Map Skills for Hitting the Trail

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In a time of GPS, Siri and smart phones, skills like knowing where you’re at and reading a map seem to be falling by the wayside. I mean, if Garmina can tell you to “turn right ahead,” who needs to look at a map – right? Maybe that works in the city – I don’t know, I don’t go there much. Here in the country, Siri and Garmina can get you into trouble. In the last several years, I’ve hear numerous stories about how the GPS told someone to turn on “this road right here.” Technically, yes, that road right there will get you to where you want to go, but not in December when there is four feet of snow. When the road turned from pavement to gravel about ten miles back, wasn’t there just the slightest hint of something in your belly telling you that this wasn’t right?

I remember when I was eight or nine, my dad would take me motorcycle riding on forest roads. At intersections we would stop to rest, and he would ask me how to get back to the pickup. He explained that if something happened to him, he wanted me to be able to find my way home. Not only did I need to have a sense of direction, but I also needed to pay attention when we went up one road, back-tracked and went up another.

Map skills are something that I have purposed to teach my Little Man from an early age. I think we started at three and it’s really paying off. This weekend we were driving in Central Oregon where the terrain is deceptively flat and most people have a hard time keeping track of their location. We had turned off the main paved road onto dirt, traveled south, hit the highway going east, and essentially looped back around to the original paved road. As soon as we turned north onto the road, Little Man asked, “How far up this road is the turn off to our camp?” I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.   

We were camped in a big red cinder pit, which is the third largest butte in the area. Three men rode up the trail near our camp, played in the pit for a while and then headed back down the trail. You can see for miles from the cinder pit, there are two major landmarks to get your bearings off of: Pine Mountain 20 miles to the south and West Butte 10 miles to the east. These landmarks are so huge they make up the entire horizon in each direction. And yet, we could see these men stop and confer amongst themselves, and then one of them bravely came over to ask for directions back to their camp.  

Getting lost in the woods or the desert or wherever can be life threatening. People have died because they followed directions from the GPS without questioning. Electronics can be unreliable. Batteries can go dead. Trees, lava flows and other geographic landforms can interfere with their effectiveness. Maps don’t rely on satellites or batteries, they just rely on your ability to read them. Here are some tips for teaching youngsters or yourself how to know where you are and where you are going. 

  • Make a copy of a map to where you’re going and trace the route for your children to follow. Ask them to help you find the next exit or road.  
  • Identify cardinal directions. For us, we started with west is toward the coast. East is toward Eastern Oregon. North is toward Portland. South is toward Medford. We traveled to these places enough that Little Man knows which way we go to get there.  
  • When pushing your kids in the stroller, riding bikes or coming home from the grocery store, take different routes. At intersections, let your children choose which way to go to get home. Let them fail and let them try to figure it out.  
  • Pick out major landmarks that can be seen from a distance: a mountain range, rock formation, a large industrial complex. As you travel, pay attention to your orientation to this landmark.  
  • Don’t automatically put a DVD in when you go for your road trip. Ask kids to point out major landmarks. Do a scavenger hunt. For example: we will cross a large river, pass two major cities and drive up a mountain to get to our campsite.  
  • Tell your kids they have to ask questions to figure out where you’re going. But you can only answer yes or no. This works best for places you’ve been before. For example: Is it farther than Grandma’s house? Is it closer than the library? Do we cross a river to get there?  
  • Give your kids the map and let them plan the adventure. Let them pick what roads to go on and the final destination. 

Happy Trails to you as you practice your map skills on your summer adventures.