Welcome to the analog age

Set up your own course and see how well you understand orienteering

Discovery Place Kids Huntersville

These days, we can get pretty much everything we need on our phones, including GPS and compasses to help us arrive at our next destination. Sometimes though, your phone may not get the service you need to get this invaluable guidance and, suddenly, you will find yourself needing a new set of skills. Welcome to the analog age!

Maps are items that have been around for millennia in one form of another. There are so many different kinds of maps that it can get a little confusing to understand what it is you are looking at. Many people have the most amount of trouble with the topographical map. Here’s an example of a topographical map:

Even though this looks like a cool new art piece, you can learn a lot by looking at it. For example, each circle denotes elevation. Based on the map key you would be able to find out what each ring equals. Usually though, darker lines will be an interval like 5 or 10, and the lighter lines would add up to that interval. That saves you, the navigator, the time of having to count each ring by hand. Another feature of a topographical map is the distance between lines. The closer the lines are, the steeper the elevation. Also, even if not connected, all lines that are the same interval apart are the same elevation.

This is all-important because it can help you to do an activity called orienteering. Orienteering is the sport of navigation. During the event, you are given a map and a compass, and you have to find markers based off of clues. Each marker directs you to the next. Knowing how to read a map and a compass are essential to succeeding in this sport. That being said, orienteering can also be a smaller activity that you can do the next time you go on an adventure through the woods.

In this activity, we will help you try to create your own orienteering course as you learn to read a map.


  • Compass (get online or you can make one)
  • Map of your area
  • Ruler
  • Some form of marker (cone, string, ribbon, etc.)


1. The first part of using a map is to look at the legend and figure out what all the markers mean. Below is an example of a map legend:

Usually colors are a big indicator of what is on your map. Blue will typically show water, green typically means forests or wooded areas and roads may be shown in black or red. In the legend, you usually find a scale, a compass rose, boundary marker symbols and the names of important landmarks.

2. Next, find where you are on the map and where you are going.

3. Figure out the distance to your destination using the scale at the bottom of your map and a ruler.

4. If you are setting up your own course, you want to figure out multiple points on the path to your destination that you can navigate to. At those spots you can leave some form of marker.

5. Write down the directions you took to get there and the approximate steps it took to get there.

6. Try out the course with friends. See if they are able to follow the course as you intended.