Competitive orienteering proves challenge to both mind and body
- Sport, where participants walk, jog or run on unknown outdoor courses, even sprinting on short tracks, offers health benefits and teaches map-reading skills
- The game has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong as a recreational activity for people of all ages, including individuals, families and groups
This article is part of a weekly series that dives deep into the small things that add character to our city, enrich our culture and make our lives beautiful.
Running can be challenging enough. Now imagine having to use a map to navigate your way around a course as you sprint.
For orienteering enthusiasts, that’s what they love about the activity – the simultaneous challenge to mind and body.
Orienteering is a competitive sport where participants navigate around long courses on the hill or sprint on shorter tracks in parks.
The goal is to find a series of markers, called control points, on a landscape, using a specially-designed map.
In real life, control points are indicated by an orange and white flag on the course.
There is often more than one route between two points. Participants have to identify the shortest route and complete the course as quickly as possible.
In recent years, the game has become increasingly popular as a recreational activity for people of all ages, both young and old.
Anyone who wants to have a taste of the sport is welcome to take part in an orienteering fun-day event, usually held in a selected public park.
Participants can walk, jog or run, and can go solo, in pairs or groups with friends and family as they explore the park.
To find out more about orienteering, I went to the “Orienteering @Park” event at Tuen Mun Park in November.
It was a balmy Saturday afternoon, a perfect day for some outdoor fun.
A queue was already lining up at the registration desk by the time I arrived at the multi-game area, a brightly-painted open space inside the park, where I met Rainsky Cheung Wei-ki, an orienteering coach with more than 20 years of experience in the game.
Cheung and I signed up for the meet and received a detailed map of the park and an electronic chip that resembled a USB.
We had to carry the chip with us and insert it into a machine at each control point to prove we were there.
When I turned over the orienteering map all I could see was a jumble of colours and symbols.
Drawn to a large scale, the map gave details of the terrain with contour lines, water features, trails and clearings, fences and buildings and vegetation.
Different types of terrain were represented in different colours that indicated the level of difficulty of running through it.
The 10 control points on my route were scattered around the park.
They were marked in numbered circles on the map and had to be found in the specified order.
Next to the map was a table of words and hieroglyph-like symbols specifying the exact location of the control points within each circle.
While clues are expressed in words for beginners, only symbols are provided to advanced players.
Cheung said map-reading skills, keen observation and the ability to stay focused on the course were essential qualities of an orienteering athlete.
“You don’t get to see the map until the day of the event and so won’t be able to do any planning beforehand,” Cheung said.
“You need to be familiar with the colours and symbols on the map so that you know right away which way you can run through and which way not, and be able to identify where the control points are as quickly as you can.”
She added: “How quickly and accurately you can decide on the best route and make it there without getting lost will determine your performance. Every minute counts.
“An experienced orienteer is able to spot the shortest way almost the instant he reads the map.”
The event in Tuen Mun Park offered three routes with varying levels of difficulty and I opted for the easiest – designed for beginners and families with children.
The starting point of my route was a long waterscape with two bridges over it.
I could see from the map that there were three ways leading to the first control point. One of them was much shorter.
Following the chosen route, Cheung and I turned right and walked along a path for a minute or so until we saw an orange and white flag dangling from a branch of a tree.
We inserted our electronic time chip into the machine next to the tree and carried on walking, en route to the second control point.
Cheung said the design of the routes reflected the needs and experience of target participants.
Orienteering as a leisure activity, for example, has control points along the trail and at easy-to-find spots such as trees, railings and lamp posts, rather than at locations such as inside the woods during a sprint.
When an orienteering meet is held at a park, important park features may become a clue to the location of a control point.
Three of the control points on my route were located along the man-made lake in Tuen Mun Park, marked on nearby trees and fences.
The participants that I came across, including excited children, parents and grandparents, had so much fun making new discoveries about the park as they looked for the check points.
Cheung said there had been a rise in orienteering events in public parks as more student competitions and fun days for the public were being organised.
She added that for those people who want to delve a bit more into the sport, the Orienteering Association of Hong Kong and related sports clubs organise three levels of training courses to teach participants the right skills, including how to read contour lines, identify features and understand symbols on the map.
Cheung said she loved orienteering because it presented a different set of challenges at every game.
“Even if you have been to a venue before, the routes aren’t the same, which requires you to solve a different problem and respond differently,” she said.
“You become more agile, both physically and mentally.”
As the event in Tuen Mun Park drew to a close, the sense of excitement and adventure remained palpable, especially among children who were eagerly looking for the last few check points.
Orienteering offers health benefits and builds map-reading skills, which could be useful in life.
“Fun days are perfect days out for families to do some exercise and enjoy making decisions together,” Cheung says.
“Participants can enjoy the outdoors and get to know the game at a venue close to their home.”
Orienteering is a fulfilling sport that is suitable for people of all ages – whether you are a part of a family looking for some outdoor fun, a hiker who wants to spice up your weekly walk, or a retiree looking to stay healthy and exercise your wits at the same time.
For information about forthcoming orienteering fun days held in public parks in Hong Kong go to: https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/en/storm/rovingfundays.html