What is the sport of orienteering?

An orienteering control or checkpoint (photo by Glutnix - CC-BY)

An orienteering control or checkpoint (photo by Glutnix - CC-BY)

Orienteering is the sport of running across the countryside, using a map and compass to make your way from checkpoint to checkpoint as quickly as you can. Cunning running, if you like. Because orienteering is a big word, it’s often simply referred to as “O” by its adherents.

The sport originated in Norway (PDF), where the first public event was held in Oslo on 31 October 1887. The sport spread in popularity throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and by the 1930s hundreds of thousands of people were participating.

In the 1960s the sport spread to the rest of the world, and it is now practised in countries from Somalia to Mongolia. Additional variants have also arisen: ski orienteering, mountain bike orienteering, night-O, sprint-O, trail-O, street-O and orienteering relays.

At first, orienteering used standard military or civilian topographic maps. Nowadays detailed maps are prepared for orienteering events, often at a scale of 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. The maps show depict the landforms using detailed contours, usually at 5 meter intervals. They also show ground conditions (forests, marshes, rough or stony ground, streams and ditches) plus man-made features (paths, walls, gates, stiles, etc).

There are segregated courses for males and females, and different courses are offered according to age. Typical courses range up to twelve kilometers and might take up to two hours to complete.  Shorter and simpler courses may be offered for beginners, less fit participants or those pressed for time. There is often a string course, where toddlers can follow a string (often over a kilometer long) which winds through the fields and forests past interesting features.

Most O maps are drawn using orienteering mapping software such as Ocad, but it’s also possible to use standard graphics packages such as Illustrator or Corel Draw.

Competitors use a compass to help them find their way around the course, but are not permitted any other aid. Most events use a small electronic “punch” to record each of the checkpoints (called “controls”) that have been visited. At the course finish, the competitor receives a printout showing their total time and also the time taken from each control to the next.

A competitor is not permitted to use GPS for navigation, but can record a GPS track which can later be overlayed on the course map. This allows the actual route taken to be compared with the optimum route (which is not always a straight line, because it may be more efficient to go around a hill than up-and-over).

Competitors are started at intervals of a minute or more, but will often see other competitors – either because they have caught up, or because there are competitors on other courses that come closeby.

It’s a great sport for fitness, and is environmentally-friendly except for one thing: events tend to be in different parts of the country each week, usually in remote areas inaccessible by public transport, so there tends to be a lot of driving involved.

Equipment is inexpensive: compass, shoes (often studded to help in the mud), whistle (for if you’re hopelessly lost or break your leg) and gaiters (to minimize scratches when bashing through the bramble). Many competitors run in the colors of their club.

Those who wish to pursue trinkets and awards will find a large range of competitive events, building up to the World Orienteering Championships and other international events. Those who wish to run for the fun and challenge will be able to enjoy quieter events closer to home.

There are many who want Orienteering to become an Olympic sport, but this seems unlikely because the fair nature of the competition depends on the courses (which must be planned well in advance) being kept absolutely secret until the start of the race.

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