3 Places to Try Orienteering with Kids

December 1, 2016
Circling up for orienteering instructions at Sewall Woods, Wolfeboro, NH.
Ethan HippleCircling up for orienteering instructions at Sewall Woods, Wolfeboro, N.H.

I admit it—Pokemon Go is a pretty awesome game. Basically a digital treasure hunt, it combines so many great elements into one smooth game: finding new places that you would never have found otherwise, walking around outside, stacking up points by finding treasure. As a parks director, I like to see people outside, and if they happen to be playing a game on their phone, so be it. The major downside may be that it has created hordes of people of all ages, walking around the woods with their heads down, fully absorbed with their phones. You can tell a Pokemon GO player from hundreds of feet away because they are so completely unaware of their surroundings.

But long before Pokemon Go and other location based electronic games, there was the sport of orienteering.  It definitely holds old school appeal, and will teach some valuable map and compass lessons as well. Participants gather in the woods with a paper map in hand, lining up to race against the clock to find a list of secret locations marked on their maps. The sport ranges in intensity from family outings where parents and kids walk at a casual pace through the woods looking for clues and checking them off a list, to full on tournaments where well-trained endurance athletes crash through the branches and tear through the landscape seeking the next destination or “control point.” Most courses involve hiking off trail to spots that you would never have seen while sticking to the beaten path.

When you find a control point, there is usually a stamp or hole punch hanging on a tree or rock that you use to mark your map and prove you made it to that exact spot. Then it’s off to the next control point. But choose your route carefully so that you follow the most efficient and timely line! Course distances range from less than a mile to over 10 miles—but all of the courses mentioned here are of the shorter variety.

With a little practice, these maps become very easy to read and finding the landmarks is very fun for kids as they match the map to the landscape.
With a little practice, these maps become very easy to read and finding the landmarks is very fun for kids as they match the map to the landscape.

Orienteering can be done year round, but we have found it is easiest in late fall or early spring when there are no leaves on the trees. Sight lines are good and you can easily find the landmarks shown on the map. What we love most about orienteering is that it gets you off the trail and into the woods, using meticulous maps to navigate from landmark to landmark.

The best courses for beginners have detailed maps that show most landmarks, down to individual boulders, trails, waterways, and stone walls. The courses listed below have maps available online for anyone interested in giving orienteering a try. If you have a good time, you can easily find events for all abilities by visiting the website for Orienteering USA.

One of our favorite orienteering traditions is our annual Thanksgiving Dash. After the turkey is in the oven, we head out with the whole gang, including the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and head to the local orienteering course, about 20 minutes from our house.  There we break into two-person teams and race through the course, trying to find the control points faster than the other teams. By the time we return home, we are starved from a day running around the woods, more than ready for a massive feast.

Bald Hill, Andover, Mass.
This great course was built by a local Eagle Scout and is now hosted by the Andover Conservation Commission. It offers a great introduction to orienteering with three different maps for different skill levels. More information here.

Sewall Woods, Wolfeboro, N.H.
This serene stand of woods—just a 5 minute walk from downtown Wolfeboro, N.H.—offers a classic introductory orienteering experience. The land is owned by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust and in the wintertime becomes a top tier cross-country skiing destination. Download the excellent orienteering instructions here and a map here.

Tucker Brook, Milford, N.H.
This course follows a lovely brook through Milford Town Forest. Complete with impressive bridges and small waterfalls, this is a beautiful place to spend a morning or afternoon. Map here.

More information
For more information, visit the websites of New England Orienteering (Mass. and Conn.) and Up North Orienteering (N.H.). For nationwide information and links to local clubs, check out Orienteering USA.

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Ethan Hipple

Along with Kim Foley MacKinnon, Ethan Hipple writes AMC's Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog. He fell in love with the outdoors as a teenager, when he worked on a Student Conservation Association (SCA) trail crew. He has directed the New Hampshire Conservation Corps and is currently the Parks Director for Portland, Me., where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two kids. His latest book for AMC is Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, cowritten with Yemaya St. Clair.