by David Yee

This is the first year I was able to volunteer at the annual Fall Scout-O, and I had a very rewarding experience. I was assigned an 11:00 start time with a Boy Scout group.

My group was led by Lou, and the group had travelled a couple hours from New Hampshire to be there. There were 2 adults, Lou and Ron, and seven boys ranging in age from about 12 to 16. We were issued a packet with 10 maps, a bunch of boy scout badges, and a feedback form. Previously, Pete Beckwith had sent me some teaching guidelines.

Turns out the group had some orienteering experience – they had all been out on white and yellow courses before – and they were eager to learn more about the sport.

At the beginning, I assessed their orienteering knowledge. They all had compasses, they all knew how to orient their map to magnetic north, and they were generally familiar with the colored features on an orienteering map.

We did some exercises in which I had them orient their map, then asked them to turn left – or right – or 180 degrees, and then re-orient. After doing this for a few times, we talked about how it’s helpful to develop a habit of keeping the map oriented while turning your body around the map – I think they got it. We also talked about distance estimation – I gave them the concept verbally and planned to work with them on the concept during our first course.

So after some initial coaching, we walked over to the start, which was packed with what seemed like hundreds of scouts. We quickly figured out that there were 2 long lines – a line to get a start time and a line to get a punch card. We had the boys wait in the start line, while the adults went to get the punch card. While waiting for the punch card, I learned that the group was interested in trying out an orange course. Given the line and the fact that the group had some previous experience, we decided we would start off on the yellow course.

Once we got our punch card, it only took another 5 minutes or so before we were able to start. This was just enough time to have the group talk about and plan the route to the first control. The first control was on a boulder, about 50 meters down the left fork of a trail on the right hand side. I asked them to calculate how many meters it was to the fork (120) and then count the number of paces it took each of them to get there – we would wait at the fork. When I said go, they all took off diligently counting their paces. At the intersection, I asked each of them how many paces it took them to get there.

At the intersection, I saw an opportunity to talk about planning a route to the control off-trail. The land rose sharply between the fork, with a broad reentrant in the middle and two spurs on either side. We took the time to talk about reentrants and to match the terrain we were looking at with the features on the map. I pointed out that instead of taking the trail, we could go up the left spur. If we kept the reentrant on our right and the trail on our left, the spur would take us right to the boulder. After checking to make sure each member in the team understood the concept, we took off and converged at the control.

The second control gave us an opportunity to talk about route choice. I followed one group down the left fork of a path for 100 meters to a field. We then crossed the field, and looked for a “spring box” just past a small marsh on the northern end of the field. We executed the leg well, and found the control. The other group also found the control. They took the right leg, but had blown past the spring and had run another 150 meters down the trail until they stumbled on the control.

We talked about what went wrong, and two ways they could have avoided making this mistake. First, if they had estimated the distance to the control and kept track of their pace count, they would have known that they had gone too far. Second, after passing their “turn-off” to the spring, the trail made a sharp 90-degree bend. If they had been paying more attention to the features on the map, they would have known that they had passed their attack point.

The next control was easy, just off the trail. Since it was easy, I asked the fastest group of boys to memorize their route, put away their maps, and run the control by memory. The only decision was to take the right fork of an intersection about 150 meters down the trail. Then off we went. Every group took the wrong fork!!! I called them back, and we had a quick discussion about relocation and made a revised plan to the control.

As we moved approached the control, I stopped to help another pair of younger scouts who were bailing on the orange course and wanted to return back to the finish. I sent my group off and I helped these boys find their way home. We had just passed a place where the trail crossed a stream, so I used that to tell the lost boys where we were. I asked them to orient their maps. One boy consistently oriented the map upside down several times, and the other boy was too distracted by his walkie-talkie to focus on the map at all. From the stream crossing, we walked to a trail intersection and I put them on a trail that would (thankfully) take them right to the finish. Shaking my head, I went to find my group.

I expected to meet them at the next control, but no one was there. I thought “Oh no! They’re all lost!” After checking around for a few moments, I decided to go to the next control and found Lou and Ron. The group had gone ahead and the boys were confidently finishing the course on their own. We met at the finish. Everyone had a good time.

