Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Beyond the Campfire

Summer camp sports head mainstream

By Margaret Ahrweiler


And while its growth and income potential haven't approached that of disc golf—yet—the Next Big Thing may be orienteering. Building on that slightly nerve-wracking, slightly exhilarating denouement to camp of finding your way through the woods with only a compass to guide you, orienteering programs are pointing the way in park and rec programs that have the land to support them. Billed as The Thinking Sport, because participants must use map-reading and decision-making skills as they race through what can be an intense outdoor workout.

Orienteering (simply O to its fans) is getting ready to break into popular consciousness with the help of exposure from adventure racing on alternative sports shows, along with the latest crop of reality programming. High-rated shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race have included challenges based on orienteering, causing an uptick in awareness for this European import, begun in Scandinavia as military training.

The sports sounds deceptively simple: navigate through a series of points using a compass and a map, with the fastest time the winner. For the uninitiated, of course, O-maps make Cyrillic figures look comprehensive, and the fastest way through a course isn't always in a straight line.

Like disc golf and archery, orienteering appeals to a wide variety of people ranging from kids to retirees and embraces those for whom team sports or other traditional rec and fitness programming may not make a good fit.

"Really, the only requirement is a love of the outdoors," says Jerry Siscel, a course coordinator for the Cascade Orienteering Club in the Seattle suburbs. Like their counterparts in archery and disc golf, proponents of orienteering bill the sport as a lifelong activity, something for anyone aged 6 to 75 and up.

"It's a personal-best kind of sport," Siscel says.

To get an orienteering program going, the first thing needed is an orienteer—someone to teach the ins and outs of the sport and skill, says Jerry Rhodes, co-vice president of marketing for the United States Orienteering Federation and active member of the Columbia River Orienteering Club in Washington state. He has taught beginning orienteering classes for the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation department in Vancouver, Wash.

A Beginner's Map of Orienteering

Orienteering is the sport of navigating with a map and a compass. Participants run (or walk, ski, bicycle or ride a horse) to a series of points shown on the map, then make it to the finish line in the fastest time possible. The essentials:


Don't think Rand McNally. Orienteers use topographical maps—O-maps—developed just for the sport, showing natural features like boulders, cliffs, ditches along with the elevation and trails. A good compass is essential. Many clubs will rent compasses for a small fee.


Orienteers pursue "controls," markers with hole punchers attached. Competitors carry cards; the first across the finish line with all 10 controls punches wins the race.


Permanent orienteering courses can be found mostly in the West, but O-clubs across the country regularly work with open space land managers to set up temporary courses for events. Land needs vary drastically based on the topography of the site and the skill level of the course being set up.

Courses range from about 2 kilometers for the easiest White level to 12 kilometers miles for the most advanced Blue courses, with seven levels of courses overall. U.S. Orienteering Federation materials say courses take about an hour for beginner courses and up to two hours for more challenging sites.