Orienteering Club meets regularly to test their skills and to compete against

Orienteering at College Lodge
By RANDY WELLS , rwells@indianagazette.net
Published: Monday, October 13, 2008 12:34 PM EDT

Able frontiersman Daniel Boone reportedly was so lost once that he was sure of only two directions: straight up and straight down.

Today's hand-held global positioning systems would have been a big help to Boone - except there were no satellites in orbit then to run the guidance units.

One group of sporting adventurers today relies on a guidance system that falls between Boone's innate sense of dead reckoning and state-of-the-art GPS: Orienteering with the aid of a good map and a reliable compass.

Members of the Western Pennsylvania Orienteering Club meet regularly to test their skills and to compete against themselves and others to see how quickly and how exactly they can navigate over unfamiliar terrain and find pinpoint locations.

 Experienced orienteering fans and people who'd like to try the sport for the first time can do so at a meet next weekend (Oct. 19) in White Township.

ACCORDING TO Jim Wolfe, a retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania computer science professor who serves as the club president, the sport of orienteering got its start around 1920. The military developed orienteering to help soldiers find their way around. It's still a part of ROTC training.

``It's a much bigger sport in Europe than in the U.S.,'' Wolfe said. ``In the U.S., national-level events draw 1,000 people. In Sweden they have one that draws 25,000 or 30,000 people.''

In some countries orienteering is a part of school curricula and there are serious competitions at the collegiate level.

The Western Pennsylvania Orienteering Club is an outgrowth of the IUP Orienteering Club that started in the 1970s but faded from campus in 2002.

Wolfe started orienteering in the late 1970s while working in New England. A co-worker convinced him to go along to a meet, and he's been involved in the sport ever since.

Orienteering, Wolfe said, is often called ``the thinking sport.''

Unlike other sports where strategy is often planned before the game or meet begins, the mental planning in orienteering takes place while the participant is also involved in the physical exertion - climbing up and down hills, hiking through woods and across fields.

ORIENTEERING, Wolfe said, requires a unique set of skills.

``GPS eliminated the mental aspect'' of navigating over unfamiliar terrain, he said. ``In orienteering, you still have an instrument (a compass) to help you, but you are more prone to make mistakes, and as part of orienteering, you have to learn to adjust for your mistakes.''

A key skill in orienteering is ``terrain association'' - being able to relate what you see on a map to what you see on the ground around you. Orienteering uses detailed maps that show features that are at least one meter tall, including up-turned tree roots and boulders.

From a starting point, individuals or teams use compasses and maps to navigate to ``controls,'' specific locations marked by a colored triangle suspended from a tree limb. When they find a control they use a punch fastened to the control to mark a card they are carrying to verify they located that spot.

Points are awarded for each control found and for completing the course within a time limit - typically 90 minutes.

Usually an orienteering event will have participants simultaneously navigating multiple courses, designated by colors. Beginners on a white course normally will cover about two kilometers while looking for controls that are close to well-defined trails. More-experienced orienteers following yellow, orange, green and red courses may hike up to six kilometers or more while searching for controls that are often off the beaten path.

The beginning and ending points and controls are fixed. Participants decide how many of the controls they will try to find, and what course they will travel to get there, using their compass and map as guides.

THE WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA Orienteering Club has 46 members and the club sponsors about eight meets each year, with one on Oct. 19 at College Lodge in White Township.

Wolfe said that typically about 150 people of all ages and skill levels participate in the meets. And newcomers to the sport are welcome.

The club has compasses to loan people who want to try the sport, and experienced orienteers will provide about 15 minutes of instruction that will give beginners the basic skills to navigate a white course.

Novices should not feel self-conscious about asking for the free instruction to experiment with orienteering.

``It's a rare event we don't have that,'' Wolfe said.

A small fee - $4 for club members and $5 for nonmembers - will be charged at Sunday's meet to help pay for maps, renting the park and other expenses.

Registration will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the ski hut at College Lodge. Individuals and teams may start the courses anytime during that three-hour period.

Wolfe suggests that beginners register well before 2:30 p.m. to allow time for instruction.


Orienteering is not an expensive hobby.

A good compass, the main piece of equipment needed, can be purchased for $10 to $30. The Western Pennsylvania Orienteering Club will loan compasses to participants at its meets.

Events are held regardless of the weather. And Jim Wolfe, the club president, recommends hiking shoes and long pants and long-sleeved shirts because the courses typically lead through woods and brush. He also recommends that participants carry an inexpensive whistle. It's a reliable way to summon help if an orienteer is lost or injured.

More information on the Western Pennsylvania Orienteering Club, its meets and results from past events are on the club's Web site at http://www.wpoc.org/

At more advanced levels of orienteering, participants may choose to have terrain features they must find listed either in written words or as international symbols recognized by orienteers of all countries. A card for an advanced green course at a recent meet included at control No. 3 a copse of trees (indicated by a triangle with an ``X'' in the center), a dry ditch at control No. 4 (two parallel lines with dots in between) and a cliff at control No. 5 (a horizontal line with four attached vertical lines on the bottom).