Orienteering: test your endurance and your ability to read maps | Functioning
Jit’s not a good start for my first orienteering. My phone has lost all signal completely, the carefully plotted coordinates of the meeting point have disappeared from Google Maps, and I can’t even find the parking lot. Luckily the Southdowns Orienteers are much more organized – I spot a sign taped to a tree. I think we are in business.
Despite my appetite for cross-country running, a great tolerance for mud and a more than fleeting interest in gadgets, I’m a little apprehensive about how I’m going to get out of this. I’m not as fit as I should be, due to a desk job and two exhausting young children. I hope I’ll be saved by my secret habit of cartophilia (I’ve been known to download unlabeled world maps so I can challenge myself to name each country) and a good sense of direction. Hopefully it won’t end like the Blair Witch Project and I’ll be back at the car before the sun goes down.
Orienteering may seem quite technical, but the basic principle is to time yourself to complete courses over varied and difficult terrain. Southdowns Orienteers, a Sussex-based club, run most weekends, and all you need is a pair of running shoes with good grip and £5.50 to take part. The group does all the rest for you – laying out a trail through the forest, providing you with maps and hiring you an electronic dibber for £1, which you use to record your times at electronic checkpoints along the way.
We are rather blessed on this particular Saturday morning in Friston Forest, with the misty South Downs as a backdrop and the relief of a warming spring sun. Ali Hooper, an experienced orienteer, walks me through the principles of map reading and route planning, and we follow some short basic trails using a small compass and colored maps on A4 paper. Then we measure the number of steps we take in 100 meters and we use that to help us calculate how far away the next point of contact is.
Classes are color coded for difficulty, from easy white to hard black. By the time I’m done with my training, the maps for the simpler yellow and orange courses are sold out, so I’m left with a 7km green course. I quickly discover that it is much, much more difficult than my usual cross country race. Soon I’m wading through mud, climbing through brambles and thickets, and running over spongy leaves. I also constantly check my route and direction, and compare landmarks such as dense undergrowth and mounds to symbols on the map.
Orienteering groups are careful not to overbook events – if you can see the runner in front of you, it’s easy enough to let them do the navigating (or cheating, as some might call it). I try to ignore Les Hooper, a 40 year old orienteering veteran, but I can’t help but notice that after confidently passing him towards checkpoint 6, he disappeared . Ten minutes later, I’m still inspecting the wrong thicket when I realize Les is long gone. It takes a thorough re-examination of my map to determine that I’m 30 yards too far east, which perfectly illustrates why map reading is the basic skill of orienteering. You don’t even have to run; many members, including a 92-year-old man in this group, take routes on foot instead. It can be done at any speed, in any place (there is urban orienteering, ski orienteering, horse orienteering – even orienteering night), in all weathers and at all ages.
What is particularly nice is that the whole family could also participate. Les tells me that his children and grandchildren are all keen on orientation, and given the constant concern about screen time, it’s a great way to engage kids in a lightly competitive, skilled sport. which will put some color on their cheeks. Another veteran member says he and his wife took up orienteering as a last resort – they had tried many other sports, but he kept winning. Since then, they have been doing orienteering and she beats him every time.