One of my favorite family traditions is our annual orienteering dash. Each year, we head to a nearby forest with a unique amenity: a permanent orienteering course. Because we hold our dash on Thanksgiving, when lots of family is around, grandmothers are paired with sons-in-law, cousins with uncles, and moms with nieces and nephews. Then we race through the woods, trying to find all of the points before another team. By the time we’re done, we’ve worked up a massive appetite—and learned a few things along the way.
In the Real Wild
An orienteering course consists of a series of “control points” that require a map and a compass to locate. These points might be blazes on trees, bolts in rocks, or geologic survey markers. The first team to locate all of the points and reach the finish wins. The goal isn’t unlike that of Pokémon Go, but orienteering’s appeal is old-school: The fun takes place in the actual, physical, natural environment.
For the same reason they’re attracted to those smartphone apps, kids will love orienteering. At heart, the game is a treasure hunt, and the landscape holds all of the clues. These can be casual family outings, like our annual orienteering dash, or hyper-competitive tournaments, where endurance athletes crash through the forest in search of the next control point.
Learning by Looking
The lessons can extend to the area’s natural history, as well. In the mountains you might rely on overlooks, glacial erratics, and high points. Elsewhere, your clues might be fields, swamps, and stone walls. By reading the landscape around them and matching what they see in reality to what they see on the map, kids can keep remarkably good track of their locations, progressing from one point to the next. They’ll pick up valuable navigation skills while having fun.
And that leads to one of the great thrills of orienteering: getting off the beaten path. When you veer away from highly trafficked trails, you will find hidden treasure in the woods: moose antlers, wildlife kills, rusted Model T engines, forgotten cemeteries, and more. In sensitive and highly traveled areas such as alpine zones and wetlands, Leave No Trace ethics have us sticking to trails to avoid damaging the resources. But on a designated orienteering course, exploring off-trail can be a thrilling adventure.
Charting a Course
Orienteering can be done year-round, although thick midsummer vegetation adds an additional challenge. We prefer late fall or early spring, when there are fewer leaves on the trees, and sightlines between landmarks are clearer.
Many courses are set up on a temporary basis for specific events and competitions; however, there are a number of permanent courses set up by orienteering clubs and outdoor centers that are available year round. The best courses for beginners offer detailed maps that show most landmarks, down to individual waterways, walls, and even specific boulders.
State and local organizations can help connect you with maps, courses, and clubs. Up North Orienteers in New Hampshire, New England Orienteering in Massachusetts, and Green Mountain Orienteering Club in Vermont are three great options. Check out AMC’s activity listings (keyword “orienteering”) to find activities in your area or at AMC facilities. So find a course near you, download a map, and start navigating!