Scout-O Orange course

The group had lunch after finishing the course. I exchanged their white/yellow maps for the orange course. As the boys finished their lunch, I talked about the course with the adults - Lou and Ron. The orange course was superbly designed, and we talked about concepts like aiming off, use of handrails (in addition to obvious features like stone walls, I pointed out some other linear features that could be relevant like a long cliff and a distinct vegetation boundary), collecting features, catching features, attack points, flow, etc. After reviewing the course, I proposed we split into 3 teams but do the first 3 controls together. Once we split up, I would go with a pair of older boys who were ready to learn more advanced techniques. Lou would take another pair of boys who were also ready to run orange, but wanted to move at a slower pace. Ron would take the 3 youngest boys.

Before heading to the start, I told them that the fastest time for the 2.4km orange course was currently 24 minutes so the winning pace was 10 minutes per kilometer. We would clearly not move at that pace this afternoon, but once they developed their orienteering skills winning events like this would be in reach.

As we started the orange course as a group, I asked each group to tell me their plan to the first control. Each group had a solid plan! They each decided to run along a trail for about 200 meters to a fork (this is same fork that we encountered on the yellow course), take the left fork for another 200 meters, then find the control which was on a ruin about 50 meters to the right. “How are you going to attack the control?” One team was planning to follow a distinct vegetation boundary that could serve as a handrail to the control. Another group noticed there were some prominent boulders on the hillside to their right just before their turnoff to the control, so they would spot the boulders, then turn right to travel up a small reentrant and find the control. The third team wanted to follow the trail to the next trail intersection, turn right, and attack the control from the trail. I pointed out that the trail went right through medium green, and it might be difficult to figure out where to leave the trail to find the control. Given this feedback, they decided to turn right before the trail intersection and follow the vegetation to the control.

Having established the plan, they all blasted off down the trail, executed their plans, and spiked the control. After meeting up, we then planned the next control. Everyone wanted to take a straight path to the control which took us up a steep hillside where we would cross a trail, pass some buildings on top of the hill, then find the control at the intersection of 2 stone walls on the far side of the hilltop.

During the planning session, we talked about collecting features, and also how the stone walls could be used to guide them into the control. I asked everyone to take a bearing and point to where the control was located. At first, half the group was pointing in different directions, so I took some time to reinforce the concept of orienting the map to north. Once everyone had his map oriented, I again asked everyone to point to the control. Then we had the common experience of many folks facing different directions, but bending the arms or hands at funny angles to point to the control. So I talked about how it’s easy to take a bearing then take off in the wrong direction anyway and how it’s a good practice to position your body so that you’re facing the direction of travel in addition to orienting the map. I asked everyone to tell me how far away the next control was and how many paces it would take. Then I said go, and they all started to execute their plan.

After running up the steep hillside, the fastest group hesitated at the top when they saw the buildings. I saw them checking out their maps, so I blew by them, spotted the stone wall, and right to the control. My group - the Fat Cats – got there first, and as they caught their breath I reinforced the idea of identifying and using collecting features. In short order everyone else spiked the control, and we planned the next leg, which was in a prominent reentrant. This leg gave me a chance to remind them what a reentrant is. The Fat Cats were planning to take a straight line to the control. The other 2 groups wanted to take trails in a zig-zag pattern – a safe but slower route. Off we went. The trail groups saw what the Fat Cats were doing, and ended up executing some variation of their original plan. Everyone found the control without any trouble.

After finishing the first 3 controls together, we split up. I would shadow the Fat Cats and they were free to go as fast as they liked. They were excited by this development (“we have mad skills”), and were eager to take off. They went ahead and spiked the next two controls on their own. At the fifth control, I asked them to pause and we talked about using linear features as handrails and also about flow. I told them that once they knew where exactly where their next control was, they could choose to either sprint to it then spend a bunch of time planning the next leg or – preferably - travel efficiently to the control and plan/prepare for the next leg so they could punch and continue to the next control with little lost time. I think they got the concept.

There was a large, long cliff on the way to control 6 that they could use as a handrail. On the way, however, they deviated to the left and ended up on top of the cliff. No worries, I told them on the move; they could continue along the top then turn right once the cliff ended. The executed well and nailed the control.

