Orienteering isn’t new by any means, but with technological advances and increased programming and accessibility for young people, it’s beginning to pick up more traction as a sport and recreational activity in the United States.
The activity is also safe to enjoy — with some minor modifications — during the COVID-19 pandemic because it requires little interaction with other people, making it easy to achieve social distancing.
Orienteering originated in the late 1800s in Sweden, where military members trained and competed in navigational competitions in the countryside. It soon caught on with civilians and began spreading globally, and the activity gained popularity in the United States in the mid-20th century.
Orienteering is a sport of navigation in which participants use a map and compass to blaze their way to checkpoints in competitions that are often held in unfamiliar terrain, according to Orienteering USA (OUSA), the national governing body for the sport.
The maps are provided by hosting organizations, and meets take place on outdoor courses that are typically staged in natural landscapes. The physical distance of courses vary, and participants journey from checkpoint to checkpoint with their map and compass.
Orienteering attracts all age groups and skill levels, and regardless of whether participants walk or run, checkpoints must be reached in a specific order.
The routes between checkpoints aren’t plotted and participants are banned from using GPS in competitions, creating a solitary experience in which orienteers are competing against an obstacle course.
Strategy is key, mistakes are inevitable, and adjustments are made on the fly during competition.
“How orienteering really differs from so many other sports is that there’s a real emphasis on the mental component as well as the physical component,” said Ethan Childs, program director of Navigation Games, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization that’s committed to education and creating orienteering programming.
In addition to his work at Navigation Games, Childs coaches orienteering and has competed at an elite level. With over 20 years of experience in the sport, he’s been a member of Team USA at six world championships and has traveled to more than a dozen countries to compete.
Being a successful competitive orienteer requires balancing physical and mental abilities, which opens the sport to all kinds of people, Childs added.
“You can have that kid that’s great at parkour — he’s a super good athlete — and you can have that kid who plays Dungeons & Dragons, and they can both actually be competitive against one another because where their different strengths and weaknesses lie allow them to excel at (orienteering) in different ways,” he said.
Clubs, structure and education
Though not as widespread as it is in Europe, orienteering in the United States has gained popularity in pockets of the country with the Northeast, Washington state and the Southeast leading the way. OUSA, a nonprofit organization recognized by the United States Olympic Committee, has 55 member clubs spread across the country.
OUSA sanctions national races, which include championship and ranking events. The organization also controls the rules of the sport in relation to competition. At the club level, events are staged throughout the year, but programming can vary based on the climate of where competitions are held.
Barb Bryant, vice president of youth initiatives for OUSA and the president of Navigation Games, is a recreational orienteer who spends much of her time working to instill a passion for the sport in a new generation.
Navigation Games brings orienteering to schools, where Bryant’s focus is helping young participants hone the skills they need to be successful in the sport — and life.
Her programming teaches critical thinking skills and the importance of collaboration and interaction with each other.
“What we’re teaching is different from going out and running through the woods by yourself,” she said. “We’re really interested in developing kids’ ability to read maps and to navigate with them.”
Growth and change
For an activity that’s constructed around having a map, a compass and a good pair of shoes to wear on the course, orienteering has seen growth and tweaks made as a result of technological advances used for timing participants and taking competitions to new locales.
When orienteering was done almost exclusively in the woods, it was difficult to track participants and their progress.
Checkpoints often employed an old manual punching system that utilized a flag that looked like a small stapler. Participants carried a card that would get punched at the different checkpoints.
Without the ability to monitor the course, it was easier to cheat using the old system because orienteers could potentially reach checkpoints in the incorrect order while marking their cards the correct order. The introduction of electronic checkpoints has made that a thing of the past.
Though participants aren’t allowed to use more than a compass for navigation, GPS technology can be utilized to analyze performance and statistics.
There is also the growing popularity of urban orienteering, which can be helpful for engaging spectators and for the sport to continue growing, Childs said. He could see orienteering becoming an Olympic sport, since it’s easier to track participants in an urban setting.
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing variations of mandatory quarantine across most of the United States, nearly all organized sports are shut down through at least May, and likely beyond. Like the majority of other sports organizations, OUSA and its member clubs have canceled or postponed the bulk of their upcoming programming, but orienteering is still very much accessible.
“Orienteering is naturally kind of a socially distancing sport because you’re going through the woods. Classically, you’re doing it solo,” Bryant said.
While formal events aren’t being held to avoid crowding and to comply with state regulations, clubs across the country are adapting their programming so orienteers can stay engaged.
“A number of clubs, I believe, are putting out sort of semi-permanent courses where they’ll make a map available and they’ll hang some kind of marker at each controlled location and then people can kind of go out on their own,” Bryant said.
Bryant also said some permanent courses are being made available to orienteers.
Navigation Games, meanwhile, is tailoring its approach, utilizing basic technology and information that’s available online so orienteers won’t have to journey far or interact as part of a group to enjoy the sport. The course information is downloadable and participants complete the course on their own time.
“We’re creating what we call neighborhood courses, which is just using features that already exist in the space,” Childs said. “We’re using primarily fire hydrants, that we’re able to get with some publicly available city data, and Google Earth, and going around and confirming their locations in their cars, and things like that.”
For those who don’t even want to go outside, there’s orienteering for that too.
“I’ve seen some people posting some orienteering-related games where you don’t have to leave your house,” Bryant said. “You’re just using Google Earth to go around and find what the checkpoints are.”