The Orienteering Merit Badge: Your Ultimate Guide In 2024

Navigating through unfamiliar terrain with just a trusty compass and map is a crucial skill for every Scout to have. By diving into the Orienteering Merit Badge, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to traverse any landscape and orienteer with confidence, whether in dense forests, open fields, or rugged mountains!

The Orienteering badge is a blend of practical skills and theoretical knowledge. You’ll learn to interpret topographical maps, use a compass effectively, and recognize various terrain features both on paper and in the field. From understanding declination to measuring map distances with precision, this badge will make you a master navigator!

If youd like my help with any Eagle-required badges, you should definitely check out my Difficulty Ranking Guide to Every Eagle-required Badge. There, you’ll also find the links to my other merit badge guides, as well as a description and summary of each badge’s requirements. I know this resource will be helpful to Scouts on their road to Eagle!

Also, remember that ScoutSmarts should just serve as your starting point for merit badge research. In school, we’re taught not to plagiarize, and the same is true for Scouting worksheets. Answer these questions in your own words, do further research, and I promise you’ll gain much more from every merit badge you earn!

Later on in this exciting badge, you’ll even create and complete orienteering courses of your own! This useful skill has the opportunity to evolve into a lifelong hobby that keeps you physically fit and having fun.

So, are you ready to get started? Let’s embark on this journey together and delve deep into the world of orienteering! First, familiarize yourself with the requirements listed below, and then we’ll navigate through each one, step by step. Let’s set our bearings and jump into this exciting adventure!

What Are The Orienteering Merit Badge Requirements?

  1. Show that you know first aid for the types of injuries that could occur while orienteering, including cuts, scratches, blisters, snakebite, insect stings, tick bites, heat and cold reactions (sunburn, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, hypothermia), and dehydration. Explain to your counselor why you should be able to identify poisonous plants and poisonous animals that are found in your area.
  2. Explain what orienteering is.
  3. Do the following:
    3a. Explain how a compass works. Describe the features of an orienteering compass.
    3b. In the field, show how to take a compass bearing and follow it.
  4. Do the following:
    4a. Explain how a topographic map shows terrain features. Point out and name five terrain features on a map and in the field.
    4b. Point out and name 10 symbols on a topographic map.
    4c. Explain the meaning of declination. Tell why you must consider declination when using map and compass together.
    4d. Show a topographic map with magnetic north-south lines.
    4e. Show how to measure distances on a map using an orienteering compass.
    4f. Show how to orient a map using a compass.
  5. Set up a 100-meter pace course. Determine your walking and running pace for 100 meters. Tell why it is important to pace-count.
  6. Do the following:
    6a. Identify 20 international control description symbols. Tell the meaning of each symbol.
    6b. Show a control description sheet and explain the information provided.
    6c. Explain the following terms and tell when you would use them: attack point, collecting feature, catching feature, aiming off, contouring, reading ahead, handrail, relocation, rough versus fine orienteering.
  7. Do the following:
    7a. Take part in three orienteering events. One of these must be a cross-country course.*
    7b. After each event, write a report with (1) a copy of the master map and control description sheet , (2) a copy of the route you took on the course, (3) a discussion of how you could improve your time between control points, and (4) a list of your major weaknesses on this course . Describe what you could do to improve.
  8. Do ONE of the following:
    8a. Set up a cross-country course that is at least 2,000 meters long with at least five control markers. Prepare the master map and control description sheet.
    8b. Set up a score orienteering course with at least 12 control points and a time limit of at least 60 minutes. Set point values for each control. Prepare the master map and control description sheet.
  9. Act as an official during an orienteering event. This may be during the running of the course you set up for requirement 8.
  10. Teach orienteering techniques to your patrol, troop or crew.
1) Show that you know first aid for the types of injuries that could occur while orienteering, including cuts, scratches, blisters, snakebite, insect stings, tick bites, heat and cold reactions (sunburn, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, hypothermia), and dehydration. Explain to your counselor why you should be able to identify poisonous plants and poisonous animals that are found in your area.

Since orienteering involves being in unfamiliar territory, you’ll need to be prepared for unfamiliar injuries that could occur along the way. Whether you’re trekking through the woods or over rough terrain, various injuries such as cuts, blisters, insect stings, tick bites, dehydration, and more may all occur.

