Some of you know that I keep track of the counties (and county-equivalents) I visit. (See my blog sidebar for an update on my progress.) Recently my friend Cristin sent me a message about her eldest son taking an interest in this. She asked for advice on how he could get started without having to use a computer. Since I'm super lazy, I've decided to use my response as a blog post, thereby getting double the use out of the three minutes I spent responding.
The easiest way to start is also fairly cheep: get one of those large atlases from Walmart or Target. They're about 11 x 17, published by Rand McNally, and have county lines shown on each state map. They cost about $5.99 or $6.99 or so.
The reason this is best is because it shows county lines, most towns, and most highways, all while being cheep. So you can see where you've been, how you got there, and mark the counties visited with a marker.
You might think a more-expensive atlas will be even-more useful. You should stop creating Veblen goods. The "fancier" versions of Rand McNally atlases are actually less-useful for what you want to do. One version is smaller, only about 8.5 x 11. It doesn't display county lines. One version is a truck driver's atlas. It already has some routes highlighted in orange. Just stick with the cheepest atlas you can find, which will be the best for what you are doing.
I trace the county boundary and underline the county name for each county visited. (Outlining alone is insufficient when you've been to all of a county's surrounding counties without having visited the county itself.) Outlining requires a steadier hand, and a keen eye for noticing where the boundary runs, but it's generally better than trying to color the entire county with a highlighter, which will use up several highlighters if you've been to western states with large counties. But if you are trying to keep a kid quiet for as long as possible, have him use some colored pencils or something.
Most people start by asking, "Where have I been?" and then figuring out how they got there. Probably you will want to first start tracing with a highlighter the highways traveled and then once you are sure you've marked all your journeys, determine which counties you've visited.
One thing I remember from getting started myself is that some counties blend together unless you know they're there. For instance, the Rand McNally atlas is going to make Santa Cruz County, CA, and San Mateo County, CA, hard to distinguish unless you know where to look. So try to maybe compare your initial reading on the atlas to a Wikipedia image showing the state's counties. This will be an easy way of seeing if you're overlooking a hard-to-see boundary.
If you want a map of all your counties visited on one sheet, that gets a little trickier to find. But you can find maps for sale online which show all American counties on one national map. Then you can transfer your markings over from your atlas to your wall map. That's later, though. To start with, I say get the cheep Rand McNally atlas from Costco or wherever and start marking it up.
POST SCRIPT: Why not use a computer? Well, for younger kids it's not as easy, but if you're an adult, it might be worthwhile. I use a website called "Why Do You Think They Call Them Counties?" The guy running it is friendly and helpful and is doing it because he's nice. You send him a message that you want an account created and what you want your username and password to be, and he creates it for you (both my account and my daughter's account have slight misspellings; just think of it as added security). Then you click on the counties you've visited in an easy-to-use map-based format.
For a while I had found another site like it. The account creation didn't require relying on someone else. The maps and web design were slightly more visually appealing. I recommended it to all my friends. Several of them started using it. Then the dude running it decided to stop and gave no warning that he was going to dump everyone's entered data. I asked the guy running the remaining site if he knows what happened there. He said the other guy didn't really explain anything to him, but did indicate the data was gone.
So that's why a website may not be enough. And GIS programs that allow you to do your own mapping, which I use, are probably too specialized for the average person to want to use.