What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is the sport of navigating through unknown terrain with a map and compass. The object is to travel between a series of checkpoints with the challenge of choosing the best route, which may not be the shortest or most obvious. At the highest level, it requires exceptional running skills and an extremely good eye for terrain; at its most basic, it can be an enjoyable walk through the forest.

Orienteering is a popular sport in Europe, where hundreds of people can show up on weekends for club events. Despite our vast capacity of excellent orienteering terrain in BC, our numbers are fewer, with maybe 25-50 participating in regular meets and an overall club membership of about 150. Provincial level meets, hosted once every five years, may attract more participants - typically about 100. The Victoria Orienteering Club, which was founded in the early 1980’s, is the only active club on the Island. In the past, we have hosted small local events all the way up to the B.C. Orienteering championships. At any larger event, there are typically 10 different courses available, allowing for a wide range of participant abilities. This leads to many families participating with parents, children and grandchildren - each enjoying a competitive event at their own level. This means also that only a few participants are on the same course, which makes anyone following the same route very unlikely.

Travelling through the Terrain

While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, that is not always true in the orienteering world, as hills, streams, thickets and other terrain features will typically slow progress. Thus, orienteers do not blindly charge straight through the forest, but rather choose their routes wisely to maximize their speed between control points. This even applies at a micro-level, such that people are very careful in placing their feet, choosing to tread on bare patches and rocks, and avoiding plants etc, so as to maximize traction and avoid the possibility of slipping and falling. Further, participants seldom follow the same route as others, so there is typically little or no impact to the forest. As such, orienteering on a scale currently practiced in BC does not lead to the creation of spontaneous trails. At other times, existing trails are utilized; in which case, Orienteering is little different from trail running.

As the challenge (and fun!) of Orienteering increases when the participants’ knowledge of the area decreases, we try to avoid using areas more than twice in a year as to avoid familiarity. Also, as a club, we are protective of our maps, handing them out to registered participants at designated events sanctioned by the Canadian Orienteering Federation. The maps are all kept in a digital format, so that they can be easily updated to reflect changes on the ground. They are also easily marked to designate sensitive environmental areas, private land, and other areas that require specific restrictions.

Environmental Studies

In recent years, some attention has been given to the impact of orienteering on the natural environment. Several scientific studies have been performed on that impact and all of them have demonstrated that orienteers do little short-term, and no long-term, environmental damage to the areas that we use. Some of the events that were studied had in excess of 10,000 participants; this is a far cry from any events that happen on Vancouver Island! In Denmark, the Danish Orienteering Federation has no restrictions on events with less than 100 participants at any time of the year while in France and Germany, events that are larger than 100 people are restricted to only one use of the same terrain in the spring. By comparison, the majority of events on Vancouver Island have less than 50 people participating, split up amongst several courses.

Our Commitment to the Environment

Enjoying the outdoors for its natural beauty is part of the experience of orienteering. As such, the Victoria Orienteering Club operates by a series of principles designed to further reduce our environmental impact, and foster good relationships with landowners:

1.   We contact landowners well in advance of events to notify them and to request permission for our events to proceed.

2.   We are constantly updating our maps to reflect changes in the vegetation in mapped areas – this enables us to place endangered plant meadows out of bounds during the spring flowering.

3.   We actively ask our membership to express their ideas on how to further reduce our impact, and further address environmental issues.

4.   We have a set of standard guidelines for conducting events in order to minimize environmental impact.

  •   By using multiple courses per event, we minimize the number of people on each course, thus reducing the number of times that any particular site is visited.

  •   We avoid crossing sensitive areas at critical times of the year such as endangered plant locations, fish-bearing streams and wetlands.

  •   If we have to cross sensitive areas, we do so only on designated pre-existing trails.

  •   Areas that are marked out-of-bounds are strictly enforced with disqualification.

  •   We endeavour to thoroughly clean up after our events; our presence should be very difficult to detect after an event.

  •   We do not make new trails, preferring to use those that are already in existence.

5.   We will actively communicate with landowners after events to ensure that, from their point-of-view, the event ran smoothly, and that we had as low an impact as possible.

6.   We review and adjust our procedures on a regular basis to reflect the current knowledge base within the International Orienteering Federation on best practices for course setting.

The Victoria Orienteering Club is committed to conducting our events in the most sustainable and low-impact manner possible, so as to enable us to continue using private and public lands for our sport well into the future.


For further information, the following website is suggested, as well as the Orienteering World Spring 2000 issue:

The Spring (No. 1) 2000 issue of Orienteering World was devoted to environmental topics. One article, "An Environmentally-Sensitive Sport," reviews and references three scientific reports on the environmental impact of orienteering:

1)   Breckle et al., "Vegetation Impact by Orienteering? A phytosociological long-term study," Sci. J. Orienteering 1989/5, 25-36.

2)   Douglas et al, "An Assessment of the Impact of the November Classic Badge Event 1988 on the New Forest," The British Ecological Society, 1989. (This paper lists many other relevant references.)

3)   Ecosurveys Ltd, "The Effect of the May 1991 Orienteering Event on the Breeding Bird Community of Brandon Park," BOF 1991.

An original copy of this issue of Orienteering World may be ordered from orienteer Mike Minium; send a check for $5, payable to USOF, to US Orienteering Federation, Attn: Mike Minium, PO Box 1444, Forest Park, GA, 30298. Be sure to include your mailing address and write, "for Orienteering World, environment issue."


Click here for a printable copy.