‘CONNECT THE DOTS’: Orienteering fans wander the woods with just a map and compass

Orienteering fans wander the woods with just a map and compass

THOMAS ASK/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Orienteering refers to traversing the mountains using a map and a compass to find one's way.

“It’s fun, it’s like a lifesize connect the dots,” Aidan Turner said with the energetic smile of a young college student. He was talking about orienteering — navigating an area using only map and compass. Some people compete to see who can make it through fastest but many do it just for fun. You can go anywhere you want and feel comfortable you won’t get lost.

Turner, a student at Pennsylvania College of Technology, started orienteering when he was a Boy Scout, but it seemed to come naturally in his family. He had seen how well his older brother was able to pick up the sport. With only his grandfather’s compass and a map, he would go off with friends and have informal competitions.

“I like to go with friends. We pick waypoints and orient ourselves to them. We find prominent features like a rock jutting out or a distinctive tree to leapfrog our way through the woods,” Turner said “When we are in open country, we can use features like lakes and mountains.”

Orienteering skills can help in a pinch. One time when Turner and his friends tried going over a mountain at Philmont Scout Ranch, a Boy Scout camp in northern New Mexico, they got caught near the peak as a thunderstorm rolled in. They needed to get out of their exposed position. They quickly bushwhacked down to a road they knew was nearby.

“You shouldn’t go into the woods without a compass,” said Jim Pagana, a seasoned hiker living in Montoursville. “In dense forest, you can’t see the sun for orientation.”

Pagana has been orienteering for decades from his childhood hikes near Renovo to his long involvement with Boy Scouts. Orienteering, he said, requires a trusting relationship.

“You need to trust your compass. Your mind can play tricks on you. My senses might feel I want to go one way, but I need to follow the compass,” Pagana said.

“We call it ‘land nav’ in the Army,” said veteran Bruce Reiner, of Trout Run.

In Army training, soldiers are challenged to find markers in the woods using a compass direction and distance. They determine their walking pace by counting the steps to cover 100 meters. They then can judge their walking pace and follow the compass bearing as best they can.

Orienteering is also similar to “dead reckoning,” used in boating and aviation, where you estimate your location based on a compass bearing and speed.

Pilotage is a cousin of orienteering. It is an ability to compare a topographical map with surrounding landmarks to establish a location. Orienteering’s other cousin, geocaching, relies on GPS and also is popular in this area.

What can you trust more, a compass or GPS?

“I have had GPS be unreliable in valleys,” Turner said. “A compass will work most of the time but takes some knowledge to use. If you need directions during a storm, GPS becomes a paperweight.”

A compass is cheaper, he added, and can last a couple of generations.

Orienteering as a competition started among military officers in Sweden in 1893. By 1934 over a quarter million people in Scandinavia and beyond were competing in the sport.

In its competitive form, people race to given control sites where they punch a card with a distinctive punch to prove they were there.

The course is traditionally run on foot but can also be done by cross-country skiing or mountain biking.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “Not all those who wander are lost.” Orienteering, enthusiasts say, lets you make your way through our hills and valleys any way you choose — and you are never lost.