After 10 minutes of thrashing through the pucker brush around a small granite outcrop, I’ve suddenly spotted the well-hidden Control No. 7. This orange and white nylon box, about the size of a 12-pack, is the seventh checkpoint on my course at a local orienteering meet.
I dash over to the control and find the hole-punch that’s dangling from a short string. Marking my scorecard with this unique punch will prove I’ve been to No. 7. Then I check my map for Control No. 8, about a quarter-mile to the south. Suddenly another racer comes crashing through the brush. I scurry off into the woods.
Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten to check my compass, and after about a hundred yards I realize the sun is at my back. Wasn’t I supposed to be heading south? In my haste to shake my competitor, I’ve made a rookie error and run 180 degrees in the wrong direction.
Welcome to the confounding and addictive sport of orienteering, a blend of cross-country running and navigation, with brains and woods sense counting more than brawn. Course setters hide a series of controls—those orange and white boxes—and competitors race to find them, in order, using an extremely detailed map showing each of the controls’ locations.
At most meets, several different courses will be color-coded by length and difficulty, allowing everyone from newbies to experts (many with Scandinavian surnames) to compete. The easiest white and yellow courses stick close to roads and trails, while the difficult red and blue courses force racers to navigate over, through, or around swamps, cliffs, impenetrable brush, and other obstacles.
At local orienteering meets, the courses range from about 1.5 to 8 kilometers (1 to 5 miles), but that’s as the crow flies. Only the best orienteers hew to the correct line, and most runners can expect to add at least 25 percent to the official distance. Plus, the ground you’re covering isn’t exactly a cinder track. I’ve been orienteering off and on for more than two decades, and a mid-length course of around 4 miles still takes me one to two hours to complete, depending on how lost I get. That’s right: I may be running 30-minute miles.
It’s not so much the terrain as the navigation that slows you down. So, how do you find a tiny box deliberately hidden among many acres of dense woodland? Three tools make it possible: a map, a clue sheet, and a compass.
For experienced orienteers, the map provides 90 percent of the necessary information to find those tiny boxes. These highly detailed maps, created and continuously updated by expert volunteers, make the standard USGS topos look like pages from a Rand McNally road atlas. The scale is usually 1:10,000 or 1:15,000, compared with 1:24,000 for the most detailed USGS topos. The contour interval is 5 meters (about 16 feet), compared with the 20-foot minimum interval on topo maps. The result is an extraordinary level of detail, allowing you to follow every nook and cranny in the landscape.
Orienteering mapmakers go one step further by drawing in every large boulder, isolated tree or big stump, stone wall, fence, swamp, and even variations in the vegetation, from open forest or fields that are good for running to rough ground or dense bush that should be avoided.
Skilled orienteers stay in constant “contact” with the map as they run, checking off each shallow gully, jumbo boulder, or forest boundary as they race past.
Course setters also prepare a clue sheet, providing the identifying number of each control, along with some details about its precise location: atop a knoll, on the south side of a 2-meter-high boulder, or in the bottom of a gully, for example. This allows you to narrow your search once you get close.
Finally, there’s the compass. It’s always prudent to orient the map with the compass each time you leave a control—that’s how you avoid mistakes like my boneheaded maneuver at Control No. 7. And in thick woods, sometimes you have to follow a compass bearing for hundreds of yards to stay on course. Veteran racers learn to count their paces along a bearing, so they’ll know when to start looking for a control.
All this sounds complicated, but at the beginner’s level it’s actually quite simple. At many local meets, a volunteer will be on hand to explain how the map and clue sheet work, and to demonstrate how to orient the map with a compass. Beginners’ courses generally follow easily recognizable features—such as trails, streams, or fence lines—to each control, making navigation a snap. As you get comfortable with the basics, you can move on to more challenging routes.
A host of variations to standard orienteering races have developed over the years, including Bike-O, Ski-O, Night-O, and the sprint format, where a dozen or more controls are set in a small area and the winners may need only 10 minutes to race around them.
My favorite format is the Score-O or rogaine. (Rogaine is not named for the hair product but for Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance.) In these events, the course setters don’t dictate an exact route you must follow. Instead, they scatter controls around a huge course and then set a time limit (2 hours to as much as 24 hours) to find as many controls as you can.
Often, the point values for each control in a rogaine vary depending on how far away or difficult to locate they are. You plan your own route, trying to maximize your point total within the time limit; there’s usually a severe point penalty for each minute you’re late.
I find the intellectual challenge of the Score-O format more enjoyable than the usual orienteering races, or maybe I just like the fact that if you’re completely stymied by one control you can skip it without ruining your entire race.
Orienteering and rogaines are extremely popular in some parts of the world, including Scandinavia, the U.K., eastern Europe, and Australia-New Zealand. In the U.S., these are definitely fringe sports; many of the participants in this cerebral activity seem to make their living with computers, and the sport is concentrated in high-tech centers like Boston, the Bay Area, and Los Alamos.
One advantage of this obscurity is that anyone can participate, even at the highest levels. A few years ago, the 6th World Rogaining Championships were held in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Nearly 400 competitors from 15 countries and 32 states traveled to this championship. Yet rogaining is such an small-scale and friendly sport that complete rookies like my friend Dave and I could compete in the world championships despite the fact that, until then, we had never even done a rogaine. And we finished in the middle of the pack.
A big rogaine like the world championships takes the endurance aspect of orienteering to a whole other level. The course in Arizona encompassed 115 square miles—the size of a large metropolitan area—and the winners covered more than 75 miles in their 24-hour wander through the woods.
However, most local orienteering meets are low-key affairs. They cater to Boy Scouts, naturally, and to families with children. My local orienteering group, the Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club, even sets String-O courses, where toddlers can follow a cord from control to control.
And fortunately for the less serious competitor, success in orienteering often means slowing down instead of racing full-tilt, in order to focus on navigation. (It’s also wise to ignore other competitors, who might not even be competing on your course. One orienteer I know chased a fast, confident-looking racer for several minutes until the fellow in the lead suddenly pulled up and shouted, “I’m such a $#@#% idiot!”) Though the elite wear tear-resistant nylon suits, gaiters, water-draining shoes, thumb compasses, and, for older orienteers, flip-down magnifying eyeglasses, you can race in any outdoor clothes and running shoes. Many people walk the courses, and families and friends often join forces as a team. My wife and I often do orienteering races together with our dog, opting for navigational challenge over aerobic strain.
No matter how slowly you get there, it’s always a rush to find a hidden control exactly where you expected it would be.
Get More Info
The U.S. Orienteering Federation (www.us.orienteering.org
) has a good website with links to instructional sites and other resources. Click on “Clubs” for a geographical directory of orienteering clubs in the U.S., most of which post online schedules of meets.