Scouts and others learn age-old skills of orienteering

On a blustery day last month, more than 200 scouts descended on the 568-acre Albright Scout Reserve in Chesterfield County to learn a skill known as orienteering in order to fulfill a badge requirement.

“Uh, it’s a compass, and I don’t think I really learned how to use them.” Glad to find out,” says scout William ‘Mac’ MacDonald.

Using only a compass and map, he and his troop will follow a one-mile course around two lakes and through the woods, looking for landmarks. They also need to learn the height and distance of distant objects, such as trees or flagpoles.

The maps followed by scouts do not look like an ordinary road atlas. They have specific geometric shapes. A triangle indicates the start of the course and a double circle marks the finish. Between the two are circles indicating checkpoints with numbered flags. Once they reach a marker, scouts will punch a map indicating they have found the correct checkpoint. Maps are drawn using magnetic north rather than ‘grid’ or ‘true’ north and are printed in up to five standard colors. Colors are an integral part of card symbols.

Scoutmaster Kevin Kessler gives advice to the Merritt family on how to read the map. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

But first, they need the help of scout leader and event organizer Kevin Kessler, who says a compass is a very simple tool that dates back over a thousand years.

“That’s the direction of the move arrow. Okay? That’s the most important part of the compass, IMHO, because you’re always following the direction of the move arrow. That’s why we call it the direction of the displacement arrow,” Kessler explains.

Kessler then has the kids practice finding their bearings by pointing to a tree with a blue flag on it in the distance.

“Point your direction of travel arrow,” he says.

Pointing to the numbers on the outside of the compass, known as the bezel, he continues: “You’re gonna spin it until that red is in the shed, so your needle is in the shed, okay ?”

Kesseler says it’s important to have “the red in the shed,” which means moving your body, not the compass. The magnetic needle is the “red” while the orientation arrow is the “shed”. To follow a specific bearing, you want to align these two elements.

Scout leaders make sure the children read the map correctly. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

At the end of the day, Scout Evelyn says it took her group a while to find their groove.

“First we kind of got lost because we didn’t know where we were going…then we found it,” she says.

Her teammate, Claire, says the experience has taught her a lot.

“There are many different shipping routes you can take,” she says. “Like you can take a different route, you can walk a trail, follow the water. We found a lot of different ways and saw different people take different directions and map them differently and I thought that was pretty interesting.

You don’t have to be a scout to learn orienteering, there is a Central Virginia chapter that hosts events every month. And there are two parks in Chesterfield County that offer beginner orientation classes.

Tim Gilbert
Tim Gilbert of the Central Virginia Orienteering Club reviews the basics of reading a compass. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Ellen Stefaniak, who serves as both national and local secretary for the Central Virginia club, says orienteering is fun and teaches important life skills like how to get your bearings.

“It gives you a good spatial feel of the world around you that I don’t think you get with a GPS,” she says. “There, you’re just following instructions.” And [with orienteering]you get relative distances, you understand elevation changes, you see the world around you in greater detail.

Stefaniak says there are more than 70 groups across the country and all offer different levels of orienteering, from beginner to expert. Some groups even hold skill competitions and fight for the fastest time to complete a route.

Dino J. Dotson