Tips for navigating the Orienteering merit badge

Orienteering is a high-energy sport in which the map is more important than the compass and your brain is more valuable than your brawn. It’s also the subject of one of Scouting’s more popular merit badges (ranked 36th of 136 merit badges in 2015).

To learn more about the badge, Scouting caught up with John Vierow, a merit badge counselor from Herndon, Va. An orienteering enthusiast since his college days, Vierow offered five tips for teaching the badge.

Connect With Clubs

The best way to complete requirement 7 (take part in three orienteering events) is to connect with a local orienteering group. Vierow’s club, the Quantico Orienteering Club, typically hosts a couple dozen meets per year, and all are open to beginners.

“Every meet has a beginners’ course; there’s always instruction available,” he says. You may even be able to borrow compasses at club meets. (To find a club near you, visit the Orienteering USA website at

Mix and Match

Scouts don’t need to complete requirements in order, so Vierow recommends mixing book learning with fieldwork. The best time to learn to read a map (requirement 4) is when you’re standing on the terrain the map represents; the best time to understand orienteering clue sheets and techniques (requirement 5) is when you’re participating in a meet.

Vierow also likes to take advantage of travel time on the way to and from meets. “There are a few requirements and even beginner’s instruction that can be done in the car: familiarity with map symbols, things like that,” he says.

Save a Buck

Vierow says a Scout doesn’t need an expensive compass to complete the badge, although he does need a baseplate model like the Silva Polaris.

“Some people show up with different kinds of weird compasses,” he says. “If I see anything else, I just give them a baseplate compass.”

You can also save money on supplies for the orienteering courses Scouts must set up for requirement 8.

A set of 10 control markers, along with the punches that prove someone found them in the field, could set you back $250. But you can accomplish the same thing with a roll of flagging tape and a felt-tip marker. The Scout setting up the course simply writes code words on pieces of tape and hangs them at control points.

Buyer Beware

Many city and state parks offer permanent orienteering courses, but Vierow says not all courses are created equally.

“You go there and it’s really a compass course or they have a really bad photocopied map,” he says. “I think as a counselor it’s important to vet whatever event you want to take Scouts to.”

Read the Book

This tip might be obvious, but Vierow thinks counselors and Scouts alike should study the merit badge pamphlet. “The merit badge pamphlet is good,” he says. “It’s consistent with what I, as someone who’s been doing orienteering for 30 years, would expect.”


  1. Well done article. Note that some Orienteering clubs offer events especially for scout troops. The Scouts often do two of the three required courses during the event. Some clubs also have a set of controls and punches that they loan to scout troops that want to use them for setting courses for a troop activity.

    • One of my pet peeves is to see this merit badge taught without a map, just using bearings and paces. That’s not orienteering. And, as one of the people involved in designing this Merit Badge (I did the cartography work on most of the maps), any counselor who teaches it without a map should not be counseling orienteering.

  2. The most difficult part of counseling the Orienteering MB is obtaining orienteering maps. An orienteering map is NOT the same as a USGS topo map. The scale and symbols are different, and orienteering maps have already been adjusted to magnetic north. Connect with a local orienteering club; many have maps available for purchase.

    • Our local club has plenty of extra’s from old contests. Often they will have a display table at University of Scouting events and offer a few to any scout who asks.
      Of course, the best way to get one is to show up on the day of the course, put some $ down, and participate! And, frankly, any counselor who has not participated in a club course is unqualified and likely missed out on lots of fun and fellowship!

  3. Dear Fellow Scouters:

    Orienteering USA has a scout committee to promote scout orienteering. If you would like to join the committee and help promote orienteering throughout the scouting movement I suggest you contact our chairman Brian Coleman at

    We are hard at work on developing an orienteering map for the 2017 national jamboree. If you would like to help with this effort please contact Brian.

    David Fisher

  4. Re: “Save a Buck”
    I understand that the sport of orienteering doesn’t really require an expensive compass, but I think we are doing our scouts a disservice when we provide them with a compass that doesn’t have declination adjustment.

    Every scout should own a compass as one of the 10 essentials. Once you use a compass with declination adjustment, you will never want to use a basic Silva Polaris compass ever again.

    You can get a Brunton TruArc 3 baseplate compass for $15. Please spend the extra $10 over the cheapo compasses that don’t have declination adjustment. (Please note that “declination adjustment” is different than “declination scale”) It’s much safer to use because you are far less likely to make an error. (Do I add 16 degrees, or subtract to compensate for magnetic declination?)

    I suppose if you live and recreate only in a region where there is no magnetic declination, you might not this this is a necessary feature.

    Now, if only the BSA would make a branded compass that has declination adjustment that they sell at the scout shop…

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