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Some time ago I was intrigued with the ability to navigate in the woods, using just a compass. That interest evolved into orienteering, here is what I learned.
Orienteering is an outdoor sport which focuses on traversing areas of land, between set control points, using just a map and compass. It has many different types (trail, mountain bike, ski, urban, etc.), many local clubs and competitions, and equipment costs generally range from about $10 – $200.
This is a sport that can provide physical and intellectual growth and easily be enjoyable for a lifetime. Let’s explore the benefits, the gear needed, and how to get started.
What is Orienteering?
Orienteering is an outdoor sport where one navigates to defined control points on a map (a set sequence defined as an “orienteering course”), most often utilizing a compass and learned navigational skills. There are a variety of categories of orienteering, each with its own specialization and environmental and navigational uniquenesses (such as trail, ski, street, etc.).
The competitive element of orienteering comes into play where winners are those who complete the defined course in the fastest (least) amount of time. Courses during competitions are usually setup with several levels of difficulty, and entrants are able to compete within different age categories.
Orienteering is a really enjoyable outdoor activity. It can be practiced most anywhere on earth, and in most weather conditions. Socialization, exposure to nature, critical thinking, and personal development are each excellent benefits of the sport.
History of Orienteering
The practice of orienteering began in the late 1800’s at the Swedish Military Academy in Karlberg. The Academy, founded in 1792 as the Royal War Academy in Karlberg Palace, Solna (north of Stockholm), Sweden. It was established to train the military officers for Sweden’s defence forces.
The curriculum included courses on military history, strategy, and numerous tactics that could be utilized when needed, evolving as needed over the next 100 years. One such skill that was taught included land navigation. At the time, this was mainly done using maps and compasses.
Maps were still mostly specialized and relatively expensive tools, not as commonly owned by individuals as they are in the present day. The compasses were relatively large and delicate. The officers would conduct training exercises, using the compass to navigate to different points on the map, and across the terrain.
Over time, this led to military orienteering competitions being held the first was in 1893. As public awareness of these competitions grew, public interest in this skill began to grow as well. In 1897, one of the first documented public orienteering competitions was held in Oslo, about 325 miles west of Stockholm. Interest was growing!
The new “sport” continued to slowly grow, and was mainly a Scandinavian interest for some years. In the 1920’s advancements in compass technology made them much smaller, accurate, and less expensive. Additionally, mechanized printing made detailed maps more widely available, and less expensive. Orienteering was now available to far more people.
In different regions of the world, regional organizing bodies known as national federations would grow to help organize, practice, and promote orienteering. In the 1940s interest in Orienteering began to grow in the United States. It was now becoming a global sport. The national federations determined a global organizing body would be beneficial, and in Denmark in 1961, those federations would agree to establish the International Orienteering Federation (IOF).
Since then, orienteering has grown in popularity across the world. There have even been past efforts, and are continued efforts, to one day have orienteering become part of the Olympics. In a formal setting or casual one, it has become an exciting sport the world over.
Benefits of Orienteering
Orienteering is a sport that provides a large number of benefits, both physical and mental. It’s also a sport that can be performed at most ages, and in many areas of the world. Let’s explore some of the most enjoyable benefits of orienteering. Here is a helpful video that demonstrates some of the great elements of the sport:
Develops Critical Thinking
Orienteering involves analysis, comprehension, planning, reacting, and adjusting. Each of these aids in the development of thinking skills as one adapts to the terrain, weather conditions, natural factors (animals, people, structures, etc.), as well as operating as quickly and efficiently as possible to beat out competitors.
As one gains proficiency in land navigation and being able to overcome challenges in the sport, self-confidence can increase in significant ways. This generally comes from being able to reach a goal, accomplish courses faster and faster, working through adversity, collaborating with teammates, and winning competitions.
One can learn to rely on their personal skills, capabilities, and intellectual and physical growth over time as they advance in the sport.
Refines Problem Solving Skills
There are many things that can come up during orienteering that can slow or inhibit navigational progress. Learning to understand these challenges, adapt, and overcome them helps develop practice in problem solving. Over time, as problem solving skills develop, it can help lead to increased self-confidence as well.
Develops Ability to Anticipate
When out in natural conditions and in competition, things can arise that are not planned for. With practice, a good orienteering competitor can begin to anticipate these issues and be better prepared to handle them.
