An Introduction to Orienteering

Welcome to the confounding and addictive world of competitive orienteering

I find the intellectual challenge of the Score-O format more enjoyable than the usual orienteering races, or maybe I just like the fact that if you're completely stymied by one control, you can skip it without ruining your entire race.

Orienteering and rogaines are extremely popular in some parts of the world, including Scandinavia, the U.K., Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S., these are definitely fringe sports; many of the participants in this cerebral activity seem to make their living with computers, and the sport is concentrated in high-tech centers like Boston, the Bay Area and Los Alamos.

Something for Everyone

One advantage is that anyone can participate, even at the highest levels. A few years ago, the 6th World Rogaining Championships were held in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Nearly 400 competitors from 15 countries and 32 states traveled to this championship. Yet rogaining is such a small-scale and friendly sport that complete rookies like my friend Dave and I could compete in the world championships despite the fact that, until then, we had never even done a rogaine. And we finished in the middle of the pack.

A big rogaine like the world championships takes the endurance aspect of orienteering to a whole other level. The course in Arizona encompassed 115 square miles--the size of a large metropolitan area--and the winners covered more than 75 miles in their 24-hour wander through the woods.

However, most local orienteering meets are low-key affairs. They cater to Boy Scouts and to families with children. My local orienteering group, the Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club, even sets String-O courses, where toddlers can follow a cord from control to control.

And fortunately for the less serious competitor, success in orienteering often means slowing down instead of racing full-tilt, in order to focus on navigation. (It's also wise to ignore other competitors, who might not even be competing on your course. One orienteer I know chased a fast, confident-looking racer for several minutes until the fellow in the lead suddenly pulled up and shouted, "I'm such a $#@#% idiot!")

Though the elite wear tear-resistant nylon suits, gaiters, water-draining shoes, thumb compasses and, for older orienteers, flip-down magnifying eyeglasses, you can race in any outdoor clothes and running shoes. Many people walk the courses, and families and friends often join forces as a team. My wife and I often do orienteering races together with our dog, opting for navigational challenge over aerobic strain.

No matter how slowly you get there, it's always a rush to find a hidden control exactly where you expected it would be.

Get More Info: The U.S. Orienteering Federation ( has a good website with links to instructional sites and other resources. Click on "Clubs" for a geographical directory of orienteering clubs in the U.S., most of which post online schedules of meets.
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