Tag: Orienteering

5 Helpful Tips to Improve Your Map Reading Skills

Map and compass

It’s National Map Reading Week! I was lucky enough to be taught basic navigation skills at an early age but I appreciate that for many people, maps designed for outdoor activities are about as comprehensible as the financial pages of The Sunday Times. But it’s never too late to learn. If you struggle to figure out which way’s north and whether the brown circles on the map represent a hill or a valley, here are some helpful tips to help you improve your map reading skills. Why not get outside this weekend and try them out?

Tip 1: Pick the Right Map

There are lots of different types of maps at varying scales which can make it confusing to know which one to choose. The scale will usually be expressed as a ratio, for example 1:50,000. The bigger the number after the colon the less detailed the map will be. Ordnance Survey provides a range of maps that cover the whole of UK at a range of scales.

Some people prefer the Harvey maps, particularly in mountainous areas. They look a bit different to the OS maps but are designed to provide a simpler view of the landscape (particularly where there are lots of contours) to help you navigate more easily. Harveys also sell specific maps for long distance walking and cycle trails. You can usually get the whole route printed on one map which can save a lot of space in your pack!

Here’s a quick guide to some common UK maps to help you work out which is best for you:

  • 1:50,000 OS Map – good for people who want a less detailed map that covers a large area. All roads and main footpaths will be marked, but they’ll be less detail to help you navigate off-road than other maps. Useful for cyclists who mainly stick to roads.
  • 1:25,000 OS Map – for many years the OS Explorer range has been the go-to map for outdoor activities. The maps show all rights of way and distinctive features and have a high level of rock and contour detail in the mountains. The only downside is that in mountainous terrain it can be tricky to read the map accurately because of the level of detail. The best map for all-around outdoor use.
  • 1:40,000 Harvey Mountain Map – Harvey focus mainly on mountainous areas of England, Scotland and Wales. Their maps look quite different to OS maps but are great for hiking, biking and running in the more remote, hillier parts of the country. The maps don’t contain all the detail of a 1:25,000 map but this makes them much easier to read. Unlike OS maps that cover the whole country, Harvey maps cover a specific area. This means that instead of having to buy multiple OS maps you can cover the same area with one Harvey map. Best map for general hiking and mountain biking in national parks and upland areas.
  • 1:25,000 Harvey Superwalker Maps – focused on popular upland areas of the UK, these provide a higher level of detail than the Mountain Maps but still focus on readability. If you’re navigating in complex mountain terrain, this is the best map for you.

A lot of people prefer paper maps but if you enjoy getting outdoors in a lot of different places then the OS Maps app is a great low-cost way of accessing all the maps in the country on your phone. However, for learning basic navigation skills a paper map is much easier to use. Plus, it never runs out of battery!

Tip 2: Get Used to Using a Compass

A compass is the second important tool in your navigation toolkit. With a map, compass and some basic skills, you should be able to navigate your way through most parts of the country with ease. Even if you use a GPS device it’s worth carrying a map and compass as a backup. (And know how to use them!). If you get into the habit of taking your compass out with you on walks, runs or bike rides then you’ll keep up your skills and over time they’ll become second nature.

Your compass has a base plate and a rotating bezel with angles marking the 360 degrees of a circle. Inside is the compass needle which will rotate as you move around. The important thing to remember is that the red end of the arrow will always point north – even if it’s not lined up to the north marker on the bezel. (There are actually three different ‘norths’ but this can be quite confusing for people who are new to navigation so for the time being just remember that red equals north.)

The simplest compass skill is to orientate your map to north. Even if you can’t remember how to take a compass bearing, by orientating your map in the right direction, you can pick out features around you to pinpoint your location.

Whichever map you use there’ll be a grid of squares marked over it. The top of the map will be north so the vertical lines that run up the map are on a north-south line. To orientate your map, hold the compass flat on top of the map and turn the map until the red north arrow is pointing along the vertical grid lines to the top of the map. Remember you need to turn the map and not the compass! If you’re facing south this will mean that the map feels upside down, but don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to navigating by the features on the map and this won’t be a problem.

Once you’ve orientated your map have a look at the landscape around you and see how features appear on the map. Can you spot that big hill over to your right? How about the river on your left? If you’re using footpaths or bridleways then most of the time by orientating your map correctly you can follow your planned route without the need for more complex compass skills. In the mountains, it can be a different story and you’ll want to know how to take compass bearings and learn more advanced skills so you can navigate effectively in poor weather.

