Be Expert with Map & Compass: The Complete Orienteering Handbook

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This would be perfect for a former Scoutmaster of mine who–I swear this is true–insisted compasses wouldn’t work if you were standing on the side of a hill. That was just one of his misconceptions, to put it nicely.

Fortunately by the time he came along the BSA had instituted a policy that two adults had to be present at all times so the other Scoutmaster was always there to tell him he was a blithering idiot.


You don’t need maps and compasses any longer.


It’s interesting. For years as a teen, I tried to understand topo maps and they still just seemed like a series of squiggly lines. And than I just groked them, I’m not sure why or how.

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YES, those are the best compasses. I’ve used them surveying, diagraming archeological finds, orienteering, everything.

I don’t know why these damn army compasses exist:

I mean, I’m sure there’s a clever way to use them, one that may be almost as clever as the great mirrored compasses, but everyone I’ve ever seen trying to find their way around with them seems to get confused. And yet they buy them anyway because the look cooler. And then, when you’ve made your bearing, can you easily set the compass down on your map, line up the grid lines with the transparent background, and draw a perfectly straight line at the correct angle to your target? No. (At least… I dunno. Never learned.)

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I used to love orienteering. Map-reading was also a constantly-useful life-skill (even in the city) but since GPS exploded into ubiquity, I’ve got no further use out of those skills. These days you’re just never not able to know your location unless you intentionally try to get lost and then intentionally won’t use the tools at your disposal. Understanding maps and bearings is obviously nice foundational knowledge, but real-life hasn’t contained any real-world navigation puzzles for me for a long long time. Without real-world application, I miss the corresponding satisfaction of expertly deducing a solution to your situation. It’s not the same with contrived challenges.

Orienteering maps were the best though. Richer and more detailed than regular topo maps, they were like people had taken Google-Earth-style aerial-photography and distilled every visual feature into information. Many of them were masterpieces.


Having helped map out for a local park when I went to meets. They are detailed because at least at that time a whole lot of volunteers would physically walk the the areas.

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i have spent time on the road with several people who make use of gps systems and i have had multiple experiences with each of them when the navigation system has no idea what it’s trying to get you to do. on a trip through new mexico, arizona, and utah, one friend’s top dollar garmin system kept trying to get us to turn down a dirt road used as access for a power line right-of-way. once we had passed it the system kept telling us to turn around and go back to it for four miles until we turned it off. our destination was on the state highway about 10 miles further down the road. my sister’s tomtom unit can navigate brilliantly a trip from her house in texas to an address in estes park, colorado but cannot find a way between her house and a small town 40 miles east of her without either going through dallas or tyler which adds 140 miles and 60 miles to the trip respectively. the pizza hut corporation’s proprietary mapping and direction software cannot get a delivery driver to our house because it sends them down a street which does not intersect with our dead end street. the papa john’s software does the same thing. i have witnessed so many of these instances that i will never use a navigation system preferring maps and an understanding of naigation.

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That’s our favorite bit in the series, after Scott’s Tots.

Bonus: the mirror can be used as a mirror.

/y’know, like for signaling.
//I have a forty-year old Silva compass.

As a scoutmaster in Austria I am always fascinated by the sheer amount of policies that the BSA keeps instituting.

The useful compasses are available in military style green, as well, so I don’t really see the point.

Google Maps is still completely useless for hiking hilly/mountainous areas. Sometimes you can figure stuff out from satellite images + 3D visualization. Sometimes the map data is just too bad.
Don’t try to find a hiking path in the Austrian alps using Google maps. Or Bing, for that matter. Openstreetmap is slightly better for more popular hiking destinations, but it doesn’t yet qualify as a real map either.

I think the maps that come with modern GPS systems are to real maps what the colored dots you see in games like Guitar Hero are to classical music notation.
Yes, people can learn to play Guitar Hero more easily than they can learn to read classical music notation. But that’s not really the point.


FWIW I don’t really see these examples as involving any meaningful kind of orienteering skills or mapwork or navigation skills. Your current location is provided for you right there on the map, updating in realtime. You destination is provided for you right there on the map. You’re already on the main route moving from A to B. It’s no more complex than a shopping mall’s YOU ARE HERE guide. What some auto-guidance voice is or isn’t saying doesn’t change the reality that you’re not lost, won’t ever be lost, a route is clear, you don’t have to think about anything much at all to get where you’re going.
Switch off the voice completely if it’s confusing things (as you did), you still won’t need navigation skills any more sophisticated than those involved in shopping at a mall.

in that instance, i agree with your overall assessment, although i know people who are either so slavishly devoted to their nav system or whose personal navigation skills are so rudimentary that they would have followed the directions and turned down the dirt road instead of the clear path. i included that as another clear example of the kind of reliability i’ve come to expect from even the most expensive systems.

i personally love paper maps and collect them along my travels. prior to an exploration of chase county, kansas with a friend of mine i sought out a high quality map of the county from the kansas department of highways. i had it printed at full resolution onto the largest sheet of cardstock i’ve ever handled and then had it laminated. that map got us to and from the most obscure cemeteries and ghost towns in the county over the days we relived the book “prairy erth.”

Haha, yes! Printed paper maps are a great travel companion - you write on them, x marks the spot of places you want to go to, take notes, etc. Afterwards you get home, abandon them in a closet. Accidentally stumble on them years later, and all the memories are inscribed there of where you went, and how, and what you did, and that time it was raining and the corners got soggy, and…

I use google maps too, but also a paper map when travelling when I can :smiley:

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does this help?

Yes, mappers often start with a base map made from arial protography (photostereogrammetry), but then survey the entire area on foot over a period of months to make the actual map. For example you want to capture the terrain shape, not the contours of the tree canopy.

In addition to occlusion by vegetation, many features on the map get unique symbols and cannot be properly identified from arial photos. You may see a dark spot in a photo but need to visit it in person to decide if it’s a boulder, a small cliff, a shadow from a rootstock, a knoll, some burned vegetation, a small pit, part of an exposed ditch, a patch of asphalt from an old road, or some other kind of man made object. Each of these cases would represented uniquely on a an orienteering map.

Mappers also look at seasonal changes and have to make judgment calls about how to represent things. Is that a clearing, a marsh, or a small pond? A stream or a dry ditch? Underbrush and thicket can also change relatively quickly.

The level of effort scales with intended use. A club may host a national championship with the side benefit that they had to produce a new world-class map, and can then reuse it in local events for years to come. Other maps may be needed for local events but must be produced on the cheap and will never approach the same quality level.

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BTW the compass pictures above are not totally representative of the modern sport. They are more appropriate for survey or hobbyist uses. Cross-country orienteering can also be done in a highly competitive racing format and there are more serious tools for the job. For example, here is a runner’s thumb compass:

(image from

  • Small and streamlined
  • Straps on in optimal position to eliminate fumbling
  • Hole cut for thumbtip to retain feel/grip ability
  • Minimalist bezel (fiddling with bezel = standing still = losing)
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