3 DIY Orienteering Exercises to Navigating Your Way in the Wilderness

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

John Muir


Just as you wouldn’t try to set up your tent for the first time in the woods (right?), don’t wait to practice different methods of navigation until you’re in the wild. Here are a few orienteering exercises to help you hone your skills and build confidence before you set out.


Exercise 1: three-leg compass walk

For this exercise, you’ll need a compass and a stick or pencil to use as a location marker. Make sure you have enough space to roam around. Place the location marker on the ground, set your bearing due north, or zero degrees, and note a prominent landmark that falls in line with this bearing. Walk fifty paces in the direction of the landmark, and then, from this second location, set your compass bearing for 120 degrees. Find a second landmark that lines up with your new 120 degrees bearing, and walk fifty paces toward it. Next, set your third bearing for 240 degrees, line it up with a landmark, and walk another fifty paces toward this final landmark.


If you set your compass bearings accurately, you should return to the approximate location of your original marker.


Exercise 2: closed course

This exercise is best completed with a partner who wants to practice navigation skills. First, draft a list of bearings and paces for each participant. Participants can also take turns writing their own sets of instructions. Your list should look something like this:

  • Walk twenty paces east
  • Walk thirty paces south
  • Walk fifteen paces east
  • Walk forty paces north

And so on. You can make the list as long as you like, but the main objective is to have each participant end up at the same place when they are finished. Each participant should carry a compass and a stick or pencil to mark their starting locations. Add a little fun to the game by setting a timer to see who can complete a certain list the fastest. It’s a good idea to test your own list first, so that you’re sure the participants will return to their starting places when they get to the end of your instructions.


Exercise 3: geocaching

Geocaching involves using GPS latitude and longitude coordinates to locate a hidden cache. With GPS capability built into most smartphones, it’s an easily accessible way to practice your GPS coordinate  skills. A geocache is usually stored in a waterproof box and contains a variety of interesting finds. Fun for all ages, it’s like a modern-day treasure hunt!


Given the growing popularity of this activity, geocaches can now be found all over the world—in cities and in nature. Applications like Geocaching can be used to approximate the location of the geocache with GPS coordinates, but then it is up to you to figure out the hiding place from there. Sometimes it’s necessary to look at a map to determine the best—and safest—possible route, because natural obstacles, such as rivers, lakes, or cliffs, can stand in the way.


Some geocaches are located in hollowed-out logs, while others are buried under rocks. In cities, geocaches can be found at the base of street lamps, under park benches, and in nooks and crannies in the exteriors of buildings. Some are hidden in plain sight, such as a plastic rock with a geocache inside of it. Geocaching challenges you to elevate your observations (an important tool in navigation!), because the people who hide geocaches come up with clever ways to conceal their locations. Don’t forget to look up!


Inside the geocache, you’ll find a variety of items. Most geocaches include a log book, where you can write your name and the date you located the cache. Some geocaches also include trinkets like plastic toys, currency from around the world, inexpensive jewelry, and useful items like stress relief balls or insect repellent wipes.


One of the tricky parts of geocaching is that sometimes the people hiding the geocaches lack an accurate GPS device or precise navigation skills. This can mean that you could find the physical location of the geocache’s coordinates, but still be ten to twenty feet from the actual geocache site, due to human or technological error.

Miles Tanner is an avid outdoorsman who has written for numerous publications about survival and outdoor skills. He lives outside of Billings. Montana

Check out Navigating With or Without a Compass here.