Navigating on a family adventure

Simon McGrath By Simon McGrath

Simon McGrath, the author of Camping with Kids, explains why navigation can be a fun and informative part of any family adventure.

Maps have fascinated me ever since I was little. A Cub Scout in fact, which is where I first learned to use a map and compass. Roll on the clock a few years, quite a lot in fact, and as a dad I found myself teaching my own kids how to navigate, though to varying degrees of success, while we were on family camping holidays.

Simon's sons

I believe it’s a really important skill to learn – and it doesn’t have to be dull either. Quite the opposite in fact.

I had my first book published by the AA last year called Camping with Kids and it was important for me to include map reading and navigation but using ways to inspire young minds to enjoy learning this wonderful skill.


I work for The Camping and Caravanning Club so as a family we have enjoyed many great outdoor adventures. Our travels inspired Camping with Kids, which is not a technical manual about how to pitch tents or set up caravans. Instead it’s a book packed with more than 400 ideas to get youngsters active outdoors and reconnected with nature – and camping is the best way to do it.

Here are five tips from the book to inspire kids (and their parents or grandparents) to learn more about navigation and maps…

Make your own map

Taking a break with the map

A great way to learn about mapping is to get the kids to create their own map – and your campsite is a great place to start. Get your children to imagine they are a bird looking down and then start drawing the map from the top left corner.

Identify the direction of north and mark it on the map. Then draw key features such as your tent and the play area using plenty of colour. Consider scale on your map and add symbols, remembering to add a key to avoid forgetting what those symbols are. Now, use your new map to explore the campsite.

Use your watch as a compass

Bikes and caravan

Simply point the hour hand of an analogue watch at the sun, keeping it flat. Look where 12 o’clock is on the watch face and imagine there is a bisecting line between the hour hand and the 12. That line is pointing south, so north is in the opposite direction on your watch. You can then work out the other cardinal directions of east and west.

Determine east when pitching the tent

Tent at sunset

Take along a compass on your camping holiday to determine the direction of east, which is where the sun will rise. Then pitch your tent with the main door facing that direction so that as the sun rises, the tent will gently warm through.

It’s also much nicer to poke your head out of the tent first thing to be greeted by the sun on your face rather than looking out on the shaded side. And if your kids can determine east using their watch, they’ll be well on the road to becoming the next Bear Grylls!

Embrace technology

Elliot using GPS

I think kids are spending too much time these days staring at screens. But as my youngest son Elliot once told me when we were having that ‘discussion’: “Dad, you cannot dis-invent things.” So instead, embrace technology if it helps inspire kids to learn new skills.

Use GPS devices and smartphone apps to teach your children about navigation. Just don’t forget to take a map and compass on a walk too (and the knowledge to use them) as screens can break and batteries do run out.

Turn a country walk into a fun adventure

Lookinf for crampons

Taking the children on a walk through the countryside is a great way to bring maps to life but it can also be much more fun than you think with a little creativity. Use OS Maps to identify key points along the way and then dream up stories and local legends to inspire young minds. A footbridge for example is actually the home to a family of trolls, of course. Can you tiptoe across it without waking them? Or look for rock features or boulder symbols on the map along your route.

Those rocks could have crampon scratches from winter climbers. Only they’re not crampon scratches – they are the talons of dragons that live in nearby caves…

Simon and his sons

There are lots of fun things you can do to teach your children how to navigate – and they will no doubt appeal to us grown-ups too!

Buy 'Camping with Kids' by Simon McGrath for hundreds of fun things to do with your children!

Find out more about the Camping and Caravanning club.

Simon McGrath By Simon McGrath


Simon is the author of the active book, Camping with Kids as well as Senior Communications Manager at The Camping and Caravanning Club