I have mentioned a few times that last year my entire family took up the sport of orienteering.  For the men in my family (my husband and two kids) this is currently their favourite sport, one they are hoping to excel at.  I, on the other hand, make it a goal to not get lost and suffer the embarrassment of the organizers having to come search for me after the time limit.

I have to say though that I am thoroughly enjoying this new form of running.  One of the issues for many road runners becomes the boredom.  For the most part I enjoy the time while road running to listen to my thoughts and my music, to just let my mind wander at will.  In fact, I think that may be one of my difficulties when orienteering – once my legs get moving my mind is used to turning off.  When that happens while orienteering, needless to say you get lost.  I find I am enjoying the challenge of trying to focus on a map, the footing, the trails, the landscape and once in a while, a compass.  If just reading that makes your head spin, imagine putting it into practice!

This is a wildly popular sport in many areas of the world, but not nearly as well known here.  For those not sure of the sport,this post gives some basic information.  First off, THERE IS NO GPS!  Sorry for the shouting there, but everyone these days thinks that finding your way around an unknown area requires GPS.  The fact is, long before technology there were things called maps and compasses and if you learn to use them they can actually lead you to where you want to go.  Though not always… if you as the user aren’t careful it is pretty easy to make a mistake.  And that of course is where the challenge lies.

While orienteering events can take place on an urban course, many of the events take place in the woods and fields.  Here in Ottawa/Gatineau we have so many beautiful areas, and Orienteering Ottawa puts many of them to good use in their weekly spring and fall events.  We have found our way in the Gatineau hills, the March Highlands, the Constance Bay sand trails and on the trails of the Greenbelt.  We have had to find our way through brush, forest, rocky terrain, ski hills, and around (sometimes through) various water bodies.

So how does this sport work?  At the local level events you simply show up and register sometime between 10:00 am and 11:00 am.  You start when you are ready, so no panicked race to your corral.  These events also won’t leave a hole in your wallet the way many road races do.  The four of us can enter for a total of $22.  Add a zero to that I think you are around what we paid to all race at the upcoming Ottawa Race Weekend, so $22 seems a very cheap way to spend a Sunday morning.  The events are open to all ages and abilities.  Bring your babies in backpacks, lead your toddlers around a trail or get ready to race through the terrain in search of a fast time while being awed by national team members.  You can pick from a novice course, where all of the controls are located very close to the trail; an intermediate course where you will need to be able to find your way off the trails; and a short or long advanced course where you may find yourself doing some serious bushwhacking.

As for equipment, bring your comfortable hiking shoes if you are walking, or a pair of running shoes with a good tread.  If you are doing anything above the novice level you will probably want a compass.  If you are going off trail you will need to think about poison ivy, ticks and sharp branches, so long pants may be advised.  There is one high tech gadget that you will need, an SI stick which you will use when you have found each control ( an orange and white flag).  Just “dip” the stick in and the time of your arrival at each control, plus the start and finish, will be recorded and printed out for you at the end of your race.  The SI chip can be rented at each event for only $2, and are provided for free for anyone trying the novice course.

Once registered you will get your map and you can take some time to figure out your plan.  This is not the case in higher level events, where you will not see your map until you start.  The maps will show you trails, contour lines, types of vegetation, man-made features, water features…the list goes on.  It will also show you the start, finish and where each control you must find is located. Here is the intermediate course from today:

It is a little hard to read on the computer, but if you look closely you can see pink circles marking the controls and their order.  You will also notice that they are all off the black dotted lines representing trails.  All of those white areas mean forest, so it is not as open as what you might think.

Part of reading the map will involve you learning a rather extensive number of symbols.  For example, a tree stump or root stalk will be marked with a circle with an “x” inside.  A marsh is marked with blue horizontal lines.  A boulder will show as a black dot, but be careful not to confuse it with a brown dot as that would be a knoll.  As you progress you will start learning terms such as “spur”,  “saddle”, “re-entrant” and “depression”.  Cliffs, fence lines, railway tracks and roads are also marked on the map.  The brown lines you see are contour lines which can help you identify where hills and knolls are.  But if this sounds complicated, you don’t need to know all of this to try out a novice course and there are always people around to help you out if you are not sure about something.  This is a sport that grows with you in whatever form you wish.  Keep it simple and enjoy some time in the great outdoors, or each week learn a little more in order to complete more complex courses in faster time.  Of course at some point you can add in your compass skills, skills I seem to be lacking in, to also guide you along your chosen path.

If you find while out on your long road runs that you feel like you need something a little different, why not come out to one of Orienteering Ottawa’s Sunday events?  Get yourself on some trails, explore an area of our city you haven’t seen before, develop a few map and compass skills and find a whole new group of running or outdoor fanatics looking for a way to keep fit and have fun.  Check out the Orienteering Ottawa website at http://www.ottawaoc.ca/  For those of you outside of Ottawa, do a quick search of orienteering in your area, you might be surprised to find there is an active club in your home town.

Kristi and her boys

 by Kristi Raz.  First published in Running, May 2015