Setting Course

By Helena Uber-Wamble

More than 25 years ago, I started my job in interpretation as a part-time park naturalist. This wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life. There were many topics, subjects and skills that I knew about and practiced not just for my job, but for my weekend adventures. One of those very important skills was map reading and orienteering.

Road MapIn today’s day and age, who needs a map with Siri telling us exactly where to go, or Google maps giving us a turn by turn directions to our next destination? GPS is in the phones we carry, the Fitbit we wear and the camping gear we choose to carry when we are out on extended hikes. We are on technical overload! What happens then when the batteries die and need recharged and there is nowhere in a 2 mile walking distance to plug-in? What happens when gear gets wet and totally shuts down? Then what?

There is nothing as sweet as looking at a map, orienting the compass and finding our way to the next campsite, trailhead or nearest road. Reading the curvy lines on a topo map also help us find the easiest route, this may not always be the most direct, but it can be the least strenuous. The skill of reading a map, especially a topo map is key to truly enjoying an outdoor adventure. Reading a map in general, a road atlas, zoo map or museum map is key to planning your day and making the best use of your time at destinations…. Who wants to go to Disney without map skills, only to find out that the show that starts in 10 minutes is all the way across the complex and you will never make it on time. Rather by reading the map and schedules, one can plan to be on the correct side of the Magic Kingdom just a few steps away from the show you want to see without the rush and stress of trying to get there.

When my nephew was just 4, I took him on his second camping trip (ok, his first camping trip out of the backyard) to a nearby campground. I highlighted the route on the map and I had him follow our progress by tracing his finger along the map and orienting in with each turn we took. He was able to keep up with the journey as we went along and it taught him some very important skills. He learned what the rest areas looked like along the way, and how close we were getting.

By the time he was 7, David was picking out parks for us to go hiking in. We would look at the trail maps together and see how long the hikes were and what interesting features were out there for us to see. We went many places and he visited Alabama for a few days one summer. You better believe when it was time to drive him back home to Ohio we looked over the map and picked the best route. I asked him to read signs and keep me on track. It was a good way to pass some of the time on the long drive north. I say long, because by then David was around 14 years old and he picked a few destination spots to stop at along the way including Ruby Falls. It turned out to be a great trip even with the extra stops.

This year we gave my other nephew a compass for his eighth birthday. We told him if he started using his compass with his maps we would take him on a camping adventure. We will be setting up small compass activities for him to help him hone his skills. We will also teach him to read those curvy lines on the map while helping him pick the best route to hike. David has entered the adult world, and drives his own car, but he is never without a map. Jake is just learning and thinks it is a cool “game”. I hope he too will learn to master the skill of map and compass reading.

As part of a search and rescue team, each member must have his map and compass skills mastered before they can participate in searching for those that are lost. It is a vital skill, one that prevents searchers from becoming part of the problem. It is fun, and it doesn’t take tons of money or time to learn how to use these tools. Learn what a bearing is, mark your parking spot on a map before you head out on the trail, take a back bearing, and learn your pace. Start small and set your compass on the map to find the elephants at the zoo and then plan your best route. Then try larger areas and parks by walking a course while heading to a distant hill or odd tree. Setting your course can make for a hassle-free day and create many memories too.

This generation needs to know these skills before they become lost to cyber-space altogether. With all areas in our life, we should have a destination and plan accordingly. Happy trails and safe travels!

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