Tips for Navigating the Orientation Merit Badge

Orienteering is a high energy sport in which the map is more important than the compass and your brain is more valuable than your brawn. It is also the subject of one of Scouting’s most popular merit badges (ranked 36th out of 136 merit badges in 2015).

To learn more about the badge, Scouting caught up with John Vierow, a merit badge adviser from Herndon, Virginia. An orienteering enthusiast since his college days, Vierow offered five tips for teaching the badge.

Connect with clubs

The best way to complete requirement 7 (participate in three orienteering races) is to connect with a local orienteering group. Vierow’s club, the Quantico Orienteering Club, typically hosts a few dozen meetups a year, and all are open to beginners.

“Each meet has a beginners course; there are always instructions available,” he says. You may even be able to borrow compasses at club meetings. (To find a club near you, visit the Orienteering USA website at

mix and match

Scouts don’t need to complete the requirements in order, so Vierow recommends mixing book learning with fieldwork. The best time to learn to read a map (requirement 4) is when you are standing on the ground represented by the map; the best time to understand the clue sheets and orienteering techniques (requirement 5) is when you are competing.

Viewow also likes to take advantage of travel time on the way to and from encounters. “There are some requirements and even beginner instructions that can be done in the car: familiarity with map symbols, things like that,” he says.

save a dollar

Vierow says a Scout doesn’t need an expensive compass to complete the badge, although he does need a baseplate model like the Silva Polaris.

“Some people show up with different kinds of weird compasses,” he says. “If I see anything else, I just give them a baseplate compass.”

You can also save money on supplies for orientation courses that Scouts need to set up for Requirement 8.

A set of 10 control markers, plus the hallmarks that prove someone found them in the field, could set you back $250. But you can accomplish the same thing with a roll of tape and a marker. The Scout setting up the course simply writes code words on pieces of tape and attaches them to checkpoints.

Buyer Beware

Many city and state parks offer permanent orienteering courses, but Vierow says not all courses are created equal.

“You go there and it’s really a compass course or they have a really bad photocopied map,” he says. “I think as a counselor it’s important to check whatever event you want to take the scouts to.”

read the book

This tip may seem obvious, but Vierow thinks Counselors and Scouts should study the merit badge brochure. “The merit badge brochure is good,” he says. “It’s what I’d expect, as someone who’s been orienteering for 30 years.”

Dino J. Dotson