Orienteering skills

This is an overview of basic orienteering skills and how to teach them as a parent, teacher or youth group leader. It is also useful as a quick primer for a newcomer wanting to learn some basic skills. More details can be found in the books for teaching young orienteers listed in the resources section. Orienteering vendors have vast collections of literature, materials and equipment for teaching and learning orienteering.

Of course, the best way to learn or teach orienteering is to do it, so by all means get out onto a map! An orienteering event organized by a local orienteering club can often be the best way to get a good suitable course and map, and yield a rewarding experience.

I'll start with skills for very young children. Older children and adults may want to start with adult courses, but be sure the basic skills are taught: orienting the map, understanding the map symbols, and so forth. For the younger ones, keep the courses easy at first, because confidence is gained through success.

Getting used to the forest

Younger orienteers may want to do activities to get used to being in the forest, to help their self confidence and sense of security. String orienteering courses are helpful for this, since they eliminate the risk of getting lost. So are other activities and games done in the woods.

What is a map?

One way to think of a map is as an aerial or bird's eye view. But for younger children, the concept of a map as a drawing of the forest may be more easily understood. An intuitive understanding of a map is a good base from which to build on later with more formal concepts.

Frequent exposure to maps helps build a sense of familiarity. Foster this by asking simple questions about the map. If the map is colored, quiz the child on what the colors mean -- yellow for clearing, blue for water and so on. Talk about places being far apart (or close together) since they are far apart (or close) on the map. It may be good advice to not get too complex too soon; the child may not yet be ready. Maps are a wonderfully intuitive and yet sophisticated concept that children will grasp when they are ready.

Simple exercises include having children draw a map of a small area. This can be as simple as making a drawing of a room or a field, or as formal as measuring a room or field and the objects within and drawing them all to scale on graph paper. Choose the level of sophistication suitable for the child.

If you discuss contours or topography at this stage, it may be good to start simple. Simple concepts to start with include hilltops (shown by closed contours), and the difference between steep areas (where contours are close together) and flat areas (where the contour lines are far apart).

Reading a map

Lead the children out on a map walk reading the map. Point out features as you go along. Ask the children to anticipate what features they will be seeing next by reading the map.

Studying an orienteering mapOrienting a map is an important skill. Turn the map until what is in front of you in the terrain is in front of you on the map. If you are facing east, then the east side of the map should be away from you. Don't worry if the lettering on the map is sideways or upside-down. Practice keeping the map oriented while on a map walk.

Thumbing is also a useful technique. Fold the map into a small, easily held piece and hold your thumb on the map near where you are. Keeping your thumb near where you are as you go along makes it easier to refer back to the map when you take your eyes off it. It also reduces the chances of your eyes “skipping” to another part of the map, say, to another trail junction. This is an easy error to make.

An example of a map reading exercise is to have the children do a string or line orienteering course. Mark the route on the map for them but don't show where the controls (checkpoints) are. As the children come to each control, have them mark where they are on the map. This will teach them to read the map and figure out where they are.

Learning to navigate

Navigation is the quintessential skill of orienteering, and it will take time to master. Be sure to teach (or learn) it progressively in small steps, allowing for success at each stage. Children may also still want to do the string course as well as they advance to adult navigation, which is good, since string courses often serve a social function and help reinforce a sense of success.

Navigating along linear features

Once children can find their location on a map, the next step is to start finding their own way on an unmarked route...in other words, on a standard orienteering course. At first, do the navigation together.

The first type of standard orienteering course for a child to do is one on linear features, such as trails, with only one decision to be made on each leg (see the page called Special terms). For instance, each control might be on a trail junction, but there should not be any trail junctions between controls. At each trail junction the child need only decide which way to go. This is easier than a typical white course, which is the easiest standard course usually available.

You may need to improvise. If you set the course yourself, use a small, well bounded area. If you want to use a normal white course, try to pick an event at an area that tends to have easier white courses, such as a small park. Or, if the course is hard, have the child do the navigation for some of the easier legs and do the harder legs together.

Don't worry about choosing the best route or the fastest way, just successful navigation. Route choice tends to improve with experience.

After children master simple linear navigation, they are ready for a more typical white course, where they will make multiple decisions on each leg. Follow them along at first, letting them navigate but keeping them from making big mistakes. Later, let them do the course alone.

At some point, teach a second technique for orienting the map: using a compass. Hold the compass on the map, as flat (level to the ground) as possible. Ignore all settings, dials and gadgets. Turn the map (not the compass) until the compass needle is parallel to the north lines on the map, with the red end of the needle toward the north end of the map. (The compass needle always points to north (magnetic north, to be specific), so turning the compass will leave the compass needle always pointing the same way.) Now the map will be oriented with the terrain, just like when you oriented it before.

Practice map reading while on white courses. While going along, have the child read what other features should be alongside the trail, and verify that they are there as you pass them. Also, practice relating distances on the map to distances on the ground. For instance, how far will the next feature be?

Off trails

The next more difficult course is yellow. The yellow course generally goes along trails and other linear features, but often has controls on features just off the trail.

Now it becomes important to plan a method of finding a control, not just picking which trail to take. Often this involves an “attack point,” which is a feature such as a bend in the trail, or a pond by the trail, or a hilltop, or so forth, at which you will head off the trail to find the control. Other times it may simply involve knowing when to look for a small hill or cliff near the trail. In any case, it is important to plan ahead.

Route choice starts to become important. At this point emphasize routes that provide the most sure way to find a control, rather than the fastest or shortest way. Consider factors such as whether there is a feature (“catching feature”) to let you know if you have missed what you are looking for. Is there a good attack point on this route? Is the navigation easy or hard? Are there lots of chances for wrong turns?

Using a compass to set a bearingCompass bearings could now be taught:
  1. Place the edge of the compass on the map so that it forms a line connecting where you are on the map with where you want to go. In the diagram at right in Step 1, a compass bearing is being taken from a trail bend to control point 3. (A trail is shown by a dashed black line; a red mark has been made on the diagram to point out the trail bend.) Make sure that the direction of travel arrow at the top of the compass is pointing in the direction you want to go, and not in the reverse direction.
  2. Holding the compass in place on the map, and ignoring the needle for the moment, turn the dial so that the lines in the housing line up with the north lines (meridians) on the map. Make sure that the N on the dial is towards the north (and not south) end of the map. (This is subtle in the diagrams; look to be sure you see it.)
  3. Leaving that setting alone, turn yourself and the compass and map until the red end of the needle points to the N on the dial. (Remember, the needle itself doesn't turn; it always points north. You and the compass and map turn around it. This takes a bit to get used to.) The direction of travel arrow on the compass now points in the direction you want to go. If you look in that direction and do not see the control feature, follow step 4.
  4. Choose a distinctive feature in the distance at which the direction of travel arrow is pointing. Keeping your eyes on this feature, travel towards it until you reach it. If it's not your control point, repeat this step until you reach your control.

Illustrated instructions are often included when you purchase orienteering compasses. Remember that the most important use of a compass is still to orient the map. And remember, reading the map is still important too!

At this stage, an orienteer is probably ready to make a very simple map of a small area, such as a schoolyard. This is excellent training for both map and compass skills, and will reinforce almost everything taught to this point. An orienteering training camp might also be useful and fun. Instructions for more advanced skills can be found in several of the books listed in the Resource section.