Are you a competitive runner, and considering (or new to) orienteering? Read on ...
Competitive orienteering is competitive running while navigating in terrain. To optimize your time, you need to find the right balance between running speed and navigation accuracy. If you run too fast, you are likely to make navigation mistakes that can cost you several minutes — a lot more time than you would have gained from running a few seconds faster per mile!
The trick is to run as fast as you can while staying in "contact" with the map, and staying lucid enough to navigate safely. Runners who are new to orienteering often use the "stop and dash" technique: they stop briefly to read the map, dash to the next decision point, then stop to read the map some more. With practice and experience, orienteers manage to read the map on the run without stopping. They also "read ahead", so they always know what to do next, and don't have to stop and waste time. For example, if you're running on a trail (yes, the "best route" is sometimes on trails), you can read ahead and see that there will be a fork in the trail after the next bend, so that when you come to it, you know what to expect and can run straight through without wasting time. The best orienteers plan several controls ahead — they're actually constantly reading and planning ahead while navigating at the same time!
How long is a typical orienteering race?
See course descriptions here. Courses are typically designed to be won in 60 to 90 minutes. Note that the distances given are the straight-line distances between controls, and thus can be misleading — your actual orienteering route will involve navigating around hills and valleys, and going up and down, making it much longer than a straight line. A good rule of thumb is to plan for two to three times the time it would take you to run the same distance on a road or trail. For example, an expert orienteer who can run a 10-km road course in 40 minutes would typically take 80 minutes or more on a "10-km" orienteering course. Because of navigation errors and stops for planning, a beginner could take 2 hours or more on the same orienteering course!
Which course should I run the first time?
In general, we recommend that newcomers start with a beginner (White or Yellow) course their first time orienteering. If you are quite familiar with topographic maps, you could start with an intermediate (Orange) course, but we strongly recommend that you complete some courses before taking on an advanced (Brown, Green, Red, Blue) course, which has significantly more difficult navigation. There’s a lot to learn on your first course. Starting out on an advanced course could result in you getting frustrated and spending more time in the woods than you would expect. Beginner courses allow you to learn as you go, and make some mistakes without staying out all day. (Beware that even an intermediate [Orange] course could be a big challenge the first time for those unfamiliar with topographic maps.) After you’ve completed one or two courses, you will have a much better idea of the appropriate course for your level of fitness and navigation (map reading) skill.
Keep in mind that orienteering is not only a running sport. Navigation is very important. In fact some "very good" orienteers aren't particularly good runners — their navigation efficiency more than compensates for their lack of pace. Of course, the "best" orienteers are elite runners and excellent navigators.
Also, note that you can run more than one course at an event. If you arrive early enough, you can do a White or Yellow course first, and then go out on a more difficult "second" course (for a reduced fee). That way, doing a "beginner" course first would not prevent you from getting a more physical challenge. The only limit on the number of courses you can do at an event is time — everybody must be at the Finish by the course closing time.
Lastly, be aware that it's hard to generalize about course difficulty. At some parks, the most difficult course offered is considered easy by experienced orienteers. (They use such courses to practice various skills, as well as to get in a good run.) At other parks, the beginner courses are more difficult than "average", and the advanced courses are very difficult — physically and/or navigationally.
Why can't I just follow someone?
Most orienteering races are "time-trials", meaning you race against the clock. Starts are usually separated by 2 to 4 minutes, so that you never start at the same time as another runner on the same course. When you meet other runners out in the woods, chances are that they're not on the same course as you, so following them would lead you to the wrong control! You might catch up runners on your course who started before you, or you might be caught up, but most often runners will separate quickly due to having different running speeds, navigation skills, and route choices. Also be aware that a runner on the same course as you might be lost!
Also, it's against the official rules for orienteering events in the U.S. to follow (except at special events that explicitly allow following).
What gear do I need?
Be sure to wear long pants to protect your legs against scratchy bushes. Even if you choose to stay on trails as much as possible rather than go cross-country, you will likely have to cross some vegetation patches. Gaiters are ideal, but not required. You will also appreciate a change of shoes and socks after the race, because your racing gear might get quite wet and/or muddy.
You will need a compass. Any type of compass will be fine initially, but you might decide later that you'll want a compass designed specifically for orienteering. You will need an E-punch stick for most events. Compasses and E-punch sticks can be rented at registration for nominal fees.
More information about what to bring is available here.
How can I learn more?
Read the FAQs listed above at the right. You can also look at our Training and Related Links pages. Our Photos and Videos page will lead you to some good videos that explain the sport and give a feel for what it's like. Some sample maps are available here. Also, look at our RouteGadget (http://baoc.org/gadget/cgi/reitti.cgi) page for links to the maps for recent events (that on-line tool is used to compare the [self-entered] routes different people took on their courses).
Better yet — attend an event, ask questions, and give it a try.
Here are a few tips for the runner who is new to orienteering:
- Be extra careful on the first few controls: The first few controls of a course are often those that cause the most spectacular mistakes! Competitors are eager and rested, and are tempted to go faster than they can navigate. It's better be safe than sorry — use the first few control to "get into the map". Restrain your horses, there will be plenty of opportunities to release them later on during the race.
- Beware of hills: If you manage to run up a steep hill, you may put yourself "in the red" and make a mistake when you get to the top. It's better to slow down while going up that hill, and take advantage of that slow time to read the map and plan ahead.
- Adapt running speed to terrain: Orienteering is the art of adapting your running speed to the terrain: on trails or in open woods, you can run fairly fast and still read the map and navigate accurately. But if you hit a more complex area with lots of contours, boulders, or vegetation, slow down to stay in contact with the map — you'll avoid costly mistakes!
Enjoy running in the woods!