Off the Beaten Path: Orienteering appeals to all ages

Orienteering event planning and venues

Having originated as military training, orienteering combines analytics and accuracy as athletes navigate specialized courses using maps and compasses to finish the course first. Since 1886 in Sweden, orienteering has been on the map. There it began as a form of military training then evolved quickly into competition, first for military officers in 1893, then for civilians in 1897. From its early days, orienteering flourished where it began, according to Sandy Fillebrown, the membership contact for the sport’s national governing body, Orienteering USA. “Orienteering is huge in Scandinavia,” she said, “and somewhat popular in many European countries.”

Between World War I and World War II, the development of more reliable compasses drove more interest in the sport and orienteering became firmly established in Finland, Norway and Sweden, with national championships first being held in each country during that time. Following World War II, orienteering expanded across Europe, Asia and North America as European orienteers traveled and as it became a more common military training method.

Orienteering in the United States

Three Scandinavians who either visited or moved to the United States made a lasting impact on the sport of orienteering in this country, from organizing the first events to helping found the first club. In 1967, Norwegian Harald Wibye established what is now the oldest civilian orienteering club in the United States, the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association (DVOA). With about 700 members, it is the largest of the 70 Orienteering USA clubs, according to the association. DVOA is also where Fillebrown got her start. Inspired by an article she read, she said orienteering seemed like a fun activity to do with her kids, so she tried it.“I just thought it was fabulous,” she said.

Though she didn’t get her start in the sport until she was in her 40s, she said she was “very competitive in her age group for a long time.” In orienteering, participants are challenged to make quick decisions, using detailed maps that are crafted for each race, and a compass. Orienteering USA oversees club teams to competitive national, junior, ski, mountain bike, trail, deaf and university teams.

planning orienteering events

Keeping Up the Pace

Traditionally, orienteering competitions have been held out of sight of the public eye, according to Fillebrown, describing the longer, more traditional courses in forested areas. Among some of the more recent changes in the sport is the move to make competitions more visible. World championships in orienteering now encompass sprints, shorter races that may take place in urban environments or more public places, such as college campuses or parks. One emerging destination for these sprints is old European towns, according to Fillebrown. “I think it’s a desire for orienteering to be more visible in television and media coverage,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s not very spectator-friendly.”

For the first time in 2018, the World Orienteering Championships will take place in the heart of a capital city. Riga, Latvia, will host orienteers from around the world on an urban sprint course alongside the city’s Art Nouveau architecture and medieval Old Town. A forest sprint course will allow participants an intimate tour of the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, and middle- and long-distance courses will also take place in nearby cities, according to the International Orienteering Federation’s site.

This full week of orienteering competition is one more major event that will be held during the country’s 100th anniversary this year.

Aiming for Growth

While Scandinavia and Europe have history on their side when it comes to interest in orienteering, the United States is undertaking a “fairly recent initiative” to help develop the sport in this country now and into the future, according to Fillebrown. “Our biggest focus is on youth,” she said. “We’re trying to get orienteering in schools.” Targeting established groups such as JROTC, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who already orienteer is one way Orienteering USA is working to get into more schools, said Fillebrown.

By hiring a vice president of youth initiatives at the national governing body level, development of materials is already underway to be distributed across the country to help even beginners establish clubs, she said. Fillebrown stressed that orienteering isn’t just for scouts, though troupes and clubs with a similar focus are a natural fit. Often, people don’t consider orienteering a serious sport, though it demands a lot of its athletes. She described those demands as a combination of “knowing how to push physical limits but not so far that you affect the ability to navigate well.”

Currently, Orienteering USA’s biggest audience is in the 50- to 70-year-old range, according to Fillebrown. “We tend to lose a lot of people in college, in their early 20s because of career and family,” she said. “But they eventually come back to the sport and stay in it.”

Planning a Course

Orienteering events are unique in that each one features a new course and a new map, so that helps sustain interest, according to Fillebrown. While a lot of time and money goes into developing maps, planning orienteering competitions is a little different than planning other sport competitions.

For example, a local orienteering club may express interest in hosting a national-level event. For that to become reality, a new map must be created and the location must be close to a publicly accessible forest and a population base. Once that location is secured, Fillebrown said the local CVB is approached to help negotiate room rates and collect local attraction, entertainment and dining information. She emphasized the use of a professional mapper to develop the course. That process begins with the production of a base map using various technologies but the mapper will walk every square foot of the terrain in order to create an accurate and safe course. Safety is a consideration when creating a map but athletes also bear a personal responsibility as they compete, she said.

Mapping the Future

There is plenty of room for growth in orienteering in the United States but Fillebrown had an optimistic outlook. “The stats are good,” she said of membership. “They aren’t declining, so we’re seeing steady or small growth.” She pointed to more clubs hosting events, upcoming high-profile events and ramped-up support of junior teams as indications that the future holds promise. “There is growth at the local level,” she said. “There are more and more people learning about the sport.”