“CONNECT THE DOTS”: Orienteering enthusiasts walk through the woods with just a map and a compass | News, Sports, Jobs

Correspondent THOMAS ASK/Sun-Gazette Orienteering involves traversing mountains using a map and compass to find your way.


“It’s fun, it’s like a life-size link between the dots,” said Aidan Turner with the energetic smile of a young student. He was talking about orienteering – navigating an area using only a map and compass. Some people compete to see who can pass the fastest, but many do it just for fun. You can go where you want and feel comfortable, you won’t get lost.

Turner, a student at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, took up orienteering as a Boy Scout, but it seemed to come naturally to his family. He had seen how capable his older brother was of taking up the sport. With only his grandfather’s compass and a map, he would set off with friends and organize informal competitions.

“I like to go there with friends. We choose waypoints and orient to them. We find prominent features like a protruding rock or a distinctive tree to weave our way through the woods,” turner said “When we’re in open country, we can use things like lakes and mountains.”

Orienteering skills can help in a pinch. Once, when Turner and his friends tried to climb a mountain at Philmont Scout Ranch, a scout camp in northern New Mexico, they got caught near the top as a thunderstorm was coming. They had to come out of their exposed position. They quickly headed for a road they knew was nearby.

“You shouldn’t go into the woods without a compass” said Jim Pagana, a seasoned hiker living in Montoursville. “In a dense forest, you can’t see the sun to orient yourself.”

Pagana has been an orienteer for decades, from his childhood hikes near Renovo to his long involvement with scouts. Orienteering, he said, requires a relationship of trust.

“You have to trust your compass. Your mind can play tricks on you. My senses can sense that I want to go one way, but I have to follow the compass,” says Pagan.

“We call it ‘land navigation’ in the military,” said veteran Bruce Reiner of Trout Run.

In army training, soldiers are challenged to find landmarks in the woods using compass direction and distance. They determine their walking pace by counting the steps to cover 100 meters. They can then judge their pace of walking and best follow the orientation of the compass.

Orienteering is also similar to “Dead Reckoning,” used in boating and aviation, where you estimate your position based on a compass bearing and speed.

Piloting is a cousin of orienteering. It is an ability to compare a topographic map with surrounding landmarks to establish a location. Orienteering’s other cousin, geocaching, relies on GPS and is also popular in this area.

What can you trust more, a compass or a GPS?

“I had unreliable GPS in the valleys,” said Turner. “A compass will work most of the time, but using it requires some knowledge. If you need directions during a storm, the GPS becomes a paperweight.

A compass is cheaper, he added, and can last for generations.

Orienteering as a competition began among military officers in Sweden in 1893. By 1934, over a quarter of a million people in Scandinavia and beyond were taking part in the sport.

In its competitive form, people rush to given checkpoints where they hit a card with a distinctive punch to prove they were there.

The route is traditionally done on foot but can also be done on cross-country skis or mountain bikes.

Author JRR Tolkien wrote: “Not all who wander are lost.” Orienteering, enthusiasts say, lets you weave your way through our hills and valleys as you see fit – and you’re never lost.

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Dino J. Dotson