Orienteering - The Thinking Sport

Imagine that you are moving through the woods, often off-trail. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and your surroundings are beautiful and serene. You can see no one else around you, yet you are in the heat of a race. You are filled with race excitement and anxiety. In your hands are a map and compass which you use to figure out which way to go, all the while moving without skipping a beat. You are orienteering.

Orienteering is the sport where athletes use only a map and compass to navigate their way through the terrain in order to find the control points which form the pre-set course. The map gives detailed information on the terrain such as hills, stone walls, streams, etc. There is no marked route in the terrain; the athletes must choose their own route between the control points.

The Sport for Everyone

Orienteering demands the skill of being able to read a detailed map and choose the best route over complex terrain while moving at your own speed. The course is designed to test both the orienteer's physical strength and their navigation skills. It can be enjoyed as a walk in the woods or as a competitive sport.

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.

One of the most unique aspects of orienteering is that it is a sport that anyone can do. The competitive athlete can experience the exhilaration of running though the woods at top speed, while the non-competitive orienteer can enjoy the forest at a more leisurely pace. Most events provide courses for all levels, from beginner to advanced, and the sport has been adapted for small children and people in wheelchairs.

There is a wide variety of orienteering formats: individual competitions, relays, sprint races, and 24-hour events. The majority of events are for those on foot, but there are also ski or mountain bike events.

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, including the elites who race on the US Orienteering Team in international events,  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 national events have a Saturday night dinner/social gathering.

The Map

The map is an enhanced 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 map is 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. This means that every one centimeter on the map equals 100 or 150 meters in real life. 10 centimeters is 1 or 1.5 kilometers (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 meters (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 also uses several different colors and symbols not found on a topo map. There are international specifications for map symbols, and these have been successful in their aim of making orienteering map symbols standard throughout the world.

For instance, no matter where you orienteer in the world, white represents open woods; different shades of green mean different thicknesses of trees and plants; yellow represents fields and open areas. Specific symbols indicate water features, rocks, trails, roads, cliffs, earth banks, power lines, man-made objects, and even upturned roots, all marked on the map with an extreme degree of accuracy.

The Events

Most orienteering events are local events hosted by clubs and open to the public. These generally offer a range of four or five courses which differ in length and difficulty. There are 64 clubs spread across the US. The United States Orienteering Federation (USOF) administers all clubs in the US. You can find a club near you (and everything else you want to know about the sport) by going to the USOF?'s website, www.us.orienteering.org .

Local meets charge a small fee, usually in the $5 to $8 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. 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 dirty. 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 and the courses.

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