In age of GPS, park ranger teaches map and compass skills

THURMONT, Md. (AP) — Using a compass and a map, Park Ranger Andrew Regiec led a class at Catoctin National Park on orienteering, a lesser-known sport. Orienteering requires players to utilize navigational skills to find different spots located on a map — denoted with letters and numbers — with just a compass.

It’s not necessarily an easy sport, and the skills it requires are not easy to learn.

“I think that reading a compass would take practice if you’re not familiar with it. And with practice, your skills will get better,” Regiec said.

They’re not exactly commonplace skills now, in the age of GPSs built into smartphones. The attendees all wanted to learn the skills for a variety of reasons.

When asked if she uses a map on an everyday basis, attendee Jen Siegmann said, “Google Maps, definitely.”

She didn’t intend to take the class — she was trying to meet up with a hiking group but arrived too late. Once she saw the class was being held, she was intrigued. She hopes she can transfer those skills to hiking.

Joe Hirabayashi also wants to use the skills for hiking and rock climbing. He made a committed decision to learn orienteering after he and his friend got lost in “Sharkstooth” at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado this summer.

“I can’t even use a GPS that well,” he said.

For Regiec, reading maps is somewhat second nature. His parents used to give him road maps to read on long trips and ask him to direct them. He also had plenty of chances to use the skill while in the Boy Scouts.

Regiec’s grandfather used to use a topographical map and a compass to get to his hunting sites in gamelands in Pennsylvania. When he passed, he gave Regiec that compass.

“I guess I kind of got an interest in it from that,” he said. “I never used it in that way (hunting), but just for orienteering and for fun.”

While he admits he mainly uses the compass in more outdoor environments, he thinks map-reading is a helpful skill to have. He recalled his GPS in college one time directing him onto train tracks instead of a road. And he doesn’t get any cell phone service in the park, where he works, so he can’t rely on that.

“So I think it’s good to just have a backup, just in case your GPS could fail,” he said.

For some activities, map and compass reading are crucial skills. Terry Brann, from Frederick, said that when hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2010, it was well-marked enough that he didn’t really need a map. But that’s not the case for other trails he wants to hike in the future, such as the Pacific Crest Trail.

“If I want to do some of the long tails . . . they’re not as well marked, you have to use a compass for those,” Brann said.

It’s a tricky skill. The topographical maps that the students used during the class portrayed a section of the park in contour lines. Each contour line indicates a different elevation, increasing about 20 feet with each line. If the lines are close together, that means the land is steep. If they’re further apart, that means there’s a more gradual decline or incline.

The topographical maps threw Brittany Stallworth and Xavier White, who came from Fort Meade, for a bit of a loop. They said they’re used to reading a compass, but with a different kind of a map, the Military Grid Reference System.

Orienteering was originally invented by the military, Regiec said.

After the class and getting their bearings on their compasses, the attendees set out to find the different control points on the map. Some headed out in different directions, figuring out the best way around a creek that was marked on the map.

The class will run again (this) weekend at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday out of the Visitors Center. It will then take a hiatus for the cold months and return in the spring.


Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post,

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