Orienteering – an environmentalist’s dream sport for all ages and activity levels

Adelyn Geissel, Conservation Program Assistant

The boring bit: Orienteering started for military training in the late 1800s in Sweden and expanded to a public sport just before 1900. As compasses improved, interest in orienteering expanded starting in Scandinavia, and eventually world-wide, arriving in the USA in the mid-1940’s.

Now that the history lesson is out of the way, you may have this question: Isn’t orienteering just following a compass and counting your paces? Yes, and no! Orienteering requires the use of a topographic (topo) map and a compass, most commonly a baseplate compass. No GPS allowed! Following a compass bearing and counting your paces is an integral part of orienteering (and some may know that part of orienteering by the names of land navigation or dead reckoning), but orienteering is much more than pace count and using a compass.

Text Box: Picturesque checkpoint (orange/white flag) during a race

Orienteering requires you to follow landmarks, contours, and other features from one checkpoint to another. The person who finds all the checkpoints in the shortest amount of time wins. Going in a straight line by following a compass bearing is not always the best route, so being the fastest runner doesn’t guarantee a win. Orienteering is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one! It doesn’t matter what level you do (they range from beginner to expert), you will be guaranteed a good mental and physical workout whether you walk, run, or stumble through the woods.
Without getting too technical, the following skills are used and improved through orienteering:

  • Using pace counts to estimate distance (in meters!)
  • Map and compass reading (rough and precise)
  • How to hold/orient the map

And some of the techniques that will improve your chances of finding those tricky checkpoints are:

  • CAR (Control, Attack point, Route – find the control on the map, figure out a good attack point, and plan your route)
  • Catching features (something that will catch you if you’ve gone too far)
  • Collecting features (looking out for easily identifiable features along your route)
  • Following handrails (linear features – trails, cliffs, and streams are some examples)

If this is starting to sound too complicated, don’t worry! I’ve seen a range of people orienteering, from families with young children to seniors and everything in between. The only requirement is that you can walk safely on trails. The beginner levels often have the checkpoints right on the trails, or at least very close to a trail. And while knowing the skills and techniques above will really help in the advanced and expert levels, they aren’t as necessary at the beginner levels – just go out, figure out a route via the trail systems, and have fun! If you like scavenger or Easter egg hunts – this is for you!

Found a checkpoint on a permanent course!

By now, you may have figured out that I’m pretty passionate about orienteering (thank you to my friend who introduced it to me a few years ago!). You may also be wondering why I’m talking about a sport in a conservation district’s blog series. One reason is that I just finished an orienteering event last week, and another reason is that orienteering as a sport has always had a big focus on being conservation conscious and environmentally friendly. While you may think that a bunch of people running off-trail through natural areas may lead to a lot of damage, there is actually very little to no damage that results from an event and most places are only used once per year in the US (1, 2). Some events even have a competition for the largest or most unusual piece of trash that you can carry back to the finish – prompting some impromptu clean-up efforts. There is also a culture of leaving the place as good as it was when you got there, or better, and can even tip off park personnel to trouble spots (new stands of invasive species, illegal dumping, areas with recent erosion, etc.). Many orienteers are avid environmentalists and enjoy getting out into nature, practicing navigating through natural areas. Orienteers need to pay attention to so much more than the trail, so you really get a rich outdoor experience through orienteering.

Text Box: Invasive species can make it hard to find checkpoints - clean up afterwards!

I am often in the middle or back of the pack, ranking wise, but love the personal challenge. I still get lost (or mis-located: there is no such thing as lost in orienteering, only being temporarily mis-located!), but I learn from my mistakes and improve the next time. I did get horribly lost on my first expert-level course for a good 45 minutes circling a checkpoint – had I known some of the techniques above, I may have fared much better! I started laughing at myself while wandering the woods while trying to figure out where in the world I was (I found it eventually once I located a nearby marsh that was on the map!).

If you want to try orienteering, there are a number of permanent courses (here and here) set up throughout lower Michigan, and there are various events (pandemic restrictions pending). I am also a member of the Southern Michigan Orienteering Club (SMOC) who holds many very low cost events in the spring and fall of each year – check them out if you are interested!

And a final note – if you decide to try orienteering: wear comfortable shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, bring the orienteering topo map (or receive at the event) and a compass, and have some general safety gear with you (whistle, water, snack, and a phone for emergencies – and pictures – only! Don’t be tempted by any of those map apps on there.). Always take out what you bring in and be respectful of other park users (humans and animals!). Most of all – have fun!

Topo map and baseplate compass

Side note: Adventure racing is a type of orienteering that has been gaining popularity recently. Often these events will require not only hiking/running, but biking, paddling, and games along the way as well. And while I love orienteering, I’ve found that adventure racing isn’t my cup of tea – I prefer my feet to be firmly planted on the ground during orienteering (although the paddling sections are a lot of fun).

Orienteering groups in Michigan:

Southern Michigan Orienteering Club

Lost Arrow Sports

Michigan Adventure Race

Orienteering Resources:

Orienteering USA

Book Discovering Orienteering: Skills, Techniques, and Activities by Charles Ferguson and Robert Turbyfill

SMOC Training