Control 7 was on a boulder in a reentrant just 30 meters northeast of a building right by a trail. On the way to the control, they would pass a large yurt/tower that was on the map as a large black dot. They took off with me shadowing. They ran towards the control, drifting off the straight line significantly to the right. They saw the yurt tower, paused, and continued running down the hill clearly in the wrong direction. At the base of the hillside, they saw a control on a boulder, ran to it and checked the code – it was wrong of course. I stopped what was rapidly becoming a startled-chicken dance, and called them over to me. “What are you doing???” I asked them. “Where are you on the map??” They had a pretty good idea, which was reassuring, but they were too eager to run off without a plan. I took the time to point out that they passed a very prominent feature (the yurt tower) and how I saw them look at it and pass it. We talked about how they could use such a large structure as a collecting feature, and that they could have used it to correct their route, which was drifting off the line. From where we were standing, we could also see the building that could be used as an attack point to the control. They got the concept, and very quickly spiked the control.

Their route to 8 was nicely executed; I think they identified and noticed collecting features along the way. The route to the ninth and last control was easy. Run 15 meters from 8 to the trail, turn right, run 200 meters to a stream crossing, then find the control on the boulder just off the trail on the side of a small hill/knoll. So off they went. They ran to the trail. Checked in with each other and took off down the trail 180 degrees in the wrong direction!! I let them run in the wrong direction for 200 meters where there was a trail intersection. They were talking about the features, and clearing working hard to make the terrain match where they thought they were. I stopped them and asked them where we were on the map. They each had no clue that they had done a 180 and each thought they were at the trail intersection very close to the control.

I told them where we were, how they had done a 180, and it’s a common mistake. “How did that happen?” I asked them. “We didn’t orient the map” was the answer. We talked about keeping the map oriented, planning the next leg, and checking their bearings. Off they went, running in the correct direction. After sprinting for about 200 meters, I saw them slow down, looking around, looking at their map, starting to run, slowing down…. I stopped them. “Where are you on the map?” They didn’t know. “How far to the next control?” They didn’t know. I asked them to turn around and notice a stone wall intersecting the trail we were on. “Where are we on the map?” They got it. “How far to the next control?” They got it. “How many paces will it take you?” They came up with an estimate. “What will you see?” A stream crossing. Awesome. So off they went. After 200 meters, they paused. We looked at the expected stream crossing, and just past the crossing – which was their attack point – they could see the control. Beautiful. They ran to the control.

Before letting them sprint to the finish, I reinforced another lesson. By figuring out where they were on the map and how long it would take to get to their attack point, they were able to slow down as they approached their attack point, look around the terrain and see what they expected to see (e.g., the stream crossing, the knoll/hill, the control!!) and then spike the control. They then ran off to the finish.

After finishing, we spent some time reviewing the course and talking about some of the mistakes they made. I told them that when they were executing well, they were moving at a winning time pace. But that their mistakes were costly, and they could work on flow since they still spent significant time planning after punching. They were remarkably attentive, open to feedback, and feeling good about the sport. They were looking forward to competing on Sunday, which is run more like an A-meet (though they go out in teams). Gotta love these Boy Scouts.

Less than 10 minutes later, Lou and his group of boys showed up. They mostly walked the course. Lou told me that they had done an awesome job planning their routes, putting the concepts we talked about into practice, and spiking the controls. In addition, they developed a system where one boy would find the control according to plan while the other boy would plan the next leg so once they punched they would be ready to head off on the next leg right away. I was impressed. I told them I know people who could walk a course and beat many people who run. They could do this by maintaining a steady pace, maintaining flow through each control, and not making mistakes. When I told them about the mistakes their Fat Cat friends made, they exclaimed “If you didn’t help them, we would have beat them!!” That’s the spirit!!!

Some time later, the younger group returned. They successfully completed the course and had a good time doing it. What an awesome accomplishment for the whole group. In parting ways, they gave me their troupe’s patch – 299 from Walpole, NH. And I left feeling great about the opportunity I had to teach these kids something about orienteering and their enthusiastic receptivity. And, as an added bonus, I think I learned some things myself by the very act of sharing my experience.


Read Basic Orienteering Instruction for tips on instructing first-timers.