There are lots of books and step by step tutorials on how to “properly” Orienteer.  Those are fine, but I never found them very interesting, or all that helpful to me. They often try to boil it down to a rather mechanical and rote system.  I’ve found that Orienteering cannot be truly learned without a great deal of practice. Knowing the names of things and how to take bearings with a compass is just not that helpful at competition speeds, assuming that is what you want to do (why wouldn’t you?)

I learned to be a decent enough downhill skier by lots of practice, and then, whenever the opportunity presented itself, stopping within earshot to listen in on an advanced class, until the instructor stopped and said “may I help you?” in that ‘get the hell out of here you freeloader’ tone.  Then I was off to practice the one new technique I had just learned.

Following are some tips for all you ‘free loaders’:

  1. Pace count.  I don’t actually pace count on most orienteering legs, when the map is good.  Insert a sketchy USGS map and nighttime, and the number of legs that I pace count skyrockets.  Pace counting when it turns out to not be necessary is simply a little wasted mental effort. Not pace counting, when things might go awry can cause a painful waist of time.  It’s a little like playing a game of chance and mitigating risk, you never know ahead of time whether or not you should have pace counted. ‘Hey, I’ve got this’ you might think, but if you’re wrong, it’s too late.
  2. Orient the map.   I often don’t when I’m on the bike, but that’s a different kind of nav. ****  If you orient the map well, you can use the map for running bearings, you just run in the direction that you’re supposed to go on the paper, no time wasted spinning compass bezels.  More importantly, your bearing running and map reading is now completely combined into one action. Running while staring at a stupid compass bezel means that you’re not reading the map.  (did I say stupid?) Using a compass bezel to shoot a bearing is sometimes the way to go, but rarely so in competition.
  3. Handrails are awesome!  Backstops are awesome! Usually worth a little extra distance.  What I am saying here is that linear features, spurs, straight creeks, etc., are Awesome for navigation, either by following them or running into them.
  4. Reentrants point uphill, spurs point downhill.  This just refers to quickly interpreting what’s up and what’s down when looking at the contour lines on a map in a snap glance.
  5. Navigating by Large features / small features…… Fast /  slow.   Just what it says: when you are moving really fast, you need large features to navigate by.  No time to interpret all the little details. When you are using a bunch of small intricate features, the pace is necessarily slower.
  6. Attack points.  A Scandinavian Orienteering teacher once taught me that every control should have an attack point.  I don’t agree, but don’t forget to use them when they present themselves to you. Again, Orienteering is something of a game of mitigating risk.  Mitigate risk whenever it is convenient. (An attack point is some large feature near the control that you find first, and then “attack” from)
  7. Thumb the map **  (Most important thing of all, in my opinion)  This is the practice of holding the map with your thumb firmly placed right next to where you are on the map, usually just off to the side.
    1. Be reasonably precise with your thumb placement
    2. Practice your glance technique;  (compass, map………compass, map……compass, map…. always)
    3. Glance at it often.
    4. Constantly inch your thumb across the map to match your progression.
    5. Do not look further ahead than necessary on the map,,,, most of the time.  (This, along with a, b, c and d, allows you to keep your glances extremely quick and short and thus, allows you to keep running while reading the map (done correctly and without mistake, one can do an entire orienteering course without ever stopping))
  8. The control is NOT your destination  (look for your exit plan from a control prior to arriving)
  9. Whether using large features (fast), or small features (slow), stay in contact, you will be glad that you did.  Running a little faster never makes up the time of being lost.
  10. Concentrating to do it right never seems to tire my brain, it actually makes it happy.  Confusion and uneasiness wears me out mentally. AKA- KEEP track of where you are and what you are doing.
  11. Be an accountant  (I don’t care if that sounds boring, winning is exciting)  Count off everything that you are passing. Thumbing the map does this for you to a large extent.
  12. Anticipate what the future is going to look like.  (when looking a little ahead on the map, try to picture what the terrain is going to look like before you get there)
  13. Practice does NOT require a set up course with controls.  (don’t be a control freak) Make a course on a paper map using any feature that is recognizable when you get there as your control location.  Place the imaginary controls so that the route to it is interesting and challenging, because the control location itself is necessarily dumbed down.  Go out into the woods with this course on map and run it in the same way you would if you were racing.
  14. Practice at race pace!!!!  This is mostly true for classical Orienteering.  Everything looks COMPLETELY different when you are going really fast.  Orienteering slowly is not very good practice for racing quickly.

Now go have fun!