Orienteering Course: Test Your Endurance and Map Reading Skills | Functioning
TThis is not a good start to my first orientation session. My phone has completely lost all signal, the carefully plotted coordinates of the meeting point have disappeared from Google Maps, and I can’t even find the parking lot. Fortunately, the Southdowns Orienteers are much more organized – I spot a sign stuck to a tree. I think we are in business.
Despite my appetite for cross-country, a great tolerance for mud and more than a passing interest in gadgets, I’m a bit apprehensive how I’m going to get by. I’m not as fit as I should be, thanks to a desk job and two exhausting young children. I hope I’ll be saved by my secret cartophilia habit (I’m known to download unlabeled world maps so I can challenge myself to name each country) and a decent sense of direction. Hopefully it won’t end like the Blair Witch Project and I’ll be heading back to the car before sunset.
Orienteering may seem quite technical, but the basic principle is to time yourself to run courses on variously difficult terrain. The Southdowns Orienteers, a Sussex-based club, run most weekends, and all you need is a pair of supportive running shoes with good grip and Â£ 5.50 to participate. The group does everything else for you – plotting a trail through the forest, providing maps, and renting you an electronic dibber for Â£ 1 which you use to record your times at electronic checkpoints along the way.
We are rather blessed on this special Saturday morning in Friston Forest, with the misty South Downs as a backdrop and the relief of a warming spring sun. Ali Hooper, an experienced orienteer, introduces me to the principles of map reading and route planning, and we follow some short, basic trails using a small compass and colorful maps on A4 paper. Then we measure the number of steps we take over 100 meters and use that to calculate how far away the next point of contact is.
The courses are color coded for difficulty, from easy white to difficult black. By the time I have finished my training, the maps for the simpler yellow and orange courses are exhausted, so I have a green course of 7 km left. I quickly discover that it is much, much more difficult than my usual cross country race. Soon I’m wading through mud, climbing brambles and thickets, and running over spongy leaves. I also constantly check my route and direction, and compare landmarks such as dense undergrowth and mounds with symbols on the map.
Orienteering groups are careful not to over-register for events – if you can see the runner in front of you, it’s easy enough to let them navigate (or cheat, as some might call it). I try to ignore Les Hooper, a 40 year old orienteering veteran, but I can’t help but notice that after confidently passing him towards checkpoint 6, he’s gone. Ten minutes later, I’m still inspecting the wrong thicket when I realize Les is long gone. It takes a thorough reexamination of my map to realize that I’m 30 meters too east, which is a perfect illustration of why map reading is the primary skill of orienteering. You don’t even have to run; many members, including a 92-year-old in this group, use walking routes instead. It can be done at any speed, in any location (there is urban orienteering, ski orienteering, horse orienteering – even orienteering. night), in all weathers and at all ages.
What is particularly nice is that the whole family can also participate. Les tells me that her children and grandchildren are all avid orienteers, and given the constant concern about screen time, this is a great way to engage kids in a gently competitive sport and skilled who will put some color on their cheeks. Another seasoned member says he and his wife started orienteering as a last resort – they had tried many other sports, but he continued to win. They’ve been doing orienteering since then and she beats him every time.