What Orienteering Taught Me About Travel
First used in 1886 the term orienteering meant crossing of unfamiliar land with the help of map and compass. The word originates from the Swedish word “orientera”, which means to find the direction. In Sweden, orienteering grew into a sport from military training in navigational skills.
As I looked through my old orienteering maps last year I realized the lessons I learned from orienteering can also apply to traveling.
The evening before a competition avid orienteerers prepare in various ways, often with a healthy carb-loaded meal, a bit relaxing, and enough sleep. We all have our own routines, or lack of them, and the same goes for passionate travelers who look forward to a trip or an early rise with hours of sightseeing at a new destination.
The night before an important orienteering competition can stir up similar emotions of anticipation and excitement as the night before a flight overseas, a train journey through a foreign country, or the first day of exploring a city alone. The key to a happy next day is to avoid fear and doubt by focusing on positive thoughts.
When it comes to packing for orienteering competitions, packing is ideally limited to the minimum considering the usual distance between the parking space (often a field somewhere near a forest) and the competitor’s area. Wherever you travel, downsizing and packing light will help you keep a lighter step and a lighter mind.
Just as you need the appropriate clothes and gear for trekking and other travel activities, orienteering requires a certain outfit. Nylon full-body clothing, gaiters to protect against sharp vegetation (and mosquitos in summer), and studded orienteering shoes for better grip on all surfaces. And like travelers bring maps, GPS or gadgets, orienteerers don’t compete without a hand-held compass or thumb compass.
In the morning of a competition, we often met up somewhere with the others in our club to car-pool – a great way to stay environmentally friendly. Better to go four or five in one car than travel separately in three cars. For competitions and camps further away we went by bus. For accommodation during those times, we stayed in everything from low-budget places (mostly) to fancy hotels (once). I slept on the floor in empty classrooms, school corridors and gymnastic halls, tented with other orienteerers during summer camps and competitions, lived in a cozy winter cabin with three other girls during a one-week camp in Idre, and shared a double room in a high-rise Idre hotel for a week during another yearly orienteering camp.
I realized that no matter where you live, not the place where you stay matters most but the people you live and travel with. We had as much fun, if not more, in those tents and gymnastic halls than in our hotel room.
On competitions orienteerers are provided with the map just before start and competitors usually start in one-minute intervals. Classes are divided into D for female, M for male, and a number depending on the age of the competitors. Girls younger than 11 compete in D10, the first and easiest class. The higher the class, the more difficult and longer the run. A good approach for travelers is to start out in the same way, begin small with short trips near home and escalate with longer and more challenging, tougher journeys after time.
Ocassionally, a trip you thought would be effortless will surprise you with challenges along the way. Like the map above – more difficult than normal D12 maps. This is when your trust in yourself and your ability to deal with the unforeseen play a big part.
Regardless of what class you run in, the length of the run, where the control points are located, and how difficult every control is to find, the journey matters as much as the destination (in this case, goal).
Some orienteerers only pay attention to the finish line and wouldn’t even help a lost kid in the forest while others go out of their way to talk with other orienteerers and walk slower or even take a break if they feel like it.
Even though I always had the intention to complete runs as fast as possible, I learned that you still have time to see and appreciate the beauty of nature. The smell of flowers and vegetation. Still lakes. Bird twitter. A cloud-free sky. Balance between speed and observation of surroundings. The same applies to travel. So many tourists rush from point A to B without paying attention to what’s around them. I know from experience this is not the ideal way to discover a city. During my first time in Paris I tried to cram in as many sights as possible throughout my weekend stay. By foot or underground I went to plenty of sights, but with such an itinerary, did I really see them? Had I focused on just a few neighborhoods instead, my experience would have turned out very different.
Both orienteering and travel get easier and more efficient when you are physically fit. You can enjoy the experience in a whole other way when there’s no need to stop to catch your breath during trekking and other activities every now and then.
At least as important as a good physical condition is to know when your body needs rest. Injuries or suspected injuries are not to be taken lightly. Better to rest and heal the injury than compete or travel anywhere with the risk of making it worse. At 14 I strained my leg on physical education in school. I had an orienteering competition in the evening and didn’t want to miss it. Because I thought orienteering was so much fun, I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that I could take it easy. I walked to the first control point and jogged the rest. Every step almost felt like a knife stab in my leg but I was too stubborn (and foolish) to stop and completed the run in company with another girl in D14. Afterwards I had to let the injury heal much longer than if I hadn’t competed that day.
When you are completely injury-free and healthy, your body knows. And the chance for getting into the flow is greater. One of my first experiences of runner’s high occured a chilly winter day when everyone had started at the same time after a pistol shot. Throughout that run, my feet eventually began moving as if by themselves. No effort required. Light steps. Felt like I could run for miles. Immersed in the moment. A similar thing occured when I first stood on a surf board, catched my first wave and lost myself in the now.
You can more easily experience a state of flow when you can let go of everything and feel no outside distractions, such as “bad” weather. I don’t remember how many times I’ve run in rain, from drizzles to downpours, or snow. Learning to accept or appreciate all weather will substantially increase your enjoyment level.
