Orienteering and compasses

Myself and others were threatening to derail the Non-projectile Team Sports thread, so I’ll answer Monty’s question here:

Sort of. Surprisingly, it’s a quasi-political issue. The standard way to teach orienteering was to start out with an emphasis on compass work. Following bearings. However, all the best orienteers don’t use the compass much because it is too slow, and tend to rely on terrain reading as much as possible. For that reason, in competitive orienteering the focus in coaching, (even for newbies) is on terrain reading, right from the outset.

I suspect the emphasis in the armed forces and scouts is still on how to slowly make your way with compass bearings, which is perhaps a more failsafe technique that will still work with a poor map or in featureless terrain (conditions not present in competitive orienteering).

At least when I last heard, (and I’ve been out of the sport for a good while) one of the beefs of those who taught competitive orienteers was that many newbies (who often did come from scouting/armed forces backgrounds) were far too focussed on ploddingly slow bearings, and thought they knew how to orienteer because they could take one. Indeed, strangely enough, even many traditionalist orienteering coaches would teach about taking compass bearings first up, before moving on to faster techniques that would actually be used, most of the time. Kind of like teaching a tennis player how to do a desperation dive volley before teaching them forehand.

Isn’t this thread better suited for another forum? Anyways. . .

Eagle Scout and current Air Force here. I can say this to your suspicion:

Nope. The emphasis is that you shoot a bearing to a landmark, look at the landmark, and start walking towards it. If you’re staring at a compass the whole time, you’re probably going to either walk into a tree or fall into a creek. Now in a situation where you have no landmarks (Iraqi desert or such), there’s always either the sun to keep you in a general direction, or some clouds which, although they move, you might have to occasionally glance at your compass a little more often. You don’t watch the compass–it’s a ‘momentary tool’.

I got my Orienteering merit badge.

A friend showed me a little project box about 2" x 2" x 4" containg 3 or 4 pc boards. It deterimened compass heading, roll, pitch and yaw reading out on a laptop.

Yep. This is exactly what I mean by using compass bearings, and this is exactly what competitive orienteers don’t do because it’s too slow.

So what exactly is competitive orienteering like? “See that big hill over there? Go to it” doesn’t seem like it’d make for an interesting competition (or at least, not one which could fairly be described as orienteering). If what you’re given to work from isn’t compass bearings, then what is it?

I think the idea is that you can’t actually see the hill from wear you are. So it would be more like, see that coordinate on the map? Yeah, the pindot that’s 8km away? Well, go to it. When you get in the area, start looking around for a 6ft, white utility steak in the ground. It’s conveniently painted white so you can see it against the forest background. But after a good snow, you’re screwed!

Like I said: terrain following. In competitive orienteering, you have a very good large scale map. It shows close contours (typically 5m interval). It has every minor track, fence, watercourse, vegetation type (dense, moderate, open) and (depending on the geography) even features like prominent boulders and or sometimes distinctive trees.

So you look at the terrain between you and the next control from the map. You envisage it in your mind’s eye. You then try to devise the fastest route, taking into account a whole raft of considerations. You then run that route working off the terrain.

Route choice considerations might include:

1/ where the fastest running will be (open grassland/thick forest, ridgetop/creek bed etc),

2/ easy navigation choices that are longer but will allow you to run hard and go into oxygen debt but still not get lost (taking a route that might allow you to follow a ridgetop, track, fence etc)

3/ hard navigation choices that will save you distance but which might involve slowing down or getting lost (going through dense vegetation instead of around, crossing a featureless area that leaves you without navigational landmarks).

Then when you have your route, you run it, picking up and following features as you go. So your route might be: head left out of the last control directly up the slope till you hit a ridge top, then turn right. Run along that flat out, don’t worry about losing your higher mental functioning but just remember that when you hit a knoll, slow down and look for minor ridges running down to your left. If you hit a fenceline you’ve gone too far. Take the second minor ridge. Judge about one hundred yards then drop off the minor ridge to your right so you come down into the creek system between this little tributory off the main creek and that one. When you hit the main creek, turn left and the control is at the junction of the main creek and the tributory.