This can make handling and responding much easier, allowing them to compete more efficiently and faster. Items to anticipate can include weather conditions, gear needed to traverse various landscapes, competitor performance, broken or malfunctioning gear, opportunities to take advantage of, and general approach to course success.
Improves Navigation Skills
Consistent practice in orienteering allows for significant improvements in personal navigational skills. From general awareness to technical capabilities in reading maps and utilizing different compass types, these skills are applicable in so many areas outside of the sport as well.
Additionally, developing refined navigational skills helps with personal awareness in most any area of life, knowing where we are in relation to other things, and how to most effectively get from one place to another (even if it is to the grocery store or local park).
With challenging sports comes the ability to fail, learn, and grow. With that, consistent exposure to running into adverse situations, or limits of personal knowledge, allows one to then focus on improving in those areas.
The sting of failure begins to fade, confidence increases, and the orienteerer can become more resilient. Mistakes become quick lessons, and the focus is on improving and growing and getting better. Over time, this can lead to better performance and more winning.
When orienteering with partners, groups, or even in competitions, camaraderie and relationships develop which help build trust. When trusting a teammate, or competition managers, or mentors in the field, these provide opportunities to develop deep, meaningful relationships.
Can Be Great Exercise
Orienteering is often performed outdoors, over large spaces and distances of land. If orienteering on foot, this provides an excellent opportunity to get exercise in fresh air and under the sun.
Events can last a long time, and courses be long in distance, offering great ways to walk, run, hike, and move all around. It can feel good and be great exercise.
Spend Time in Nature
One of the most special characteristics of orienteering is being able to spend time in nature. Courses can be in all sorts of environments from dry open land to dense forests and woods. Each offers an incredible opportunity to spend time outside, surrounded by plants, trees, stones, mountains, bodies of water, streams, animals, and the everyday joys of nature.
Build Valuable Social Relationships
Similar to other sports, orienteering provides an opportunity to form deep and lasting relationships. These can be with fellow orienteers, family, friends, competition managers, and even the communities in which orienteering is popular.
These relationships can grow over time, just as one develops their skills in orienteering. And similar to the sport, these can last a lifetime and be as special as the moments are on the course.
Types of Orienteering
For those just getting into orienteering, or who have been involved for years, there are many different variations of the sport that can mesh well with personal preferences, geographic locations, and varying terrain. Let’s explore some of the most popular types of orienteering.
Foot Orienteering (FootO)
Foot orienteering is one of the most popular orienteering types. It is performed solely on foot, on open land or in woods/forests, with each participant walking, jogging, and running between control points. Distance variations of the foot orienteering most commonly include:
- Long Distance (approximately 90 minutes in length)
- Middle Distance (approximately 30 minutes in length)
- Sprint Distance (approximately 15 minutes in length)
Mountain Bike Orienteering (MBTO)
Mountain bike orienteering is a variation of the sport where participants ride a mountain bike to traverse specified tracks, which are often mountain and woodsy trails, consisting of the control points. Navigation, compass, and map reading must be done while on the move, riding the bicycle. Distance variations of mountain bike orienteering most commonly include:
- Long Distance (approximately 105 minutes in length)
- Middle Distance (approximately 50 minutes in length)
- Sprint Distance (approximately 25 minutes in length)
Ski Orienteering (SkiO)
Ski orienteering is a variation of the sport where skiers utilize cross-country ski methods with dual poles, to traverse the course while also navigating and map reading while in motion. This is a physically and intellectually demanding type of orienteering, performed in colder weather. Distance variations of mountain bike orienteering most commonly include:
- Ultra Long Distance (approximately 150 minutes in length)
- Long Distance (approximately 90 minutes in length)
- Middle Distance (approximately 45 minutes in length)
- Sprint Distance (approximately 20 minutes in length)
Trail Orienteering (TrailO)
Trail orienteering is one of the unique variations in that it focuses primarily on accuracy of navigation, rather than speed. Competitors traverse terrain over usually-clear and well-defined trails. This type of orienteering is usually included in most international competitions, and the category variations often include:
- Precision Orienteering (PreO) – Competitors move from control point to control point as accurately as possible (highest accuracy of navigation is the goal)
- Times Orienteering (TempO) – Competitors move from control point to control point as quickly as possible (fastest navigation is the goal)
- Relay Orienteering (TrailO) – a combination event where Competitors complete a Precision Orienteering (PreO) course, then a Times Orienteering (TempO) course. Thus, highest accuracy of navigation is the goal in the first race, and fastest navigation is the goal of the second race.
