Orienteering provides old-school test of speed and smarts

29 Apr

I pulled out my compass and unfolded my sweat-soaked map.  CP 7 should have been next to a boulder close to two other boulders, right along a faint foot track 400 feet southwest of CP 6, and 100 feet north of a dirt road.  It was perfectly obvious, yet perfectly baffling.

A control point flag hangs against an Oquirrh Mountains backdrop. The striped orange and white flag is a universal orienteering control point symbol. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the April 22, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Finding Control Point 7 was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  Except the haystack was 300 square feet of flat, open terrain, and the needle was a neon orange and white striped flag that should have stood out clearly against the drab landscape.  And I had a map—a very accurate paper map that showed me exactly where Control Point 7 was.

But I won’t let those minor incongruities spoil my analogy.

“Twenty seconds,” I thought to myself.  That’s how long it would take me to grab my smartphone, swipe over to my navigation apps screen, activate its internal GPS, scale a satellite image to my paper map, and watch myself walk straight to Control Point 7.  But rules are rules—no GPS allowed.

Instead, I pulled out my compass and unfolded my sweat-soaked map.  CP 7 should have been next to a boulder close to two other boulders, right along a faint foot track 400 feet southwest of CP 6 and 100 feet north of a dirt road.  It was perfectly obvious, yet perfectly baffling.

“You could get really pumped up and excited, then you’ll overrun the control point,” I remembered Orienteering Utah president Suellen Riffkin warning me during a pre-course briefing.

Riffkin, 48 operates Orienteering Utah (O Utah), a Salt Lake City based affiliate of the United States Orienteering Federation.  Her enthusiasm for the sport couldn’t have been more evident as she explained the sport against the backdrop of the Oquirrh foothills.

“This is the perfect spot,” she said as she scanned the day’s course, a large patch of BLM land near the community of Pine Canyon.  “Not too hot, no snow.”

The club holds 8-10 public orienteering competitions each year between spring and fall in various localities in the Salt Lake region.  The season-opener is almost always held here.

The term “orienteering” classifies a family of sports that share a common goal: timed navigation between control points over diverse terrain using only a map and compass.

Land Navigation as a sport traces its roots to the Nordic countries in the late 1800’s.  The first public orienteering competition was held in Norway in 1897.   Competitive orienteering made its way to the U.S. in the early 1940’s, thanks in large part to Swedish orienteering champ Bjorn Kjellstrom.  Kjellstrom promoted public orienteering events and helped found the U.S. Orienteering Federation in 1971.

Orienteering Utah (O Utah) was originally founded around 1995 by The Utah Nordic Alliance (TUNA), a Park City based cross-country skiing club, as a way to keep their members busy during the warmer months.  Riffkin assumed leadership of O Utah in 2006.

Events are set up and run by regional meet directors.  Each competitor is supplied a custom course map created by Riffkin and the meet director using topographic maps, aerial images, and computer-aided design software.

Each event runs beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses simultaneously.  Start times are staggered, and competitors must find control points in order and punch a card with a unique needle punch.  If a control point is missed, the competitor is disqualified.

“There are lots of different tricks to it,” Riffkin explained, pointing to the symbols on the course map “If you were here and you needed to get there, you could run along this trail, or could just try to go cross-country with a compass reading.  That’s where experience comes in.”

Riffkin started orienteering as a teenager with her father in southern New Jersey.

“I was really fast, but he was really smart,” she recalled.  “So we made a good team.  There’s a young guy that I like to compete against now.  He’s super fast, but I’m smart.  I run a lot slower than him but I don’t make as many mistakes.”

The more Riffkin spoke, the more I learned that the key to success in this sport isn’t speed, but patience and terrain smarts—two things I do not possess but which I couldn’t imagine I’d need on the beginner course.

Sure, I can make my way around backwoods pretty well, but I’m mostly a GPS man.  When I’m not using GPS, I tend to explore first and consult maps later.  This method works fine when I’m not trying to find orange flags on a timed course.

I found CP’s 1 through 3 pretty quickly, then made my way toward CP 4 thinking I had the course licked.  20 minutes later, after passing CP 4 by half a mile and retracing back to it, I began to appreciate Riffkin’s wisdom.

“I know how many of my steps equal one hundred meters,” she had explained.  “If I’m running level for ten minutes, I’ll probably make a mile, but if I’m running uphill for 10 min I’ll probably only make 1/2 mile.  You’ve got to know, by your sense of distance, when to slow down so that you can get ready to find the control.”

I paused to study and calculate my route to CP 5.  Amazingly I found it quickly, no backtracking needed.  My compass and a careful eye on landmarks helped me reach CP 6 without mistake.  I was back on track and making good time—until the elusive CP 7 blew my mind.

It turns out I wasn’t the only competitor to miss CP 7.  Riffkin suggested later that the flag might have blown upwind.  After 25 minutes of brain racking and frantic triple checks of every boulder on the hill, I was happy to accept that explanation.  I punched my card at the eighth and final control point, then sprinted to the finish line, where meet director Jack Cochrane waited to check me in.

My failure to locate CP 7 technically disqualified me from the competition.  Still, I felt a distinct pride mastering my impulses and finding flags the hard way.  I’m still a GPS man, but I might keep the old compass closer at hand from now on.

Orienteering Utah’s next event will be held at the Jordan Parkway in Draper.  For more information visit


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