Guide to Orienteering

Many people who have taken up hiking, rambling and other more genteel forms of exploring the countryside have often decided that they want to combine their natural love of the outdoors with something a bit more challenging and physically demanding. Some of them have, therefore, taken up the sport of orienteering.

The Basics

In its simplest form, it consists of navigating on foot between points on a pre-defined course drawn on a map. For those who enjoy running combined with accurate map reading using a compass, orienteering is often their sport of choice.

The aim is to navigate round all of the points on the map in the correct order and in the fastest possible time. Attributes to become a good orienteer include running speed, strength and stamina through sometimes rough terrain, alongside good navigational skills. Events often take place in areas of natural beauty, often in forests and on open fellside, which is why it can often be a natural progression for those who demand more than just a leisurely stroll in the countryside.

At each point along the course, there is usually an orange and white ‘control kite’ and some kind of equipment is used to check that you have passed through that point. To assist you in finding this at each point on the route, there will be a ‘control description’ briefly outlining what feature the control is located on. You’ll usually carry something an e-card card which is registered at each control point and record details to show that you have passed through. Each control point you pass through will record the time you checked in so that at the end of the race, all these times can be added together to determine the winner. Not everybody usually runs at the same time so results are not normally finalised until the last runner finishes.

The Equipment

Each runner is equipped with a map of the course, all the control points marked. These are different from Ordnance Survey maps, in much greater detail (either 1:10,000 or 1:15.000; with the former, 1cm. on the maps represents 100 metres), colour-coded to show vegetation, with many features shown, and aligned to Magnetic North. Why? Since competitors use a compass to navigate, it makes perfect sense! A triangle on the map usually denotes the start control point and a double circle, the finishing line. It’s important to mark the control points accurately as the map and compass will be all that you have when out in the forest. It’s also important to note the correct order in which you’re expected to identify and pass through all the control points.

Approaching the Start of the Race

There is usually a large clock situated at the beginning of the course. When your time is called out, you usually have to hand the stub off the end of your card you’ll have been given to the official and then a whistle will be blown or you’ll hear an electronic beep which means they are asking you to move forward into another box close to the start line. Finally, you will get to the start line and someone will say, “10 seconds to go, step over the line’. This is simply to stop you from tripping over the line. Then the whistle or some other signal will sound and you’re off.

Once You’ve Started the Course

An orange and white kite usually determines the start point of the route. On the map, this is in the middle of the triangle. Either by aligning features on the ground with those on the map or using a compass, you then need to ‘orientate’ your map. You need to decide how to get to the first control. On simple courses, you should be able to use footpaths. Try to make sure the map is pointing the correct way and identify features on the map as you pass them. When you get to each control check that is the right one using the letters and the numbers on the control descriptions.

Finishing Post

The one ‘golden rule’ you must follow when competing in an orienteering event is that you must report to the officials whether or not you have completed the course. If you don’t, the organisers can spend hours out in the forest searching for you. On your control descriptions, you’ll see the time at which courses close. Make sure you are back before that time, even if you don’t complete the whole course, so that the controls can be collected in.

As you cross the finishing line, your time will be taken. At most events, you will be given a numbered cloakroom ticket which you just hand in to the officials at the end of the event with your e-card. They will then go and check that you have punched the right controls and tally up your overall time, which, since everything is digital, can be printed instantly. Quite often, you’ll find that there’s a tradition of putting up a washing line in the car park with all the results on and your paper will be stapled to the washing line in the order in which you finished compared with the other competitors. Sometimes this is done for you but if you have to do it yourself, it’s important to staple your paper in the correct place along the line or cord.

There are many orienteering clubs up and down the country and all ages participate. It’s a relatively cheap sport to pursue in terms of equipment and clothes you need and there are different levels you can join at, from beginners to intermediate to advanced. You’ll often start out at district events but if you’re good, you can quickly advance to competing in regional and then national events.

Orienteering isn’t for the faint-hearted but it does provide for a challenging, physically demanding alternative to exploring the countryside and the great outdoors more vigorously than by simply taking a stroll through the woods. And, although it is a competitive sport, many people just come for the challenge of completing the course and to enjoy the scenery.

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