Find your calling with orienteering

Orienteering Picture 2
The men’s team dashing forwards at the beginning of their race


Erroneous preconceptions and unfounded stereotypes can be frustratingly stubborn obstacles to overcome, as members of Durham University’s Orienteering Club know only too well.

“The biggest thing we have a problem with is getting rid of the perceptions of what orienteering is,” explains Aine McCann, an experienced member of the club that is the subject of the second article in Palatinate’s series about some of the University’s more ‘unusual’ sports clubs.

Despite being a sport played in various forms and variations by many people from an early age, few know what the sport really consists of and, more importantly, what it demands of its participants.

Originating in the nineteenth century in Sweden – where it remains an incredibly popular summer pursuit – orienteering requires competitors to navigate an expansive outdoor course in the quickest possible time, with the aid of a compass and a map.

This apparent simplicity has a tendency to provide the basis for misconceptions about the sport, with the multi-faceted challenges of the exercise underestimated by those with insufficient exposure to it.

“It’s tough; a lot tougher than people expect,” claims Lucy Butt, the club’s co-Vice Captain who took up the sport at a very young age and joined the club in Fresher’s Week.

“People don’t quite realise quite how tough it is to actually run, in horrible weather, through bracken, over hills and big boulders and through marshlands and every other terrain you can think of. I don’t think many other sports are quite as tough”

The challenge of orienteering does not stop there, either, as club captain Peter Bray explains.

“Orienteering is a real trade-off between the mental side and the physical side. You might not be the fittest person, or the best runner, but you can still win because, once you’re given the map, the playing field is really levelled.”

In addition to this orienteering also possesses the enviable attribute of offering its participants the chance to visit and compete in a myriad of exigent locations with all sorts of bizarre obstacles to conquer; from precipitous hills and isolated woodlands, to expansive marshlands and remote valleys.

The variety of the locations and the unpredictable and uniqueness of each different course is what makes the sport so exciting, according to Peter, a third year student from Van Mildert who is a former Junior British Champion.

“You get to go to some really cool places; not just around the leisure centre field,” he explains.

“You get to go all round Europe, and beyond, to places like, say, the depths of Norway, for example. I’ve actually had to run past bears and boars before on a course; you can get put into some really bizarre places”.

“I’ve actually had to run past bears and boars before on a course.”

The potential to travel around the world and run in distant but breathtaking locations certainly serves to make the sport exciting and unforeseeable, and it gives it a real edge over its more conventional rivals.

With this in mind, the club at Durham is hoping to provide its more inexperienced members with this opportunity with a trip to Sweden, which they hope to organise in the next year or so.

While this may sound wonderfully thrilling and glamorous for present members of the club – of which there are about forty – and those with prior experience of the sport, Durham students observing from the peripheries may feel excluded by their inexperience.

However, the club is incredibly eager to recruit new members, and provides them with all the guidance, support and training required to become a fully-fledged and active member.

“Anyone can do it, and those of us who have been doing it for years are always happy to just help out and show you how to do it. You get to learn at your own pace, from the very beginning, so it’s really good fun.” explains Aine.

Aside from the orienteering itself, the club also offers a very friendly social environment for its members to become a part of.

“It’s a really good mix of people from all the year groups. There’s no pressure to be really good or to attend socials or anything. It’s very laidback and chilled out”.

Indeed, as an outsider to the club, I was profoundly struck, on a visit to an indoor ‘tactics’ session held at Collingwood College, by the incredibly warm and friendly atmosphere of the club.

Unlike many sports clubs, both in Durham and elsewhere, there was no sense of pressure, no expectation, or hierarchy or discomfort, but simply a small collection of people, of different ages and certainly of differing experiences, united by a common interest.

But the benefits of orienteering are far from limited to just this. The wonderful venues, the sense of genuine accomplishment and the unpredictability of the sport are some of the numerous gains that can be enjoyed by those who take it up and commit to it fully.

Any Durham student with a passion for sport that challenges both the mental and the physical would, I am certain, be wholeheartedly welcomed into this community, and would soon discover firsthand the variety of benefits that orienteering has to offer.

Photograph: Peter Bray

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