After an orienteering meet, orienteers do nothing but stand around and discuss route choice. “How did you do 4 to 5?” “Well, I took this ridge. I thought about bashing straight through that green [thick vegetation] but decided against it. The ridge was rockier than I thought it would be though. How about you?” “Well I went up that little creek, and I was going to go over there but then I thought I was here when I wasn’t, and I lost maybe 45 seconds before I figured out where I want wrong.” Yaada yaada…

Advanced orienteering is taught in several Army schools. It includes application of handrails, backstops, and steering points. It’s still a good idea to glance at a compass every now and then, though. If not to follow an asmith, just to confirm that you are indeed still walking generally “this way”, instead of veering too much.

After a quick review of websites concerning competitive orienteering, Princhester is correct, you are not supposed to use your compass, you are supposed to use the ultra detailed map that they provide for you and you are supposed to run as fast as you can through the woods. Here is one guy’s opinion as to what orienteering is and is not, he seems to be able to put things in a nutshell: What Orienteering Is I kinda laughed when the guy said that the top orienteering guys are so fast they can outrun the best Kenyan track athletes in forest terrain while they are navigating. Thinking that they were full of it, I found this website that claims that it happened. It sounds like an orienteering legend:Orienteering, the thinking sport

I remember in scouts, the point of the competitions was really to learn how to read a compass and use crappy maps to get places that you wanted to go and not get lost, not so much to learn how to haul ass through the woods.

Right, and it seems to me that in practical applications (in the military, say, or search-and-rescue), you might not necessarily have the perfect maps that are being described here as so important. If the enemy just laid down a few miles of barbed wire, or Agent Oranged a section of jungle, or if a landslide cuts off the route for some hikers, they your maps are likely to have some glaring inaccuracies.

Orienteering has about the same relationship to finding your way in the wilderness that fencing does to actual swordfighting – that is, some of the techniques are vaguely similar, but if you tried it in the real world, you’d probably die. It is the rare map indeed that has the kind of detail that an orienteering map has – down to large boulders and old stone walls.

Would you care to expand on your driveby and tell me chapter and verse what the difference is?

Because I have done large amounts of off track wilderness hiking as well as (as I mentioned in that other thread) being state champion orienteer in my teens and I would say the techniques are not only similar, they are basically the same. When you don’t have the level of detail you do on an orienteering map you have to coarsen down your technique, relying on larger features, assuming a lower degree of accuracy etc. Otherwise, no difference.

Well, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’ve done both myself. My point is that the insane detail on an orienteering map is completely artificial. The trail maps that I’ve used in actual hiking have usually been maddeningly vague and full of easily confused features. As for features – at least here in New England, there are usually trees in the way of all the more recognizable features. That’s pretty much the chapter and verse.

I don’t want to hijack this very interesting thread, but where do you go to learn this stuff? It sounds fascinating! Is this just a grunt-grunt-man-sport? Is everybody who does it ex-military? Is there such a thing as kinder-gentler orienteering?

Here’s a good place to start. Colleges will often teach orienteering – I took a class while in grad school. There are often local clubs although I’m not seeing any in South Carolina – there are a few in NC, though.

Taking your questions in order:

1/ Poke about a bit, no doubt the internet will turn up a club in your area, ring them up and go along to an event. It’s cheap, and if orienteering in your area is like it is in mine they love new participants and you will be showered with friendliness and help, free of charge. Like in most enthusiast type pastimes, I guess.

2/ & 3/ Hell no! It is a family sport. I started when I was about ten or so and my younger brother even younger. My mother did it. There was this particularly annoying grandma in our club who had this irritating habit of wandering along her course at a moderate walk (with her binoculars around her neck to check out birds she might see along the way) who, at least when I was younger would often goddamn beat me (despite me running like a scared rabbit) through sheer navigational skill. :slight_smile:

4/ All of it, outside the more serious championship events. At any given event, some of the people will be trying to set a cracking pace, but many will be there to have an interesting day in the forest.