Basic Navigation Skills for Kids

If you’re looking for a new skill to add to your outdoor toolbox or working on being safer and more self-sufficient in the backcountry, using a map and a compass is a great place to start! You can spend hours learning about orienteering (and it’s actually pretty fascinating) but this post is a good place to start if you’re a beginner and looking for ways to increase your own skills and get your kids started.

I’ll cover basic map familiarity skills and practice using a map, the basic functions of a compass, and some resources to learn even more. In addition, because the digital maps are increasingly common, I’ll add in a little about using your phone as a GPS.

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Why Navigation is Useful

We all know someone who can’t navigate. Maybe it’s you! Spatial awareness and the ability to recognize where you’ve been are important skills when you are outdoors. Encouraging your children to pay attention can also develop their observation skills and that’s never a bad thing! Learning basic navigation skills for kids could truly be a lifesaver.

Four boys pose on a paved trails on bikes and in a stroller.
On walks or rides, you can ask your kids to look for landmarks they recognize or to identify features of where we have been so they can find their way back.

Whether you are trying to find a friend’s house or finding your way on a new trail, being able to navigate is an important life skill. If you or your children find yourselves in the backcountry, it could even save your life!

Familiarity with Maps

The first place to start with navigation skills is with a map. A map is a tool we use to identify where we are and also, where we are going. They come in many different types and formats but they basically share the same basic components.

Part of what makes maps so awesome is how much information they communicate in one image. They can tell you distance, elevation, terrain features, trail guidemarks, typical climate, and a whole host of other things. This information is communicated using different coloring, line types, and symbols.

This is what makes the key or legend (small box inset on the map explaining the different symbols) so important. On one map a red trail line may mean it’s the safest, most common route. On another it may mean the trail is closed for the season. That’s important information to have! Make sure you always familiarize yourself with the symbols as not all maps are the same.

While lots of maps use different symbols, there are some basic components of a map that are usually the same. Maps will have a title or description that tells you what you’re looking at. They will have a scale to help you judge distances (looks like a little ruler usually running along the edge of the map). The map will also have a compass rose to identify cardinal directions (north, east, south, west). If there is not a compass rose, it is usually safe to assume that the “top” of your map is north.

Basic Types of Maps

Maps always have a purpose, and reading a map is easier if you can figure out what the purpose of the map is. Sometimes the map is designed to highlight particular points of information, while other times it is designed to give you a lot of data for reference. For example, in the map below, I am trying to show where we hiked on our backpacking trip in Maine last summer.

Map of Maine showing the Appalachian Trail, selected 4000-footers, some towns, and dates.
This map is designed to show the route of a backpacking trip, but would be useless for navigation. The purpose of maps really matters when you think about which maps to take and how to use them.

In contrast, the map below, a picture of a map we used on our Maine trip last summer, is designed to help you actually navigate when you are out on the trail. It is specially published for the Appalachian Trail, and so it has only a small area to the sides of the trail and shows the topographic profile of the trail in the lower map. The back has a schematic map that shows key points of information.

Compilation showing schematic, topographic, and profile maps of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
This map set is excellent for navigating the Appalachian Trail in Maine but is not designed to help with other side trails in the area.

Maps can also be more general use for backcountry travel in a particular area. The United States Geologic Survey (USGS) makes topographic maps for the entire country (usually at a 1:24,000 scale, 7.5′ dimensions of latitude and longitude, approximately 49 square miles). Local recreation groups also map makes for their areas of interest.

Topographic map of the Franconia Notch area, New Hampshire
This is a general purpose topographic map for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The Appalachian Mountain Club publishes these maps with their White Mountain Guide book.

Maps don’t need to be for hiking only.

Part of the Connecticut River Canoe Trail map.
This is part of the gorgeous Connecticut River Trail (a water trail down the river) map.
Part of a Michigan State bike map.
This is part of a Michigan State Bike Map showing campsites, bike trails, some hiking trails, and traffic volume estimates for roads. Michigan will send these maps for free.

If you are trying to teach kids to read maps, talking about maps, having maps around, and using maps is really helpful. As I’m writing this post, my daughter is sitting and reading the Lonely Planet Kids Amazing World Atlas, which has maps and lots of facts about cultures and countries around the world. Puzzle maps are also really fun. We enjoyed this world map puzzle and this US map puzzle when the kids were younger. Just yesterday, my son was trying to plan a bike tour for this summer using the Michigan bike maps. This kind of practice at home helps them to be more comfortable with maps when we are out on adventures.