Tip 3: Understand Basic Topographical Features

Maps can be confusing things full of brown squiggly lines and coloured symbols. It’s no wonder people get confused! But it’s worth taking a bit of time to understand the different features a map represents. Roads, footpaths and water features such as lakes and big rivers are usually quite obvious and easy to see. What most people struggle with are contours. Unfortunately, if you want to go walking in the mountains you’re going to come across a lot of contours and you’re going to have to use them to navigate.

Contour lines show changes in height. On a 1:25,000 map there is one contour line for every five metres of vertical height. Some contour lines have a height marked on them. If you have a GPS device that measures altitude you can use these to help you work out how far up or down a hill you are. Contours are continuous and follow the shape of the land. If you walk along a contour line you’ll always be at the same height.

Contours also tell you how steep a slope is. The closer together the brown lines, the steeper the hill. This makes hills and mountains quite easy to spot on maps as you have concentric circles that get smaller and smaller as you get towards the top of the hill.

Next time you go out walking or running try and match the typographical features you see on the ground to your map. A great way of getting better at using contours to navigate by is to try orienteering. Orienteering maps are much more detailed than OS maps and show almost every feature on the ground. You can learn how different landforms are represented and scale this up to the big mountains when you go hiking.

Tip 4: Trust the Map

Sometimes if you’re lost it can feel as if the map doesn’t match what’s on the ground. Your brain tricks you into thinking that you’re right and the map is wrong. Believe me, from bitter experience I know that the map is always right! If you can’t match the features on the map to the features on the ground this probably means you’re not where you think you are.

If you end up in this situation you have a couple of options:

  • Walk back until you get to a point where you’re certain of your location and the map matches the features on the ground. For example, this could be a path junction or where a path crosses a river
  • Work out your current location using your map and compass.

If you choose the second option then your first step is to orientate your map (see tip 2). Then try and remember your last known location and pinpoint this on the map. Presuming you’ve been checking your map as you go, this shouldn’t be too far away and it’ll give you an indication of whereabouts on the map you might be. Once you’ve done this look for some distinctive features around you – for example, a large hill, a saddle between two hills or a church spire in the valley below. Ideally, you want to pick three or four very distinctive features. Find these on the map and using these points you should be able to narrow down your location. Then look for any small features nearby to help you pinpoint your exact spot.

Once you’re confident about where you are then you can carry on walking or retrace your steps if necessary. Just remember the map never lies!

Tip 5: Get Out and Practice

The only way you’ll get better at navigation is to practice it. Like everything, this takes time and can be frustrating. But you don’t need to go on a full day out in the hills to get some practice in. Get outside in the evening with your local map and walk on the footpaths around your home. Look at what features you pass and how they’re marked on the map. How does the vegetation change and what colours signify this on the map? What buildings are recorded and what buildings aren’t? Can you predict when you’ll pass each five-metre contour line?

As you know the area you’re unlikely to get lost so you can perfect your map reading skills without worrying about whether you’ll make it home in time for dinner.

Happy navigating!

How to Start Orienteering and Learn to Love It

Female orienteer running from control

I’ve written before on why I believe orienteering is the best sport ever. But I will admit that it’s not necessarily the easiest sport to get into, particularly as an adult. It takes a bit of perseverance and a willingness to get lost (a lot). But as someone who has spent a good hundred or so hours of her life wandering lost around forests, moorlands and country parks, let me tell you this: it is worth it. So for those of you who are keen to try this awesome sport (and who wouldn’t be?), here are some practical tips on how to start orienteering and learn to love it.

Ditch Your Ego and Start Small

If you start orienteering as an adult, you’re likely to already be a runner. (You don’t have to be a runner, but most orienteers are.) Which means that orienteering can be frustrating because the best thing you can do to improve when you’re starting out is NOT RUN.

I know, it’s counter-intuitive, right? Orienteering is a race, which means you want to get around as fast as possible. My (now) husband made this mistake on one of his first events and ran 1 km past his control before he realized his error.

Think of it as an apprenticeship. If you take it slowly and learn some basic skills, your running ability will help you quickly improve. If you’re determined to run every step of the way, you’ll quickly get frustrated and probably quit.

