Do It: Orienteering Exercises Body and Mind

Victoria E. Freile

I waded through ankle-deep mud on a hiking trail in Chili’s Black Creek Park about three minutes after my first orienteering attempt.

Mud splattered on my legs, which I quickly learned was considered normal for the course, as I navigated the 2.6-kilometre beginner’s course alongside longtime hiker and orienteer Carol Moran, 70 years, from Fairport.

We checked our map at every turn we made, especially after seeing an excited newbie skip one checkpoint and rush to another in plain sight. Later, she laughed as she ran, telling us her only goal was to finish.

Moran and I were among 80 people who ran through the woods last weekend at the Rochester Orienteering Club’s first meet of the season.

A self-proclaimed cartography enthusiast and child of a cartographer who loves to walk, walk and run, I soon realized that the sporting event was made for people like me.

A successful outing is not about being the fittest, the fastest, the youngest or the oldest. Orienteering is also about using your mind and knowing how to read a map.

“My late husband made me do the sport kicking and screaming,” Moran said with a laugh. “He was a runner. I wasn’t. But it was something we both could do on our own level. All these years later, I’m still running in the woods.”

Trekking poles in hand, Moran walked briskly to 10 “checkpoints” on the park’s beginner course. At each stop, she recorded her presence by placing a digital recorder in a device attached to each marker, an orange and white nylon flag.

Moran and I were far from the fastest competitors — some participants race and others (like us) treat the course as a trek through the woods. We chatted nonstop, took several shortcuts, and walked through grass, woods, mud, and mud.

How to play

The 150-member volunteer club hosts an average of two meetings per month, usually held at local parks. For each event, the group sets up several courses to appeal to novice, intermediate and expert orienteers.

“We are a club of people who navigate uncharted waters with a map and a compass,” said Don Winslow, 47, from Macedonia. “You exercise your body and your mind at the same time. You look at a map and have to make a split-second decision on which route to take.”

Classes are color-labeled with corresponding difficulty levels so people of all ages, genders and skill levels can participate, in groups or solo.

The easiest course is the family white course, designed for novice orienteers like me. The next step is the yellow route, followed by orange through the rest of the color wheel.

On Saturday, beginner course participants had to visit 10 checkpoints in a designated order, while more advanced orienteers chose their own path. Each participant was given a map to view and decided which checkpoints to visit and which path to take within 90 minutes.

Come back late and you lose hard-earned points. Go too slow and you’re bound to slip down the leaderboard.

Back at the park’s Pathfinder Lodge, home base for the day, club volunteers set up the most basic course, String-O. Here, young children follow an orange ribbon to a series of checks for a taste of the sport.

Although most club meets are races on foot, some events take place on water, on bicycles or, in winter, on skis. There are also permanent orienteering routes at Durand Eastman, Mendon Ponds and Webster Parks and nearby Letchworth State Park.

Next month the club will hold its very popular urban orientation event, the Rochester Map Adventure. Participants will traverse the city – on foot, by bike, virtually anything but a car – navigating a map and answering trivial questions.

Why run?

“You can run really fast to nowhere,” said Jason Urckfitz, 46, of Mendon, a runner who has been orienteering for about 15 years.

The challenge, he says, is trying to find your way in the middle of nowhere, using a compass and a map. Now do it by walking or running over rough hiking trails, over tree roots, through woods and muddy water.

“It’s about using more than just your head,” which has to follow your legs, Urckfitz said.

Orienteering is for all ages and abilities, Winslow said. Participants are responsible for their own adventure, which can be a competitive race or simply a hike in the woods.

“It’s something anyone can do,” Moran said. “You learn valuable skills – map reading, decision making, how to find the most direct route and how to navigate. And it’s mental and physical exercise.”

It’s also a win every time kids put an electronic device aside and exercise outside.

“Plus, it takes you way off the beaten path,” Winslow said.

Orienteering originated in Scandinavia as a military exercise and requires participants to balance mental and physical exertion. You must be specific in choosing a route. The fastest is not always equal to the shortest. Going off the trail does not guarantee a shortcut.

As rookie Will Galetto learned last week, even a well-meaning shortcut could land you in the middle of a swamp with little idea of ​​where to go.

“It was a lot harder than I thought,” said Galetto, 20, from Spencerport. “I had no idea where I was, but I was confident I would find my way. And I did. It was so much fun. Next time I’ll do better.”

Dominique Lepoutre from Caledonia brought her granddaughter Sahara Mallery, 10, from Brighton to meet for the couple’s first try at orienteering.

“That was awesome!” says Sahara. “I have to do something different and spend time with my grandma.”

The couple joined the orienteering club and a birding club to learn more about Rochester’s outdoor activities and wildlife.

“Now that she’s a double-digit kid, she’s taken on more responsibility,” Lepoutre said. “It was something we could do together. It was great fun and something I had wanted to try for 20 years, never had a buddy to do it with.”

The McBeth family from Penfield learned about orienteering last summer through the #TrailsROC trail running club, said Jeffrey McBeth, 38. The family of five – and a family friend – tackled the white course together.

“It’s a great way for us to explore the parks in the area,” said McBeth, a former Boy Scout. “We love hiking and it keeps us fresh with our skills. Plus, it’s great fun and wonderful to do as a family.”

The family got lost while navigating the course, which put the group behind schedule.

“We got cocky and missed a marker,” McBeth shrugged. The error did not cost the group dearly. They finished first of 17 teams, a good five minutes ahead of the second team on the white course.

Isaac McBeth, 11, said he enjoyed the outing, especially since he loves running and mapping.

“I don’t like it when it gets muddy,” he said, pointing to the dried mud on his legs. “It makes everyone grumpy.”

Strong point, small.

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And after

When: Sunday April 26, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Or: Rotunda shelter in the Genesee valley park

What: Participants are given maps with key locations noted. They must clock in at each of these spots and then run to the finish. Open to all ages and skill levels.

Cost: $10 per card, $6 for club members

Continued: Call (585) 377-5650 for details or visit

Dino J. Dotson