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Orienteering - Sport of a Lifetime

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A compass

Imagine that you are running through the woods, off-trail. The sun is shining, the birds are singing - your surroundings are beautiful and serene. You can see no one else around you, yet you are in the heat of a race. Evidence of your exertion includes the sweat on your face and the swift beating of your pulse. You are filled with race excitement and anxiety. In your hands are a map and compass which you glance at to figure out which way to go, all the while running without skipping a beat. You are orienteering.

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport enjoyed by many thousands of people worldwide. It involves the use of a map and a compass to navigate across unfamiliar terrain. On the map are marked several circles, connected by straight lines and numbered in a certain order. This is what makes up an orienteering course. The start of the course is usually marked with a triangle and the finish, if separate, is a double-circle. Each regular circle marks the location of a special flag in the woods, called a control. The controls are generally three-sided, each side a square consisting of two triangles, one orange and one white. Runners must use the map to find their way from control to control, in order, and to the finish. Each control has a certain code attached which the runner uses to identify it as the correct control. At each control there is a specialised hole punch1, each of which makes a different pattern of holes. Each runner has a card with different boxes for the different controls and they must punch the correct box on the card at each control to prove that they have been to that control.

The Map

The map is a topographical map, much like a USGS (US Geological Survey) topo quad only with a larger scale and much more detail. Whereas a USGS map may be 1:100,000 or 1:24,000, a standard orienteering topo is 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. This means that every one centimetre on the map equals 100 or 150 metres in real life. 10 centimetres is 1 or 1.5 kilometres (0.6, 0.9 mile). The brown lines on the map are the contour lines. Each line represents a certain elevation. On a USGS quad, these are usually 20 feet apart in elevation; on an orienteering map, they are usually 5 metres (16 feet). The contour lines curve with the shape of the landscape. They can be confusing at first, but once you get used to them, they provide a detailed picture of what the landscape looks like.

The map has several different colours on it, representing different types of vegetation. White represents open woods ie, forest that is easy to see and run through. Different shades of green mean different thicknesses of trees and plants; the darker the green, the thicker the woods. Yellow represents fields and open areas. There are many other symbols on an orienteering map that you would not find on a standard quad. Streams, lakes, rocks, trails, roads, cliffs, earth banks, power lines, man-made objects, and even upturned roots are all marked on the map with an extreme degree of accuracy.

The Game

The object of orienteering is to complete the course in the least amount of time possible, which means using the map and compass to find the quickest possible route between controls. This is not always the shortest route. Following the straight lines will often result in unnecessary climbing over hills and fighting through rough terrain and, therefore, may not be as fast as a more circuitous route. Nor is the best route always the easiest. For example, taking a trail that is fairly direct is often a wise choice since it is easy to run on and makes it easy for the runners to tell where they are on the map. However, if a trail goes far out of the way and there is a relatively flat route through open woods that is more direct, it would generally be a good choice to cut through the quick way.

Indeed, even though trails may not always make the best routes, they do serve important purposes to every runner. Trails, streams, fences, and other linear features marked on the map are called 'handrails'. This is because they can be followed by runners with a good deal of certainty as to where they are. If runners cross these features, they are called 'catching features' or 'collecting features'. This is because when runners cross a trail, they can then find that trail on the map and use it to relocate or figure out where they are. If the runners are a little bit to the left or right of where they want to be, they can run along the feature for a while in order to correct their direction. An 'attack point' refers to a feature which is near a control and that runners use to line up directly with the control. Runners use these and other features marked on the map to be aware of where they are and to point themselves in the right direction. Many orienteers2 also use a compass from time to time to check that they are going in the right general direction. Navigating strictly by the compass, however, is not usually a good choice because the compass does not know what the fastest route is, only the straightest. Though virtually all competitors carry compasses, advanced runners use seldom use them.

