Orienteering is the sport of navigating in unknown terrain. Using a very detailed map and a compass, participants locate a series of checkpoints called controls. The challenge comes in determining the most efficient route around the course by interpreting land features indicated on the map. It is like a treasure hunt on the run. The element of individual route choice is why orienteering is often called the “thinking sport.” The participant who completes the course in the shortest time is often the most adept at interpreting the map, not necessarily the most athletic.
How important is the compass?
The most important navigational aid used in orienteering is the human brain. One other navigational device is allowed and in general use: the compass. Compasses are useful for taking bearings and for orienting the map so that it is aligned with the terrain.
But it is possible, in most areas, to complete a course quite easily and efficiently without a compass. Libby Hill Forest Trails are very well blazed, and you can complete the beginner courses without a compass if you pay close attention to your surroundings and follow the hints in the Getting Started section of this site.
What About GPS and Other Devices?
The compass is the only legal navigational aid that can be used in orienteering. Altimeters are specifically prohibited and GPS units are implicitly prohibited by the rules. It has been stated that GPS units could be very useful and helpful aids, but when the question of how an everyday orienteer would use a GPS unit to defeat the reigning US champion in a race was raised, the only valid reply was: “I would wait at the first control for him, use the GPS unit to knock him out, and then proceed on to victory.” Technology, however powerful, is no match for basic navigational ability – even in the hands of a good orienteer who is also a technological wizard. Beginning orienteers should learn basic compass skills and work on mastering map reading.