I did my first orienteering race(s) this weekend, through the Bay Area Orienteering Club. I did an intermediate course with 14 checkpoints first to try and figure out how it worked, and then tried the hardest course they offered. I think I finished top-5 in the intermediate event, but I misunderstood some instructions so I missed the first checkpoint, and thus my time didn't count. I incorrectly assumed the rules would just tack on a time penalty if you missed a checkpoint, but you have to hit all the checkpoints in order. There actually may be events with time penalties, as I know there are other events where you get to pick the order in which you hit the checkpoints, but at this event, you had to go in order. Clearly I don't yet know what I'm doing. But I do know how to run and bushwhack. In fact, they're two of my favorite things. On the advanced course, there was a long stretch between two checkpoints and it was a pretty clear, and interesting, choice between a short but gnarly bushwhack, or a much longer but easier run on wide maintained trail. I first chose for bushwhacking, but part way up the hill amidst the third giant thicket of prickers, I decided I was stupid. I jumped and ripped my way down the hill to the trail, where an astonished hiker remarked "Look at you. You're so limber!"
Anyway, the advanced course had 28 checkpoints, so I thought I'd have time to finish, since I had about 2 hours, but they were much harder, per checkpoint, than the intermediate event, so I only got about halfway before the 2PM cutoff.
I had a ton of fun, as evidenced by my GPS track:
I'm definitely interested in doing more events like this. Most don't seem to be long enough to really satisfy me in the endurance sense, though there are a few rogaining events in the region, which seem like endurance orienteering. I'd say the skills I'd learn are not perfectly correlated with safe or even efficient cross-country travel while backpacking, but there's certainly some relationship. It seems to be far less about the compass than it is about reading the map. You don't need adjust your compass for declination because the maps are printed magnetically-oriented. I'm guessing you'll never use the numbers on the compass dial--just look at the map, eyeball NNE (or one of the 16 basic directional choices) and start running. But since the maps are so detailed, I'm guessing that the winners are picking routes based on ground cover and avoiding obstacles as well as being fit. Orienteering has its own symbol system (pdf) to describe the exact location of the checkpoint, which I guess is fine. Memorizing it isn't going to help me do well at Barkley nor not get lost in Alaska, but I'll happily take any excuse to bushwhack I can find.
PS Do a find and replace of "checkpoint" with "control" if you really want to do the lingo right.
PPS Orienteering, ultrarunner, economist nerd. Great. No one will be able to understand anything I say.