Wondering if it’s worth the time and money to invest in a Map & Compass class with REI? Here’s what you can expect:
The Map & Compass class starts out in traditional classroom format, but, of course, outside. We began by looking at a topographic map of the State Park where our class was held. We then compared that with an orienteering map of the same terrain, noting the differences in the way each map conveys information. On the topo map, we talked about information such as contour lines, scale, declination adjustment, and the meaning of various colors.
We moved on to a worksheet exercise where we were given various examples of contour lines and nature scenes. We worked independently to match the contour line images to what it would look like on the trail, then discussed the answers as a group. This exercise is helpful in priming your mind for the hands-on exercise to come.
After a quick lunch break following our classroom time, we measured our individual pace over the course of 100 meters to give us a sense of how to align our step count with distance on the trail in the absence of official mile markers.
REI provides the maps and lends out compasses for the class, which is great if you aren’t sure if you need or want one. REI teaches you how to properly hold the compass and interpret its reading before setting foot on the trail. Compass in hand, we hiked as a group into the woods, using our topographic and orienteering maps. Our instructor would verbally describe his intended destination (not always a spot on a trail), while we each took turns leading the group to that new location.
In addition to basic map and compass reading techniques, our instructor covered how to triangulate your position and plot a route, a scenario typically used when terrain looks similar, like a desert, and you have trouble using landmarks as guideposts. While I followed along on the mechanics of it, I can’t say I fully digested this piece or that I’d be able to replicate it on my own. I accepted that this more advanced technique wasn’t sinking in during the heat and humidity of our 6 hour day outside and instead focused on the new information I did retain, which felt like quite a bit.
For the grand finale, it was time to showcase our new map/compass skills in a real hiking scenario – without the instructor. He split us into teams of two and tasked us with finding our way back to the parking lot. I’m happy to report that we all made it back okay.
At the risk of revealing my neophyte map reading skills, before this class, I had no idea the shape of the contour lines told me anything about uphill vs. downhill. I thought the main information to be gleaned was only in the proximity of the lines to each other. Likewise, I had no idea the lines could tell me a simple hill was ahead or that the color would indicate an open clearing or a covered canopy. I had much to learn.
If you tend to find yourself in the woods and have been thinking about honing these skills, this is the class for you. If you already can hold a compass properly and know how to interpret a circle on a topo, REI offers more advanced map and compass classes as well. The instructor is extremely knowledgeable and can customize the learning to your own starting point and ability.
To find a class, search for REI’s full range of classes near your zip code.
Disclosure: I received free entry into this class on REI’s free class weekend. REI did not ask me to review this class; I was inspired to write this review on my own.