Orienteering courses are typically colour-coded. If you’re a total beginner, I’d recommend starting with an orange course. Yes, you may be the only adult surrounded by kids, but swallow your pride, this is just your first small step into the world of orienteering. If you’re already confident with a map and compass then you may be fine starting with a light green course, particularly if it’s an ‘easy’ area (such as parkland or urban woods).

Try Urban Orienteering

Urban, or street, orienteering events are a great way to start orienteering. In fact, they’re becoming so popular that many orienteers are choosing to run at urban orienteering events instead of ‘proper’ events. Personally, one of the things I love about orienteering is the opportunity to get out of towns and cities and run on different terrains, but each to their own!

For newbies to orienteering, urban events are ideal because the navigation is straightforward and the map is usually simpler to understand. Although there won’t be any road names, roads and buildings are clearly marked, along with other distinctive features such as trees, hedges and walls. Street orienteering events used to be purely local training events run during winter evenings, but they’ve become so popular that there are urban events every weekend around the country. You can find a list of upcoming UK events on the British Orienteering Federation (BOF) website. (If you don’t live in the UK, check your own orienteering federation’s website.)

Get Free Training

I’ll let you in on a secret. Orienteers LOVE introducing other people to the sport. Which means there are tons of opportunities to get help with the basics, learn new skills and get tips from more experienced competitors.

One of the best ways to start is to go to a local event. Sometimes a club will put on an event specifically for people who are new to the sport and there will usually be someone around to show you the ropes. If you’re not sure whether an event is suitable for you, contact your local club in advance. You can also search for events near to you that are suitable for beginners using the BOF events search. (Tip: click the smiley-face icon to filter for events that are suitable for newcomers.)

If you join your local club, you may have access to more free training opportunities. Many clubs offer local coaching sessions or an annual club weekend away to test out your navigation on technical terrain.

Make Some Orienteering Friends

Orienteering is a deceptively social sport. Although you run around your course on your own, there is nothing a bunch of orienteers love more than analysing and comparing their experiences on the course, whether they were good or bad.

Joining your local club is the best way to make orienteering friends. Many clubs hold post-training socials (usually in a pub) where you can rehydrate (ahem) and get five different views on the optimum route choice to number eight. At the big events, each club has its own club tent where you can gather before or after your run, cheer on your fellow competitors and moan about the bramble patch you got caught in.

Another great way to make friends is to volunteer to help out. Orienteering events are all run by volunteers – you don’t need to be an experienced orienteer to help. Some jobs are more menial than others (I’ve done my fair share of marshalling in the rain and pushing cars out of muddy fields), but all are vital to delivering a successful event. It will also earn you a lot of brownie points (which you can trade in by asking for tips to improve your navigation) and often free entry to events.

Go to some of the bigger events

Once you’ve honed your skills and are reasonably confident about navigating in different types of terrain, it’s time to hit the big time. Unlike many sports, anyone of any ability can compete at regional and national events, including the British Championships. (Although for some of them you will need to join BOF – it costs a bargainous £10 a year and you can normally sign up when you join your local club.)

At larger competitions, courses are based on age classes. If you’re an adult, you’ll be competing at the highest technical difficulty possible in the terrain. If you’re not that confident about your abilities, then you may want to enter a colour-coded course instead. If your orienteering experience to date has been urban and local parks, then I’d suggest you may want to go for the light green rather than the green course as these events will be more technical than what you’re used to. You want to enjoy the experience after all!

There are two reasons why I love big orienteering events: the areas and the atmosphere. You get to run on some of the best orienteering areas in the country – places that you’d never normally be able to go. And the atmosphere of a big event, particularly where the finish is located in the main assembly area, is brilliant. Even when it rains.

Are you convinced? If you’re in the UK and are keen to find out more, the British Orienteering website has everything you need to know including a list of local clubs and events. If you live elsewhere, it’s likely your country will have its own orienteering federation with information on how you can get involved. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share it with your friends and check out my article on 10 Reasons Why Orienteering is the Best Sport Ever.

10 Tips For Your First Mountain Marathon

Mountain marathon

I had originally planned for this week’s post to be my lessons learned from trying to plan a sustainable wedding. And that will be coming up, but it’s going to be a big post and I’ve been struggling with RSI in my wrists and forearms this week, so it was really a no-go.

