Orienteering Events Draw Crowds to New Spaces

Sport combines map reading, route finding and racing to discover new parts of local outdoor haunts

By Micah Drew
A compass with marked degrees and a north heading on a paper map. Adobe Stock

Brian Schwartz has been the manager of Lone Pine State Park’s 270 acres for six years, but is still learning about the land under his jurisdiction. 

Will Dickinson, a recent transplant to the Flathead Valley and longtime orienteering racer, reached out to Schwartz early this year to discuss holding some orienteering races at the park and took him along some of the prospective routes he was considering through Lone Pine.

“Will walked all over the park and showed me things I’d not been aware of,” Schwartz said. “I’ve known there’s two old quarry sites, but Will showed me a third one, as well as an irrigation canal and a concrete foundation.”

“I had a bit of a laugh about that,” Dickinson said. “It’s almost like a treasure hunt when you’re out orienteering — you never know what you’ll find.”

Orienteering is an umbrella term for sports that require navigating with a map and compass with a chosen means of transportation — usually on foot, skis or bike. 

Originally used as a military training exercise in Scandinavia, the concept grew into a competitive sport among military members and eventually to civilians, with the first public orienteering competition held in Norway in 1897. 

The sport is overseen by an international governing body and is part of the World Games, a kind of alternate Olympics that showcases sports not included at the quadrennial Olympic Games.

In a traditional orienteering race, done on foot, participants are given a map and a compass and navigate to a series of points, each marked with an orange and white flag. The goal is to make it to all points in the shortest amount of time, and without a set route or trail to follow, it’s up to participants’ navigational skills and ability to cross rough terrain to set a course.  

Dickinson started orienteering competitively more than a decade ago and was disappointed when he found there was nothing in the sport happening nearby.  

“I think there’s lots of potential in the Flathead due to the high participation in all the other recreational activities,” Dickinson said. “We’ve only had two meets so far but it’s already grown a lot and there’s more awareness of the sport.”

After reaching out to Schwartz and mapping out the area at Lone Pine, Dickinson organized the first two orienteering meets — the first drawing around 30 participants and the second more than 45. 

“It’s a neat concept because in our modern day we’re so used to working with OnX, or some other mapping app on our phones, or having GPS units with us,” Schwartz said. “Just being able to do basic compass navigation if your battery dies or you lose your phone is a lifesaving thing to know, plus it’s a really fun way to learn it.”

Schwartz said he took an orienteering course in college that got him hooked on the idea, and now that there’s events nearby, he plans to compete with his kids. 

“The thing is that orienteering can be as physically taxing as you’d like it to be,” he said. “It fits with our mission at the park to connect people with the outdoors and this is a very different way to do it that gets them off trails.”

The closest orienteering club to the Flathead is Missoula’s Grizzly Orienteering, which was founded by Boris Granovskiy a year ago. Granovskiy is a former member of the U.S. orienteering team and has competed around the world. 

“It sounds corny, but orienteering is often marketed as a thinking sport,” he said. “It’s an outdoor adventure with a problem-solving component, so it’s a way to exercise your body and mind at the same time.”

In Missoula, Granovskiy holds beginner events and lets all first-time racers compete without paying an entry fee to attract new participants. In the last year there have been 18 events in western Montana that average around 50 participants.

“It’s a sport with a pretty high barrier to entry,” Granovskiy said. “You need a map and a compass, but then you need to understand all the funny little symbols on your map.”

That being said, he said that once beginners are introduced to the concept and walked through basic topographical reading skills, it’s up to each participant to determine how difficult to make their effort.

“We get all sorts of reactions and demographics at events,” Granovskiy added. “There’s competitive folks running around trying to improve their skills, and older folks who just like taking a hike with a little purpose and lots of families and kids that like the treasure hunt aspect.”

Dickinson is getting ready for the final orienteering meet of the year in the Flathead, which will take place at Lone Pine on Nov. 7. He’s expecting the highest crowd yet and hopes it will cement a community interest in the sport. 

“It’s not a sport where you need to buy and store fancy equipment, but at the same time I think a lot of people are surprised that following a map is a lot harder than they expect it to be,” Dickinson said. “It’s a way to experience the landscape in a way you might never have before, even if you run the whole park.”

To learn more about orienteering or to register for the event at Lone Pine, visit www.grizzlyorienteering.org.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.