Orienteering originated in Scandinavia around the turn of the twentieth century. Competitive events got under way in the ensuing decades. First done on cross-country skis, orienteering was soon adapted to foot, which is now the most popular variety. Now there are also races on bicycles, horses, canoes, and more. A recent variant is called Rogaine, which takes place over a full day and a large area.
The standard type of foot orienteering is point-to-point navigation. A course of controls to be taken in a specific order is designed and set up. Lengths vary from a few kilometers (a mile or two) for beginners, to ten or fifteen kilometers for experts. Long orienteering events and shorter sprint events are also held. Beginners' courses are on or near trails; expert courses are cross-country with intricate navigation.
Another type of foot orienteering is score orienteering, in which there is a time limit to find as many of the set controls as possible, in any order you choose. Controls may have equal or different point values depending on their location and difficulty.
There are relays, too: each team member completes a short course and tags the next team member. Since relays are begun with a mass start, they are fun to watch with head-to-head competition.
Ski orienteering is done on cross country skis, typically on areas with large and sometimes complicated trail networks. Organized as a point-to-point event, it involves careful route choice to pick the fastest way through the large trail network. A sample ski orienteering map with a course is shown below. Read more about ski orienteering at the bottom of the page.
Rogaine (sometimes called Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance) is a relatively new variety of sport originating in Australia. Organized as a score event, it takes place over large areas and longer periods, typically 12 or 24 hours. Teams of two or three must find as many controls as possible in the allotted time, eating and sleeping on the clock.
Competitive events are held around the country, including U.S. Individual Championships in various course lengths/types as well as national Relay, Ski, and Night orienteering championships. These championships, as well as regional competitions and a schedule of "A" events are open to all comers, though most will have pre-registration requirements for competitive classes to ensure that the host club obtains enough maps and supplies for everyone. Recreational courses are usually available as well at championships and "A" events, which do not require pre-registration.
The United States also sends a team to both the foot and ski World Championships, as well as the World Junior and University championships and some smaller events. Since entry to the world events is limited, orienteers need to qualify to have a place on the team.
Though orienteering courses are held at the World Games, the sport has yet to reach the Olympics despite repeated attempts by various orienteering governing bodies. Ski orienteering has the best chance of being the first version of the sport to be included in the Olympic Games.
Ski orienteering requires some different skills than foot orienteering. Navigationally, route choice is important because of special techniques (such as skiing styles and waxing) required by various routes, along with careful contour reading to interpret the difficulty of the hills on various trails. Physically, ski orienteering requires good cross-country skiing skills.
Ski orienteering is done almost entirely on groomed trails. Although it is allowed to go off-trail, it is rarely desirable. Navigation becomes less a matter of finding the controls, and more a matter of picking the fastest way to reach them. Distances between controls are often long, with many paths in between, as well as hills, slopes, and other features to make route choice interesting.
Ski orienteering maps are sometimes smaller scale than foot orienteering maps -- 1:25,000 rather than 1:15,000. Contour intervals may also be larger. Off-trail features are de-emphasized; typically, only those affecting navigation, like fields, are shown along with contours. Overprintings on trails and roads give more information about their ski-ability.
Ski orienteering is organized regularly in northern and mountain states in January and February, but many clubs in other areas hold ski orienteering if it snows. Check the ski orienteering event8
page on the website for schedules of events.