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Five techniques that are the key to successful orienteering

This is an excerpt from Discovering Orienteering by US Orienteering Federation.



Discovering Orienteering
is an excellent resource for physical educators, recreation and youth leaders, and orienteering coaches!

Selecting the Route

There is no doubt that good route selection and proper execution of the five techniques along your route are keys to success in orienteering. Considering that transit speed (how long it takes to get from one control to another and around the whole course) is the measure of your success, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. First, remember an old military axiom, “Better is the enemy of good.” In other words, select a good route quickly. Don’t lose time by attempting to select the absolute best route. Another bit of excellent advice from one of the highest-achieving North American orienteers in international orienteering competition, Canadian Ted de St. Croix, is to pick a route and stick to it. This does not mean that you cannot make small changes to improve your route as you progress toward the control, but it does mean that it is difficult to see the best route on your map for every control. Therefore, just pick a good route and move out. Over the span of a number of controls, you may pick a best route some of the time, a good route much of the time, and occasionally a poor route. However, so will the other orienteers against whom you are competing, so it evens out over courses, events, and time. On the other hand, if you waste precious minutes or even seconds by repeatedly trying to determine the best route for every control (with other things being equal, such as orienteering ability and race fitness), then you are going to lose to those orienteers who quickly pick a route and go with it.

Start With the End

How do you pick a route? Although we have briefly touched on it in previous chapters, the art of selecting a route from the start to the first control or from one control to the next control may still surprise you. To repeat one of the seven habits of highly successful people by acclaimed author Stephen Covey, start with the end in mind. In other words, start by looking at the target, which is the control you want to find. Our acronym for the process of route selection is CAR.

Control–Attack Point–Route (CAR)

CAR stands for control–attack point–route, the exact order in which you decide on your route. This concept was developed by Winnie Stott in Armchair Orienteering II (1987, Canadian Orienteering Federation).

To best explain it, let’s start off with the opposite of CAR: Why not plan your route from where you are? After all, this is where you will start running. Don’t do it! When you start route planning from where you are, you will often shortcut the route selection process by making a beeline for the control or by heading toward the nearest big thing you can find that is close to you and more or less on the way to the control. Then you will look for the next spot to jump to and you will progress toward the control in a series of jumps from one place or feature to another. What is so deceiving about this method is that it can work quite well for much of the time, particularly when you are just starting out and are not very fast anyway. When you begin any sport or meaningful activity, though, you should also begin building good habits immediately.

If you start route planning from where you are and work toward the control, you will tend to move in increments, often causing you to miss better routes in favor of going straight ahead or to overlook a good attack point near the control. Remember, your route should be simplified by going to the attack point, not the control. On the other hand, when starting from the control, you find the closest feature near the control that you know you can find to use as a good attack point, and then you work your route backward from the attack point to where you are. Note that the attack point does not have to be between you and the control. It may be to the left or right of the control and, in a few instances, on the far side of the control (think of a control just inside the woods with a field on the far side—you might choose to run to the field and come back to the control). Using CAR, the better routes should reveal themselves to you with little or no study. As a bonus, you will rarely be ambushed by an impassable feature that is close to the control and directly on your route but that you simply don’t notice until you get there. If you did not use CAR, you now have to go around a swamp or a thicket or a logged area, losing time and energy.

CAR is particularly important in the orienteering events in which you must move and make decisions quickly and where any major error can put you out of contention. Some examples are in sprint orienteering, carelessly running into a cul de sac with no way out, or in ski or mountain bike orienteering, taking a ski trail or bike path that seems to start out well but takes you away from the control. All can be avoided if you work back from your destination.

Double Eye Sweep

For every leg of any course you should always say to yourself, “Control” (telling yourself to look at the control first), then “Attack point” (look for an attack point), and finally “Route” (follow the route from your attack point back to your location). I simply say each letter of the acronym to myself as I go through my process. However, there is one more component to CAR—the double eye sweep. CAR is the first eye sweep over the map starting from the control to the attack point to the route. The first eye sweep ends at your location. On the second sweep you look forward from where you are toward the control. There are two reasons to do the double eye sweep. First, you can quickly check for a better route that you may have missed on the first sweep and, second, you can take a quick glance for a catching feature just beyond the control—since you started at the control with CAR, you may have missed a useful feature behind it. If there is a good catching feature behind the control, you may be able to move much faster on a different route using rough compass reading or rough map reading. With practice and experience you should be able to accomplish a thorough double eye sweep for most legs in less than a second. It is important to emphasize that the first eye sweep must be from the control to your locations. (Use CAR, it works!) Build the good habits first and they become instinctive.

Orienteering Techniques for Route Selection

The route you take to the control determines how many of the five techniques you will be using. Finding attack points, aiming off, following handrails, finding collecting features, and stopping at catching features could all be used depending on the route. Remember to see the control first and then look for a nearby attack point. Note that if the control is close to the start or close to the control that you have just found (usually less than 200 m), you may be able to use your present location as the attack point using the skills of precision map reading or precision compass reading. In other words, your location becomes the attack point from which you make your final approach to the control.

If the control is not nearby, select an attack point, determine your route, and decide how to get to that attack point. Is the attack point large enough so that you can simply aim off and be sure of hitting it and then turning right or left to find the control? Is there a nice handrail that will guide you in or close to the direction you wish to travel? If there is no good opportunity to aim off or use a handrail, does the terrain lend itself well to navigating by collecting features along the way to the attack point or the control? Or perhaps this will be one of those rare but welcomed locations where you can use the skills of rough map reading and distance estimation and either hit the attack point (or control) dead on or relocate yourself quickly at the catching feature so that you go to the control in minimum time.

These questions may be a lot to ask yourself en route to each attack point and then to the control, but keep two things in mind. First, sometimes you need to slow down to go faster (meaning haste without a clear plan generally costs you time), and second, the process of route selection becomes faster and better as you gain experience. In other words, the more you do it, the better and faster you become to the extent that you begin subconsciously to ask yourself these questions. When you have practiced enough, your eyes on the map will answer the questions before your brain can even ask them, and off you’ll go at race speed.


Read more from Discovering Orienteering by US Orienteering Federation.


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Offers a systematic approach to learning, teaching, and coaching orienteering. Readers learn a handful of easy-to-remember skills, techniques, and processes that are reinforced through more than 60 ready-to-use activities.
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