Despite careful preparation and great physical fitness, every orienteerer can experience the other extreme point. When the run feels longer than you thought it would, your legs are more tired than usually, you breathe faster, you begin to feel side stitch, keeping the same pace is exhausting, and one part of you would just love to slow down or rest. In these moments, you need mental fitness. The ability to motivate yourself to stay on track, because this will pass. The longer you run, the shorter you have left, your legs will carry you the whole distance if you tell them to, if you focus on breathing as deeply as possible with your stomach, not your chest, your breath will feel better, clutching something hard (a forest cone or a small stone) can reduce side stitch, and you will (most likely) not die from exhaustion. Ignore the lazy part of you; focus on the you that want to complete the run, and how good you will feel afterwards.
If I experienced these states of, not light tiredness from running but temporary, heavier physical exhaustion I used to imagine what I would do after the run. Action first. Reward later. For me, eating worked every time. Good food is a brilliant motivator. If I felt like I couldn’t take another step, I imagined the taste of a sweet cinnamon bun, a piece of chocolate, or a warm meal. Dividing the run into several short distances also worked. To run 200 meter, 500 meter or one mile at a time without thinking about the rest. Or just visualizing how good I would feel when I passed the finish line.
The same can apply to any physically exhausting sport or activity you do on your travels. Find your biggest motivators and use them during tough moments.
Like travelers often travel with a friend or in groups, orienteerers sometimes compete in pairs. During these times, trying to support, motivate and help each other will make a huge difference. At 14 I competed with a friend in Daladubbeln, a two-day winter competition in the Swedish region Dalarna. The first day we had individual maps. The second day we ran a longer, more challenging course together. Halfway through the course, we realized we were lost. To keep my feet from freezing, I had moved my toes on and off since ten minutes in, when the snow completely soaked my orienteering shoes. I regret I didn’t wear gloves. I suspected my friend were at least as cold. We stood near a line of tall fir trees, in -3 degrees Celcius, watching the sky turn darker. My friend began screaming for her mom. Determined to get us back on track, I looked at the map for several minutes and realized we weren’t far from the road where competition controllers supplied competitors with water (common during longer courses). I stayed calm, tried to calm my friend, and headed in the direction of safety. We reached their stand with plastic cups of water lined up within 15 minutes. Since the sky darkened, our current time said plus one hour, and we had more than half of the course left, the controllers offered us a ride with their van back. Albeit disappointed I knew it was the thing to do. We wouldn’t have made it back in time before dark.
Worth keeping in mind is that a competition when you feel physically exhausted, not in flow, get lost, or don’t place among the first doesn’t equal a loss. Precisely as any activity you do when abroad isn’t a failure if it didn’t play out as you thought. In any case you gave it a shot. Why not celebrate apparent “losses” as successes because that is what they truly are.
Like physical tiredness can require mental fitness to push yourself to finish, any difficult orienteering course, or tricky travel situation, will require intellectual fitness.
The map above from an orienteering training reminded me that it’s not always necessary to know how you will get somewhere from the beginning. The destination is enough. The rest you can figure out along the way.
When we got handed the map below during an orienteering training in an unfamiliar forest, I turned speechless. We hadn’t used black and white maps, where nothing else than the lines of the height difference in the land were marked out, before. And I didn’t know how or even if I would fix it. The first control point wasn’t easy to find, but the more I perused the map, the curves of the hills and their equals in the forest, I understood better and better how to read the map.
My point, many things and activities that make you uncomfortable are worth testing at least once. Anything that seems difficult at first glance will eventually turn out less and less so providing you’re willing to expand your comfort zone, dive headfirst into the challenge, and take a risk. Your newfound confidence will thank you for it later.
Contrary to some belief, there is a difference between uncomfortable and uneasy. If something makes you uneasy, could be a gut feeling, carefully consider your options.
During the classic Tiomila competition in Sweden I competed with several other orienteerers from my club. Everyone runs individual courses, one after the other. The competition begins at night and includes multiple night legs, when competitors use a headlamp to find their way in the dark. Considering my recurring nightmares, fear of the dark and vivid imagination, I felt far from happy when our orienteering trainer suggested I’d compete in one of the night legs. Nothing would make me more uneasy. The image of me alone in a dark forest with only a light to guide my way didn’t only cause a sense of discomfort but a state of intense uneasiness. Their tries to convince me were useless. Too big of a challenge when I hadn’t even trained orienteering alone in darkness before, only once in a group.
While getting out of your comfort zone is great, you often know what makes you uneasy, exactly why you don’t want to do it, and why moving toward the challenge one step a time works better for you. Unless you’re one of those who always jump headfirst from the trampoline, metaphorically speaking.
No matter how the run turned out, reaching goal can evoke the same feelings of joy, relief and satisfaction. I liken this to approaching a large city and its traffic, buzz, people, sounds and smells for the first time. That sensation of arrival.
A habit among many orienteerers after goal is to evaluate the course, one control point at a time to highlight both good choices and blunders, where one could have chosen differently, and how one can improve until the next competition. A good idea after any trip as well.
I found that regardless of how a competition went, having fun is number one. During the run as well as before and after when you have time to meet and get to know orienteerers from other clubs. Like travelers can make new friends in hostels, during train journeys or on group tours.
Because if you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?