Practice Using a Map

Teaching your kids to use a map can actually be a lot of fun! Show them the different parts and have them identify different symbols or locations. If you start with a map of your own neighborhood you can help them identify landmarks they are familiar with. Start without a compass and with a smaller map so that things are easier to manage.

Two boys study a large trail head map.
Whenever you see a trail head map, look at where you’re planning to go and show your kids. Getting the kids involved gives them ownership and helps them develop their navigation skills.

One fun way to use a map is geocaching. It’s basically a worldwide treasure hunt and it is such a fun way to get outside. I also recommend carrying atlases like the Utah Road and Recreation Atlas and the National Geographic Road Atlas 2024: Adventure Edition in the car and referencing them while you’re driving. When you get in this habit, it teaches kids to take ownership of where they are and where they are going.

Check out our posts on How to go Geocaching with Kids and Letterboxing for Kids for fun ways to get outside and use navigation skills.

As my kids get older, I also let them do the navigating while I’m driving or when we are on short walks, hikes, or rides. Because we start doing this when they are pretty young, I also worry less about letting them roam a bit as they get older because I know they can find their way back! 

Topographic map on a rock surface with two hands, one holding a compass.
Even if it feels pretty simple to identify where you are on a map when you’re obviously at the summit of the peak you were climbing, it feels great for kids to take ownership and show you what mountains they see based on finding their location on the map.

Now, even if you trust your kids, you can send them out with a Rocky Talkie if they’re going farther away. They are an excellent tool to help kids feel independent but still have a way to communicate in an emergency!

When you’re picking out a campsite or a new hike, let them take a look at the map and help you decide. Anything you can do to help them connect what they’re seeing on the map to what they are seeing around them is a win!

Teach Contour Lines

I know this is part of teaching map use, but I think it merits a separate section. Teaching contour lines on topographic maps can be really hard. This is where my background as a geosciences professor will hopefully help out. In addition to teaching your child what the lines mean, you can practice making topographic maps to get a more intuitive understanding.

My two favorite ways to teach contour lines are with clay (playdough, modeling clay, whatever) or with an augmented reality sandbox. Obviously the clay is easier. I’ll explain both though.

Make a Topo Map with Clay

This clay-map activity comes from the US Geologic Survey, the people who make maps for the country. There is a clear video of the play dough topography activity from the Colorado Mountain Club. The idea is that you have your child make a landform (mountain, mountain range, valley, whatever shape they want) with clay (playdough, polymer modeling clay, whatever). Then use dental floss or a clay-cutting wire to cut the landform into equally thick pieces. Finally, trace the pieces from bottom to top on a sheet of paper. You will end up with a topographic map of your landform.

Augmented Reality Sandbox

This is, unfortunately, not something you can easily do at home. However, many science and children’s museums have them. The USGS also has them at a half dozen or so locations around the country. This is a sandbox that has a special sensor plugged into a computer and a projector. The sensor determines the topography of the sandbox, which then is projected back onto the sandbox as a topographic map. It helps with intuitive understanding of topographic maps more than nearly any other activity I can think of. If you are in the area, UCLA has one open to the public that they demonstrate in a video.

Cardinal Directions

In order to navigate well you need to be able to orient yourself. For some people this is really easy and for others it doesn’t come naturally. The more you practice, the better you will become. 

It’s also much easier to orient yourself when you have landmarks to help you out! When my husband and I moved from Seattle, WA to Oberlin, Ohio, it was a little disorienting to lose the mountains and Puget Sound for easy navigation. We had to start orienting ourselves off Lake Erie to the north.

Understanding and identifying cardinal directions is a critical skill in navigating. Start in your own neighborhood and in places that are familiar to your family. Go outside with a compass and figure out how your house is positioned.

Use landmarks that you can see or that your kids are familiar with. What direction is your school from our house? What about the neighborhood park?

After you have helped them get their bearings around your house and neighborhood, show them the same area on a map. I find it easiest to do it in that order because sometimes the maps will seem very abstract to them. Letting them experience it first seems to help them get it all squared away more easily. If your kids get really into this, they may enjoy making maps themselves. My kids like to make maps of the snow forts they dig in the winter, and that has helped them with their spatial awareness.

It’s also easy to point things out while you’re driving around. When we get on the freeway I will ask them to tell me which way we are headed. I will also randomly ask them to tell me which direction we are heading at various times in our drive.

That’s a great time to talk about how they can figure it out if they don’t know. Talking about how to look at the sun  and determine which direction it’s going and what that tells them. For example, if I know that the sun always sets in the west and I also know that it’s getting close to dinner time I can look at where the sun is closest to the horizon and know that direction is west.

