Shedding some light on night orienteering

Jason of Wessex Orienteering Club tells us about night orienteering - racing against the clock in city or countryside. An ideal sport for early winter nignts

Winter is coming (as the Starks would say). You can choose to endure it and wait for better weather and lighter days - or you can get into something like Night Orienteering.

Orienteering events take place all year around ( read our Beginners Guide here), but the recent growth has been in urban and sprint racing. It's becoming more popular in part due to the difficulty clubs have obtaining permissions in places like the New Forest, and because street races can be run all year and at night.

Maps for Night Races have unique colours and symbols, and are generally at a scale that shows distinct individual trees, benches and similar. Much of the challenges on these runs is picking a good sequence and finding (often well hidden) controls points in the dark. Urban events includes steps, gates, fences and narrow alleys that provide an alternative challenge to the dirt trails and undergrowth of a traditional orienteering event.

Night urban orienteering map
Click for a bigger version of this map

As well as speed, much of the skill for these type of events is about picking the right order. Unlike most orienteering events, where you follow a strict order, here you have to rapidly choose your own sequence and route. Linking the control points into a smooth route around the area can mean slower runners can still easily beat those faster than them.

Running also requires constant map contact - it can be tricky checking your compass in the areas of total darkness! Most runners will use a small lightweight headtorch with a powerful light for both map reading and finding paths in the darker points.

Getting started - your first race

  • You'll need clothes and shoes for running, a head torch and a compass (Wessex Orienteers have a set of head torches that can be borrowed)
  • Start times are staggered. Once you sign in at the start point and have and kit check, you are ready to run.You will be given a small device that will log the exact time of your visit to each of the controls as you touch it.
  • The clock starts as the map is issued and you punch the start control. Most courses have a fixed time of 45 or 60 minutes score. The aim is to find all the controls before the time runs out. This can generally be in any order: ones that are harder to find or further away are worth more points.
  • When time is up, return to the start point to get your score and see where you placed.

Winning night orienteering - tactics

Route choice is critical. The best competitors will be able to plan a good route in moments as soon as they get the map, and potentially make adjustments as they run. Understanding how the terrain will affect your personal speed will influence your route choice. Most races will have at least some woods and other areas that may be very dark, making for slower speed, but potentially creating a distance-saving shortcut.

Any compass (even an app) will do to start, but one with a rotating bezel makes it easier to take and stick to a bearing. You can use a standard compass or special small orienteering compasses that are designed to clip to your thumb for fast readings while running.

Some runners use techniques like aiming for the furthest away controls away to rack up some big score values early, while others will aim to pick up lower-value ones near the start, which increases the risks of running out of time before getting all the more distant ones. Your strategy will be based on your speed and navigation skill, and may need to be adjusted as you watch the time ticking down.

For more the forested events like Holton Lee, Marchwood and the fantastic Brownsea Island event the skill level has to be higher. Running in pitch darkness with a head torch on, you have to constantly use a compass to run on the chosen bearing, estimating the distance to the next turning or control point. By being sure of your direction and distance, you are able to move much faster than constantly looking for feature. Build up to these events by taking part in daytime courses or urban night courses first to increase your skill and confidence.

Head torches can only illuminate a small patch in front of you, especially if there is mist or fog. Practice finding an accurate direction using a compass, and then following this, counting your paces to get an approximate distance before slowing for the turning or control. When your vision is limited even a small inaccuracy in compass bearing can mean you missing your next target and losing valuable time.

The majority of competitors run solo, however there's no shame in going out as pairs. If it's your first time and you are coming with a more experienced friend it can be a great way to get started.

It's a brilliantly challenging combined mental and physical event, and navigating at speed in these night events massively improves your daytime navigation skills which, whether that's for orienteering, mountain biking or walking.

Useful links

Wessex Orienteering for events listings in Hampshire, Dorset and the New Forest

British Orienteering to find another club near you

Compasses and head torches from the OS Shop

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