How to make a treasure map using free GIS – Something for the kids!

Here in the United Kingdom, half term has hit and thousands of children are currently watching TV or playing computer games. Why not get them doing something educational and at the same time make it cool?

That is exactly what I did with my kids, we made a “Real Treasure Map” using the computer (so no need for old tea bags or flames). This uses FREE software and is a great introduction to children on how to make simple maps and you also get the fun of getting outdoors and finding your location.

Step 1 – Download Quantum GIS (QGIS)

You can download QGIS from here

I recommend using the Standalone installer and the “Lisboa” version (this is what the instructions are based on)

Step 2 – Starting with QGIS


Once you have QGIS started, first thing to do is to change the coordinate system by pressing the little globe in the bottom right hand corner. For working in the UK I recommend that this is changed to Ordnance Survey, OSGB36.


Step 3 – Get a treasure map background

Next up is to add the OpenLayers plugin so that you can access the Stamen Watercolour background map.


First, select the “Fetch python plugins” tab.


Next, add the OpenLayers plugin. Once the OpenLayers plugin has been added, go to the “manage plugins” tab to ensure that it is available (below)



The plugin is successfully installed (above)


Navigate down the plugins to the “Stamen Watercolor” and select.

Congratulations!! The hard bit is done, at this point you could just pint the screen and draw an “x” on, though it would be much better if we added a REAL location….

Step 4 – Find a location

Next you want to find somewhere to hunt or to put on the map, probably best to pick somewhere not too far from home so that you don’t have to explain to the kids why you can’t fly over to Australia……

Navigating around a GIS is as easy as using Google Earth once you know where everything is. Below I have highlighted the primary navigation controls.


Once you have navigated to the region you want for your map, it’s time to start thinking about where you want to put that “x”.

Step 5 – X marks the spot

Next step is to add the “x”, to do this we need to add it as a feature called a “shapefile” (this is a standard GIS feature type).


We need to select the “Add new shapefile” button (above) and then give the shapefile a name and provide a storage location for it (be aware that it will store up to 5 files – the shapefile, the projection, a table and 3 indexes)


Specify the coordinate system as OSGB36


Then provide a name for the shapefile, as you can see above, I have imaginatively called mine “cross”.

Step 6 – Make the “x” a cross

At the moment, the symbol is a little circle which doesn’t look very pirate like, so we are going to change it to a very pirate red cross.

First click on the little circle symbol underneath the text for the symbol as shown in the image below


Once you are through to the symbol menu, select the “hammer” symbol, this will take you to the symbol editor.


If you select the “x” in the array of symbols, you will see the symbol change. Change the size of the font to 6 or 8 and then change the border colour and fill colour to red.

Select okay and you are ready to add the “x” to the map.

Step 7 – Put yourself on the map

Everything is now ready, all that is left is to do a few more clicks and the map will be complete, so hang on in there, you’ve done brilliantly to get this far.

First, ensure the “cross” (or whatever you have called it) layer is selected, then click on the toggle editing.


Once you have done this, select edit feature, this will allow you to place your “x”, so ensure you know exactly where you want to put it but don’t worry if you get it wrong, you can always press CTRL+Z to undo and place it somewhere else.


Once placed and you are happy with it, click on the save edits button (between the toggle editing and edit feature buttons). You can then deselect the toggle editing button.

Step 8 – Save your map as a picture

All done!! Well done for getting to this point, its pretty much the same procedure that Ordnance Survey use for adding trees, stones, pillar boxes and other features to a map, only difference is, you map is COOL!

To get your map out as an image, there are several methods, for this, I will show you the quick and dirty method (which works). Though to make it look super amazing I would recommend trying the “Print Composer”.

Go to the file tab and select “save as image”. Select your location and type, then save!Image

You should now have an image in the location you specified which you can use for your treasure map!!

But where is it? Did you remember to take the coordinates?

Step 9 – The true location of the “x”

Before you close everything down, put the mouse over the cross again and have a look at the bottom right of the screen, the numbers should show the British National Grid coordinates of the “x”


Using these coordinates you can use a GPS to locate the “x” or even teach how to use grid coordinates from an old Ordnance Survey paper map…either way, the kids will enjoy finding the “x” which they have put on the map.

With a little planning you can always bury something in a location and then go hunt on the treasure map or even turn a boring trip to a museum or historic place into an adventure by putting the location on the map and letting the kids help navigate…..

Nick D

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