The great and untamed outdoors is home to a variety of threats that you need to be familiar with, prepared for, and ready to treat if necessary. If you’re already dealing with trying to navigate through new territory, you don’t want injuries plaguing you. That’s why you should learn first aid for the following conditions:


Cuts can easily occur when orienteering due to sticks, rocks, and other sharp objects. Wash out the cut and clean the wood as best you can, apply pressure to stop bleeding, and cover with a sterile bandage, and possibly a disinfectant.

This guide would get way too long if we covered each injury and its treatment in detail, but for more info on each of these, be sure to check out the in-depth injury section of my guide to the First Aid merit badge and Camping merit badge. Alternatively, you can Google, “(hazard type) ScoutSmarts” do “Ctrl+F” on the webpage, type in the injury, and you’ll be sure to find the hazard and its treatments fully covered!


Scratches can also happen when orienteering, especially if you were to slip and fall in the woods. The first aid procedure for scratches is similar to cuts, but you may not need to cover the area with a bandage depending on how deep the scratch is. Just wash out any debris, make sure the wound is clean, and bandage if necessary. 


Blisters are caused by chafing, creating a pocket between the top and lower layer of the affected area’s skin. Most commonly occurring on your feet, blisters can be especially painful and should be prevented whenever possible. Since these are caused by rubbing, get well-fitting shoes and always hike in dry socks.

To treat blisters, you may use a sterile needle to puncture the blister from its side and release the fluid, but leave the blister roof intact to protect the new skin underneath. You may then apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the blister with a sterile dressing.


If you are orienteering, whether in the woods, a mountainside, or a desert, snakes are always a threat. There are both venomous and non-venomous snakes. Venomous snakes have a more bulging jaw, whereas non-venomous snakes tend to have skinnier heads.

If the snake was not venomous, treat the wound as you would any other cut, which means cleaning it, sterilizing it, and covering it with a bandage. Bites are more prone to infection, so monitor the wound and get medical attention if it appears swollen or irritated.

If the snake was venomous, keep the victim as still as possible to slow the spread of the venom, immobilize the bitten limb using a splint, keeping it low (below the heart) and immediately call for medical assistance so that they can administer an antivenom.

Insect Stings

Bees and many other insects may sting at you during your orienteering journeys. If this happens, first aid involves removing the stinger by scraping it out with a credit card or fingernail, or pulling it out with tweezers. If the victim is allergic, administer an EpiPen and call 911 for professional medical attention.

To treat a basic insect sting or bite, wash the affected area with soap and water, apply a cold compress, and cover with a sterile bandage. Monitor the injury for any signs of worsening, and if an allergic reaction occurs, seek medical attention immediately.

Tick Bites

Ticks are always threats in wooded and grassy areas, which you’ll likely see a lot of on your orienteering journeys! 🙂 A tick will be embedded in your skin, so use tweezers to firmly grasp the tick close to the skin’s surface and slowly pull it away with even pressure. Avoid wiggling, as the tick could break off in the wound and cause an infection. 

Clean the bite with soap and water and keep the tick in a jar. For the next few weeks, you’ll need to monitor the wound for signs of Lyme disease (a red ring and rash). If signs of infection occur, call for immediate medical attention and show them the tick you removed which you kept in the jar.


Sunburn can easily occur when orienteering, which is why it’s important to wear a hat and stay in the shade during the day’s hottest hours. First aid generally involves applying aloe vera or using hydrating lotions to keep the skin from drying out too much. You should also cover up to prevent more sun damage and use pain relief medications like aspirin if needed.


Orienteering often takes place in the summertime, with heat stroke being a very real threat. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. As you wait for medical attention, have the victim lie in a cool shaded spot with their feet elevated, remove excess clothing, and use water to dampen clothes. 

If possible, also apply ice packs to the neck, armpits, and groin. If the person is able to drink, have them drink small sips of water. the victim may be confused or unconscious, but your top priority is cooling them down and having them rest as proper medical attention is en route.

Heat Exhaustion

There are two main types of heat exhaustion, which is a step down from heatstroke:

  • Water depletion: Characterized by thirst, headache, a feeling of weakness, and loss of consciousness.
  • Sodium depletion: characterized by vomiting, muscle cramps, and dizziness.

Heat exhaustion can progress into heat stroke, and should not be taken lightly. If you suspect that someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, immediately get them into a cool area to rest. Have them drink plenty of fluids and take a cool shower. They may be sensitive to high temperatures for a few days afterward.


If your orienteering journeys are taking place in the winter, hypothermia can occur quite quickly. If a person is suffering from hypothermia, move them to a dry and warm place, remove wet clothing, wrap the person in dry clothes/blankets, and provide them with non-caffeinated, warm beverages.


