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Everything you wanted to know about orienteering but were afraid to ask

Orienteering is often cited as an activity our readers would most like to learn about. In the last few years, orienteering has experienced a surge in participation (despite the mass availability of GPS systems). This surge is thanks in part to the shift away from more gear- and time-intensive adventure races and the advent of unique new disciplines like mountain bike orienteering and cleverly-marketed events.

Orienteering involves navigating with a compass and travelling on foot, by bike, on skis, or snowshoes, to a series of checkpoints indicated on a map (detailed orienteering maps might include landmarks like boulders and even changes in vegetation density).

Participants plot their routes (on-the-go) to reach all the points and get back to the finish line in the shortest amount of time. Checkpoints are marked with orange and white flags (you’ve probably seen these when out hiking) and are equipped with punches or electronic devices that prove you’ve been to that “control”.

Racers are engaged mentally and physically as they combine map reading ability and decision-making skills with physical fitness and the outdoors.

There is no shortage of orienteering events (and cult-like devotees who’ll be delighted to share their love of the sport with you) in Canada. The Canadian Orienteering Federation’s website lists clubs that host year-round events taking place from Salmon Arm, British Columbia, to Uxbridge, Ontario, to Rumsey, Alberta, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Some are competitive and others are more recreational in nature.

There are weeknight training events in urban parks and other events that combine activities like snowshoeing or mountain biking. Races vary in length from sprints (12–15 minutes) to middle distance (30-35 minutes) and long distance (70-90 minutes).

Rogaines are longer-distance team events that can range from two to 24 hours. Teams of two to five members try to maximize their score by hitting as many checkpoints in the allotted time as possible. 
 
Aside from orienteering as a sport, basic navigation skills are important for anyone heading into the backcountry. A good topographic map, a magnetic compass and some orienteering knowledge are basic requirements for backcountry users.
 
Getting Ready
Some adventure-based sports use government topographic maps that are not outfitted with magnetic north lines. Many people set the declination on their compasses; however, the best navigators in the world know the importance of keeping maps oriented. This can only be done properly by using magnetic north lines. Figure out the declination, and then mark new magnetic north lines on your map. 
 
Thumbs Up
Start by finding your location on the map. Fold your map so that you can easily hold the map with your thumb marking your location. Right-handed people tend to carry maps in their left hands. 
 
Keeping Oriented
You should always have your map turned so that all the features in the terrain are aligned with your map. This is the most important skill you can acquire. Look at the terrain and identify the features that are mapped and then turn your map so they match. If there’s a lake on your left, you want to turn your map so the symbol for the lake is located to the left of your thumb. The easiest way to orient your map is to use your compass. While holding the compass flat, look for the north needle. Line up this needle with the newly drawn north lines on your map. Once they are parallel, your map is oriented. 
 
Make a Plan
Divide each part of the race into manageable pieces. Plan backwards. Look to the checkpoint you are going to and identify what is called an attack point – a large feature that you are confident you can find. Scan the map and try to find handrails (linear features like ridges, trails, marshes) that you can follow. Often you will use a series of these handrails to get you from one checkpoint to your attack point and then on to the next checkpoint. Also, pick out catching features — linear features perpendicular to your route which will “catch” you if you go too far.
  
The Lingo
Courtesy of the good folks at Barebones Orienteering.
 
Punch: A device at the control that you use to prove you were there. (Often a pin-punch.) In bigger races, it will be an electronic device.
 
Emit: An electronic timing system in common use in Scandinavia. It is the major competitor to SportIdent. Runners carry a credit-card-sized ‘brick’ that they touch to an Emit ‘punch’ unit at each control site. It provides a silent punch and an automatic backup if either the punch or brick should fail.
 
ISOM: International Standards for Orienteering Maps. Defines all the symbols used on Foot-O maps.
 
Re-Entrant: Perhaps the most confusing of all orienteering lingo. A re-entrant is what most people would call a small gully. Re-entrants are represented on a map by u-shaped bends in a contour line. They can be very shallow in the terrain or very, very, deep and are commonly used as locations for controls. 
 
Open Forest: An open forest has trees far apart and very little underbrush. Running is fast and easy and fun. Marked on the map with a white background.
 
Un-Crossable Feature (stream/fence/marsh): These are features that you are not allowed to cross, even though you might think you could cross them. They are marked on the map as un-crossable using special symbols. It is important to know the symbols. Features are marked as un-crossable usually for safety reasons, but also often as specified by the landowner. 

By Nina Wallace

Nina is the founder of Backwoods Adventures, which runs orienteering events and navigation clinics across southwestern Ontario. 
 

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