12 Weeks of orienteering: a review of the Don’t Get Lost Next program for adults

When I read the description of the new Don’t Get Lost Next orienteering program for adults, I knew that I wanted to participate!

Our brand new adult program takes the best parts of our Dontgetlost navigation clinics and our popular Adventure Running Kids program and packages it into a fun 12 week session for those 19+ that are interesting in learning map and compass skills, strategies for maximizing success in Dontgetlost Races and other navigation activities, and how to move confidently through the forest. The training takes place in a different location between Oakville and Hamilton each week and alternates each week between instructor led navigation activities and X-league (our low-key weeknight navigation races).

Note: Thursday night weather wreaked havoc on the program, with multiple sessions having to be postponed. To simplify things, I’m referring to sessions as the days we actually got together as a group, rather than the planned 12 weeks, since in the end the program took longer than 12 weeks to be completed, but some sessions contained both an instructor led activity and an X-league race!

Session 1:  Instructor led navigation: estimating distance (Bayfront Park, Hamilton)

The first night, I arrived with my brand new thumb compass, hoping to learn anything and everything I could to improve my navigation abilities! There was a great turnout, something like 15-20 adults! Our instructor Meghan explained different ways to estimate distances, from pace counting to knowing how long it takes you generally to run a certain distance, to looking ahead and judging how far away something is from you. For example, how far exactly is 100m? What does that look like? We were encouraged to run a marked distance of 100m, and to count how many steps it took us. I counted every other step, and after a few attempts, noticed that I was consistently close to 50 paces (i.e. 50 left feet). Then we were given maps, and were to practice what we learned to find the 14 controls in the park. I took the “beginner” map, which included more map features than the “advanced” map (trails were removed, man-made features, the type of ground cover, such as grass, etc.). After finding all 14 controls, I grabbed the advanced map to compare it with the one I had. Definitely more challenging! See beginner map on the left, and advanced on the right.

Session 2: X-league race (Sanctuary Park, Dundas)

I arrived at the park to find that I had left my watch, and my phone, at home! I wondered how I would manage to stay within the X-league 30 minute time limit without racing with someone else. X-league races are very low key, with the goal of finding as many controls as possible within the time limit. Points vary depending on the difficulty (25 for easy, 50 for intermediate, 75 for advanced and 100 expert), and 10 points are lost per minute over the 30 minutes allotted. Racers can compete individually or with others. When you arrive at a control, you use a manual punch to mark your map and prove that you were there. You check in at the end and write down your point total. There are no “winners” or “losers”.

I was happy to spot a familiar face arrive just before the pre-race instructions – Kim, a woman I met during the Don’t Get Lost Eliminator Adventure Run in Milton in March. Even better, she had a watch! So I asked her if I could join her and her son, and when the race started, we set off together. We decided to run along the rail trail to go for 3 controls (faster than running through the woods), and to practice the pace counting that we worked on during the first week’s session. We were bang on with our estimates. After these controls we found 2 more quite easily, finding 5 of the 10 controls. We didn’t have time to look for others. We earned 175 points out of a maximum of 500. Results here. It was a fun race, despite the pouring rain!

Session 3: Instructor led navigation: strategies for racing + X-league race (Lion’s Valley Park, Oakville)

On a beautiful spring night (a sharp contrast to the rain of the week before), we learned the importance of setting goals for a race, and then learned strategies we could use to be successful in meeting our goals. At orienteering races, you’ll find people of all ages, fitness levels, and with wide-ranging navigational abilities. While one person’s goal may be to find all the green (“easy”) controls and finish within the time limit, another person’s may be to find all the controls (“clear the course”) and be the fastest one to do so! Meghan pointed out the usefulness of being able to estimate how far you can cover in a given time, taking into consideration your level of fitness and the terrain. Then you can plan your route out better, knowing what’s realistic and what’s not. We did an exercise using string to plan out a tentative route on an old race map, measuring out the string and laying it on the map – run out of string and you run out of time!


After the exercise, it was time for the X-league race! We had about 10 minutes to look at the map, and then were sent off into the woods to find as many of the 10 controls as possible. I had a plan for the first few, but after that decided I’d wing it depending on how things were going. I set off on my own, and very quickly found my first 3 controls (all green). It was wet and muddy in parts of the forest! After finding a couple of blue controls, I set out for one that was at the bottom of a very steep cliff, but I overshot it, and ended up with another woman looking for the same one. When I wasn’t sure where I was on the map, I decided to trace my steps to where I last knew where I was, and then I spotted the control way down the bottom. However, with just 7 minutes left, there was no time to get it! Instead, I headed back to the finish, taking a bearing and running through the forest in the right direction until I found a trail, then finding myself out in an open area again that I recognized, and from where I could just run back to the finish. I ended up 2 minutes over the time limit, so my 175 points were reduced to 155. But, I found 5 of the 6 controls I was looking for, so that’s a success! Results are here.