The Benefits of Orienteering

Orienteering is good for the mind, body and spirit. It is often called 'The Thinking Sport' because it requires a high level of intelligence and decision-making skill. When in the woods, competitors must think quickly and make tough decisions about what routes to take between controls. They must use a limited amount of information to figure out where they are and where they are going, while at the same time physically exerting themselves. Here, memory is key. If runners spend all their time staring at the map, they will not be able to move quickly through the woods. The art is to glance at the map, decide on a route and remember the details of that route so that one doesn't have to keep looking at the map to know where one is going. This combination of intellectual stimulation and physical exertion is unique to orienteering and builds intelligence. Also, many competitors note that the effects of an oxygen-deprived brain trying to think its way through an orienteering course are both fascinating to observe and add another level of challenge to the sport. Not for the casual orienteer to worry, though; this only occurs in extreme levels of competition.

Both physical and mental health are gained through orienteering. Countless studies have shown that an hour or more of aerobic exercise per week goes a long way toward strengthening the heart. Orienteering provides 45 minutes to a few hours of good aerobic exercise. It also strengthens muscles, increases endurance and eliminates excess body fat. However, unlike other running sports, orienteering lacks the repetitive pounding on pavement. Joint problems which plague many marathoners are absent from the orienteering field. The softer, uneven ground provides cushioning and strengthens ankle muscles. Unfortunately, sprains are more common, so people with weak ankles often wear braces. Thorns and ticks are other drawbacks, and orienteers must be careful to remove anything imbedded so as not to get an infection. This scenario is fairly rare, though, and almost nonexistent on easy courses.

One other positive aspect of orienteering is the social aspect. Indeed, many people meet and become friends at orienteering events. In the US, local and national events are often as much a social gathering as they are a sporting event. Since the sport remains small here, most avid orienteers know each other on a first-name basis, even though they may live hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. Some clubs include picnics as part of their meets, and most A-events have a Saturday night dinner/social gathering.

Who does orienteering?

One of the most unique things about orienteering is that it is a sport that anyone can do. There is no upper or lower age limit. At a typical event, you might see anyone ranging from babies in carriers, along for the ride while their parents orienteer3, to 80-year-olds. There are many different levels of competition, for everyone from the casual hiker to the world-class competitor.

The Courses

Most orienteering events are local events hosted by clubs and open to the public (see 'Getting Started' below). These generally offer a range of four or five courses which differ in length and difficulty. The courses are labeled with different 'colours'. The 'white' course is the easiest, usually about 2km (1.2 miles) long and totally on trails. 'Yellow' is the next easiest, about 3km and slightly harder, possibly small parts off-trail. 'Orange' is considered an intermediate course. After that, there are four advanced courses: 'brown', 'green', 'red' and 'blue', all completely off-trail with challenging navigation, but progressively increasing in length. The blue course can be anywhere from 8-15km (5-9 miles). Distance is measured 'as the crow flies', which means that by not taking the most direct route, the actual distance run may be even longer. Most local meets have white, yellow, orange and green courses, and may have brown or red but rarely blue. All national meets, however, offer every course.

The Competitor

While orienteering is a race, it can be (and often is) done as a leisurely weekend family activity. It is a good way to get out and see the woods, as well as get valuable exercise (see 'Benefits of Orienteering').

Most first-timers walk their courses and go out in pairs or groups. After a few times, though, skills increase and many people find that they enjoy doing it alone and/or at a run. Some start seriously competing with others at meets, but the atmosphere of most local meets remains friendly and family-oriented. There is no obligation to advance to the next level in orienteering, but many find it an enjoyable challenge.

After a few local meets, people who want to compete somewhat more seriously may start going to national 'A' meets. These are similar to local meets in that anyone is welcome. However, in order to compete one must pre-register and the cost is slightly higher. They are also much larger than local meets. USOF (US Orienteering Federation) sanctions about 15 A-meets per year, usually on weekends, which are held by different clubs around the country and draw competitors from all over. According to USOF rules, those who wish to be officially ranked in orienteering must compete in at least four A-meet days per year. There are different age categories in which one can be ranked. These are structured so that a certain age category competes on a certain course. Required course difficulty moves up with age for the young and down for the elderly. The very best orienteers in the nation are selected to compete in the World Orienteering Championships, or Junior World Orienteering Championships if under 21.

