Archive for Sunday, June 15, 2003

Orienteering looks easy, but don’t be fooled

June 15, 2003


There's a sport called orienteering in which people race through the woods with compass and map to look for checkpoints.

The competitors record a number found at each checkpoint, and they're judged on how many they find and how fast they finish the course.

It's fun, but it's probably something not one person in 100 can do, even though using a map and compass looks easy. Now that warm weather is here, why not learn how to use a map and compass, and maybe even set up a family orienteering project?

You will need a hand-held compass (about $10 and up at most outdoors stores) and a 7.5-minute topographic map of the area you will be hiking.

You can find such detailed maps -- divided into areas of 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude -- at many outdoors stores, especially backpacking-oriented places like REI and North Face. Buy a map that includes a state or county park near your home.

The first step is to take the compass to an open area like an empty parking lot or school activity field and learn how to follow north-south, east-west routes on it, figure out the length of your pace (just measure it with a ruler.)

Now you're almost ready to tackle a hike at the park.

But before leaving home, sit down and look over the map. Pick two points about a half-mile apart, like a picnic area and a playground.

If you look for the dotted lines that show foot trails, you'll probably see that there is no direct, as-the-crow-flies route between the areas you picked. There's usually a swamp, nasty brush, gully or some other non-negotiable obstacle in the way.

Now put the compass on the map, making sure there's no sizable piece of metal around that will throw off the compass, such as the frame of a table. Compasses with clear plastic bases are preferable, because you can read the map through the base.

The needle on the compass will point north, and you can lay out compass headings on various trails to plot a circuitous route from point A to point B.

It's best to make your first outing on trails in state and county parks because the trail junctions have signs. That lets you check your compass heading against the trail designation (A, B, D, etc.) to be sure you're on the right route.

You'll also want to estimate the distance you travel on each trail. The easiest way to do that is to count paces, figuring that a 6-foot man has a pace nearly three feet long, while a 5-foot-3 woman's pace is about 2 1/2 feet.

As you get more comfortable with map and compass, you'll begin doing treks off the trails, which occasionally will lead to getting lost.

But that's part of the fun of it, and sticking to parks with established trails ensures you won't stay lost for long.

Kids really get into these map and compass games, especially if you stash a prize like a small toy or candy bar at the destination.

They (and you) also realize quickly just how hard it is to travel cross-country using only a map and compass. They might ask, "How did the early explorers and settlers do it?"

The answer is simple. One of them was as tough as 10 of us.

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