Orienteering with map, compass may sound old-school, but it's mostly about discovery

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Take your pick: a GPS device or a compass and a map?

Given the choice, most people would choose the navigational tool that more closely resembles an autopilot. But there are small groups of people who, compass and map in hand, are making their way through the woods and parks of Western Pennsylvania.

They are participating in an outdoor activity called orienteering, which may be familiar to people who were Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts or members of the military or ROTC.

It was in Boy Scouts that Glen Schorr, now the executive director of Baltimore-based Orienteering USA, first got involved in orienteering. He drifted away from map-and-compass recreation while in college, but his work with the group has brought him back to orienteering. One of the tasks of his job is to explain what it is, and he's developed a concise response:

"Orienteering is a sport in wilderness navigation where a person uses a map and a compass to complete a course."

He can be even more succinct. Orienteering, he said, is mostly about discovery.

Organized competitive orienteering activities combine the map, compass, sense of discovery and desire to win. The goal is to reach each of the controls, completing the course faster than anyone else.

Using a detailed topographical map and a compass, orienteers make their way through courses set up in a wooded area, often in state parks. The map gives them information about the terrain, and they use the compass to make their way from one "control" to the next. The controls are pre-designated points, and the orienteers indicate they have made it to the control on a "punch" card.

"It's the same thrill as in a treasure hunt," said Jim Wolfe, president of the Western Pennsylvania Orienteering Club. "You are going through the woods looking for something, and then you find it."

This month, Wolfe, 62, of Johnstown, competed in an orienteering championship meet in a state park near Glens Falls, N.Y. During the two-day competition, he completed two 5.5-kilometer courses, coming in 15th among the 27 people in his age group.

Now retired, Wolfe said orienteering is one of his main hobbies. He first encountered the activity in 1978 when he was living in Massachusetts. When he moved to Western Pennsylvania to work as a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he became the faculty adviser to the college's orienteering club. As student interest declined, he expanded the group in 2003 to include anyone in Western Pennsylvania, and the club was formed.

Now the group has about 45 members, some of them IUP graduates who have stayed in the area, including Jennifer Livingston, 36, of Beaver.

A high school cross country runner, Livingston first heard about the IUP club at a college activity fair.

"This sounded like something that would be more of a challenge," she said. "Not just plain running, but figuring out where to go."

More than just exercise, it's a thinking sport, she said. "It is you making decisions. Are you going to travel the trail around the mountain, or are you going to try to go over it because that's the shortest point from A to B?"

Orienteering courses are developed for various levels of expertise. On beginner courses, orienteers stay on the trails or in open areas. On the more elite courses, there are more obstacles and people race through the course.

When Livingston was in college, she went to the U.S. Intercollegiate Orienteering Championship, held that year in Michigan, then competed in world college championships in Switzerland.

It was in Europe, and Sweden specifically, that orienteering originated as a military training exercise in the late 19th century, Schorr said. It spread in popularity throughout Europe, and in 1941, the first orienteering events were held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

There are 55 orienteering clubs in the United States, including one in Western Pennsylvania, Schorr said. He estimated about 55,000 people participate in approximately 650 to 700 events each year.

In the United States, competitive orienteering peaked in popularity in the 1970s and '80s, he said. But in the past five years, with a cultural move toward appreciation of the environment, he believes map and compass events are getting more popular again.

But Schorr said the ubiquity of the global positioning satellite unit doesn't worry him. He believes GPS use could even help orienteering.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh my gosh, we've invented GPS and it's going to kill the compass,' " he said. "I think it helps the sport in a couple of ways. First of all, if you have GPS in your car, it's going to help you get to an [orienteering] course."

And although using a GPS unit is not allowed in an orienteering competition, he believes it adds an appreciation for the skill.

"I think the fact that the technology is a little old school does not hurt us," he said, "because people are interested in navigation."

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published October 31, 2010 4:00 AM


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