When you see the word orienteering, what springs to mind? Funny red and white flags? Getting lost in damp forests? Strange people dressed like they’ve just emerged from a 1980s psychedelic pajama party? (If the latter, then you must have been to a ‘proper’ orienteering event.)
I would be the first to admit it can appear a crazy sport. The basic principle is this: you have a compass, an electronic dibber thing and a ‘map’, which to the uninitiated looks rather like an artist’s impression of the London tube map overlain with hieroglyphics. And it probably makes about as much sense.
But stick with it. Because with a little patience (and a good sense of humour), what is at first confusing, transforms into a delightful puzzle. There is no other sport that tests both the mind and the body in quite the same way. It’s like trying to solve a level four sudoku puzzle whilst simultaneously running an obstacle course and playing a virtual reality car racing game.
Are you convinced yet? If not, then read on for ten very good reasons why you should get out orienteering today.
1. Orienteering is a sport for life
Literally. As soon as you’re able to toddle on your own two feet, eager parents will be fighting to take you round the string course (especially if there are sweets at the end). At the large events there are age classes that cater for runners from age ten (younger competitors can ‘run up’) to ninety, and everyone shares the same finish lane. There aren’t many sports when you can carry on winning well into your eighth decade.
2. It’s not all about running
‘But you have to be a super-fit runner to orienteer…’ is probably one of the most common excuses I hear for not trying out the sport. And the answer to this is a big, fat resounding no. Sure, if you want to be winning events then it helps to be a decent runner, and elite orienteers are some of the fittest bods around, but fitness is no barrier to orienteering. Many people walk round their courses, and if you’re just starting out this can be a good idea whilst your navigation improves.
Plus, there are actually four disciplines of orienteering: foot, mountain bike, ski and trail orienteering (designed for people of all physcial abilities to compete on equal terms). So there’s something for everyone.
3. Every event is different
Bored of running the same old training routes? Plodding the same streets, week after week. Yup me too. This is why running is BORING and orienteering is FUN. I can pretty much guarantee that in your orienteering lifetime, you will never run the same route twice. Which means there is always an element of the unknown when you set off. Variety is the spice of orienteering life.
4. Orienteering is the friendly sport
Orienteers love introducing new people to the sport. Turn up to any event and you’ll be sure to find some eager face to help you work out which bit of the compass points north, the difference between a re-entrant and a depression and what the blue squiggly lines on the map mean. Most orienteering clubs have specific events aimed at beginners or young families, plus training sessions when you can get to grips with basic navigational techniques.
Many clubs hold post-training socials, and at the larger events, members congregate in club tents. Wander in after you’ve finished and within two minutes someone will be peering at your map excitedly jabbering about ‘optimum route choices’ and whether you took the direct or long route to number five. Just humour them, ok? It’ll be you one day.
5. There’s always room to improve
There is rarely such a thing as a perfect run in orienteering. Even on your best day, you’ll lament the two seconds you ‘wasted’ climbing over a stile, or debate whether you could have stolen a minute if you’d have taken a slightly different route. Don’t get me wrong, it can be incredibly frustrating when you mess up. (And even more frustrating if you’re stuck in the car with a sulking companion for two hours on the drive home.) But it means there’s always something you can work on and some way to get better.
6. Orienteering takes you to places you’d never otherwise go
Quite literally. Many orienteering events are held on private land where the organiser has to get special permission from the landowners to hold the event. So you get to explore woodlands, moors and valleys you’d never normally go to.
7. It’s a full body workout
Orienteering is not just off-road, it’s off-trail. Once you get beyond the easier beginner routes, the courses are designed to avoid paths as much as possible. Depending on the area, the terrain can vary from beautifully runnable pine forests, to heather strewn moors, and intricate boulder fields. You may end up jumping across streams, leaping fallen trees or fighting through thickets of trees (usually only if you’ve got lost).
This is why orienteering courses are quite short. But try running a 7km road race and compare that to a 7km orienteering race in the Lake District and tell me which one you wake up aching from the next day. Yup, and that’s your core aching as well as your legs.
8. But it’s not all about getting muddy
Whilst orienteering is traditionally associated with hills, forests and parks, a whole new niche of orienteering has sprung up in towns and cities across the country. Urban orienteering combines lightning-speed navigation with fast running. Many clubs run monthly, or even weekly urban evening events, particularly during the winter months. As the navigation and the maps tend to be much simpler, these can be a great introduction to orienteering for newbies. Plus they usually start and finish in a pub. It’s important to rehydrate y’know.
If you live in London, I would highly recommend the Street-O series of events – even if you don’t fancy being competitive, they’re a great way to explore parts of the city you never knew existed.
9. You can compete all over the world (without being an elite athlete)
There aren’t many sports where you can compete in 70 countries, whatever your level of expertise. Once you’ve learnt the basic orienteering map symbols, the language is the same wherever you go. Many countries host orienteering festivals: multiple days of events with social activities in the evenings. And city races are a great way to add a bit of interest (and exercise) to your next city break.
If you’re looking for international events, the World of Orienteering Calendar is a good place to start, but it’s by no means exclusive.
10. It gives you skills for life
I’d like to see anyone try and deny that navigation skills aren’t important. EVEN in this modern day world of iPhones, Google maps and GPS watches. I sometimes wonder why other people struggle to remember directions, seem to have absolutely no sense of direction and can’t hold a map the right way round. Then I remember that these people probably weren’t sent out into a deep dark forest to get lost (literally) from the tender age of ten. (Thanks Dad.)
So the moral of the story is: parents take your children orienteering! Let them go out and get lost! It will teach them to be independent, adventurous and non-directionally challenged. And one day they will thank you for it. Even if it’s just because they managed to find their way home from the club rather than spending the night behind the wheely bins.
If you’re raring to go, check out the British Orienteering Federation website for details of all UK events and your local club. Still hesitant? Watch this video and then dare to tell me it doesn’t look just a teensy bit fun.
Thanks to Federazione Italiana Sport Orientamento for the great photo (used here under Creative Commons licence). You can view the original image here.