As the rain lashed across my window this morning it struck me that we’re really into autumn now. And I always associate autumn and winter with mountain marathon season. That’s not to say all mountain marathons take place in the winter – there are many summer events, which I would definitely recommend to mountain marathon newbies. But I seem to be a glutton for punishment, so have always chosen events which, based on the time of year, are almost guaranteed to bring you the worst of British weather.

The ‘big one’ is the OMM. Now in its 50th year, it’s always held the weekend the clocks go back, ostensibly because it gives you an extra hour of daylight on the Sunday, but really because it always rains. Always. (At least, every time I did it.) If this year’s OMM is your first foray into mountain marathons, congratulations! You’ve jumped in with both feet to the waist-deep bog. But to make your experience a little more pleasant, here are a few tips from the wise…

Tip 1: Prepare for the worst

This is both a general comment and a weather-specific one. Lightweight is all and good but the number one priority is survival. If this is your first mountain marathon and you haven’t yet tested your comfort vs safety limits when it comes to warmth, then don’t strip your pack right back. Besides, you want to enjoy this right? And there’s nothing like a dry change of clothes and a hot chocolate at the overnight camp to instantly make you feel a hundred times better.

Tip 2: Bubble wrap does not a good night’s sleep make

You may hear it said that you can skip carrying a heavy blow-up mat by shoving a square of bubble wrap into your pack and sleeping on that. After all, nowhere on the mandatory OMM kit list does it say ‘sleeping mat’. Now you could do this, and you would probably survive the night (presuming you have a decent sleeping bag), but you’re not going to get any sleep.

Do yourself and your tent mate a favour. If you can’t afford a super-light blow-up mat then at least get a length of lightweight roll mat or a balloon bed. Of course, these come with their own set of problems …

Tip 3: Don’t leave your balloon bed pump behind

“What’s a balloon bed?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s very simple. It’s a bed made from balloons. Not the big round ones you blow up for your kid’s birthday party, but the strong, long, thin ones magicians use to make giraffes and dogs. The ‘bed’ is a thin piece of fabric with sewn ‘tubes’ down which you stuff your blow-up balloons to make an airbed.

If you think this all sounds like a big faff, then you would be right. But do you really have anything better to do with your sixteen-odd hours at the overnight camp? And packed down, the balloon bed is about the size of your fist and weighs 100g. Perfect for mountain marathons.

There is one potential downside. You have to be one of those people who can tie balloon ends. I have never mastered this feat, but fortunately, my past tent mates have all been experts. You may be tempted to save five grams and leave behind the little pump that comes with the balloon bed. Many people have been stupid cunning enough to do this in the past and only realised too late that the balloons are impossible bloomin’ tough to blow up without it. Oh, and take a couple of spares in case of popping (and to make giraffes).

Tip 4: Take plastic bags to put your feet in

You can spot the mountain marathon newbies at the overnight camp as they’re the only ones walking around without plastic bags sticking out of the top of their shoes. This tip is tried and tested.

However much you try and bog-hop, by the time you get to the overnight camp your feet will be sopping wet. And it’s not great for your feet to sit stewing all night in wet socks. So, once you’ve got your tent up, get changed into your spare layers and put on your nice dry socks (you have got dry socks, haven’t you?).

Presuming you’re rehydrating like a pro, at some point you’re going to need to visit the portaloos. (Guys, just opening the tent flap and pissing out is really not on.) That’s where you have the wet shoe dilemma. And where the plastic bags come in. One for each foot. Just don’t bring cheap supermarket ones with holes in, as they’re kind of pointless.

Tip 5: You don’t need a toothbrush

Really. It’s ONE night. Your teeth will survive. Acceptable alternatives are a piece of chewing gum (mmmm, minty) or those little chewable toothbrush things you get in capsules in service stations (which do no good but may make you feel better).

Tip 6:… Or a hairbrush

All you people out there with no hair, SHUT IT. Have you ever tried to get a brush through a tangled head of long hair? No? My point exactly. It’s hell. Worse than tangled climbing ropes. Anyway, despite all this, there is still no need to take a hairbrush on your mountain marathons. If you have long hair, plaits/braids are the way forward. And buy a Tangle Teezer – you’ll never look back.

