Though it started in Europe over one hundred years ago, orienteering is still a relatively new sport in the United States, so we expect questions. Here are the more common ones we've heard in the Northwest…

What is Orienteering?

1. What do I do in orienteering?

Orienteering is the sport of navigation. Given a map, you navigate from one control to another, marking your progress at each control, usually electronically. At the finish, you will be given a time that you can compare to other finishers, no matter when they completed the course.

2. Do I have to find the control markers in order?

Most orienteering courses have controls marked in a logical, required order (point-to-point). You select your best route to get from one to another, which may be very different from the routes that others take! In other courses, called Score O's or Rogaines, you decide not only which route to take but which of the many controls to attempt to find.

3. What types of orienteering are there?

The skill of navigation can be combined in a wide range of orienteering events. Recently, we have offered foot orienteering, bike orienteering, canoe orienteering, cell phone orienteering (pairs with only one person having the map), night orienteering, and urban orienteering combined with a scavenger hunt.

4. I run cross-country. Is this the same?

For you, this is like cross-country without a well-marked course. Instead, you get a well-marked map and the knowledge that your endurance is your strength. The deciding factor in your ability to do well will be your ability to read that map and recognize landmarks as you are running. Many high school orienteers who come in from cross-country or soccer start with an endurance advantage.

5. I'm not a runner. Can I still participate?

Some of the best orienteers started out walking…very accurately. They learned to be really good map readers and waste little effort navigating from one control to another. For this type of participant, the fun is in challenging faster runners without breaking out of a brisk walk.

6. What equipment do I need?

A safety whistle is required and you will be given a map at the start. Events use controls with either needle punches having different patterns, or the more modern electronic timing. For those meets using electronic timing, you may rent a SIcard (e-punch) at registration if you don't own one. We also recommend a baseplate compass, to help you orient your map so north points north (if you do not have a compass, you can rent one at registration). Any clothing is acceptable, even jeans, sweats, and hiking boots, but dress for the weather and you anticipated speed-walkers should dress warmer than runners, especially on cold or wet days.

7. Don't you run on trails only? Why are some people coming back so messy and muddy?

Courses at each meet range from beginner to advanced. The beginner level is the best place to start and is completely on trails. Advanced beginner is mostly on trails, but includes more route decisions and opportunities to get turned around. The advanced course pays little attention to trails, encouraging participants to navigate through and around large natural areas using a variety of other navigational guidance. People who come back messy and muddy typically have run a high-speed advanced course and enjoyed getting that way.

8. Do I need to belong to a special group of people to do this?

No. Just check the website calendar and join us whenever there's a meet that's convenient. Between Cascade Orienteering Club and Sammamish Orienteering Club, there are open orienteering meets nearly year-round, although the main seasons are fall and winter.

9. The main seasons are fall and winter??? Doesn't it rain then?

Yes. Sometimes a lot. And the people that you'll hang around with in that weather are active, go-getter outdoor types who love parks and can enjoythem in any season. Have fun and bring a change of clothes and some hot chocolate.

10. Can I do this together with my children/family/friends/dog?

The more the merrier. Although the Winter O/winter interscholastic league meets focus on soloing, even those have open courses for groups of people. This is an inexpensive family activity that also introduces children to the outdoors. At some parks, you will see a few strollers and a half-dozen walking participants doing courses with their dogs. If you have a dog, we ask only that your dog be on a leash and not dropping any "presents" for other participants to step in.

11. Can I keep my map when I'm done? I'd like to try it again next week to find the controls faster.

Your entry fee purchased your map; it is yours to keep. So feel free to fold and crinkle it as much as needed to finish your course accurately. After the event, the controls will be removed for use at another meet, so they will not be available to find again at the same park. But the map will still be an accurate representation of the park, available to help you practice identifying landmarks and become a better navigator.

12. They took my e-punch at the finish. Wasn't that mine to keep?

To keep participation costs low, e-punches are used only during the event and must be returned after youve finished. If you participate frequently, you may consider purchasing your own reusable e-punch, which can also save you time at registration.

How to. . .

1. How difficult is it to learn orienteering?

The beginner course is a great place to start, with a simple, logical route that you can do with just a couple of minutes of training. From there, learning orienteering, like any learning, depends upon what you do with mistakes. If you ask other orienteers what routes they chose and what landmarks they used to be faster, you will find yourself improving quickly with each meet.

2. How difficult is it to learn to read the map?

From Mapquest to bus routes, we already read maps regularly. Orienteering maps just have a lot more information. Very quickly, obvious features such as roads, trails, and buildings become easy to read, and you can move on to features like vegetation boundaries, contour lines, and magnetic direction. The most important lesson to learn is to constantly turn your map—orient it—to match your surroundings. This means that you might be walking sometimes with an upside-down map, and that would be a good thing…if you were going south and everything lines up with your surroundings.

3. How do I find out about the meets?

Meets range from approximately every two weeks during the fall and winter to once a month in the spring and summer. They are scheduled around the entire Puget Sound area, with the majority close to Seattle. Upcoming events and registration and start times are listed on the Events page. We also publish a quarterly newsletter with articles and information about orienteering.

4. How do I get to the meets?

At this time, there is no formal meet transportation, although many participants carpool. Ask where people are from at the next meet so you can carpool to! Many Seattle area venues are adjacent to Metro bus lines.