Dehydration can easily occur during orienteering if you forget to drink enough water on your adventures. If this happens, drink fluids high in electrolytes like a sports drink, or drink water slowly but often. If a person is severely dehydrated and unable to drink, medical attention will be required.

Why you should be able to identify poisonous plants and poisonous animals that are found in your area?

Although the terrain may be unfamiliar, you should be familiar with and able to identify a variety of poisonous plants and poisonous animals to prevent exposure. Poisonous plants can cause severe skin irritations and other issues that you won’t necessarily be able to treat right away in the wild.

Depending on where you live, there may also be poisonous animals that may pose serious threats to your health, particularly snakes and spiders. Be sure to avoid sticking your hands in holes or touching unknown plants to reduce risk. Being able to identify poisonous threats is the number one way to avoid them when traversing any sort of terrain!

2) Explain what orienteering is.

Before you go any further on your journey to getting your orienteering merit badge, it is important for you to know exactly what orienteering is. Here is a basic explanation of what orienteering is:

Orienteering is an outdoor activity that combines navigation and map reading skills with adventure and physical activity. The primary objective of orienteering is to navigate a course through unfamiliar terrain using a detailed map and a compass to locate checkpoints or controlled points.

To win, you and all participants will try to complete the course in the shortest amount of time possible!

Orienteering is very important to Scouts because there are many skills developed, including navigation, problem-solving, physical fitness, and teamwork. In layman’s terms, orienteering is all about navigating unfamiliar territory using nothing more than a compass and map, with the aim of finding checkpoints.

Of course, orienteering will also be a whole lot of fun because it’s like one big scavenger hunt! This is one of the reasons why orienteering is such a popular merit badge. Earning it allows you to explore the great outdoors while learning valuable survival and navigation skills. 😀

3a) Explain how a compass works. Describe the features of an orienteering compass.

Besides a map, a compass is the other main tool that you need in orienteering. A compass is required for you to orient yourself in terms of the direction you are facing. While a map is very useful, it is impossible to read a map accurately if you don’t know what direction you are currently facing, and that’s what a compass does!

This is the same Orienteering Compass I used as a Scout! If you’re in need of a trusty compass that’s especially suited for being used with a topo map, this is one I’d highly recommend.

A compass tells you what direction you are facing, which in combination with a map, allows you to maintain your bearings in the great outdoors. As the name implies, Orienteering involves being able to orient yourself, which is where the compass comes into play. In this section, you’ll learn the features of an orienteering compass, along with how to use it!

Features of a Compass 

A compass has several components that allow it to function properly. Below are the features of an orienteering compass that you should be aware of:

The Magnetic Needle 

The main component of a compass is the magnetic needle. This needle is usually red or marked with an N to indicate where the north end is. The earth has a magnetic field that surrounds it, with the North Pole (the Arctic) essentially acting as a magnet, and this exerts a force on the magnetic needle of your compass.

When you hold a compass flat and level, so that the needle can move freely, the magnetic needle aligns itself with the earth’s magnetic field. The north end of the needle seeks the earth’s north magnetic pole, which is why it’ll always point in that direction when your compass is held flat. 

The most important thing for you to know in your orienteering adventures is that the needle in a compass points north. If you have a map and a compass that points north, you should always be able to find your heading and direction of travel.

An orienteering compass is usually specially designed to make being able to take readings much easier, with features like a magnifying glass, and scale for map routing. This will help a ton for navigating on the go! However, there are also other important features that will make your life a bit easier.

The Housing 

Orienteering compasses also have liquid-filled housings that help to dampen the movement of the magnetic needle. This makes the compass more stable and easier to read. 

The Base Plate 

The base plate of an orienteering compass is usually transparent and has a scale or ruler on it. This allows you to easily measure distances and helps you align the compass with your map.

The Dial/Bezel 

The dial or bezel on an orienteering compass usually rotates around the housing. This is useful for taking and following bearings, helping you to move at a certain angle. This makes it easier to follow a specific route. 

The Azimuth

An azimuth is a measure of the direction from one point to another, expressed in degrees from 0° to 360° which are usually shown on a compass bezel. When navigating, you should look for the angle between a reference direction (usually true north) and the direction to an object or destination. So, if the azimuth from your current position to a mountain peak is 90°, it means the peak is directly east of you!