There are many different kinds of people who compete. The following are a few common examples of types of competitors in the US:

  • Civilian: These are just regular people who compete for enjoyment, challenge or health.

  • Family: There are many of these that travel together to do orienteering.

  • ROTC: As orienteering has a military history, it follows that there should be some military involvement. Often, ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) and JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp) groups will do orienteering as a training exercise, as well as an enjoyable team-building activity.

  • Scouts: Often considered by scout leaders as an integral outdoor activity, orienteering is sometimes directly associated with scouting and many troops even have a badge for it.

  • Club member: Most civilians and families who orienteer on a regular basis are members of their local club.

  • Juniors: This term refers to any orienteer under the age of 21. Many juniors meet at orienteering events and form lasting friendships. Juniors are a prime example of the social aspects of orienteering.

Getting Started

The first step to getting started in Orienteering is contacting your closest orienteering club. In the United States, there are currently 65 clubs covering 38 states (including Alaska). In other countries where the sport is more popular, there is a greater density of clubs. For locating your club, the internet can be a valuable tool. The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) website has much information about international orienteering events and links to all national orienteering federations. The United States Orienteering Federation (USOF) administers all clubs in the US. From their website, you can find a club in your area. Most US clubs have their own website which you can link to from the USOF site.

Once you have found a club nearby, the next step is to go to a meet. These are usually held on weekends. You can probably request a schedule from your local club or get one off the internet. Local meets charge a small fee, usually in the $3-5 range, to cover meet expenses. There is no need to pre-register for local meets, and there are always friendly personnel at the meet site eager to help newcomers get started. All courses have a three hour time limit, and for safety reasons you must check back at the finish within the time limit, whether the course is completed or not.

Basic Equipment

When you go to a meet for the first time, the only equipment you need to bring is old clothes and shoes that you aren't afraid to get muddy. A compass is an important piece of equipment, but it is not essential for newcomers and many clubs will have some available to rent for the day. The club will provide the map, a punch card (as discussed in 'What is Orienteering') and a control description or 'clue' sheet. The clue sheet is a piece of paper that contains each control's code number and a short description of the feature that the control is on. For example, on the yellow course control number three has code number 436 and is on a stream junction. The clue sheet says '3 436 stream junction'. On more advanced courses, the clue sheet uses a set of internationally-recognized symbols instead of words. Clubs may also require a whistle for safety, in which case they will be available to rent or buy cheaply.

The more advanced the competitor gets, the more specialised the equipment. There are several orienteering vendors which provide this equipment through e-commerce and retail at A-meets. This equipment may include specialised cleats, which often have metal spikes for extra grip, gaiters for shin protection from thorns, lightweight suits, and special thumb-held compasses.

Orienteering is something that everyone should try. It is good for the mind and body and great fun. It provides many valuable skills that any avid 'outdoors' person should have. Many groups trying to conquer the great outdoors fail or even fall into danger because they did not know how to use a map properly. If you have ever witnessed an adventure race or even seen the show Survivor, then you will know what to expect. In short, if you are looking for a new, exciting and healthy family sport, orienteering is it.

1Most local meets in the US still use this punch system. Recently, however, two companies have developed systems of electronic 'punching'. This consists of a plastic card which the runner carries with him/her. Instead of a hole punch, the controls have a box-like unit, with a place to insert the card. To punch, the card is inserted for less than a second. This system is faster than the paper system and is quickly gaining preference at national meets. In a few years the paper punches may be completely outdated.2Orienteer - one who does orienteering (the extra 'er' was tried, but no one liked saying '..teer-er', so it got blended and subsequently lost.3Orienteer - the verb form; ie, to do orienteering.

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