Orienteering, aka sporty map-reading, is perhaps one of the more challenging outdoor activities in that it requires a rather unique but broad skill set. Although team games, such as football or rugby, require high levels of group co-ordination, orienteering is a much more individual sport.
Useful skills for orienteering
- Directional Awareness
- Common Sense
In many sports you can have a game plan, but most of the time there’s going to be a fair amount of improvisation too. For orienteering, planning your route is arguably the most important thing that you will do.
The map you are given means you can see beforehand what to expect, and therefore choose which way to go. For example, the planning stage is where you’ll find a shortcut up north. The planning stage is where you assess the terrain – if the path west may be shorter but there’s a river running through it, then you’d better find another way.
Similarly, you need to plan which order you want to visit the controls – you don’t want to be backtracking or going around in circles if you can help it.
If an orienteer says ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’, they are sometimes really speaking literally. Orienteering maps can cover a huge area, and the tracks for some orienteering disciplines, such as mountain bike orienteering can be longer than an actual marathon.
Although you naturally want the fastest time, rushing ahead isn’t always the best option. Good pacing will make each minute more effective as you can plan how long it’ll take but also it can help you stay energized, potentially allowing you to outlast your competitors.
This skill is less used in most other sports. A track athlete just has to follow the marked lines in front of him, whilst an orienteer needs to know where he is heading and this can be more of a challenge. A map and a compass is essential, but being able to effectively read them both is crucial – it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re heading the wrong way.
Being able to not only read the map but properly read your surroundings will tell you if you’re on course, if you’ve become lost or if you need to change your route.
Orienteering doesn’t happen on nicely mowed fields, chalk-drawn tracks, or in sports halls. Orienteering takes place outdoors in nature, in forests or near mountains. Because of this, reflexes are particularly important as they allow you to adapt to the natural terrain. The terrain is rough, and reflexes will help you avoid that log on the forest floor, to move out of the way of that low-hanging branch or jump over potholes and ditches throughout the track.
The map is your guide, but if you read that you’re by the lake and you’re actually standing on top of a car park, then you may have made a mistake. The shortest route might be straight ahead, but the private land sign and barbed wire fence in front of you mean it’s probably not the way to go. Remember, the map is a guide, but you’ve got to read it properly and use your head.