Latitude and Longitude Explained

If “Never Eat Soggy Wheat”… or “Waffles” was one of the first things you learned about geography in elementary school, you’re not the only one.

Mnemonic devices can help us remember anything, from the four directions — North, East, South, and West — to something as complex as latitude and longitude. For example, you may have learned that latitude almost always comes first in a coordinate pair because alphabetically, the “a” in latitude comes before the “o” in longitude.

If that’s all you remember about geographic coordinates, stick around. We’ll explain the three components of latitude and longitude, their most common formats, and how to use them to get the most out of your data.

The Components of Latitude and Longitude

Latitude and longitude are the horizontal and vertical lines cartographers, mathematicians, and even everyday Google Maps users use to pinpoint specific locations on Earth.

While you can’t actually reach out and physically touch 44°27’37.7237″, -110°49’41.2950″ (the latitude and longitude of Old Faithful), for example, most maps will include these invisible lines, which, incidentally, are called a geographic coordinate pair when together.

All latitude and longitude coordinates consist of degrees (°), minutes (’), and seconds (’’). Yet only one format showcases them all.

The first, and thus the oldest latitude and longitude format is the aptly named degrees minutes seconds, or DMS. Here’s an example:

44°27**’37.7237, -110°4941.2950“**

Latitude and Longitude Formats

Each latitude or longitude coordinate accounts for the degrees, minutes, and seconds we introduced in the previous section. However, the presentation can differ. Here are some other formats:

  • Degrees minutes seconds
  • Decimal degrees
  • Degrees minutes
  • Directional degrees minutes

We’ve already reviewed the DMS format, but decimal degrees are arguably just as popular, considering many mapping platforms, like Google Maps, exclusively use this format to indicate points on Earth. Here’s an example:

44.4604788, -110.8281375

Meanwhile, less common is the degrees minutes format, which depicts just that: 44°27.62873’, -110°49.68825’. Then we have directional degrees minutes (44°27.62873’N 110°49.68825’W), one of the few formats to include the abbreviation for North or South, East or West.

Too Many Formats? Convert Them to Decimal Degrees

If all of these formats seem daunting to remember, don’t worry. Each can be converted to any of the other formats using online converters or even Excel formulas.

Make Sense of Your Geographic Data

This article has covered the basics of latitude and longitude. Yet even we occasionally find ourselves staring blankly into a spreadsheet containing rows upon rows of coordinates.

To better understand your geographic data, plot your points using an online mapping tool, such as our geocoder.

View Geysers of Yellowstone in a full screen map

Here’s how:

  • Open your spreadsheet
  • Select (Ctrl+A or Cmd+A) and copy (Ctrl+C or Cmd+C) your data
  • Navigate to in your web browser
  • Click on the example data in the box and paste (Ctrl+V or Cmd+V) your own data
  • Ensure you have the proper location data columns by going to “Set Options” to validate and set options
  • Select the appropriate location column from each dropdown
  • Click “Make Map” and watch your very own plotted map appear!

Get started today at