Urban Orienteering / Street Orienteering (StreetO)
Urban orienteering is performed in the streets and around neighborhoods of urban areas. Whereas orienteering originated from rural land and forest navigation, popularity of the sport spread to cities where competitors traverse the more packed terrain of metropolitan areas.
- Long Distance (approximately 8 kilometers in length)
- Middle Distance (approximately 5 kilometers in length)
- Sprint Distance (approximately 3 kilometers in length)
Sprint Orienteering (SprintO)
Sprint orienteering is made up of intentionally short races that last approximately 15 minutes each. Due to their short nature, sprint orienteering has become a popular type done in cities and denser areas. Forest sprint orienteering is also practiced, usually in more rural and wooded areas.
Night Orienteering (NightO)
Night orienteering is a variation of the sport where competitors traverse terrain without the aid of natural sunlight. This adds interesting and challenging complexity since traveling in the dark can take longer and pose more factors to smooth navigation.
Competitors generally wear head-mounted lamps, allowing them to see short distances in front of them, while also providing light to read the map, utilize the compass, and see the specific control points marked on the course.
The Basic Skills of Orienteering – Orienteering Basics
Orienteering is an exciting and strategic sport, and most anyone can participate. With some practice, one can get better and faster. Here are the basic skills to practice to develop in orienteering:
Orienteering maps are generally enlarged topographical maps with relevant orienteering symbols printed on it, referenced by a legend. This provides the basic layout for the area, course, and the basis for route planning. Knowing how to read the map is critical to success in the sport.
Orienteering Symbol Reading
Orienteering maps often include unique (and internationally standardized) symbols to help guide competitors. These symbols can vary based on the type of orienteering being performed, for example Foot Orienteering or Ski Orienteering or other types. It is important to be familiar with the different symbols, as they are directly relevant to success on the courses.
Compass Orientation and Use
Compass orientation and use are other basic skills used very often in orienteering. They are essential to understanding positioning and plotting navigation paths for moving to and between control points.
Route planning is a necessary orienteering skill as it is the primary way competitors plan their movements on the course. Depending on the goal of the competition (fastest time or highest accuracy), there is significant strategy involved in route planning and execution.
Pace setting is another key element to orienteering, as most events are timed based on fastest completion. Competitors will need to know how quickly, or slowly, to move over terrain types and based on their physical capabilities.
Knowing the right pace to travel on routes can be a key differentiator in orienteering success. An anecdotal example is the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare; faster doesn’t always win the race, sometimes consistency and accuracy result in getting there first.
Success in orienteering often involves having the right mindset, practicing, and developing refined techniques for navigation. Across different types of the sport, there are a few techniques that can come in handy at different levels of experience. Let’s explore them.
Using handrails is a helpful technique for those new to Orienteering. They are essentially guides that are created by utilizing fixed features on the landscape and terrain. Reading and interpreting compass bearings, then navigating to the precise location, can take practice to get proficient at.
Using “handrails” makes it easier while one learns those other skills. For example, holding a handrail on a staircase makes it easy to go up or down the stairs, it provides a fixed context to a relative location. Similarly, handrails for orienteering can include fixed features on the map, such as treelines, streams, rock wall formations, public or private roads, or defined trails or tow-paths. Following one of these features makes it much easier to stay on course.
Following handrails might not be the fastest path between control points, though they can certainly help as one becomes more familiar with the more advanced aspects of orienteering navigation.
Aiming off is a technique used to help minimize guessing (and time spent), when navigating to a control point. It involves purposely aiming one’s direction to the left or right of where one believes the control point is located, placing themself between the believed location of the control point and a fixed feature such as a handrail.
This helps, since if they go to far (say, to the handrail) and do not find the control point, it’s obvious that the control point will be in the opposite direction from the handrail. While this isn’t as precise as navigating right to the control point, it can significantly minimize confusion and time lost.
If a competitor does not aim off, they might not know where the navigation error occurred, and then have to choose from 4 directions to go in. If they aimed off towards a handrail, then they’ll know the 1 direction they need to go, opposite of the handrail.
