Advanced Strategies

In this section we focus on further developing your Strategies for deploying skills effectively. You may know a wide range of skills, but how do you use them reliably under pressure?

We also look at some skills Concepts that are harder to use at race speed.

These approaches rely on you having mastered a Basic Navigation Routine and understanding a wide range of skills concepts, that you can draw on as needed. See the Skills Tool Kit in the Intermediate section.

Orienteering styles do vary, there is no one right way to navigate

I tend to take a lot of accurate bearings on a thumb compass, where I take the time to rotate the housing, rather than just a rough bearing lining the needle up with the north lines on the map. It can take a couple seconds more to take the accurate bearing. For many orienteers, if their eyesight permits, then simply keeping the map lined up with north is all they need and they rarely take an accurate bearing.  I take accurate bearings because my eyesight is no longer up to reading fine detail on the map whilst running through terrain and I was loosing too much time stopping to focus on the map, whereas I can see the compass clearly enough and some detail of the map and can move further with a picture of the map in my head before I need to stop again, saving time overall. It is frustrating, but the days of reading the map whilst still running regardless of the terrain are over.   

So, issues such as eyesight and how well developed your map memory is, will affect the style of orienteering you develop. This will change over time and needs re-evaluating. Try not to get stuck in habits where you never think about how you are doing things! There is always room for improvement.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

Identify a virtual corridor to track within

Following on from the point about using bearings, I often have in mind a virtual Corridor for a section of a leg with the shape of the terrain and what I am aiming for and I use the compass to keep me roughly on line.  Since the bearings are taken quickly, I am expecting to always drift to one side or the other of the corridor.  The leg is then achieved in a series of curves.  I will look for a runnable line on the ground which will also cause wiggles in the running line. Sometimes it’s a bit more like a pin ball ricocheting along!  It may not sound elegant, but if I am within the corridor it’s OK because I am still saving more time by not constantly having to stop to read the map than I lose by drifting right and left.  I don’t need to go to the features to my right or left to follow them.  A fence or open land may be 50 metres or more away, but it can still act as a Handrail or guide at a distance to steer me.

Remember that what you intend from the map as a straight line is usually a curve on the ground.  Running through a corridor of features means you are constantly correcting the inevitable curves of your progress on the ground.  Be extremely careful however, about deliberately trying to run in curves, that introduces even more error in your placement and is best avoided for most people.

Visualising a corridor frees you up from an earlier stage of orienteering navigation where routes are built in your mind as linking line and point features in a series of straight lines or zigzags.  It also explains how the routes of top orienteers often flow through the terrain without actually going right up to firm features or exactly along line features.

There are other times when visualising such a virtual corridor is not helpful and fine navigation ticking off every feature is the only way to find a control, especially on short legs.

Control flow is important but difficult to execute well

Photo: Steve Rush

If you can know your exit direction you can move through a control smoothly minimising stopping and ideally not stopping at all.  If you have had time to Plan-ahead for the next leg, then you can re-confirm that route choice as you move out of the control.  At observation controls at major events the leading competitors are often not moving very fast near to and through controls, but they don’t stop either. However, if you need to stop to read the map more carefully then do it. Maybe you can flow smoothly through some controls and with others you will need to stand briefly and look more carefully. There is no point in moving smoothly through a control only to mess up the next Route Choice, so be flexible as to how you apply the concept of Control Flow.


Photo: Steve Rush BOK

If you are regularly struggling with simply executing legs reliably then planning-ahead is best left till your technique has improved further.  There is no point in forcing extra errors by overloading your navigation ability by planning-ahead and thinking about too much to be able to safely return your concentration to the leg in hand.  If you solve a leg in advance, let it go when you return to the current navigation and know that when you look at the leg again later you will be able to remember your solution and apply it.  If a leg is too hard to solve on the run when planning-ahead, don’t worry, you have just highlighted one to take more care on later.  If you do plan-ahead do it when safe to do so, such as walking up a hill if your head is clear enough or on a line feature.  You must have a firmly identified Break Point such as a Catching Feature where you will return fully to the present leg or you will simply force errors on the current leg and gain no time overall.

Have the bigger picture in mind

Photo: Steve Rush

Whilst it is often helpful to simplify your navigation to a corridor, a background sense of the bigger picture of the terrain can help a lot with relocation and confidence.  If you have orienteered somewhere several times before you will hopefully feel that sense of having an overview of the area and will know where the tricky parts lie and thus where to be most careful. You can research this before an event by looking at previous maps and courses.