Orienting Arrow

The orienting arrow is a fixed, printed arrow inside the compass’s rotating bezel. It helps navigators align the compass with magnetic north and, when used with a map, align the compass with the map’s grid lines, ensuring accurate navigation.

Degree Indicator/Index Line

The degree indicator or index line is located directly above your bezel and lets you follow a specific angle or direction relative to magnetic north. This it allows users to set a precise bearing. For instance, you could travel 65° Northeast by rotating the compass bezel so that the 65° mark aligns with the index line.

The Sighting Mirror

Some orienteering compasses have a sighting mirror on the base plate. This allows you to take even more accurate bearings by allowing you to cite a distant object or landmark and then align it with the needle of your compass.

Below is a helpful video (3:22) recapping all of this information and giving you a great visual of what these components would actually look like on a compass of your own:

3b) In the field, show how to take a compass bearing and follow it.

Being able to properly navigate outdoors with a compass means that you first have to be able to take a bearing. In simplest terms, the compass bearing is your direction of travel. It’s how you’re going to get to your next checkpoint or to the endpoint.

To take a compass bearing, first choose a target, which could be a mountain peak, distant tree, or any other prominent feature. You then want to take your map, put it on a flat surface, and then orient it so that the map’s N is aligned with the north of your compass.

You then want to hold your compass level and flat, aligning the base plate with the direction of travel, which is the direction you want to go. The direction of travel arrow on the base plate of your compass should point toward the target.

Now, rotate the bezel of the compass until the N or North on the bezel aligns with the needle’s north end. The degree marking on the bezel where the direction of travel arrow intersects it is your compass bearing.

To follow a compass bearing, first rotate the bezel of your compass so that the same compass bearing you took earlier now aligns with the compass needle. While holding your compass level and flat, keep the needle aligned with the degree marking on the bezel. You can now begin walking in the direction as indicated!

Periodically check to see if your compass needle remains aligned with the degree marking. If you drift off course, make adjustments as necessary.

How to Take a Compass Bearing – Step by Step 

  1. Choose the target
  2. Put your map flat on a surface
  3. Align the map so that the N is aligned with the North of the compass
  4. Hold the compass level and flat
  5. Align the base plate with the direction of travel
  6. Rotate the bezel until the N on the bezel aligns with the north end of the needle 
  7. Rotate the bezel so that the compass bearing taken earlier aligns with the needle
  8. Keep the needle aligned with the degree marking on the bezel. This is the direction of travel. 

If all of this sounds pretty complicated, not to worry! Below is a great video (1:44) explaining each of these points for taking a bearing, along with some visuals. Now that you know how to take a compass bearing, you’re one step closer to completing some orienteering courses of your own!

4a) Explain how a topographic map shows terrain features. Point out and name five terrain features on a map and in the field.

When you’re trying to navigate the great outdoors, having a normal map (while better than nothing) is not as good as having a topographical map. A topographical map displays various elevation features on the terrain, such as mountains and valleys, forests, rivers, and more.

Through its features, topographical maps allow you to much more easily navigate the terrain. Knowing what direction to travel in isn’t too useful if you don’t know what the actual terrain looks like! In a topo map, you’ll find various symbols, colors, and lines to convey a variety of detailed information about the terrain.

Topographical maps use a combination of contour lines, index contours, contour intervals, relief shading, spot elevations, and more to provide you with helpful terrain info. To earn your orienteering merit badge, you’ll need to be able to point these features out on a map and in the area around you. 

Five Terrain Features on a Topographical Map and in the Field

  • Contour Lines: Contour lines are the most fundamental terrain feature on a topographical map and they represent the elevation and shape of the terrain.
  • Contour Interval: The contour interval is the vertical distance between contour lines, and this indicates a change in elevation between adjacent contour lines.
  • Index Contours: Every fifth contour line is labeled with its elevation and is considered an index contour. These are bold lines that help map users quickly determine the elevation of various key features.
  • Relief Shading: There are some topographical maps that use shading techniques to simulate the effects of sunlight on the terrain. This is a type of shading that provides a 3-dimensional appearance to maps to help visualize slopes, valleys, and hills.
  • Spot Elevations: We then have spot elevations, which are specific points on the maps, such as mountain peaks, saddles, hilltops, and other notable features, that are labeled with precise elevations.
4b) Point out and name 10 symbols on a topographic map.