Tip 7: Tie your compass to your wrist

Loose compasses are another newbie error. You do not want to lose your compass. Particularly if you have ten-metre visibility on a mountain plateau surrounded by big cliffs. A simple piece of string and a wrist loop mean you never have to worry about losing your compass to a man-eating bog or forgetting to pick it up when you stop to tie your shoelace.

Incidentally the same goes for your dibber. Especially when it comes to man-eating bogs. (I nearly lost my husband to one, but that’s another story. He survived. The dibber didn’t.)

Tip 8: Look at the map before you set off

This is perhaps more pertinent to those competing in the score classes than the linear classes. When it comes to score events, tactics are key and spending five minutes planning your route is time well spent.

And make sure you look very carefully at the final section up to the finish. That way you won’t miss the four miles of dead running between the last control and the finish. And you won’t forget to take that into account in your timing assessment. Which means you’ll get in on time and won’t lose out on a prize as a result of misinterpreting a load of red squiggles. (I’m still bitter, alright?!)

Tip 9: Look after your partner

There are solo mountain marathon events, but for most classes, you’ll be in a team. Which means you need to look after you buddy as much as yourself, particularly if it’s their first time and they’re starting to wonder exactly what you talked them into after five pints in the pub that night.

Use each other’s strengths. If your partner ends up doing most of the navigating, why not offer to take the lion’s share of the tent? Or blow up their balloon bed. But remember this, there are times to be kind and sympathetic and times when you have to be tough. And you will each have your ups and downs.

The last OMM I did, I ran with my sister. On the first day, she was striding out ahead of me and I struggled to keep up. But nearing the end of day two, just after we’d spotted those soddin’ red squiggles mentioned above, she was starting to feel it. At one point she tripped over a tussock and refused to get up. Fortunately, by that point, the quickest way back was to follow the rest of the (over-long) trudge to the finish. So I gave her a hug and told her that she’d forget the pain in a couple of years. Tough love is sometimes necessary.

Tip 10: If it’s windy, stash one of the maps

What’s worse than losing a map? Losing BOTH your maps. Without them, you’re screwed (unless you have exceptional map memory skills). It can get pretty windy in the hills, and it’s surprisingly easy for a map to be whisked out of your hand and blown over a cliff. When the winds pick up, have one person stash their map safely in a jacket pocket or rucksack and navigate using the other one.

If the wind takes both of them? Well, that’s just careless …

And, there you go! I have many more tips whizzing around my head, so perhaps they’ll be a follow-up, ‘Part 2’ post. Feel free to share your best mountain marathon tips in the comments below! And best of luck to everyone competing in the OMM or other mountain marathons this winter. May the (navigational) force be with you.

10 Things to Do With Your Extra Hour of Daylight

Extra-hour-daylight

British Summer Time is here! With promises of long, warm summer nights, sunny evenings at the crag and weekends packed with adventure from dawn to dusk. Admittedly, we’re still in March, which means for every day of sun you get one of rain with the additional bonus of the occasional hard frost, but hey, that’s what living in the UK is all about.

I love this time of year. Finally, the dark days of winter are behind us. There’s no longer the agony of staring out of the office window, knowing that by the time you get to leave work, the sun will have slipped away. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to get motivated to go for a post-work run when it’s still light outside.

If you’re itching to get outside, but lacking in inspiration, here are ten fun things to do outdoors with your extra hour of evening daylight.

Take a Different Route Home From Work

If you cycle, walk or run to work, winter commuting can be a punishing experience. Every day becomes a battle of your will versus the weather. Whether you have your head down, pedalling into a headwind, or you end up fighting with your umbrella as you get soaked by a passing lorry, the shortest route home is usually the preferable one.

The reward for your perseverance, is the warm, dry summer evenings, where commuting becomes a pleasure rather than a chore. So now you have a bit more daylight, why not choose an alternative route home and explore more of your local area? Use the CycleStreets planner to plan a longer route home on quiet back roads and cycle paths or swap your road bike for a mountain bike and go off-road.

Go Bouldering Outside

It may not be quite light enough to justify getting your ropes and trad gear out just yet, but there’s plenty of daylight for a quick bouldering session after work. With roadside venues such as Almsclife (Yorkshire), Bonehill Rocks (Devon), Burbage (Peak District) and Dumbarton Rocks (west of Glasgow), you can be parked up and have your bouldering pad out before most of your work colleagues have driven home.

