<img src="https://d5nxst8fruw4z.cloudfront.net/atrk.gif?account=iA1Pi1a8Dy00ym" style="display:none" height="1" width="1" alt="" />
Dismiss
Skip Navigation

Trigonometry Word Problems

Applications of trigonometric ratios.

Atoms Practice
Estimated12 minsto complete
%
Progress
Practice Trigonometry Word Problems
Practice
Progress
Estimated12 minsto complete
%
Practice Now
Applications of Basic Triangle Trigonometry

Deciding when to use SOH, CAH, TOA, Law of Cosines or the Law of Sines is not always obvious. Sometimes more than one approach will work and sometimes correct computations can still lead to incorrect results. This is because correct interpretation is still essential. 

If you use both the Law of Cosines and the Law of Sines on a triangle with sides 4, 7, 10 you end up with conflicting answers. Why? 

Watch This

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QOEcnuGQwo James Sousa: Solving Right Triangles-Part 2 Applications

Guidance

When applying trigonometry, it is important to have a clear toolbox of mathematical techniques to use. Some of the techniques may be review like the fact that all three angles in a triangle sum to be , other techniques may be new like the Law of Cosines. There also may be some properties that are true and make sense but have never been formally taught.

Toolbox:

  • The three angles in a triangle sum to be .
  • There are  in a circle and this can help us interpret negative angles as positive angles.
  • The Pythagorean Theorem states that for legs  and hypotenuse  in a right triangle, .
  • The Triangle Inequality Theorem states that for any triangle, the sum of any two of the sides must be greater than the third side.
  • The Law of Cosines:
  • The Law of Sines or  (Be careful for the ambiguous case)
  • SOH CAH TOA is a mnemonic device to help you remember the three original trig functions:

  • 30-60-90 right triangles have side ratios
  • 45-45-90 right triangles have side ratios
  • Pythagorean number triples are exceedingly common and should always be recognized in right triangle problems. Examples of triples are 3, 4, 5 and 5, 12, 13.

Example A

Bearing is how direction is measured at sea. North is , East is , South is  and West is . A ship travels 10 miles at a bearing of  and then turns  to the right to avoid an iceberg for 24 miles. How far is the ship from its original position? 

Solution: First draw a clear sketch. 

Next, recognize the right triangle with legs 10 and 24. This is a multiple of the 5, 12, 13 Pythagorean number triple and so the distance  must be 26 miles. 

Example B

A surveying crew is given the job of verifying the height of a cliff. From point , they measure an angle of elevation to the top of the cliff to be . They move 507 meters closer to the cliff and find that the angle to the top of the cliff is now . How tall is the cliff? 

Note that  is just the Greek letter alpha and in this case it stands for the number is the Greek letter beta and it stands for the number .

Solution: First, sketch the image and label what you know.

Next, because the height is measured at a right angle with the ground, set up two equations. Remember that  and  are just numbers, not variables. 

Both of these equations can be solved for  and then set equal to each other to find

Since the problem asked for the height, you need to substitute  back and solve for

Example C

Given a triangle with SSS or SAS you know to use the Law of Cosines. In triangles where there are corresponding angles and sides like AAS or SSA it makes sense to use the Law of Sines. What about ASA

Given  with  and  what is

Solution: First, draw a picture. 

The sum of the angles in a triangle is . Since this problem is in radians you either need to convert this rule to radians, or convert the picture to degrees.

The missing angle must be . Now you can use the Law of Sines to solve for

Concept Problem Revisited

Sometimes when using the Law of Sines you can get answers that do not match the Law of Cosines. Both answers can be correct computationally, but the Law of Sines may involve interpretation when the triangle is obtuse. The Law of Cosines does not require this interpretation step. 

First, use Law of Cosines to find :

Then, use Law of Sines to find . Use the unrounded value for  even though a rounded value is shown. 

Use the Law of Cosines to double check .

Notice that the last two answers do not match, but they are supplementary. This is because this triangle is obtuse and the  function is restricted to only producing acute angles. 

Vocabulary

Angle of elevation is the angle at which you view an object above the horizon. 

Angle of depression is the angle at which you view an object below the horizon. This can be thought of negative angles of elevation. 

Bearing is how direction is measured at sea. North is , East is , South is  and West is

Greek letters alpha and beta  are often used as placeholders for known angles. Unknown angles are often referred to as  (theta).