Topographical maps use many different symbols to represent a variety of elements on the landscape. If you expect to be able to easily navigate to make it to your various checkpoints, and to the end goal, you need to know what these symbols are. Otherwise, you might run into unexpected obstacles during your journey:

To complete this requirement, you’ll have to gradually point out these symbols on the map and then match them to the real-life thing in front of you. The following is a list of symbols you might find on the topographical map, along with a description of what they mean. 

  1. Contour lines represent elevation and terrain relief
  2. Lines and circling a depression with tick marks pointing inwards are depression contours.
  3. Small arrows along contour lines are slope arrows and indicate the direction of the slope.
  4. U-shaped contour lines indicate when there is a valley and they usually always point upstream.
  5. Blue lines indicate streams and rivers.
  6. Blue-filled lines indicate canals and aqueducts.
  7. Blue dashed lines indicate seasonal or intermittent streams.
  8. Blue-filled areas depict lakes and ponds.
  9. Light blue areas with vegetation symbols depict swamps and marshes.
  10. Shaded green areas with tree symbols depict wooded areas.
  11. Agricultural symbols depict cultivated areas.

To learn even more, below is a fantastic resource put out by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) on the different topo map symbols you may encounter. With these and the ones I listed for you, you should have plenty to review with your counselor!

4c) Explain the meaning of declination. Tell why you must consider declination when using map and compass together. 

Declination refers to the difference in angles between true north and magnetic north. This is important because a navigator could be led off course, especially over long distances, if they are following true north instead of their map’s north and don’t take into account declination. 🙁

To find declination, you’ll need to take into account the angle, that magnetic north differs from true north (measured in degrees west or east). This will depend on where in the world you are. Declination is one of the most important concepts that orienteering students need to know in order to navigate!

Declination is an important concept because magnetic compasses point towards the magnetic north, not towards the true north

If you are in an area that features significant declination, you have to be able to make adjustments to ensure that your readings align with the true directions on the map, AKA true north. Here are a few ways to account for declination:

  • Map Reference: Many orienteering maps note the local declination. To recap, this is the difference between magnetic north and true north.
  • Online Tools: Websites like NOAA offer tools to find declination by location.
  • Field Measurement: Compare your compass reading to a known landmark’s direction. The difference in degrees is the declination.
Declination across the US (source: USGS)

So, if you live west of Illinois, you likely have some eastward declination, and if you live to the east, you’ll have westward declination. This is especially important to take into account if you live in areas like Washington or Maine, where the offset is much greater.

4d) Show a topographic map with magnetic north-south lines.

For this requirement, you’ll have to display a topographical map that features magnetic north and south lines. Here’s a link to a map and explanation you could use, but I’d recommend asking to look through your badge counselor’s maps and identifying one with magnetic north-south lines of your own.

4e) Show how to measure distances on a map using an orienteering compass.

A big part of completing your orienteering journey is not just knowing where you are going, but how far it is to get there. After all, distances matter a great deal in the great outdoors! Knowing how far the next checkpoint is could mean the difference between trekking the rest of the day and setting up camp for the night. 

To measure distances on a map using your orienteering compass, you first need to make sure that your compass has the same scale as the map. Many orienteering compasses feature rulers and scales, usually with a scale of 1:25,000, and sometimes 1:50,000. 

How to Measure Distance on a Map with an Orienteering Compass 

  1. Simply place the start of the compass scale at the scale on the map.
  2. Line up the flat edge of the ruler so that the starting and ending points on the map are connected. 
  3. Using the scale on the compass, you can then determine the distance. For instance, if the scale is 1:25,000 and the distance on the map measures 5 cm, the actual distance would be 1,250 meters.

Here is a helpful video (5:07) demonstrating how to measure distance on a map using a compass:

Again, make sure you assess distances accurately! On a trek, if you’re aiming for a landmark and need to travel longer than you assume, you could run into some very serious issues such as exposure to the elements or even losing the trail. With these lessons learned, you’re ready to begin orienteering!

Congrats on Finishing Part 1 of The Orienteering Merit Badge!

Nice work! We’re now halfway done with earning the Orienteering merit badge!! In the next section, we’ll be covering how to make and complete an orienteering course of your own. For now though, remember what you learned here to get these requirements signed off with your counselor. 🙂

Once you’re ready to continue on to part 2 of the Orienteering merit badge click here!
(Part 2 is in progress, subscribe to my newsletter for updates)

Also, if you’re interested in the difficulty rankings for every Eagle-required merit badge, you can check out my full guide here! PS: The article also links to my other ultimate badge guides that’ll help you complete your merit badge worksheets.


I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

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