by Peter Amram
Originally appeared in the NEOC Times, Volume 35, No. 4 , June/July, 2005
Choice is at the heart of orienteering.
You decide for yourself which course you want for the day, whether to go alone or in a group, what pace you want, and which routes you prefer. The first and most important choice is which course to select. At each NEOC event a "menu" board is posted listing each course by color code, length, climb, number of controls. Knowing what to expect on each course makes your decision-making more realistic and the experience more enjoyable.
Course difficulty is influenced mostly by control placement and also by length. The number of controls is largely irrelevant, and climb is never more than 4% of length. You should select a course primarily by your comfort with control placement: i.e., whether the controls are hung on the trail; visible from the trail; several hundred meters off trail; or in remote areas.
White - 1.5km (about 1 mile)
Controls on the white course are right on the trail at obvious terrain features, and are hung at adult waist height. All beginners should use the White course to become familiar with the administrative aspects of the sport. Children should remain on the White course until they have the stamina and enthusiasm for something longer.
The primary skill needed for the White course is to understand the colors on the map:
Blue = water
Yellow = open area
Green = ground vegetation
Black = rock features or man-made objects
White = forest you can move through easily
Brown = contour lines, which show the shape of the land
Yellow - 2.5km (about 1.5 mile)
Controls on the yellow course are at waist height on obvious terrain features which are visible from the trail. All participants should advance to the Yellow course as quickly as possible unless the length is too challenging for small children.
Primary skills are the development of "pace count," which is the number of (double) paces needed to go a certain distance, and the beginning of an appreciation of the brown contour lines. For example, a closed oval is the top of a land feature. Further, observe that the little tag lines on the black cliff symbol always point downhill.
Orange - 3.5km (about two miles)
Orange is the beginning of real orienteering, because controls are not visible from the trail and you must enter the woods. Controls are located on obvious terrain features, and the marker itself, at waist height, is clearly visible when approaching through the woods from a logical direction.
Primary skills include understanding of the importance of an attack point: an obvious terrain feature within 100-200 meters of the control. The experienced orienteer always looks for an attack point first and not the control itself. Another orange-level skill is the ability to use the contour lines to distinguish between spurs (land that juts out from a hillside) and re-entrants (the little valleys between spurs). And it will be useful to take a compass bearing, often from the attack point to the control.
Advanced Courses (Brown ~3.5km, Green ~4.5km, Red ~6.5km, Blue ~9km)
The difficulty of control placement is the same on all Advanced courses: as low as knee height on small or remote terrain features, with the marker itself on the far side of the feature so the approaching orienteer cannot see the marker before finding the terrain feature.
The advanced courses require the full range of navigational skills, which cannot be summarized here, and even the Brown course demands good physical conditioning if one wishes to be competitive.