I’ve always been a geek for maps.  As a kid, I once went through about a ream of paper drawing a road map of my hometown, from memory, as best I could.  At a scale that had roads drawn about a half-inch wide, this took a LOT of paper and a lot of room on the basement floor.  I was genuinely surprised my parents didn’t share my enthusiasm for the project – they shared their opinions as soon as they discovered what I was up to, which wasn’t until I came to them asking for more paper.

Maps are magical, in a way, for being able to symbolize the real world in miniature, but they also represent possibilities.  I could go to that mountaintop, that river…  And maps yield clarity on so many things – the history of warfare, of battles, and of more mundane things like cultural exchange and expansion of settlements, make SO much more sense when you understand the lay of the land.

DSC_1106So when I learned to use a compass and a map together, I was excited.  Later, I developed the same fascination with GPS.  Knowing how to use these tools is essential for anyone who wants to spend time in the outdoors, and I was proud, as a young Boy Scout, of being good at it.

But for all that, I’d never heard of doing it competitively, until I stumbled across a website advertising a “meet” reasonably nearby, organized by the Quantico Orienteering Club.  I convinced my sons, a few Scouts, and ultimately my wife (we did an Orienteering Meet on Mother’s Day!  I have the BEST WIFE EVER!!) to go check it out and see what it was all about.

The basics of orienteering involve:

  1. “Orienting” a map – generally a topographical map – by aligning it with the real world, using a compass and accounting for magnetic variation.  This has the effect of giving you a view of yourself on the map, if you zoomed way, way out.  If you were to draw a line between your position and a landmark on the map, you can look up along that line and see the actual landmark, in real life.  Pretty cool.
  2. EITHER, use compass bearings off visible landmarks in the real world to triangulate your actual position onto the map and figure out just where in the heck you are (a feat mostly replaced by GPS), OR
  3. Knowing where you are, figuring out the bearing and distance to where you want to go, and then using the compass as a guide and counting paces as you go, setting off cross-country to get there.

This is the basic idea, with additional tricks of mental and actual geometry thrown in to navigate around obstacles, over cliffs, across rivers, etc, and be able to pick up your course on the other side.

As it turns out, competitive orienteering resembles this… slightly.

DSC_1103The basic idea is the same – you’re given a map, with waypoints marked on it, and an associated list of waypoints with identifying features – a unique number, to verify you’d found the right one, and a general description of its location.  (“Beginner” courses use a description, while more advanced runs use a symbolic library to tell you things like “in the southwest corner of a thicket”).  The objective is to find those waypoints in the real world, marked by little flags, in numerical order, as fast as you can.  To prove you did it, you’re equipped with a little RF device called an “e-punch”, which you strap to a finger, and insert into a hole on a box at each waypoint, called a “control”, where the e-punch records your presence and elapsed time.  In the old days when I learned this, a control actually had a mechanical hole punch with a peculiar shape – a star, a moon, a lightning bolt – and you’d punch a card.  You had to manually verify when complete that you got the right shapes in the right order.  Now, the electronic e-punch verifies that AND your timing, and you just load it into a computer when complete.  Progress!!

DSC_1111What surprised me was the SPEED at which some of these competitors completed the course, most of them doing it while rarely, if ever, referring to a compass.  There was a lot of gut instinct and realtime verification of terrain and other features going on.  A trail crossing here, a creek and a powerline there…  Even when a compass DID come out, I was surprised to see competitive compasses that sort of vaguely indicated direction in swaths of about 30 degrees.  As in “Go generally that way”, not “follow a bearing of 241 degrees”.  I heard advice being shared by experienced racers – “you navigate to the FEATURE, not the CONTROL.”

There were seven courses at this event, ranging in complexity from “White” (short, with clear descriptions and easily visible controls) on the beginner end of the spectrum, up through Yellow, Orange, Brown, Green, and Red, to Blue (you’d better be prepared to run at least a half-marathon, through the woods, while finding hidden objects the size of a toaster).

DSC_1124As total noobs, my family was not in it to race, but to learn – we did Yellow (2.6 km, 10 controls).  One of the boys that came with us does adventure races with his dad (very cool, I might have to try that…) and so he and his dad both did solo races on a course appropriate to their skill level and endurance – Yellow for the son, Green for Dad.  And another Scout does this frequently as part of J-ROTC, so he was up for a challenge and chose Red.

On our Yellow course, we let our sons do the navigation.  My wife and I followed.  There was very little running.  And true to the spirit of the event, we didn’t use the compass much.  There were a couple confusing trail junctions where the boys did a quick map alignment before choosing a direction, and there were a couple off-trail sections where reference to the compass on a regular basis was needed to keep on a true course – but even then, we were trying to intersect a feature (a trail, creek, or powerline cut), and not nail the control dead-on.

DSC_1118At one point, we got lost for a good 40 minutes… While chasing down control number 6, the boys had a good plan to overshoot the direct course a bit and use a marked trail intersection to angle back to it.  However, the “trail” didn’t exist, and we overshot by (easily) a half-mile before the boys realized it.  This prompted a series of cross-country off-trail maneuvers that eventually drove us back to the easily-recognizable powerline, but another 5 minutes figuring out just where along that line we were.  This, in and of itself, was a great experience, and one I was glad to watch the boys handle.  Rationally thinking through the “I know I’m generally here in an area the size of a quarter, but how can I verify and navigate down to something the size of a pinhead” challenge that getting lost in the woods creates is a WONDERFUL learning experience disguised as fun.

DSC_1125We ultimately walked 4 miles on a 2.6km (~1.5 mile) course, and took 1 hour, 40 minutes (1:40) to finish.  As my wife said, “we saw a lot more of this park than we were supposed to.”  To our surprise, that earned us 5th place out of 12!  Seems that many, in their haste, either logged the WRONG point, or missed finding one altogether.  We found all ten controls, so slow and steady wasn’t so bad.  Our friend on Yellow smoked us with a 40 minute time, beating us by an hour and pulling in 2nd place.  First place beat him by only 4 minutes.

Our J-ROTC friend?  He finished 3:35 after he started, exhausted, having gone several times farther than the 7.8km straight-line course, and saying “that was the hardest course I’ve ever run”.

The Verdict – Despite getting lost at one point, this was really cool.  The boys had a good time, I really enjoyed it.  Even my wife had a nice day walking in the woods (and admitting the boys were better with map and compass than she thought they’d be).  This was a great way to hone skills, to deal with mistakes, to do some critical thinking and decision making with limited information – and it was a whole lot of fun!

Highly recommended if you get the chance!  Find an Orienteering Club near you and give it a try!

Get Out There!




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