ASA refers to the situation from geometry when there are two known angles in a triangle and one known side that is between the known angles. 

Guided Practice

1. The angle of depression of a boat in the distance from the top of a lighthouse is . The lighthouse is 200 feet tall. Find the distance from the base of the lighthouse to the boat. 

2. From the third story of a building (50 feet) David observes a car moving towards the building driving on the streets below.  If the angle of depression of the car changes from  to  while he watches, how far did the car travel? 

3. If a boat travels 4 miles SW and then 2 miles NNW, how far away is it from its starting point? 

Answers:

1. When you draw a picture, you see that the given angle  is not directly inside the triangle between the lighthouse, the boat and the base of the lighthouse. It is complementary to the angle you need. 

Now that you have the angle, use tangent to solve for

Alternatively, you could have noticed that  is alternate interior angles with the angle of elevation of the lighthouse from the boat’s perspective. This would yield the same distance for

2. Draw a very careful picture:

In the upper right corner of the picture there are four important angles that are marked with angles. The measures of these angles from the outside in are . There is a 45-45-90 right triangle on the right, so the base must also be 50. Therefore you can set up and solve an equation for

The hardest part of this problem is drawing a picture and working with the angles. 

3. 4 miles SW and then 2 miles NNW

Translate SW and NNW into degrees bearing. SW is a bearing of  and NNW is a bearing of . Draw a picture in two steps. Draw the original 4 miles traveled and draw the second 2 miles traveled from the origin. Then translate the second leg of the trip so it follows the first leg. This way you end up with a parallelogram, which has interior angles that are easier to calculate. 

The angle between the two red line segments is  which can be seen if the red line is extended past the origin. 

The shorter diagonal of the parallelogram is the required unknown information.

Practice

The angle of depression of a boat in the distance from the top of a lighthouse is . The lighthouse is 150 feet tall.  You want to find the distance from the base of the lighthouse to the boat.

1. Draw a picture of this situation.

2. What methods or techniques will you use?

3. Solve the problem. 

From the third story of a building (60 feet) Jeff observes a car moving towards the building driving on the streets below. The angle of depression of the car changes from  to  while he watches. You want to know how far the car traveled.

4. Draw a picture of this situation.

5. What methods or techniques will you use?

6. Solve the problem. 

A boat travels 6 miles NW and then 2 miles SW. You want to know how far away the boat is from its starting point. 

7. Draw a picture of this situation.

8. What methods or techniques will you use?

9. Solve the problem. 

You want to figure out the height of a building. From point , you measure an angle of elevation to the top of the building to be . You move 50 feet closer to the building to point  and find that the angle to the top of the building is now .

10. Draw a picture of this situation.

11. What methods or techniques will you use?

12. Solve the problem. 

13. Given  with  and , what is

14. Given  with  and  what is

15. Given  with  and  what is ?

Answers for Explore More Problems

To view the Explore More answers, open this PDF file and look for section 4.8. 

Vocabulary

Angle of Depression

Angle of Depression

The angle of depression is the angle formed by a horizontal line and the line of sight down to an object when the image of an object is located beneath the horizontal line.
Angle of Elevation

Angle of Elevation

The angle of elevation is the angle formed by a horizontal line and the line of sight up to an object when the image of an object is located above the horizontal line.
ASA

ASA

ASA, angle-side-angle, refers to two known angles in a triangle with one known side between the known angles.
law of cosines

law of cosines

The law of cosines is a rule relating the sides of a triangle to the cosine of one of its angles. The law of cosines states that c^2=a^2+b^2-2ab\cos C, where C is the angle across from side c.
law of sines

law of sines

The law of sines is a rule applied to triangles stating that the ratio of the sine of an angle to the side opposite that angle is equal to the ratio of the sine of another angle in the triangle to the side opposite that angle.
Tangent

Tangent

The tangent of an angle in a right triangle is a value found by dividing the length of the side opposite the given angle by the length of the side adjacent to the given angle.
Trigonometric Ratios

Trigonometric Ratios

Ratios that help us to understand the relationships between sides and angles of right triangles.

Image Attributions

Explore More

Sign in to explore more, including practice questions and solutions for Trigonometry Word Problems.

Reviews

Please wait...
Please wait...

Original text