Session 4: Instructor led navigation: interpreting contour lines + X-league race (Spring Valley, Ancaster)

While a thunderstorm and very heavy rain cancelled the original session at Kerncliff Park in Burlington, pink ribbons had already been placed there, so we were emailed maps and encouraged to go out on our own another day to try to find the controls, keeping in mind some tips provided to help us interpret contours. There were 3 maps to choose from, a “basic” one (12 controls), an “intermediate one” (18 controls), and an “advanced” one (18 controls with many map markings removed – including all trails!). I chose to do the intermediate one, and managed to find all 15 controls that had been placed (we had been told that the final 3 on each map weren’t put out).

Yay, 1 for 1!

As I went along and once I found each control, I tried to reconcile the contour lines with what I saw around me. It was a beautiful day and some people out walking in the park wondered what I was up to! I wasn’t the only one out with the maps – I saw 3 other program participants.

When we actually met as a group for the lesson on contour lines and the X-league race, Meghan showed us something that she made to demonstrate what contour lines on a map would look like in real life. Each 5m change in elevation is indicated by a different coloured layer, making it easy to see the relative height between the peaks all over the map. So counting contour lines on a map allows you to compare the relative heights of hills in an area.

Great 3-D visual representation of contour lines.

After Meghan’s chat, we broke into small groups to try to build hills out of play dough to match the contour lines on paper. It was a fun hands-on learning activity. One woman in my group said that she didn’t remember the last time she played with play dough!


After the exercise, it was time for the X-league race. This week, I decided to work with a woman named Paige, who is also fairly new to orienteering. We got our maps and planned out our route, and at the last minute Paige’s friend and another woman – both brand new to orienteering – joined us. Our plan was to head for some hydro lines to find the first control, and then to follow trails to find the rest, with limited bushwhacking required. Instead of actually descending the hill under the hydro poles, we cut down early, making it harder to spot the poles (used as reference points) and thus we overshot the control. Climbing back up the steep hill to the next control was slow going! We apologized to the others for not having time to explain things very much as we went along. In just 30 minutes there really isn’t time to stop! It was when we were looking for #7 that we got off track. We mixed up creeks (there were 2, not 1 as expected), and then we weren’t sure exactly where we were on the map. Turns out we were looking at the top of a hill, when we should have been looking in a valley. We gave up on that control, found a trail and headed back to the start, coming upon another control on our way (“Oh look! There’s another one!”). In the end we found 5 of the 6 controls we looked for in 35:40, so our 150 points were knocked down to 100. Results here. Another fun race!

A few days later, I headed into the woods of Waterdown with a friend and her daughter, neither of whom have done a Don’t Get Lost orienteering event before (but both of whom were familiar with using maps and compasses). We had a map from the previous week’s session, which was cancelled due to a weather warning. As we found the controls (plastic tape), we removed them so that Meghan had a few less to collect. We managed to find 7 of 8 that we looked for, plus 1 deer and a few blackflies!! (Later, I found out the one we didn’t find hadn’t been placed!)

Session 6: Instructor led navigation: attack points and catch features (Kerncliff Park, Burlington)

This week’s session began with a short lesson on attack points and catch features. Attack points are features close to the control that may be easier to find than the control itself, and from which you can then find the control. For example, it could be a trail junction, or a large boulder, or a fence. Catch features are things that will tell you you’ve gone too far – for example, if I reach a trail, I’ve overshot the control. Or if the forest starts to get thick, I’ve gone too far. They are something marked on the map that is further than the control you are looking for.

Then we had a choice of 2 maps for the exercise: one with controls 1-16 to be done in order, and the other essentially a “channel” through the map that you had to follow and when you found a control (not marked on the map), you had to note it and tell Meghan where you found it. I went with the first map. I attempted to find control #1 on my own, but when I found brambles instead and knew I wasn’t in the right place, I joined Meghan and some others as she explained features on the map and how she would go about finding the control. We did the first 3 like that, and then split up. I worked with a few others, trying to use attack points and catch features. Every week I’m getting better at reading the map. Tonight, I learned that a magnifying glass could come in handy! Ha! Some of the features on the map were tiny.

Session 7: X-league race (King’s Forest, Hamilton)

A wet, foggy night.

We were in for excitement and danger this week if we didn’t follow the last minute changes to the X-league race map – because of high water levels, we were strongly advised not to cross the fast-flowing water of Red Hill Creek, which flows through Red Hill Valley.