Attack points are locations, away from handrails, that one has a high level of confidence that they can navigate to with significant accuracy. In orienteering, sometimes one needs to navigate without handrails available, or without fixed physical markers (such as a large, specific tree, or natural rock formation in the land) that make it easy to be sure one is where they believe they are on the larger map.
Also, in those situations, the more one travels away from a definitively-known point or location, the more room there is for interpretation error and to actually be in a different location than one believes. The room for error goes up the further away one travels, and this compounds the more points one travels to.
Thus, attack points are locations, that aren’t control points, that a competitor feels very confident they can navigate to with accuracy (this can be by experience, feel, practice, and refined expertise) . They can then use that location to choose the next position to move to.
If this attack point is accurate, it helps make it more possible to accurately navigate to the next location, or control point. This essentially makes the unknown distance of the field “shorter”, and lessens the variation in accessing the next point, which increases accuracy of overall navigation, and lowerting total time on the course.
In orienteering, like other sports, practicing is a big part in developing and refining skills. There are a few areas of orienteering exercises that are usually helpful to focus on that translate into better performance on the course. Let’s explore them.
Orienteering maps are specialized maps used for the sport. They can have legends that include unique symbols, both for the sport itself, and the unique type of orienteering being performed (trail, ski, night, etc.). Learning how to read these maps is essential, along with understanding the symbols and how they inform and impact the dynamic of navigation.
Compass use is another of the few elemental skills in orienteering. Finding bearings and reading compass guidance will be critical to establishing fast and accurate navigation patterns. Compass exercises can be done in most environments for practice, from a backyard, urban area, rural park, or forest hike.
Read While Walking
Orienteering maps are often read, in competition, while on the move (walking, biking, skiing, etc.). Thus, practicing reading and interpreting while in motion can be a helpful exercise that pays benefits come competitions.
Confirm Distances with GPS
An important intangible skill to develop in orienteering is the ability to almost instinctively feel how far one is traveling or has traveled. This helps in setting attack points, as well as strategic planning of directional movement.
One can practice this by traversing distances by foot, estimating how far they have traveled. Then, they can compare this distance with GPS (from a watch, phone, or other GPS-enabled distance tracking/mapping device). From there, they will know the accurate GPS distance, compare that with their personal interpreted distance, and learn how close those are.
Over time, this exercise can lead to a better natural “feel” for distance traveled, which can hel make navigating during competitions easier and more reliable.
Walk Increasingly Longer Distances
Physical fitness is a helpful element to successful orienteering. As one aims to move more quickly, over different terrain, and over longer courses, being in good shape can help a lot.
Thus, one can practice this by getting physical exercise. This can include slowly increasing the distance walked, building up more strength and endurance. The fitness can also be increased in specific ways individual to unique types of orienteering, such as going on increasingly longer bike rides, or increasingly longer ski distances.
The sport of orienteering requires, compared to other sports, very little equipment. This is excellent, as the financial barrier to entry is often low, and offers opportunity for many folks to get into and enjoy this with others.
Orienteering compasses vary in feature set and cost. In general, they range from about $10 for a very basic one, to about $75 for a quality one with very solid and helpful features, to about $800 for versions with exceptional build quality, advanced features, and increased accuracy. For most folks, one in the range between $10-$75 will be excellent and all that is needed. Here are a few of the important features to look for:
- Transparency – It’s important to be able to see the map underneath the compass, thus, having a compass with a transparent base is very helpful
- Liquid Filled – Having the compass needle set into liquid helps maintain its balance for easier and more accurate reading while on the move.
- Luminous Bezel Ring – A luminous bezel ring will generally “glow” in low or no light conditions, providing a way to make it easier to read and use the compass in darker conditions.
- Global Needle – A compass with a global needle can provide accurate readings, even while not being held flat on and level to the map. Generally, they can be tiled up to 20-degrees and still be able to provide accurate readings. This helps when taking readings hand-held, while on the move.
- Mirror Sight – A mirror sight helps with visually extending the compass reading out onto the terrain that is being traveled. While looking at a compass with a mirror sight, one can imagine the navigation lines extending beyond the compass, and visually help provide some guides as they interpret those into the actual terrain they’re seeing, beyond the limits of the mirror.
Orienteering maps are generally topographic maps, produced at a larger scale than common maps, and include a unique legend and marking symbols that are unique to orienteering, and the specific type of orienteering being performed.
