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Fun ways to use maps outdoors

Get Outside in different ways with your OS maps

Maps have key roles to play across numerous areas of life, and many of the main reasons we have for using them are the same now as they were hundreds of years ago. This is why children are given their first experience of maps at such an early age, with primary school geography lessons providing them with a chance to develop a basic understanding. Technology has certainly had an impact but being able to read a map properly is still an essential skill. That said, there's also plenty of potential for fun, with all kinds of outdoor activities to enjoy.

Let's take a closer look at some of them:


Orienteering has been keeping curious adventurers entertained since the latter stages of the 19th century. The sport, which has military origins in Sweden and Norway, sees participants use unique maps to navigate between different points of a set route. In a competitive context, the aim is to find the most efficient way and complete the course with the fastest time, although it doesn't have to be taken so seriously.

A big part of orienteering's popularity lies in the fact that almost anyone can enjoy it. Providing they have the basic equipment - a compass and map - people of all ages and fitness levels are able to get involved. This is perhaps why the sport is so useful for helping children to understand how maps work; schools and scout groups often take youngsters on countryside trips to help them develop their navigational skills.

While the countryside lends itself well to this kind of adventuring, orienteering can take place in all kinds of environments. Street-o, for example, is an arm of the sport which sees competitors race through towns and cities. There are also a number of variants which involve elements of other sports, such as canoeing, mountain biking and skiing. You can check out our beginner's guide to orienteering.


Geocaching is a great example of how old and new can collide in the world of navigation. The activity sees participants use maps on screens on their GPS device instead of paper to find their way between certain locations. There are no set routes, so the emphasis really is on adventure.

The points to find are decided by the online geocaching community. After hiding a box or container (cache) in a certain location, the forum member will post coordinates and cryptic clues for others to see. It's then a case of using this information to locate the treasure. More often than not, the cache will contain a log book for hunters to record the date and time at which they made it to the designated location. Aside from this, the box - usually an air-tight plastic container - can hold pretty much anything. Trinkets and small gifts are common, with finders simply expected to replace what they take with something of similar value for the next person to find.

As long as the basic rules are adhered to and the chosen locations can be accessed safely and legally, there are no real limits to geocaching. Anything can be hidden anywhere for someone else to find, and it's this unpredictability that makes it such fun. The sense of community also attracts many people, with online forums having such a central role. You can check out our guide to geocaching here.

Get lost!

Exploration is fun, there's no denying that. It's usually even more exciting, however, when you don't quite know where you are or where you're going - who knows what you'll stumble upon? Many people choose to brush up on their map-reading skills in order to minimise the chances of becoming lost in the first place, but you could instead see your map as something of a safety net. Having a decent map at hand - whether an OS Explorer Map, OS Landranger Map, OS Maps print or OS MapFinder on your mobile - and the skills to use it properly will give you license to throw yourself headfirst into an unpredictable adventure.

When you find yourself somewhere unfamiliar - perhaps on holiday in a new city - taking long and unplanned walks and cycle rides can be the best way to learn about your surroundings. It's a good idea to do a little research before you start but once you're out there, explore to your heart's content - if you find something you'd like to return to, find it on your map and mark it for later. If you suddenly realise you're not sure how to get back, use road names or landmarks to pinpoint your location and find a suitable route.

With activities like geocaching and orienteering ready to be enjoyed, learning to map reading is not only an essential skill, but also enables you to have plenty of fun. For learning to read maps and for brushing up on knowledge, we have free map reading guides for adults and children which you can download and print here. Once you start to become more confident, a whole new world of exciting possibilities will open up, whether you're acquainting yourself with a new city or just learning more about the one you've lived in for years.