- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

All Miki Snell needs in the woods is a map and a sense of direction. And she always has the sense of direction.

“I’ve never gotten lost,” Miss Snell said. “Even when I was a kid, I knew when we were going the wrong way.”

The 60-year-old Dallas woman does competitive orienteering. Her goal is to find her way through a wilderness area to a series of small flags — and to do it before anyone else. It’s orienteering on the run.

Miss Snell is a member of the U.S. Orienteering Federation, the American arm of an international sport that combines map reading, terrain following and the ability to move fast — preferably at a run.

It’s a voyage of discovery, orienteers said.

“I hit the knoll and turn left and the boulder should be there and [the flag] should be just on the other side of the boulder,” said Evan Custer, of Orinda, Calif. “And if you do that, it’s a real high.”

In America, where the outdoors is usually experienced through TV and with narration, competitive orienteering is a sport for the few. It’s very popular in Scandinavia, orienteers said.

But advocates say the sport doesn’t have to be grueling. They say it lets people take part at their own pace, literally one step at a time. And they are trying to make it grow.

Competitive orienteering is open for “anybody from kids to adults, 9 to 90,” said Bob Rycharski, of Haskell, N.J. “I know a lot of 7-year-olds who do it quite well.”

Mr. Rycharski coordinates the USOF’s National Orienteering Day, held this year on Sept. 20, and involving about 60 cities. But beginners are welcome at any time.

“The best way is to come out and try a local event,” Mr. Custer said. “All clubs give beginners orientations at each of the events.”

Courses are graded for age and skill, so a beginner can start with appropriately simple treks and progress from there, Mr. Custer said.

Knowing how to use a compass is a good thing, but knowing how to align map features with the landscape is essential, competitive orienteers say. These maps can be specific down to the thickness of vegetation and the location of big boulders, said Frank Skorina, of Walla Walla, Wash., USOF’s spokesman. The maps are drawn to order for each event, he said.

Reading the map, the competitor decides the best route to the checkpoints. The best route probably won’t be the most direct, as people familiar with the outdoors know well — trying to go straight up a cliff usually takes longer than finding a path around it.

But competitive orienteering is more than skill. There’s also speed.

“Running is a big part of it,” Mr. Skorina said. The best way to train for the running is to stay on rough trails where the ground is uneven — the terrain a competitor would find in an event.

Just the same, participants can’t outrun their thoughts — they have to know constantly where they are as well as where they are going.

“You have to be exerting yourself, but you still need to keep your mind clear in order to read the map,” Mr. Skorina said.

This should be a warning to people who run first and ask questions later. “The map reading and navigational skills should be of prime importance,” Mr. Custer said.

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