully Reached Your Destination

So there you have it! You can now differentiate between the words azimuth, bearing, heading, and course, and one step closer to earning the title of “Backcountry Badass!” We hope that this guide proves useful and helps you navigate safely and efficiently on your forthcoming trips.

Did you enjoy reading this article? If so, don’t forget to share it with any friends who might benefit from knowing their azimuths from their headings. And if you have questions or suggestions, feel free to share them with us in the comments box below.

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