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Orienteering gaining popularity in U.S.

Originating in Scandinavia in the early 1900s as a military training tactic, orienteering is a sport that has blossomed in Europe and is just beginning to bloom in the United States.

“It’s really popular in Norway, Sweden and Finland – the kids even learn it at school there,” said Evan Custer, event coordinator of the United States Orienteering Championship. “It came to the U.S. in the late 40s and it has grown slowly since then.”

Orienteering is a race to find markers in the wilderness. Using map-reading skills, participants travel through bushes, across streams and over rocky outcroppings to get there.



But it takes a little more than a map, a compass and the skills to use them to master the sport of orienteering. Alan Glendinning, who has participated in the sport for 20 years, said it’s helpful to have a healthy set of lungs.

“It’s a really good work out,” he said. “In the advanced levels it’s really physical, especially in Europe where they have endurance runners doing the course. In the United States it’s more focused on the navigation skills.”




Like any other sport, orienteering has its own special gear in addition to the basic equipment – a compass and a whistle, used to alert rescue personnel in case of an emergency.

“There are special orienteering shoes with stubby, short cleats or small metal spikes that help for traction in loose soil,” he said. “People also wear gaiters to keep the debris out of their shoes and lightweight, rip-stop nylon clothing that is resistant to snagging in the brush.”

The maps, which Custer said take hundreds of hours to build, are not the typical topographical maps. For each course, the maps are specially designed.

“They’re made with aerial photos and are computer generated,” he said. “They show contour lines and also vegetation features such as meadows and bushes. It also shows features like rocks and trails.”

Technical goodies, like global positioning units, aren’t allowed in the competition and, according to Custer, they’re not needed.

“There aren’t any global positioning coordinates on the map,” he said. “And they’re just too slow for orienteering. They take too long to get a positive reading.”

With its technical nature and physical challenges, Glendinning said orienteering attracts a certain type of person.

“Technical people really enjoy this sport,” he said. “People like mathematicians and engineers really like the mental challenge.”

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Compass Conversation

Control point: The marker in the wilderness to which competitors navigate.

Control bag: Located at the control point, the control bag contains a paper punch with which the competitors must punch their cards to prove they were at the marker

Attack point: Running fast, without careful navigation, toward a feature close to the control point and then navigating when you get closer to the control bag

Catch feature: An obvious feature beyond the control point that warns competitors that they’ve missed the mark, usually a road or trail.

Aiming off: Heading off the true direction to take an easier, faster route

Spiking the controls: Hitting the control point right on target

Waffling: Wandering around, off course


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