I paired up with a woman named Paula. Our plan was to stick to the trails as much as possible, and take bearings and bushwhack when needed. We had no trouble finding the first four, but the next one we overshot, probably because we were chatting and missed a tiny trail (some trails were barely noticeable). We realized our error, and quickly found the control. Things were going so well we decided to go for a black diamond, using a land feature (a valley) to find it. From there we headed back to the start, stopping on the way to find another control. We made it back to the finish with seconds to spare. No time penalty, and a personal best 275 points for each of us. Results here. It was also my first time finding every control I looked for. Yay for progress!

Session 8: Instructor led navigation: what to do as you’re approaching a control (Lowville Park, Lowville)

This week we learned how to approach a control, from slowing down in the circle (i.e. the circle on the map in the centre of which the control is found), to looking up to spot the flag (rather than focussing on your map), to preparing yourself for the next control as soon as you spot the one you’re currently looking for. And to practice this, Meghan had set out 55 controls to find! Some were very close together (25m or less), while others were up to about 350m apart. I worked with Paula again, starting with control #1 and working our way towards #55. We were stumped by #17, but otherwise found 30 controls in just over an hour. After Meghan pointed out that I wasn’t holding my compass level, I spent the rest of the night making sure it was!

The next day, I returned to Lowville Park to find the rest of the controls, and managed to find them all. Even #17. Paula said that the reason we hadn’t seen 17 is that we were looking up as we were told to, and the ribbon was on the base of the tree! Ha! Check out the little green friend I made in the thumb picture below.

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 2.35.11 PM

Session 9: Instructor led navigation: urban orienteering + X-league race (McMaster University, Hamilton)

On a beautiful spring night at McMaster University we received an introductory lesson on urban orienteering. Rather than taking place in the woods, urban orienteering takes place on city streets and paths and maybe grass. A map is needed, but a compass might not be. You’re not allowed to enter buildings (“even if the door is open”, said Meghan) – you must go around! Sprint orienteering maps have some different symbols on them, so we learned how to read the maps, and in my case, I learned that I might want to pack a magnifying glass.

Then it was time for the X-league race. This would be my 2nd urban orienteering race. Because the campus isn’t that large, the controls were set out as dogbones – for example you had to do 1A then 1B, with no other controls in between (or 1B then 1A). I worked with Paula again, and we planned to get all the controls except 9A/9B and 10A/10B, because they were further away from the start/finish and there was a greater distance between the controls within the pair. We had a great time tearing around campus (I did not use a compass), and we found all the controls we were looking for. We ended up with 325 points, a new weeknight race record for both of us. Results here. We finished in 32:04, well under the allotted 40 minutes. Unfortunately, it never occurred to either of us to go for 9B, which we were really close to at one point – we wouldn’t have received points for the dogbone, but would have received some points for that control alone. Oh well!

Look at all those hole punches!

Session 10: X-league race (Dundas Driving Park, Dundas)

The last X-league race of the spring also marked the end of the Don’t Get Lost Next program. Given that 3 days after the race I would be competing in a half ironman, I resisted the temptation to find as many controls as I could in the allotted 30 minutes. Instead, I searched for – and found – controls 1 to 6, the ones closest to the start/finish line. None of them really required me to leave the Dundas Driving Park, and most were pretty easy to spot from a distance. I returned to the finish line in 11 minutes and 30 seconds, which Meghan declared must be a new record! My 200 points were piddly compared to the scores of others, but I met my goal of resting my legs. Results here.


In short, I loved the program, learned lots, and will miss my weekly orienteering sessions! Highlights:

  • Excellent instruction with clear explanations;
  • Designed for newbies and experienced orienteers;
  • Different orienteering concepts covered;
  • Participants of various ages and fitness levels, runners and walkers;
  • Friendly, non-competitive environment;
  • New location each week; and
  • Ample opportunities to practice – make mistakes – and learn from them!

I highly recommend the program, which will be run again this fall!

Orienteering for Kids!

Do you have kids who might like orienteering? Check out the different Don’t Get Lost programs for kids ages 6 to 18: for age 6-12 there is Adventure Running Kids, and for age 13-18 there is Adventure Running X.

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My foray into orienteering and adventure racing

It didn’t take much to convince me to try orienteering and adventure racing: I was inspired by the enthusiasm of friends Kristi and Michael who recently spent the weekend at my house. They and their two boys Evan and Lukas are members of Orienteering Ottawa and have competed in both Canada and the US. They (and Kristi through her blog!) made it sound really fun, so after they left, I registered for the “Navigation 101” 4 hour clinic through Don’t Get Lost, an orienteering club in the Hamilton/Niagara area. Several years ago my kids participated in the Don’t Get Lost 12-week Adventure Running Kids program, which I highly recommend! Here’s the Navigation 101 course description:

Learn the basics of map and compass skills in the first 2 hours of this clinic. Learn to read and understand maps, map legends and scales.  Basic compass skills will be introduced, for map orientation and introductory bearings. Preparatory route selection and relocation techniques will be covered. The second half of the clinic introduces concepts and strategies for improving your basic navigation skills. Learn about handrails, catching features and attack points. Practice “aiming-off”, “attacking from above” and “contouring.” Learn about pace counting and distance judgment. Relocation techniques are practiced in the woods. Discover how planning ahead can help you stay on track. The role of the navigator is also presented.