The background picture you might have could be that there is a major valley in the centre of the map. A quick look at the map confirms there is a wall running along its base. Dropping into the valley on approximately the right line looking for the crossing point is then all you need to know as you move quickly across that section of the leg. Just beware heading off line to the wrong crossing point if there is more than one.

Decide what type of leg you are facing

It’s not typical to orienteer on terrain where it is full-on fine navigation all the time.  In every course there are easier legs and harder legs as the terrain and planning allows.  Appraise a leg and be aware of what type of leg it is.

Is it just a Transit leg to get you to another part of the map?  

Or is it set up because it will cause errors in Fine Navigation?

Or is it all about overall Route Choice with the chance to lose time by poor choice.

When you know what type of leg it is you can modify your speed and navigation accordingly. 

A long leg may, of course, be a combination of route choice and fine navigation near the control.

If you know the map already from running there before or researching it, is the leg in an area where you know to be more careful?

The right approach for the course in hand

Think about the mix of techniques you will need for a course before you get to the start.  Different courses present different demands and different strategies are appropriate.  Urban sprint races make different demands from classic long forest races. A relatively short green course held on only modestly difficult terrain may not offer the opportunity to employ all the techniques.  On a Green course Fine Navigation, solid Basic Routine, Simplification and good Control Flow and Route Choice are probably paramount.

A longer Blue or Brown course on Technical Difficult level 5 terrain with a variety of leg lengths, forest and open land might allow the use of every technique you can muster all in one race.  Placement within a mental picture of the whole terrain, planning-ahead and balancing route choice against physical demands become more important considerations.

Every map is wrong and orienteering maps are amazing

Mapping and cartography necessarily involve a lot of subjective judgement.  It is simply not possible to produce a map that translates 3-dimensional reality into a 2-dimensional form that will work perfectly when moved through in any direction and that will always match your oxygen starved perception of what is there on the ground.  Vegetation varies with the seasons and grows and develops.  True contours from say Lidar won’t match perceived contours on the ground and the mapper will often tweak a contour to show the shape better.  

The mapper was not in oxygen debt when mapping, but you are when running!  So, the question is one of how to handle the perceived certainty of different types of features.  As a strategy to deal with these issues it is helpful to always bear in mind a hierarchy of which features are most likely to be perceived as “correct” when you encounter them.

More certain
Roads and tracks
Rivers, lakes
Large contour features and
overall shape of the land  
Less certain
Vegetation boundaries
Pits/ small depressions
Boulders when in terrain with many boulders

If a less certain feature is needed in navigation, be aware of other confirming features.  If the control is on a less certain type of feature, then approach it from a firm attack point or along a run of more certain features.

Improve your distance estimation

To pace or not to pace, that is the question. In the early days of orienteering the maps were frequently quite poor. Often the only reliable way to find a point feature was to pace from a firm Attack Point. As maps have become better and richer in the information they convey it has become a less and less relevant technique. I know orienteers who still pace a lot. I know many who may only occasionally do so, such as in flat featureless terrain on a bearing. Orienteering styles do vary. In contrast, I never pace, because it simply doesn’t add helpful information to my navigation and my mental effort is better spent visualizing my placement in the terrain, or deploying another strategy. I’ll explain why.

Your distance measurement at speed from the map is not accurate. Your pacing on the ground is also inaccurate, being affected by many factors, such as what is under foot, the slope, your level of tiredness etc. That gives two sources of error straight away. It is hard to pace accurately beyond about 300 metres. Yet, with practice most people can reliably estimate at least 200 metres by sight, looking ahead. Having your head up and looking around at the right time makes a huge difference. The better your Mental Map the more confident you can be of your placement in the overall terrain. Then Notable Confirming features will help keep readjusting your position. Where Notable Features are lacking, then alternative strategies such as Aiming Off or deliberately cutting in a little early from a path and sweeping parallel to it are likely to be at least as successful as pacing to a falsely imagined definite point then turning in. Finally, counting is using processing capacity in your mind that is usually better employed in some other navigation task.

So, if pacing works for you fine, but do think about whether it is actually is necessary and whether it distracts from your navigation overall.