5. How do I sign up and what happens then?

When you first get to a meet, you will need to be familiar with three marked areas: (1) Registration, (2) Start area, and (3) Finish. First, head to the Registration area to register for a course, which includes a map. If you do not have an e-punch stick, this is the time to sign up for one. You can also borrow a compass if you do not have one. Everyone must have a whistle as well. Cost per meet varies, depending upon the equipment rented, but participation typically costs not over ten dollars, and a whole family can share one map, or purchase several at a reduced cost.

Now head to the banner marked Start and get in line for your course. While you're walking, look for the Finish sign, so you can have a strong finish at the end of the course. When it is your turn to start, you will receive your marked map. (HINT: Start is a triangle symbol, and Finish is a double circle.) You're then free to explore the park, looking for controls. NOTE: Everyone needs to check in at the Finish when done. If you finish the course, you will get a printout of your elapsed time. If you don't finish the course we still need to know that you aren't still out in the woods. We will search for those who haven't checked in when the meet is over.

6. How do I know which course to try?

For a positive experience, it is best to start lower and progressively work your way up to harder courses. Beginner courses require the least navigation and follow a natural guide feature (called a handrail) such as a trail for minimal opportunities for getting lost. This makes beginner courses the perfect start for novices. Advanced beginner courses offer more opportunities for route choice decisions, some of which are better than others, but still stay mostly on trails. Advanced courses have a significant cross-country navigational component and often rely very little on trails.

7. How do you know if everybody is back safely?

We use the computers to compare finishers against starters; anyone who starts but does not finish is assumed to be still out on the course. For this reason, it is essential that you check in at the finish tent when you are done, whether or not you complete the course. If anyone remains on the course after the meet is over, we will alert the course clean-up crew to be on the lookout for that person.

8. How do I change back into street clothes after the meet?

Many parks have bathrooms, which can be used for changing; some do not, and you will need to change in your car. If this is a concern, an old blanket in the back of your car can both offer some privacy and provide extra warmth if you get wet and cold during your course.

9. How do I measure distance in kilometers? We never learned that in school.

Orienteering maps are in kilometers for consistency with international standards. From 10K fun runs to 2 liter pop bottles, metric measurements are becoming commonplace in the US. 1K is approximately 5/8 mile. The distance of the course shown on the control description sheet is measured from control to control direct. You will probably travel further when actually completing the course.

10. How can I see the results of the meet?

Printouts of the event in progress are often displayed at the event, weather permitting, so you can compare your time with others. The Results page lists results a few days after an event, and preliminary results are available sooner. Results also link to WinSplits, which shows a control-by-control listing of how each participant did and how the leaders got ahead.

The Weather

1. Do you run meets in every type of weather?

Mostly, although at least one meet in a forest area was canceled for safety reasons, due to gale-force winds. The height of our local orienteering season is when our area is the coldest and rainiest, but some meets are held in other seasons as well. In this sport, you will meet people who don't need good weather to have fun. Just dress for any type of weather, bring a change of clothes and hot chocolate, and enjoy an uncrowded park!

2. Are you crazy??? What if it's really cold and wet and I can't find anyplace to hide from the rain?

Gloves are nice. So are a change of dry clothes and a insulated container of warm food or drink at the end. Bring enough to share and you'll find yourself with instant best friends who also enjoy the outdoors…great company for the next meet!

What if. . .

1. What if I lose my compass?

Some people navigate entirely by map, so this isn't a disaster. If you lose your compass, landmarks on your map become even more important. Pay particular attention to all the information the map can offer: trails, major roads, buildings, vegetation borders, streams, elevation changes, locations of previous controls, and memory of where you have been before. You can still complete your course, although if you borrowed your compass and can't return it, you will need to pay for it.

2. What if I lose my e-punch?

Your e-punch records your progress on a course; without it, there is no way to get this information. If you lose your e-punch, make an effort to find it. If you can't find it quickly, continue your course, using the manual punch at each marker to punch the edge of your map. At the Finish, inform meet personnel that you have lost your e-punch. If someone finds and turns in your e-punch, then your result will count. Otherwise, your result will be marked as Did Not Finish (DNF). You will have to pay a fee of $40 if you lose a club-supplied e-punch.

3. What if I lose my map?

Without a map, you won't know where to go, how to get there, or what to avoid. If you cannot find your map after retracing your steps to the last control, then retrace you way back to the start area. There may be another used map available, although this cannot be promised. Either way, when you are done you will need to visit the Finish tent to let the meet organizers know that you are done.

4. What if I get lost on the course?

As course levels go up in difficulty, there are more challenges. Getting lost happens to everyone at some point, so the key is to develop good relocation skills that get you back to familiar territory. At a minimum, walking back to your last known control helps a lot. If you can't do this, then standing at a really noticeable landmark until you find it on the map also helps. If you still cannot find where you are, asking someone else to identify your location on the map is acceptable. Asking for help to find a control is not acceptable.

5. What if I get injured on the course?

Occasionally, someone twists an ankle or steps on a stick wrong and requires assistance. A core principle of orienteering is that we stop to help injured people, even if we have to sacrifice our time to do it. This means that everyone out there is a potential rescuer. Use your required whistle to indicate that you need help.

6. What if we got lost or didn't have fun? Do we still need to return to the finish?

Yes, in order to let the organizers know that you are back safely and they don't need to send out a search party while you're driving home. We care about you.

Last update: January 9, 2009

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