Orienteering: The Best Way to Gain Practical Experience for Map and Compass Navigation

Any survivalist knows that a bug out bag is one of the most important things you can have, right? Whether you’re new to this whole prepper thing or are a seasoned veteran, you know all the essentials that you’d need to survive in an emergency, and you have them carefully packed away into a convenient go-bag. Chances are, somewhere among the survival fishing rods, knives, dehydrated foods, and toilet paper, you also have a topographical map of your area and a shiny, magnetic compass.

The question is: Do you actually know how to use a compass? Sure, it points north, but what do you do once you know where magnetic north is? How does that information help you get where you’re going, or even figure out where you are? Do you know what all those squiggly lines on your topo map mean? Can you tell the difference between the ridges and the drainages around you? If you can, then you’re ready to use the information on your map to start figuring out where to look for a water source, where the highest points and lowest points in the area are, and, most importantly, where you are in the grand scheme of things.

If you don’t actually know how to read a topo quad, don’t worry. It doesn’t take long to learn what all the lines, colors, and symbols mean. Once you know the basics, the main thing is practice, practice, practice. And the best way to practice navigating with a map and compass to go orienteering!

What Orienteering Is

Orienteering can be called a sport, hobby, or game. Whatever floats your boat. Basically, it’s like an off-trail treasure hunt, no GPS allowed. When you arrive at an orienteering event, you’ll get a map with a starting triangle and several waypoints marked on it. Your job is to hit each of the waypoints (also called control points) in order and then get to the finish point. At each control, there will be some way of proving that you got there, either using a specific paper punch or, more commonly, an electronic punch.

What You Learn Through Orienteering

The only way to get from one control point to another on an orienteering course is to follow the map. To follow the map, you have to be able to read the map. Although most people can read a basic road map well enough to get across town, all bets are off when there are no roads. When you’re on an orienteering course, racing against the clock, you have to change your perspective and learn how the flat, birds-eye view on the paper in front of you corresponds to the brushy, hilly, 3-D landscape you’re a part of. Having multiple control points as small, concrete goals helps you to practice map-and-compass navigation without the risk of getting completely lost in the wilderness, alone.

Since orienteering maps are based on the topo quads you probably have in your bug out bag, not on street maps, being familiar with them means that interpreting contour lines when you’re out there in an emergency will be no big deal. You’ll already be a pro.