Orienteering maps are generally available for free from competition organized for events that are signed-up for, downloaded free from local orienteering group websites, or cost a few dollars for printed versions.
Orienteering symbols on orienteering maps often include a lot of detailed and unique information that is helpful to the sport. Some of the most common include:
- Land Forms
- Water Locations
- Marsh Locations
- Man-Made Features
- Vegetation and Tree Locations
- Control Point Locations
- Land Surface Appearance
- Rock Formations
- Special Features
Orienteering courses are the organized points through which a competitors navigate through during a competition. These can be designed by local folks, orienteering groups, or competition organizers.
Courses can be in most any location, commonly including urban locations, forests, on trails, and in national parks. Orienteering course distances generally range in length, and are classified into these types:
- Ultra Long Distance
- Long Distance
- Middle Distance
- Sprint Distance
The specific distance for each type often varies based on orienteering type (trail, mountain bike, ski, etc.), gender class, and age class for the competition categories.
A whistle is used in orienteering as a tool for safety, allowing one to alert others to their location or need for assistance. Since orienteering events often take place in rural or wooded areas, it can be very helpful to have an effective means of communication to reach out and communicate with others in the area.
Orienteering Clothes and Shoes
Orienteering clothes and shoes can vary greatly based on the specific type of orienteering being done (country trail in the summer, mountain biking in the fall, ski orienteering in the winter, etc.). Thus, it’s important to be familiar with the type of weather conditions, and terrain, one will be encountering in the type of orienteering they will be engaging in.
In general, orienteering clothes should fit well, be comfortable, and provide adequate protection from the element. Orienteering shoes and footwear should fit comfortably and well, be in good condition, and be as light as possible to help support faster travel.
Orienteering Merit Badge
The orienteering merit badge is a symbolic, embroidered patch awarded by the Boy Scouts of America to member scouts who have proved proficiency in orienteering practices. It is a physical representation, a symbol, of their accomplished knowledge in the area of orienteering. The requirements generally involve:
- Demonstrating the ability to apply relevant first aid to injuries that might be sustained during orienteering
- Explain what orienteering is
- Explain, and demonstrate compass use and proficiency
- Explain, and demonstrate map use, map reading, and map interpretation proficiency
- Define a 100-meter course and be able to explain the importance of and impact of pace
- Participate in three orienteering events
- Set up an orienteering course that is at least 2,000 meters long
- Act as a competition Official during an orienteering event
- Teach orienteering to fellow Boy Scout members
Scottish Orienteering is the governing body in Scotland for orienteering. It is located at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms National Park, and provides information about local Scottish orienteering clubs, orienteering news, and a list of orienteering events that take place across Scotland, throughout the year.
How to Start Orienteering
To start orienteering, it is as simple as getting a compass, a map, and practicing. The length of the practice can be as short or as long as one likes. With a map in hand and an orienteering compass, one can begin learning how to use the compass and move from one location on a map to another.
From there, one can try longer distances, moving between more points, and moving across more complex terrain. When starting orienteering, it can be very advantageous to reach out to a local orienteering club, as their members usually know the areas very well, can make helpful recommendations, and are usually very welcoming and excited to share the sport with others.
How to Practice Orienteering
Practicing orienteering can be done by getting a map of a desired location (city, park, trail, etc.), then navigating from one preferred location to another using a compass. It’s as simple as that! As one gains more experience, they can practice more advanced techniques such as using handrails, aiming off, and navigating to attack points.
In reality, practice is just about getting a map, compass, and going. Over time, it makes it very easy to develop and refine skills, plus it feels great to get outside and is a lot of fun.
The Goal of Orienteering
The purpose of orienteering is to develop functional skills where one can navigate over land to determined points. In more recent history, this was essential for the movement of people, military, and supplies over long distances.
In more recent times, with evolved infrastructures, mobile phones, digital maps, and GPS, orienteering is more of a sport to be practice where one can learn a new skill (which can be relied on if digital technologies are not available), spend time outside, develop their physical fitness, get in touch with nature, and grow relationships with other who enjoy the sport.
Orienteering is an exceptionally fun sport, based on navigational necessity that evolved into a social, physical, and intellectually enjoyable practice. With just a map, compass, and desire to move, the world is literally one’s playing field, with much to explore and many adventures to experience.