On a more practical note, taking a navigation clinic would strengthen my very limited map and compass skills, so that when I’m backcountry camping I don’t have to rely only on my battery-powered GPS unit! I have been wanting to do a hands-on clinic for a few years now.

So, I signed my daughter and I up for the clinic in Ancaster, and we learned lots in those 4 hours. The instructors (Meghan and Kris were excellent.

Of course the next (il)logical step was to sign myself up for an orienteering race – in the dark!

Spoiler alert: I am home typing this blog post, so I survived, didn’t get (too) lost in the dark, and even earned a few points!

I arrived at Kerncliff Park in Burlington for the X-League 30 minute race. Some might wonder, “What could possibly go wrong in 30 minutes?” I knew better. I checked in on arrival (with Meghan my instructor from the clinic), paid $5 (fundraiser for Don’t Get Lost adventure running athletes), picked up a map, and was able to orient myself and study the map to plan an approach before the race began. I was nervous, hoping that I wouldn’t get completely lost – at least we were required to carry a whistle! Next time I would probably arrive earlier to have a few more minutes to prepare. I also spotted Chris the other instructor.

At 6:55 PM there was a very short pre-race briefing, during which Meghan mentioned that the controls (checkpoints) were inside the circles on the map. She also told us to use the hole punch on our map at the controls to prove that we were there. By this point, it was dark out and everyone was wearing headlamps. With a countdown from 10, the race was on!

Given that this was my first race (in the dark no less), and you could attempt to do as few or as many of the controls as you wanted to in 30 minutes, I decided to go for only the “easy” ones, not the “intermediate”, “advanced” or “expert” ones. I planned to do #1, then #2, then #4, and if I made it that far, I would decide what to do. There were 11 in total. When the race started I wasn’t the only one running for #1 – there were 5-10 headlamps in front of me (this made it rather easy to find). Ditto for #2, but I did take a bearing with the compass and follow along on the map for both of them. From there I headed for #4, but couldn’t for the life of me find it. I did find a man – a parent volunteer for the kids doing their Adventure Running Kids program – who didn’t know if a control was there but did think there was one on the bridge. I hadn’t seen a bridge. I backtracked back up the hill, went down again to the little creek, and when I couldn’t find it still, decided to backtrack again, find the path and head for a different control. As I was out there, I also realized that I wasn’t holding the map the way I should have been, moving myself around the map rather than the map around me (to keep it oriented to always be facing the way it should be). It was then that I got mixed up and wasn’t sure where I was. But I found Kris, who was also turned around. We started looking for #6, but it turns out we weren’t where we thought we were, and given the time we had to give up and head back to the finish. We did eventually figure out where we were (it was mostly Kris!), and we reached the end approximately 3 minutes over the 30 minute cut-off (Meghan wrote our time down).

I had to calculate my points (before time penalties) and it was pretty easy – 25 points for #1 and 25 for #2. I wrote them on a sheet along with everyone else’s results (at least a couple of people got all controls!). With probably 30 points in penalties, I think I ended up with 20 points. Woohoo! I was in the positive. I could have ended up with 0, or not found a single control.

See the punches at #1 and #2. Proof that I made it there!

In talking to people afterwards, I realized my error at #4 – I was looking for the control under the number four on the map, not under the circle!!! I was assured that this was a rookie mistake that everyone makes. It was actually on the bridge that the man mentioned to me!

When I got home (I got home!) I realized that I hadn’t even looked at the scale on the map before I started running – another potential fatal flaw!

All in all I had fun, and was glad to have found Kris out there to find my way back. I learned how much harder it is to navigate at night in the dark, but how fun orienteering can be. I’d say there were about 30 people doing the race tonight, and I may have been the only brand new one. The people I spoke with were very friendly.

I am hoping to do another weeknight X-League race before the November 13 Raid the Hammer 12k adventure run, which I have signed up to do with my teammates Alasdair and Rebecca (ARK de Triumph triathlon relay team reunited as an orienteering team) – a first orienteering race for them (I’m now the expert – ha!). In the meantime, I’ll likely take my Kerncliff Park map and go back to try to find where the controls were tonight – they won’t be there, but I’ll get to practice my map reading skills!

I think I’m hooked.

[UPDATE: I might have finished in last place, but I actually got 30 points, not 20, with only 20 time fault penalties! There’s hope for me yet.]