Using Trail Maps To Create A Ski Orienteering Course

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Orienteering games are fun for everyone.  Activities can be set up using the floor plan in a school or municipal center when the weather is not so great for being outside.  The goal of organizing a fun activity using maps is to have the participants gain confidence figuring out where they are and how to get where they want to go. Orienteering provides a unique lesson for focusing on what one is doing rather than what everyone around them is doing. The first step, though, is the map.  It’s gotta be real.

Waterville Valley’s Nordic Center, in Waterville, NH, hosted a Family Fun Weekend featuring orienteering and treasure hunts on skis.  We were asked to set up a course on their trail map.  They assured us that we wouldn’t need to invest the time in mapping as they had ‘GPSed’ the trails and we could simply hang our controls and put the circles on the map.

Well, I wish it was that simple. The thing about orienteering maps is they need to be adjusted to magnetic north, have a usable scale, and they need to describe all trails and nuances in the landscape.  If the participants venture out to find their controls and the trails don’t match what is on the paper, they will be frustrated.  They will find very little satisfaction in completing the course.  It is important to fix the trail map before you call it an orienteering course.

Trail map adjustedaerial view white course

I use OCAD software to make maps, but you can adjust a trail map in other types of drawing software.  Here is how you can do it:

  1. Go out on the trail map and find magnetic north with a compass.  Stand at an obvious road junction.  Hold a compass in front of you and determine a straight line between you and another object on the map.  Sometimes it is a bend in the road, building or trail head.
  2. Back at the computer, open the software and open a digital version of the trail map. Use that magnetic line that you just made and rotate the map until the the line is parallel with the printed edge of the map.
  3. Go to Google Earth and find the map location.  Go to the top of the page and turn back the history dial until an aerial image is revealed that shows a leaf-off version so you can see the roads and buildings.  Use the line drawing tool in Google Earth to measure a 100 meter line between two convenient objects.  You can pick buildings, parking lots, edges of vegetation or other definitive spots that you will be able to find in the real world. I also make a 500 meter line.  Export that view to your editing software.
  4. Open that saved image in your editing software.  Open the digital version of the trail map in a transparent layer so you can see the Google image through it and adjust the trail map to fit.  Now, both maps will print to magnetic north.  Great.
  5. Now, draw all of the objects that you see on the aerial view onto the trail map layer. Include all buildings, parking lots, vegetation changes, and water features.  When all of that tracing is complete, print the map and take a walk.  You need walk the entire map and hand draw all of the features that weren’t on the Google image.  People are constantly changing the landscape.  Or there may have been conifer coverage of areas and a building didn’t show on the computer that you need to draw.  Walk the trails.  Make sure you indicate small trails and snow shoe routes that aren’t on the trail map. They will matter to the ski orienteering youth that comes to a junction and wants to be sure which way to turn.
  6. Now you will need to resolve the scale.  That 100 meter line you made in Google Earth works to determine the distance between real world objects on the map.  Determine what area you really need to print.  Don’t print the entire area if you are making a couple of short, easy courses.

Of course, this is a simplified version of the process.  You can email me with more questions.  I am more than happy to come to you to create a map for your event.  We have maps across the country in schools, public parks and private venues that are still being used to facilitate fun, family activities that educate and enhance any outing.

It really is okay to get lost.  Figuring it out is the lesson. ultimatetreasurehunts   #uthunts

The US Junior Orienteering Team

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junior team calendar2014 US Junior Team Calendar

There is a US junior team for using a map and running through the forest looking for orange and white flags?  Yes, there is.  And the selected competitors get to travel around the world meeting other youths and running through foreign forests. Sound like fun?  It really is the ultimate treasure hunt.

A junior orienteer consists of any US youth, age 20 or younger, that can compete, on their own, on a yellow course. Yellow courses are just above the beginner level.  You could do that after just a couple of treks through the forest.  Really.

Go to the US orienteering web site to find a club in your area.  Go to events.  Meet people. Learn.  Before you know it, you are hooked on the sport.  Like these two Hubmann brothers:


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A treasure hunt on a detailed and accurate map is an early lesson in orienteering. In Sweden, where orienteering is the national sport, hundreds of lessons for different skills and abilities become the framework for mandatory curriculum implementation. The national geographic Society has developed a roper Poll that is used every three years to determine international skills and abilities with maps. Sweden is at the top and American students are somewhere near the bottom. It is no coincidence.

Treasure Chest Peaks Island School bw

The object of an orienteering treasure hunt is for the entire group to find the key to the treasure chest. It starts with a fun, musical introduction with instructions about maps and how to ‘read’ a map. A room that comfortably seats everyone is the best way to start. Two classrooms can sit together in a regular sized room, and an all purpose room, a cafeteria or a gym is best for large groups. A large poster sized map is shown to make sure everyone understands the legend and how their school grounds are depicted. There is a lot of energy in the crowd as they get excited to get their maps and get started. Kids move in groups and work together to locate clues that will help them to discover the key. It is not a competition as everyone will find every clue. Maps provide a unique template for everyone to learn and have fun on.

It is not a scavenger hunt! They are not finding clues because they stumble across them or have decoded a verbal clue to take them to a place. They are looking at a map, turning it so it is a birds’-eye-view, and determining where to go next. Each group focuses on their own mission. To ‘watch’ or ‘follow’ another group would deter them from their task and right off, it becomes clear that what other groups are doing won’t help their team. They may even follow a group to a clue at the start, like people do, and feel like they gained something, yet when they look at their map, again, they discover that they aren’t sure where they are on the map. They have a new discussion and the followed group is gone. There is a wonderful analogy to following people without considering what is best for yourself that kids grasp because it is relevant to this game. It useful when they are pre-teens and need a thoughtful discussion about peers, too. All of the typical judgments of that age group: popularity, grades, money, sports, etc, also drop away as the focus of the hunt become their shared goal. Each person is important.

