Remember reading maps? The sport of foot orienteering (also known as cross country or point-to-point orienteering) is often called the "thinking sport" because it relies on map reading, navigational skills and quick decision-making. In a world where we increasingly depend on GPS devices to guide our way, the art of map reading has fallen by the wayside. And unlike many other sports, not always the fastest or strongest player is likely to be the victor.It's a game in which self-confidence and clear-thinking are some of your best assets. In orienteering, participants navigate their way to various points on a course (often in the woods) using a map and compass. The object is to locate all your designated points in order - marked with orange and white flags and punches, to prove you've been there - while following your own route, and then finish in the shortest amount of time possible.Orienteering is not limited to just the feet - bicycle, ski and canoe orienteering are also gaining in popularity - and foot orienteering enjoys some variety, too, with courses set up for nighttime events in which competitors use flashlights and controls are marked with reflective tape.Project orienteering, which incorporates the completion of a task or activity at each control point, is popular with school groups, and relay orienteering requires each member of a team to complete a short course and then tag the next teammate until the entire course is finished. UNO (Up North Orienteers) in Exeter offers courses and events throughout the year for newcomers of all ages to try out the unique and dynamic sport of orienteering.Gear BoxThe A-10 Partner II Baseplate Compass with easy-to-remove snap-lock lanyard. $12.95, www.thecompassstore.com"Orienteering- The Sport of Navigating with Map & Compass" by Steve Boga. $13.57, www.amazon.comAnd while you certainly wouldn't need these to participate in an orienteering event, you might enjoy sporting some comfy new shoes, just for fun. The Vasque Aether Tech trail-running shoe should put a little spring in your step. $87.47, www.backcountry.comExpert AdviceDeborah Humiston has competed internationally in orienteering since 1989. The Exeter resident makes maps and teaches navigation with compass and GPS in schools and museums, for community programs, adventure racers and at corporate team building events. She has been filmed facilitating map navigation for PBS Kids programming on "Curious George" and "Arthur" and is the membership director for Up North Orienteers. For more info visit www.ultimatetreasurehunts.com.So what, in a nutshell, is orienteering? It's a sport using both map and compass to find specific points known as "controls" in the woods. You then use a plastic punch on a card to prove you got there. First to finish, having correctly found all their points, wins. There is no "right" way to go. The more confident you are, the faster you find you go. There are bits of info on the map to help you along, but not turn-by-turn directions. You learn how the map is like the land. Learning the map becomes a vehicle for learning anything and the skills can be applied to other orienteering sports like horseback, canoeing and snowshoeing.Who is this sport geared toward? Anyone can go and do this and we always have beginner instructions. Families come together to these events and then split up and go at their own level, at their own pace, and then regroup later and can share in their experience. It's really good for kids because it's not a team sport where they get "picked" to play. It's especially great for kids who are intellectual.What types of people do you find excel at orienteering? The elite orienteers are often engineers, doctors and lawyers in the 25-35 year age range. Overachievers are most often very into it.What supplies or gear do you need to participate in one of these events? Less is more. You just need to be dressed properly for the weather, have sturdy shoes, bug spray and a compass. We put water out on the course. People sometimes come over-prepared and end up unloading gear at the last minute. People will bring a GPS - that only slows them down and they make errors.How did you first get started in the sport? I was introduced to orienteering as a sport and not just a wilderness navigation activity in the early '70s in Vermont. It wasn't until I moved to the Seacoast area and saw an event at the Urban Forestry Center in my early 20s that I was able to participate in a competitive arena. I felt the same excitement and orienteering's relevance to life experience that I saw when I was a teenager. The excitement was still there. I brought my kids to every event that I could and they all developed confidence and skills that are difficult to teach but easy to grow with orienteering.Impressive FactThe very first orienteering events in North America began on November 10, 1941, and continued until 1943 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, organized by Finnish army officer Piltti Heiskanen.
This article appears in the October 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine