What Is the Definition of 'Bearing' in GPS Navigation?

How your GPS knows where you want to go

GPS bearing is the compass direction from your current position to your intended destination. It describes the direction of a destination or object. If you're facing due north and want to move toward a building directly behind you, then the bearing would be south.


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The Definition of 'Bearing'

The term predates GPS. Mathematicians were calculating bearing by hand for centuries before satellites made navigation as easy as pressing a button. Traditionally, bearing is measured in degrees and calculated clockwise from true north. It's typically represented as three figures. For example, the bearing for the direction of east is 090°.

Bearing is sometimes called "true bearing" because of its relationship to true north. In GPS navigation, bearing is sometimes referred to as the "bearing to next waypoint."

Bearing and direction are not interchangeable terms. Bearing refers to the relationship between two locations, whereas direction refers to north, east, south, and west.

Bearing in GPS Navigation 

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of navigational satellites operated by the U.S. Air Force. It transmits geolocation, time, and weather information to GPS receivers on Earth. The U.S. government maintains the GPS and allows free access to it.

GPS functionality has become a common feature of most smartphones and many other modern electronic devices. Thus, GPS is often used broadly in reference to devices with GPS capabilities rather than the Global Positioning System. All GPS software relies on the same underlying infrastructure, so no single GPS app is better at calculating bearing than any other.

When you enter your intended destination into a smartphone or other GPS device, the GPS antenna pinpoints where you are in relation to your destination. With that information, it can calculate your bearing or the direction you take to move toward your destination.

Your bearing is calculated to the nearest degree, and it's typically the most direct route from point A to point B. Some device maps offer alternative routes to a destination. However, your bearing would remain essentially the same because your destination is still a certain direction away from your current location, regardless of the route you take.

How Is Bearing Calculated?

Bearing is calculated as an angle measured in degrees in a clockwise direction from true north. The angle's vertex represents your current location, while the two rays point north and toward your goal destination, respectively.

You can manually calculate the bearing between two points using a map, a compass, and a protractor. However, if you know the exact latitudes and longitudes of the points in question, you can use the following formula: 

β = atan2(X,Y)

Calculate X and Y as follows:

X = cos θb * sin ∆L
Y = cos θa * sin θb – sin θa * cos θb * cos ∆L


  • L represents longitude.
  • θ represents latitude.
  • β is the bearing.

GPS technology allows your phone to crunch complex equations like these in an instant.

Why Is My GPS Pointing Me in the Wrong Direction?

If you use the GPS on your phone to navigate, you might notice that the compass and the direction you're traveling in are not always in sync, especially if you are standing still or moving slowly. That's because GPS-enabled devices calculate bearing before they calculate the direction of travel.

GPS devices calculate bearing based on the target coordinates and the GPS receiver's present location. Next, the GPS determines the exact direction you must travel by measuring your position in approximately one-second intervals. If you are stationary or moving slowly, the direction of travel cannot be calculated, so measurement errors may occur. Once you are moving at a consistent speed, GPS becomes extremely reliable.

Due to the meticulous nature of the Global Positioning System, your GPS device will always accurately calculate bearing. However, it might occasionally take you in the wrong direction.

Your GPS device considers the accessibility and condition of roads, so it might appear to be sending you in the "wrong" direction even when you are on the right path.

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