If you’re new to climbing and have been training indoors over the winter, now is the perfect time to test out your skills on real rock. Just remember that bouldering outdoors can be quite different to indoors; check out these tips from the good folks at UKClimbing.

Get Out in the Garden

If you need some outdoor time, look no further than your own back garden. Gardening is relaxing, creative and can be pretty hard work! The combination of spring sun and rain means that everything is starting to grow, so it’s time to get the lawnmower out, tidy up the garden and start planting out those seedlings you’ve been nurturing in the greenhouse. Follow the RHS’s guide for jobs to do at this time of year.

Go on a Microadventure

Have you spent the winter snuggled up at home reading, planning and dreaming of adventure? Now is the time to get out there and have some! I know, I know, you need to ease yourself into this adventuring malarky. After all, the grey drizzle spreading over the M25 is quite different to the hot, wild African plains. But this is where microadventures come in.

Microadventures are pint-sized adventures. They’re not about taking on some huge daunting challenge that you need to raise thousands of pounds for. And there’s no need to go to your boss and beg for six months off work. Microadventures are simple, local and cheap, but most importantly, fun. Whether it’s cooking dinner over a camp fire, a mid-week overnight bivvy or even camping in your garden, microadventures are exactly what you want to make them. For more ideas and lots of tips check out Alastair Humphreys’ excellent blog.

Try Orienteering

If you’ve never tried orienteering (and if not, why not?), now is a great time to start. Most orienteering clubs put on friendly summer evening events at local parks and woodlands. These are ideal for beginners, and they’ll usually be someone around to show you the ropes. Check out this newcomer’s guide to getting into orienteering, and find an event near you on the British Orienteering website.

Take the Kids on an Adventure

I’m going to be a bit controversial, but hear me out. Spring is here. It’s time to turn the TV off, put the iPad out of reach on the top shelf and limit access to the Playstation. It’s time for a family adventure.

Now the evenings are lighter there are loads of (free) outdoor activities you can take advantage of. Cycle along a canal towpath, go on a treasure hunt or feed the ducks in the park. Go in search of the Gruffalo, roast marshmallows on an open fire or build a den in the woods. Your kids will have a great time and will be so tired, you’ll all get a great night’s sleep.

Get Fit with an Outdoor Bootcamp

Fed up of sweaty gyms? Give yourself plenty of arm-waving space by taking your work out outdoors. There’s also the added bonus of being able to breath fresh, unfiltered air. If you like being shouted at, British Military Fitness run classes at all levels across the country. UK Outdoor Fitness also offer nationwide classes (possibly with less shouting) and there are plenty of local trainers around if you’re looking for some one-to-one training.

Go to an Open Air Cinema

If you’re looking for something a little less active, then take a seat at an open air cinema. You can usually take along a picnic and drinks and they’re hosted in venues from castles and stately homes to rooftop gardens and cobbled streets.

If a spot of theatre is more your thing, then get along to a performance at Regent’s Park in London, Grosvenor Park in Chester or the stunning Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Enter some evening running events

If your weekends are packed full of family commitments, opportunities to enter running races can be few and far between. The good news is, that as the evenings start getting lighter, there are more opportunities to compete in events after work. There’s a pretty comprehensive list of events here.

If you’re lucky enough to live near the hills, then there’s no excuse not to try out some of the local fell races. The
Fell Runner website has a full list of FRA registered races and you can search by region to find events in your area. Want to have even more fun? GO ORIENTEERING. (I’m not going to tell you again.)

Take a sunset walk

One of the nicest things about this time of year is that the sun sets at a perfect time for evening sunset walks. It’s not so early that you’re stuck at work, and you have plenty of time to get home for a late dinner afterwards. Take a stroll through your local park, woodland or fields. Close your eye and breathe in the sounds and smells of nature. Relax and enjoy the swathes of colour across the sky as the sun dips below the horizon. Be at peace.

What’s your favourite way to use the extra daylight we have in the evenings? Get in touch on Twitter and let me know, or drop a comment in the box below. Happy adventuring!

10 Reasons Why Orienteering is the Best Sport Ever

Girl holding a map and orienteering

Who would have thought getting lost could be this much fun? (photo (c) Federazione Italiana Sport Orientamento)


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.