For K-3, the relevance of spatial awareness, observational skills and working together become paramount as they look around the area and find themselves on the map. They become more and more confident on the map as they actually find the clues and feel success. We have the kids pass the map to another group member at each clue so that everyone has a turn to lead. In smaller groups of 2-3, we have them each have a map, yet must stay together.

Once the clues are found; sweaty, happy, little treasure hunters return to the chest to see what to do next. There is a lot of noise as they describe how they found their clues and tell funny little stories. It can be completed outside or inside depending on the schools schedule and the size of the group. Any bit of light competition dissolves as they realize that each team’s information is needed to solve the puzzle and help them find the key. When they find the key, there is a unified squeal of success and they know the treasure is about to be revealed. The school is responsible for the treasure. It does not need to be of high monetary value. We see little bracelets, pencils, fruit snacks, ice cream vouchers for later, tootsie rolls (gluten free), and little sewn pirate bags of goodies from the parents.

As students become more proficient and confident on a map, using maps of the schools both inside and outside, the area and detail is expanded. Difficulty should be increased in small amounts so that all kids stay confident and wanting more. It isn’t true that some of us are navigationally challenged. What is true is that our early introduction to maps was neither easy nor fun enough. The treasure hunt leaves them ready for another map game because it is fun and rewarding as they grow a little bit more confident each time. The use of compass is obvious when they have no features to help navigate. Schoolyard maps teach them how to use all resources around them. In the US, navigation lessons have descended from our military to the scouts to teachers. Using a compass to triangulate or determine degrees for taking a bearing isn’t about the map! So, hold off on that compass and make sure kids love maps. Facilitate treasure hunts, relays, SCRABBLE-O, Time Line-O, Motalas, map making, and a plethora of other map games. Students will never be lost adults but will be leaders, instead!

Can you find it??

antique key 13

Massachusetts Phys Ed Conference 2013

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Visit us at MAHPERD  next Monday and Tuesday to learn about how you can have orienteering in your school and community.


How do map and navigation games benefit groups?

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At first glance, an orienteering based Treasure Hunt appears as just another game. Music and fun are part of the introduction and the groups are tasked to find the key to the locked treasure chest. And if they do find that key, they will get treasure! It is a hard challenge to resist at any age or ability. A bit of light competition appears instantly, but it is not a race. An orienteering challenge in the guise of a treasure hunt crosses boundaries of ethnicity, life experience, academic ability, age, gender and personality. Kids help kids. Parents help kids. Kids help parents. New faces are integrated. Everyone wins.

Groups that do not often problem solve together in a fun atmosphere; office mates, students, and parents/kids all provide perfect examples of demographics that benefit from success while working together, learning something new, and being rewarded for their efforts.

An accurate and highly detailed map for the team to navigate with will bring out skills and abilities that highlight perception and spatial awareness. Team members unfamiliar with the campus or area will very quickly be comfortable and aware in a way that a tour cannot create. They are looking for a clue. They have to pay attention.

Questions and trivia that are light and simple provide an opportunity for participants to contribute to solving the final puzzle. Some clues are directed at younger members. Some clues are directed at the parents. The metaphor emerges very quickly that success requires everyone’s ability and everyone has something to contribute.
Running for Treasure

An orienteering treasure hunt also brings a group outside to walk and be physical. Kinesthetic learning happens naturally as they navigate a campus together, talk about the hunt and stay as a group. The weather may not perfectly cooperate and it becomes an adventure.

In the finale, it is quickly apparent that no one team will win, but rather all teams must come together to find the key. They are all winners. Everyone will receive a small reward to acknowledge their participation and the sharing of stories begins. Who found which clue? Who knew the right answer? Where did you get confused and how did you solve it? Who said that funny thing? I didn’t know you knew that song!

We now have a common experience. You can’t beat that!

Why our schools need Map, Orienteering and Navigation Programs

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Can your students use a map?  Can they use ANY map and not just topography maps?  There are mall maps, road maps, building maps, life maps and an infinite number of ways to display relationships of objects to other objects that can be deciphered by the user.  Those are all maps. Games and activities that make maps fun are the best way to introduce navigation.

Orienteering, the use of a map to find flags in the landscape,  enhances decision making, problem solving, spatial awareness, communication, memory, self confidence, love of fitness and a list of other applicable life skills.  And it is not about the compass though many teachers approach me with their case of compasses and ask for lessons in orienteering.

If every school had a map based program that expanded from Kindergarten through graduation and beyond, they would find opportunities to build in any subject material, health, and community.  Sweden, where orienteering has mandatory curriculum lesson plans, knows all about the full integration of Orienteering.  Kindergarten students can make a landscape in their sandbox and draw their interpretation of that on paper. High school students download GIS data to field check the campus and render a computer draft of a map to set up public events on.  And there is everything in between.

Orienteering team building grows relationships and acceptance as the cooperative groups move through activities towards success.  New students learn about campuses while having fun and getting to know each other.  Exams can be studied for as correct choices on a map will get you to the finish.  Kinesiology and body memory enhance the lesson.  Students with unique learning styles and lesser mobility are included.

Why wouldn’t you want Orienteering in your school?