Learning Orienteering

Most people associate scouts (Especially Eagle Scouts) with a few items: first aid kits, ropes, tents, maps and compass. Orienteering with map and compass is a skill fewer and fewer people really know how to leverage, even in scouting. Why is that?

Orienteering is an advanced skill. It requires attention to detail. It requires some math with angles and, surprisingly enough, it is wrapped up in a lot of other skills taught in scouting. It uses a lot of inductive along with deductive reasoning.

In today’s age when everyone with a cell phone uses GPS to get from point A to point B it is easy to feel like bringing out that paper map and compass is a waste of time. Scouting itself waits to start orienteering requirements until Second Class rank. It finishes with the “big 1 mile” course for First Class and then that’s it for most scouts. From the direct relation to the requirement in Second Class rank perspective, the scout must start using a different kind reasoning with skills learned previously. This is a big adjustment for most scouts because they are typically learning scouting skills using deductive reasoning. Scouting starts with general concepts and works towards focused, honed skills. So why doesn’t navigation start in Tenderfoot or the Scout Rank? Well… it kinda does from a deductive perspective. Like most scouting skills, it requires hand’s on experience and that takes place out in the field. The more activities you can incorporate with other scouting skills the quicker the scouts can leverage or apply that knowledge. Remember… wisdom = applied knowledge. (See my previous post on failing) With every activity that incorporates navigation components, the more data points the scout has for future reference. Activities which you can include navigation references could be some of the following:

  • Weekends campouts: The adult leaders go over the maps on the location with youth leadership and the youth leadership goes over it with their patrols. Everyone understands where they are in the local surroundings. It can be a crude map but they start associating how to get there, what’s around and how to get back.
  • That 5 mile hike in Tenderfoot rank: Share the map with everyone pointing out where the entrance is, where they are going, items to look for on the map when they cross it such as streams, valleys, ridge lines, open fields, buildings and road intersections.
  • Identify wildlife and native plants: Making sure someone writes down on the map where people have seen animals. This also is giving the scouts the intro skills on how to pay attention of their surroundings. They start learning about where they are going and where they have been to get back home or to the campsite.

If you wait until the scout reaches second class to begin an introduction to navigation skills there is little room for applied learning because it generally is taught in the field. They will have a harder time understanding how to interpret a map out in the field if they aren’t in the field seeing it for themselves. You are either having to go back in the field on more hiking trips to walk, talk and point out stuff or having to work harder around the table ensuring that they get it through questions and answers. You are essentially doing double the work this way.

Inductive reasoning starts to kick in with navigation. There are known data points and there are unknown data points. You can and must reason through the known points in order to solve for the unknown. 

A lot of introduction to scouting skills are straight forward and uses deductive reasoning: Knots are meant for specific uses. A tent goes up in a specific order. Fire lays have specific uses. These are great examples of straight forward reasoning. They are meant to start building confidence in small challenges and build associations. Navigation is where the scout begins a whole new type of challenge and that involves inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is when you know very specific data and can work out a general solution from that data. Here are a few examples of how inductive reasoning is used in navigation:

  • From point A (starting point), I make a compass bearing of 90 degrees and walk out that way for 100 feet to point B. How can I make sure I’m in the right place from a direction perspective? At point B, I would add 180 degrees to my initial 90 degrees and shoot a “back bearing” of 270 degrees and I should see point A (the exact place I came from). If my starting location (point A) isn’t at 270 degrees from where I am (point B) then I’m in the wrong place and I need to start over or… you can also walk to the right until point A is at 270 degrees from you as long as you keep roughly the same distance from point A. I took known data points and I used inductive reasoning to fix myself to the correct position. I have used inductive reasoning.

    Example 1
  • From point A (staring point), I have to walk 75 degrees for 200 ft to point B. I chart the course on the map with a compass. I discover that the target flag looks to be near a building (by itself beside the trail) across the deep valley from me. 75 degrees takes me through that steep valley. I notice that the ridge line I am on continues around the valley and I would have to walk down and back up through that valley to get there or I can walk the ridge line around (400 ft to the top of the valley and 100 ft from the top of the valley down the same ridge line to that building. I would choose to take the easy walk and know my distances from where the top of the valley meets the ridge line and walk 100ft down to that building and look around that building for the target. The much harder route is through the valley. This is called land association. In this example I took several known data points. I know where I am at. I know about where the destination is located. I know how to measure distances while walking. I can leverage the easier, and faster route of following the ridge line which takes me off the direct path but I will get there all the same. I have used inductive reasoning.

    Example 2

Here are a few pointers on how to ease into navigation and orienteering skills.

  • Don’t mix up distance education with direction education. Make sure these two are taught individually and in this order.
  • Get distances understood early: Have the scout works out how many paces it takes for 100ft. (a pace is every two steps) Try to use roughly flat ground. Walking uphill will cause people to take shorter steps while walking downhill will cause people to take longer steps. On hikes ask them to start judging how far things are and try to pace it out. Missed distances will get you lost quicker than missed direction. They need to have good judgement of what is too far and what is too short.
  • Bring in games which can be done in a small area no bigger than a football field. Some can be done in half that space. Distances can be done in a straight line with points along that line. They walk out so many feet and then walk back so many feet and then walk out farther at a specified distance.
  • For direction education keep the area very small at first so you can observe and assist where needed. The scouts must be very confident in shooting the correct bearing before they can do their mile compass course.
  • Introduce charting courses only after distance and direction education is complete. Now they have to take field work to paper. This can be difficult concept for some and will require a lot more patience. This will require true ability to leverage knowledge. There is absolutely no faking at this stage. They either know it or don’t. When they can chart a course around 500 feet of different target locations, that can’t be seen from each other and get to them, they are ready for a mile long course. Walk it with them along with another adult but let them lead you. Ask questions. Ask if they know where they are on the map.
  • Get at least 2 scouts proficient enough to become the unit’s subject matter experts for navigation and orienteering. Not everyone will like it but some will love it. Those scouts are the one to teach everyone else. They will have excitement about the subject. It’s always better for youth to train youth. Just audit the lessons every once in a while to make sure the content is correct.

Navigation and Orienteering isn’t something that can be guessed at or “fudged”. Get the basic foundation in place as a priority.

If you don’t have any navigation experts in your unit you can always ask your unit commissioner for some advice on who are the navigation/orienteering experts in the district. You can also seek out the Orienteering Merit Badge instructors listed in your council for assistance. The point is that you, as the adult leader, do not need to know everything. You should have an adult subject matter expert (SME) as a well as a youth SME for navigation and orienteering on hand. That may have to come from another source than your unit at first. Navigation isn’t something that can be “fudged” or guessed at. That is a recipe for inevitable disaster. Get the basics down solid and you will find that orienteering just might become your next favorite thing to do in your unit. All the adults should have navigation exposure. For those adult leaders who want to learn there are plenty of opportunities out there for education. Our site will have an online orienteering instruction course coming soon to help adult leaders with the finer points of navigation because this knowledge tends to fade fast when you don’t use it often. Check back often or sign up for the newsletter to get notified when that class comes online. You can also find IOLS courses in your council and several youtube videos. Have someone you trust vet those Youtube videos first to make sure what is being taught and is aligned with scouting requirements and intent.

Good luck out there scouters!

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The author, Tony Zizak, is a long time scouter, Eagle Scout, and the scoutmaster of Troop 119 Ellettsville, IN. He has been to scout camps across the country and was a certified Program Director, Aquatics Director and a Scoutcraft Director. As a youth Tony received his Vigil Honor and served as a Lodge Chief for Tseyedin Lodge #65. Reach out to him for any questions you may have on this article.