Here’s a new outdoor challenge that you may not have considered: Orienteering. It combines navigation skills, map-reading, treasure hunting, and trail running. It’s great fun and has goals, like geocaching, but is more directed and is timed so you have the competitive aspects of a race.

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Starting line. Each box has a map of a different difficulty rating. Competitors choose their own difficulty level and begin their own course as the official certified their map.

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to start, and you don’t need any special skills aside from basic map reading, which makes this a great family sport. You’ll have to use both your head and your body for orienteering, and the way  you do it is up to you. Here are the nuts and bolts of how to begin orienteering.

What is it?

Orienteering is a sport where you use a map and compass to navigate through a race course to numbered checkpoints (known as controls). Terrain is usually through forested areas and over rough terrain. Race course check points (controls) register your arrival electronically and mark your progress through the course. At the end your time is collected and compared to others in the course. Starts are staggered, so you can run your own race without piles of people on your heels. There are usually a range of courses, offering different difficulty levels. Begin with a simpler course, and work up to a more challenging one. Routes between controls  are not defined and racers can choose whether they traverse a swamp, thorny field or wooded area, or navigate around it.

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A standard control with e-punch reader on top

Who can be an Orienteer?

All ages are welcome. Families can work as a team with one map and electronic punch (which registers you at each control). Anyone under 11 or 12-years old, may need a parent or adult guide help then through the course.

How competitive is it?

It can be as competitive as you make it. Organizations set up courses with everyone in mind. The most competitive course leaders usually run the entire course, stopping only to check their map and register at a control. Less competitive orienteers can walk the course and enjoy the natural surroundings, registering controls as they go. There is a wide range in between those two extremes.

What do I wear? What do I bring?

Dress for the weather, keeping in mind courses are often very much like hiking trails. Some are muddy, some are thorny or brush-covered, and some go off-trail completely. Good shoes or hiking boots are a must. And since you’re outside and running, bring water, snacks and clothing to keep you comfortable. You won’t wear a full day pack, but bring enough provisions to keep you happy for a couple hours outdoors.

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Registering e-punch at the finishline

How long does a course take?

That depends on the course, the speed of the competitor, and your  proficiency with navigation. Anywhere from 15 minutes to 90 minutes is average. You may run around a small lake, or follow a wooded trail, or navigate a swamp.

Where do I find out more?

If you are local, first check out the Cascade Orienteering Club. They have a wealth of knowledge on their website and have been around since 1979. The Orienteering USA site will give you the basics and a list of clubs and organizations nearest your area.

More nature-oriented than a street race, and more competitive than hiking or trail running, orienteering combines cognitive skills and athletics and the wild outdoors in a way that might just be perfect for you.

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Studying the route, ready with essentials: Map, compass, whistle, and e-punch which records your arrival time at each control.

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