There are lots of helpful ways to orient yourself if you don’t have a compass. Check out this Howcast: How to Tell Directions without a Compass for a quick list of a few.

Don’t forget to practice, practice, practice! Orienteering and navigating are learned skills. Luckily, they can be practiced pretty much anywhere like during a sibling’s soccer game, on a hike, while driving to school, etc.

Boy standing on a summit with map and compass.
Colby is practicing orienting his map using the compass. This is part of rank requirements for Scouts BSA, so he spent a lot of time practicing over the summer.

Using a Compass

So now you feel comfortable with a map, you’ve practiced orienting yourself based on landmarks around you, and you’ve started identifying those landmarks on a map. Now it’s time for the compass!

Two sets of hands working with a neon green compass.
Teaching your kids to use a compass while we’re out and about is an easy way to get them involved.

With all the technology and gadgets we have, it may feel like using a compass is an outdated skill. However, batteries can die and cloud cover or tree canopies can mess with GPS. The Earth’s magnetic field is the only thing that is reliable day or night, rain or shine.

In getting familiar with a compass and how to use it, I highly recommend checking out this free Intro to Navigation course from REI. One section is specifically on using a compass and is such a great resource! They also have a guide for choosing a compass if you’re in the market.

Don’t let the terminology intimidate you or overwhelm you. Focus on the most basic parts and functions one at a time and you’ll get it. Learning what “red in the shed” means is a good place to start! Hint: it’s lining up the magnetized arrow with the orienting arrow on your compass.

A compass can do a whole lot more than point north when you use it in conjunction with a map. You can navigate to a specific location on a map and even find your own location on a map if you’ve lost your way.

Using your Phone as a GPS

It used to be that GPS use was limited to those with fancy equipment (which could be kind of pricey) and that you had to buy expensive maps or have pretty good tech skills to use Open Topo Map or Open Street Map maps. Nowadays you can do most of this from your phone. Some apps cost money, but others are free.

Be sure that if you go with a digital map option you also have a map and compass and know how to use them. Phone batteries can die but your compass will still connect to Earth’s magnetic field.

Some options are:

  • Far Out: this is a crowdsourced reference with great data for long-distance trails. Some need to be purchased, but I found the money well spent for our trip in Maine last summer. The app can calculate along trail distances and show profiles, which other apps I’ve used cannot. (You will see people refer to this as GutHook, but Far Out is the new name.)
  • Guru Maps: I originally got this map for field work (I’m a geosciences professor) but use it for hiking. It can load satellite images and topographic maps, and can be used offline. You can only measure straight line distances, so that can be confusing for hiking trails. You can record points of interest.
  • Avenza Maps: I love that this program lets you download speciality maps into it. For example, when we ski on Granite Backcountry Alliance Glades, they have maps that you can put into Avenza to keep track of where you are. Then you have all the details you need for that particular adventure.
  • Alpine Quest: I originally got this app because you can download topographic and satellite maps to use offline. It’s pretty similar to Guru Maps, but at the time Guru Maps didn’t have the capability of loading topographic or satellite maps.
  • Gaia GPS: I haven’t used this app but hear that it’s really good for hiking maps, in particular.

Check out our post on useful apps for hiking and camping.

Boy on a rocky summit using a phone as a GPS.
Colby is practicing with a GPS here for another Scouts BSA rank requirement. He is using Guru Maps.

Navigation is Fun and Maps are Wonderful!

I hope that I’ve given you a sense of how much I love maps. Even if you are starting from not much experience, you can learn to navigate and to teach your kids. As you gain more confidence you will be able to share with your kids and find ways to practice with them. Navigating is an important skill that can be a lot of fun to learn with your kids!

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Basic Navigation Skills for Kids

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  • Amanda, her husband, Josh, and their children, Colby and Lua, live in Oberlin, OH where Amanda is a Geosciences professor at Oberlin College. Amanda's parents live in New Hampshire and so they spend a lot of time there as well. They take advantage of homeschooling to maximize outdoors time for everyone. Amanda grew up in Hong Kong and spent summers in New Hampshire, where she found her love for nature. Pursuing a PhD in geosciences to study why Earth looks the way it does and how people change those processes was a natural outgrowth of her love for being outside. Their outdoor sports sort of follow seasons: the winter they love to ski, in the fall they race cyclocross, in the spring they ride bikes on day trips, and in the summer they rock climb, bike tour, take overnight canoe trips, and backpack.

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