It's not so much the terrain as the navigation that slows you down. So, how do you find a tiny box deliberately hidden among many acres of dense woodland? Three tools make it possible; a map, a clue sheet and a compass.
For experienced orienteers, the map provides 90 percent of the necessary information to find those tiny boxes. These highly detailed maps, created and continuously updated by expert volunteers, make the standard USGS topos look like pages from a Rand McNally road atlas. The scale is usually 1:10,000 or 1:15,000, compared with 1:24,000 for the most detailed USGS topos. The contour interval is 5 meters (about 16 feet), compared with the 20-foot minimum interval on topo maps. The result is an extraordinary level of detail, allowing you to follow every nook and cranny in the landscape.
Orienteering mapmakers go one step further by drawing in every large boulder, isolated tree or big stump, stone wall, fence, swamp and even variations in the vegetation, from open forest or fields that are good for running to rough ground or dense bush that should be avoided.
Skilled orienteers stay in constant "contact" with the map as they run, checking off each shallow gully, jumbo boulder or forest boundary as they race past.
Course setters also prepare a clue sheet, providing the identifying number of each control, along with some details about its precise location: atop a knoll, on the south side of a 2-meter-high boulder or in the bottom of a gully, for example. This allows you to narrow your search once you get close.
Finally, there's the compass. It's always prudent to orient the map with the compass each time you leave a control--that's how you avoid mistakes like my boneheaded maneuver at Control No. 7. And in thick woods, sometimes you have to follow a compass bearing for hundreds of yards to stay on course. Veteran racers learn to count their paces along a bearing, so they'll know when to start looking for a control.
All this sounds complicated, but at the beginner's level it's actually quite simple. At many local meets, a volunteer will be on hand to explain how the map and clue sheet work, and to demonstrate how to orient the map with a compass. Beginners' courses generally follow easily recognizable features--such as trails, streams, or fence lines--to each control, making navigation a snap. As you get comfortable with the basics, you can move on to more challenging routes.
A host of variations to standard orienteering races have developed over the years, including Bike-O, Ski-O, Night-O and the sprint format, where a dozen or more controls are set in a small area and the winners may need only 10 minutes to race around them.
My favorite format is the Score-O or rogaine. (Rogaine is not named for the hair product but for Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance.) In these events, the course setters don't dictate an exact route you must follow. Instead, they scatter controls around a huge course and then set a time limit (2 hours to as much as 24 hours) to find as many controls as you can.
Often, the point values for each control in a rogaine vary depending on how far away or difficult to locate they are. You plan your own route, trying to maximize your point total within the time limit; there's usually a severe point penalty for each minute you're late.