In the spring of 2021, the League of Outdoor Women, a local organization that helps women build a relationship with the outdoors through education, community, and awareness, hosted a class on orienteering at Wildwood Park—one of my favorite parks in our community. I grew up blocks from this park hearing stories from my grandmother about how her family would stop at this spot for picnics when making the “trip to town”—sometime in the 1930s. Stepping outside and gathering after what seemed like an endless year of Covid-19 seclusion, I was thrilled to learn the basics of using a compass for the first time in my life. How had I made it this far in life, traveling the world, without basic knowledge of how to orient myself in the wild? 

Basic orienteering involves using a topographical map, a special orienteering map, and a compass to find checkpoints along a course. It can take place in different types of land areas, and participants can go at their own pace or participate in timed competitions. In the simplest of terms, orienteering is traveling through the woods, over varying kinds of terrain, visiting predetermined points in a specific order. Each time they reach a checkpoint, they punch a card next to the correct spot to confirm they completed the task. Orienteering, while now done primarily for recreation, came about out of necessity, as a way to find one’s way around an unfamiliar place using only a map and a compass.  

The practice began in the late 1800s in Sweden, as part of military training exercises. It became a competition among Swedish military officers a few years later and, shortly thereafter, competitions sprang up, starting in Stockholm in 1893. It didn’t take long for civilians to become interested in participating as well, and it was made into a competitive sport.  

This map is a portion of the Cibola National Forest in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. The map was used for the eighty-meter competition of the Third IARU Region II ARDF Championship. 

By 1918, the president of the Stockholm Amateur Athletic Association saw the activity as a chance to encourage more young people to participate in athletic events and a cross-country running event was organized that incorporated orienteering skills. Over 200 runners took part in the race, which essentially created the rules of orienteering that are still used today. As compasses became more reliable, the sport became more popular, and competitions sprang up around the world.  

Orienteering became popular in North America as European travelers began to vacation in western countries. The first orienteering event in the US took place at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1941. Even as civilian clubs spread across all continents, military leaders were still using competitions to train soldiers. The sport was helping teach the specifics of local terrain so well that Adolf Hitler banned orienteering clubs entirely, to prevent resistance fighters from learning their way around the woods unnoticed.  

In the 1950s, modern maps were introduced into the sport. Up until that time, participants were using basic black-and-white maps of the area. Now the terrain could be seen in full color, the user could see contour lines that show elevation and note landmarks like water and roads. Compasses have also become more advanced and accurate, which allows participants to make more exact calculations. In 1961, an international governing body of orienteering was formed and it currently has 67 countries as members. 

Photograph of tree from /Beauty Everyday/ by Rinne Allen, Rebecca Wood, and Kristen Bach

From Beauty Everyday by Rinne Allen, Rebecca Wood, and Kristen Bach (page 117). 

One of the true benefits of orienteering is that participants are present, examining nature, and challenging themselves in some way – regardless of if there is a prize to be won. 

Find a local orienteering group near you and spend time outside in a natural environment.  


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