Orienteering combines map, compass and puzzle

Posted December 20, 2013

WEKIWA SPRINGS STATE PARK – Orienteering can be frustrating, especially for a middle-aged man with bad eyes and a swollen knee like me.

But the organizers of this meet assured me that even a veteran with moderate map and compass experience can quickly learn the basics of this competitive boating sport.

“It’s a hiking game for puzzle lovers,” one enthusiast told me.

“It’s a cross-country race for map junkies,” another explained.

Orienteering has its origins in Sweden in the early 1900s, where it was used as a military training exercise. Americans heard about this game that combined problem solving and physical fitness, and it quickly morphed into an outdoor sport that combines mapping skills with hiking and/or running.

The meetups, which usually take place in public parks and last a few hours, are open to people of all ages and abilities. At this particular event, my crew and I encountered moms pushing babies in strollers and grandparents in sweatpants hiking with ski poles.

The degree of difficulty ranges from “ropes courses” for children to expert routes, which can take several hours. The concept is simple: you pay $6, sign a waiver, and receive a detailed topographic map of the local terrain.

You then choose a course, ranging in length and difficulty from beginner to expert, and locate a series of checkpoints on your map. The goal is to move from checkpoint to checkpoint in numerical order.

The only other thing you take with you is a compass. The starter hits the stopwatch, and off we go. You can walk or run. Checkpoints are marked with small white and orange flags called checkpoints.

Each check is numbered, and you must do them in order, not numerically, but in the order in which they appear on your card. For example, you might find #34, then see #35. But you might actually be looking for #26, and if you “punched” your card out of order, you’re out of luck.

Some courses have electronic controls. Your time, or the time it takes you to find and check all 12 controls, is logged automatically, leading to more accurate results and greater participant accountability.

Compass skills help, but a keen eye and affinity for detail are more crucial. The topographic maps are very detailed.

When we last met, my crew missed a small dirt trail and ended up hiking a quarter mile through waist-deep grass looking for control. We had to go back, retrace our steps and pretty much start over before continuing. That’s why the Florida Orienteering Club brochure calls it “the sport of thinking.”

Orienteering competitions usually have three levels of courses. The “hobby” course is ideal for beginners, scouts and aging outdoor writers. The routes are generally 2 to 3 kilometers long and take place mainly on marked roads and paths.

The intermediate courses are 3 to 5 kilometers and are designed for those with more experience in land navigation. The adventure courses, 6 to 10 kilometers long, are aimed at confirmed orienteering enthusiasts and seasoned adventurers.

In the end, we were done –—hot, sweaty, and thirsty—in just under two hours. My teammates didn’t care about our official time. They just wanted to know when they could start again.

Dino J. Dotson