How safe is orienteering? Getting lost, getting found, and everything in-between

Over the weekend SHOO hosted NSW State Leagues 14 & 15 and the NSW Schools Championships.

The NSW Schools Championships offer event organisers some unique challenges. The Middle Distance event sends students of varying levels of skill and experience out into a high-quality bushland orienteering area. This poses navigational challenges and risks beyond in-school sprint events (where the courses are often bound by fences and roads), and in order to provide a good experience for students, we take extra steps to minimise risks and maximise enjoyment.

An orienteering approach to “being lost”

If you need it, there’s a team there…

If you need it, there’s a team there…

At Sunday’s Middle Distance event, SHOO had a chance to test these extra risk and safety procedures when a student on the Moderate course “got lost” (we don't call it getting lost - we say 'geographically embarrassed’). The truth is, in a sport that is about challenging navigation, you are often somewhat uncertain of where you are. However, the scope of this is usually metres (or tens of metres), rather than kilometres. This is not the same as being “lost”, which means that you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know how to get out, you don’t have nearby support, and are distressed as a result.

Orienteering is a sport about problem-solving, and we believe in learning the skill of re-orientation in order to continue with a course or self-extract yourself safely. We actively teach how to “find yourself” once you lose contact with the map and the terrain - even my 6 year-old knows to “go back to the last point and start again”.

Planning for safety

Around this individual skill and resilience, event organisers are always planning for safety, while allowing for a challenging, real-world navigation experience. This often includes:

  1. Establishing course and map boundaries - Making sure there are features which distinguish the “edge” of the map, which participants know not to cross. This often includes fences, roads and rivers. On the weekend, our course was a bushland triangle bound by a large highway, houses and a river.

  2. Having a course cut-off time, so that no one is out too long before anyone comes looking for them. Our electronic timing equipment allows us to see participants who haven’t “checked in” at the end. This is why we collect mobile phone numbers and car registration information at the start - we want to check if you’ve actually come out and left without us knowing.

  3. Matching participants to appropriate courses/skill levels. As many newcomers to our events will attest, we often start you on “easy” or “very easy” courses, even if they are too easy for you. This way we can be sure that you have some of the foundational skills to step up to harder courses safely and with minimal distress.

  4. Providing each participant with an emergency whistle. Three blasts on this, and every orienteer in the vicinity will come a-running!

  5. Having experienced orienteers allocated to “sweeping” or “search”, should it be required.

It’s worth saying that the need to “sweep” or rescue are actually very rare at events, and escalating past a basic search almost never happens.

It’s worth saying that the need to “sweep” or rescue are actually very rare at events, and escalating past a basic search almost never happens. In the vast majority even the shiniest newbies either finish their course, or navigate their way back in when they feel out of their depth. If there is time, we’ll normally take them back out with some support to help them learn for next time.

The search

At Sunday’s event, a course sweep was sent out earlier than usual to catch any school students and bring them in. We did this to minimise any distress, and to support them to finish their courses if possible. Across the two main courses everyone came back in fine, some having been supported back in by the sweep.

While the last students were coming in, it became clear that a student on the Moderate course (not yet swept) had been out for a longer time than expected. A sweep went out with her parents to start a search (all orienteering clubs have a formal search procedure to follow) of the course area. Along the way, the sweep collected information from orienteers in the field who had seen her, and activated a network of competitors who would keep an eye out, and bring her in if necessary. Orienteering is a family, and we’re all very protective of our members, even when there’s glory on the line!

We were able to narrow down our search area with where she had last been seen. The sweep acted as mobile search coordinator, communicating via phone with the assembly area, and delegating to several other searchers. After approximately 45 minutes of searching with 3 search parties, the student reported back in to the finish area, having completed her course (now that’s resilience!).

We were completely glad that she was ok, and proud that she finished (as was she). She had actually strayed off the map, but realised and came back. She re-oriented herself, and was able to finish. As a club, we got to test out some rarely-used procedures, and keep our unblemished safety record.

Special thanks to selfless orienteers

A huge contributor to the success of a search is intel and support from orienteers in the field. SHOO would like to thank all of the orienteers who paused in the middle of one of NSW’s most competitive events to provide information, check the significance of the single-blast whistle that was being used, or keep an eye out for the student. Dean, the sweep, appreciated it every time. This moving web of eyes and information is our most valuable safety asset during events, but it only works if everyone piroritises contributing.