Finding My Way to Orienteering

I think I may have found a new outdoor athletic passion.  On the registration form for Orienteering Louisville‘s Return of the Otter meet, there should have been a disclaimer warning about addiction.

A few months ago, I had no idea that orienteering was a sport.  I was still planting trees up in Vermont and dreaming of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I was researching desert hiking, West Coast flora, wilderness first aid, and compass skills.  Looking for some instruction regarding the latter, I googled “compass class.”  Because Google thinks class and course are synonymous, most of the resulting links were about compass courses, which weren’t instructional but rather routes through the woods that people followed with maps and compasses.

Intrigued, I clicked from one website to another, reading through lots of orienteering jargon to figure out just what orienteering was.  How had I never heard of the sport before?  How, in all the time I’d spent outdoors and with adventuring types, did I not know anyone who’d mentioned it?  What was I missing out on?

While I’d hoped to attend a class teaching compass work with a bunch of other newbies rather than head off onto a competitive course and figure it out as I went, I vowed to embrace vulnerability, venture to a different edge of my comfort zone, and attend an orienteering competition once I returned to Kentucky.

The first opportunity I had was this weekend, when the nearest orienteering club hosted a meet roughly 2.5 hours away.wpid-wp-1426456080184.jpeg

Excited and nervous all at once, I waded down our very long and very muddy driveway in the dark to get in my car and make it to the meet in time for Orienteering 101.  When I entered the meet headquarters building, I was immediately greeted by warm and welcoming people, and I began to feel just excitement.

Louis, an older member of the group, took me through the basics of the sport.  There were maps with more detail and more symbols than I’d ever seen; a map lover at heart, I was fascinated.  There were courses of various levels and hieroglyphic markings denoting the various “controls,” or checkpoints, along each.  Then, there were these magical devices called “fingersticks” that recorded each participant’s journey through the forest.

I decided to enter at the advanced beginner level, cleared and checked my magical fingerstick, plunged it into the start control, and headed off into the woods.

Three minutes into my first run, I was covered in mud, my feet were soaking wet, I had a scratch on my leg, and I had decided I loved orienteering.

Yesterday and today, I attempted four courses. I completed my first in surprisingly good time, was less speedy and more tired on my second, and couldn’t complete the third yesterday. During today’s long events, I attempted the 8km orange course (which was more difficult than either of the courses I’d completed), but I had to stop halfway through because I was too tired and had a very sore IT band. Basically, I wimped out, but, given that it was only 10 days ago that I was able to start working out (lightly) again after this past Lyme flare-up, I was proud of myself for running through the woods for a few hours.

I was more proud of how much my orienteering skills had improved in two days. I’d gone from being unable to confidently take a bearing to being able to navigate (by either compass or landscape features, albeit a bit slowly sometimes) to controls sprinkled throughout the forest. On today’s orange course, there were a number of controls that I couldn’t see from the place in the forest I’d arrived at while searching for them, but I was confident in my navigating and simply looked over a knoll or into a ditch to find them nearby.

Conversational blue blaze: I am a firm believer that the right level of confidence is essential in outdoor adventure settings. While it’s important not to be overly confident and get in over your head, it’s also important not to have your actions rooted in fear.

All of the little result print-outs I got from the weekend declare that orienteering is “the sport for the thinking runner.” That really seems to be a perfect description! This meet was point-to-point style, and the thinking comes in when you realize that the shortest route to the next control isn’t always the fastest; it’s essential to consider alternative routes to avoid obstacles and the chance of getting lost. Some meets are called “rogaines” or “score-os.” Those have mass starts in which all participants go into the field for the same amount of time; each control has a point value, and participants choose which controls to search for.

By the end of this weekend’s meet I was bruised and bloody and sore and exhausted but completely exhilarated. I got in my wagon, turned on the radio (to “Carolina in the Pines”), and headed east, oddly unable to stop mentally transforming the “lone trees,” “gullies,” “knolls,” and “man-made objects” I passed into features on a topographic map.

To learn more about orienteering, visit Orienteering USA’s website.

Q&A: How to Physically Prepare for a Thru-Hike

When talking with aspiring thru-hikers, it rarely takes long for the conversation to turn to the physicality of an end-to-end hike.  Hiking a long trail is seen as a physical feat, one worthy of as much respect as an international competition of any other sport.  But, here’s a secret:  A thru-hike is really just a really long walk.

The best way to prepare for a long hike is to hike for a long time.  Now I’m not trying to sound pretentious or unhelpful here; that’s just the truth.  After being in the woods for a month or two, carrying a full backpack over mountains, a body is hardened and able to withstand the rigors of the trail.  Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” at which point they’re able to hike at full speed.  While getting their trail legs takes first-time backpackers up to six weeks (with dramatic improvements in the first several weeks), it often takes seasoned hikers half that time, at least in my experience.*  If you’re planning a thru-hike, it’s a good idea to, at least, take a few backpacking trips to prepare (and to get familiar with your gear).

That said, the first time I headed out on the AT, when I intended to hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin in 2011, I had hiked my fair share of 4000-footers but had never backpacked.  Not once.

So, if you can’t squeeze in some backpacking experience before your thru-hike, there are other ways to prepare for your time in the woods.

1) Take up long-distance running or cross-country skiing.  When you’re on the trail, you’ll often find that you’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or too thirsty or too tired or too sore.  You’ll be rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and sleeted on.  You’ll experience blistering heat and gale-force winds.  In my mind, the best way to stay strong and keep smiling through all of that is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  In modern America, many people are fortunate enough to very rarely find themselves physically uncomfortable; endurance sports are a good way to mentally condition yourself to keep plugging along through thirst, cold, some pain, etc.

2) Tackle the stair master — or, as one of the older men who watches me sweat for hours on it at the wellness center likes to call it, the “machine from Hell.”  As far as preparing your body for the actual activity it will be spending months doing, no machine beats the stair master.

3) One of the commonalities of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the enormous packs the authors’ carried.  With any luck, today’s aspiring thru-hikers will not be carrying loads that are nearly so heavy.  Nonetheless, it’s worth practicing lifting, putting on, and carrying around your pack.  Your shoulders and hips will thank you for any conditioning you do with your pack before you hit the trail.

Finally, if, come April, you realize that you’ve neglected the physical aspects of your trail preparations, don’t worry.  Many other thru-hikers have set out with the intent of using the trail as a fitness program; this is an especially realistic perspective if you’re hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, since the early portions of the trail are very forgiving.  Happy trails!

*I think some of this is due to seasoned hikers’ having mastered the “technique” of backpacking, but I won’t bore you with that hypothesis.