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How To: Orienteering

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

You’re running through the woods. Leaping logs. Ducking limbs. Skirting streams. A map is in your hand. A compass points direction. You’re racing the clock, looking for flags hidden and strewn. You’re charging through a forest thick as a jungle.

This is orienteering, a Nordic sport of quick thinking and backwoods navigation, where a wrong move will get you seriously lost.

But that’s counter to the whole point.

Orienteering, a sport of decisive map-and-compass capitalization, teaches the finest points of personal navigation. Pinpointing your place on a detailed topographical map — reading land features, translating distance to scale, sensing your surroundings from a printed page — is tantamount to truly knowing your place in this world.

Forget GPS devices. A good orienteer is faster. A compass is more reliable. A good map is more accurate.

Expert orienteers can be dropped any place on the planet, handed a map and a compass, and find their way out.

Here’s a quick guide to some orienteering basics, a primer for experienced backwoods wanderers and the directionally-challenged alike. Use this information to try out the sport of orienteering — beginners are welcome at all meets — or apply these tricks next time you’re in the woods with a map on an adventure of your own.

Orient the Map
The sport’s namesake comes from its most basic map maneuver: Orienting the page to mimic your environment. Essentially, the top of an orienteering map — which always represents north — needs to always be facing to the north. Always. No matter which direction you’re facing. For example, if you’re standing on a trail looking north, holding a map horizontally in your hands, the map can be held normally, all text and characters right side up. But flip around so you’re looking south, and the map needs to be read upside down, with the top of the page still facing north. Ditto if you turn to face east or west: Keep the top side of the page always to the north. This technique keeps landforms and features mirrored to their representation on the printed page.

Compass Confusion
One simple rule: All you need to know is north. Modern compasses come loaded with mirrors, rotating base plates, degree markings, spinning dials, and sights. In orienteering, all these accouterments are superfluous. All that matters is north. Magnetic north, to be precise. A quick glance at the compass to see where the needle is pointing — and thus which direction you should orient the map — is the only concern.

Attack Points
A common technique for finding an orienteering flag — or any precise location on a map — is an attack point, which is an obvious intermediary land feature used as a directional. For example, say a destination is deep in a featureless section of forest. Instead of wandering in to search, identify a nearby trail junction, river bend, or other obvious geographic feature. At the prominent feature — the attack point — line up a route to your flag, estimating direction and distance from the map. It might be 300 meters southeast, for example. Take that knowledge, get a compass bearing, and go.

Graphical Verisimilitude
A common orienteering map reveals a tangle of topographical lines and esoteric iconography representing everything from boulders and bogs to power lines, fences, hills, ravines, and depressions in the land. Blotchy yellows and greens portray vegetation boundaries. Lakes and rivers are blue. Buildings look like blocks. Roads and trails are represented by lines, dotted and solid. The graphical overload can be confusing at first. But the system of shapes and lines — developed in Scandinavia and honed over decades — becomes a streamlined system of information for experienced orienteers.

Map Scale
Typical wilderness maps from the United States Geological Survey are of the 1:24,000 scale variety or greater. In orienteering, the most common scale is 1:10,000, which hugely increases the amount of detail. An inch on a 1:24,000 scale map, for example, represents about 2,000 feet in the real world; in the 1:10,000 scale an inch equals about 800 feet. This greater detail allows for extremely precise navigation. Objects such as boulders, park benches, picnic tables, fences, and the subtle crooks of a ravine are obvious on maps of 1:10,000 scale.

Thumb Your Position
Keeping tab continuously of where you are on a map is a key to quick and precise navigation. Orienteers often run with a map in hand, keeping a thumb planted on the map near their current location, be it the north side of a lake, somewhere along a trail, or wherever. The technique is simple: As you travel along, move your thumb to the new place on the page to represent your current position. This keeps you aware of your point on the course at all times, speeding navigational decisions and allowing you to always know where you are in the woods.

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Commenting on post : How To: Orienteering
Posted by Schneb - 06/27/2010 12:44 PM

Thanks for this—I’ve tried to read a book about orienteering and never could quite ‘get’ it. This makes it seem common sense/do-able.

One question though: When reading a topographical map, there are lines that show changes in elevation, with numbers to show how much change, but is there something to say whether they are changes ‘up’ or ‘down’? I’m guessing a reading of the rest of the map can help (near a river, they’re likely changes down) but is there anything on the map to indicate in some absolute way, whether I’m looking at a hill to climb or to go down?

Posted by cliff austin - 07/09/2010 11:02 AM

Lines that are closer together represent higher elevations. Lines that are further apart indicate lower elevations. So, if your looking at the lines and how they change in your direction of travel… lines that get closer together indicate that your going to be traveling up.

Posted by partizanko - 09/22/2010 03:10 PM

You can use your common sense to tell if it is ‘up’ or ‘down’. For example areas close to water sources will generally be lower than everything else on the map. Sometimes there are numbers on the lines showing absolute height. Sometimes there are short ticks perpendicular to elevation lines. These ticks point downwards.

Posted by dave - 10/10/2010 06:37 PM

It’s not true that closer lines are a higher elevation. The closer the lines are, the steeper the terrain. Some maps have short lines that are perpendiclar to the contour lines that point toward lower elevation.Otherwise there isn’t a w ay to tell from the contour lines themselves.

Posted by fkarcha - 10/15/2011 07:18 PM

River valleys and gullies will form “V“s which point to lines of high elevation.

Ridge topography will be represented by “V“s which point in the direction of lower elevation.

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