Finding your way in the woods

Who runs through the woods with a map and compass, searching for small orange and white flags?

That would be a person who is orienteering. This popular Yukon sport combines running or walking and navigation using a map. It is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. It can be enjoyed as a leisurely walk in the woods, or as a competitive race combining strategy, strength, and high-intensity cross-country running. For both kids and adults, it’s like a treasure hunt.

The object is to find a series of checkpoints or “controls” shown on a map, and to choose routes — both on and off-trail — that will help you find all the controls and get back to the finish line in the shortest amount of time. Once control is spotted, kids will often outrun their parents to be the first one there.

For beginners, the course usually follows trails that are easy to locate on the map — and the controls are very visible. The controls on a course are marked with orange and white flags and electronic units that you “punch” to record what time you found the control. Each control marker is located on a distinct feature, such as a trail junction, the top of a hill, or the base of a cliff. These features are noted on a list of descriptions that come with each map. Most events provide courses for all levels — from beginner to expert. Beginner courses are usually less than two kilometers long, and may take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. Expert courses may be five to seven kilometers long and may take over an hour to complete, or up to two hours if some serious errors are made.

Orienteering is often called a “brain sport” because it involves map reading and decision-making in addition to a great workout. The maps used for orienteering are special five-colour topographic maps at a very detailed scale, made specifically for the sport. It is up to the orienteerer to decide how to get to the next control because the route between controls is not specified. Route choice and the ability to navigate through the forest are the essence of orienteering.

The sport started in Sweden and Norway as part of military training over 100 years ago. The term “orienteering” was defined as “the crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass”.

The Yukon Orienteering Association offers events throughout the spring and summer. Orienteering maps that have been created in the area around Whitehorse and Carcross have a variety of terrain and land-cover that rivals any location in Canada. The scenic views and late summer berry patches are another attraction. This makes the Yukon a popular spot for national championships.

For information on events for 2015, and the upcoming Western Canadian Orienteering Championships, see the website at

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