‘Orienteering is great for families with kids,’ local organizer says. Tracey Tong reports on the sport you need to check out in 2020
As Ottawa thaws into spring, many families will want to trade their indoor views for one more vast.
One of the best ways to do it is via what Ottawa’s Jeff Teutsch calls the “coolest sport people haven’t heard of.”
That sport is orienteering, said Teutsch, and while it gets its participants outside, active, and keeps them challenged both physically and mentally, in the end, “it can be what you want it to be.”
The sport of skilled navigation, orienteering sees participants doing a timed challenge through unfamiliar terrain to find a series of checkpoints (called controls), followed by a return to the finish. The only tools you’re allowed are a detailed map with the course and controls on it (given to you at the start) and a compass. Completed on foot – and sometimes on skis, snowshoes, or mountain bike – orienteering can be as extreme, or as leisurely, as the participant makes it.
Teutsch first got involved in orienteering when he was around two years old. “My parents came out with my aunt and uncle, and my cousin and I were carted around in hiking packs with child seats,” he says. “I then started to get seriously involved as a teenager, when I made good friends with a group of similarly aged orienteers and quickly got sucked in. Since then, I’ve been involved in orienteering in almost every aspect including competing on Team Canada for a few years, coaching, organizing events, etc.”
Now the program coordinator with Orienteering Ottawa – a group that enables the local orienteering community (which ranges in age from four to 80) by providing a variety of quality orienteering opportunities across the National Capital Region – Teutsch says both individuals and families “that love to use orienteering as a reason to get out the door and go for a hike” surface at these events.
“We have folks that do it in groups and folks that love the solitary experience,” Teutsch says. “Some of our members come out exclusively on foot and we have others that love the ski and mountain bike orienteering events we host. The sport really is adaptable, but it is the mental challenge of map reading while on course no matter the mode of transport that keeps people coming back.”
If you or your family are looking to get into orienteering in the capital, you’re in luck. Ottawa is one of the hotspots for orienteering in North America, says Teutsch.
“Gatineau Park has long been considered one of the best areas for orienteering in Canada, so it’s definitely at the top of the list. A few other particular highlights are the South March Highlands in North Kanata, and the Carp Ridge where we hosted the North American Championships in 2014. We also have some challenging urban orienteering areas such as our university campuses.”
A weekend Orienteering Ottawa event draws between 150 and 200 people, and attendance is climbing. In 2019, the organization had nearly 450 club members with an additional 850 unique non-member participants. Among those were the more than 100 children participating in weekly kids’ programs in the spring of 2019.
Orienteering tends to attract outdoorsy folks, says Teutsch, and kids are no exception. “Orienteering is great for families with kids,” he says.
“People of all ages regularly participate in our events, from babies in carriers to their grandparents,” says Errol Thomson, who participates with his wife, Karen, and their young daughter, Moira.
“It is a great sport for families for a number of reasons – it gets families outdoors; it is exciting, as kids (and their parents) discover they can find their way from point to point; and it offers challenges suitable for every level. As kids grow more familiar with how to navigate with map and compass, they can become more independent, first being ‘shadowed’ by an adult, and then completing courses on their own. This helps them build confidence in their own abilities.”
Thomson adds that orienteering requires concentration and allows people to hone their decision-making and problem-solving skills – all important and transferable – while keeping them active.
Enthusiast Stephen Powell likes that Orienteering Ottawa events have a bunch of different options, which makes it “suitable for younger kids with short legs, faster kids with long legs, and even competitive adults.” Powell’s family will sometimes split into groups based on ability, “but at the end, we’ve all spent a fabulous day outside, exploring one of the many different forests or parks that the city has to offer. The orienteering community is just super too – the kids look forward to seeing their friends outside of school.”
While many parents introduce their kids to the sport, Jeff Smith learned about it from his eldest son, Hayden, who Teutsch calls one of the group’s strongest young orienteers.
“He started participating in events and I tagged along,” Smith says of Hayden. “I learned the basics while ‘shadowing’ my son when he was young and then started participating on my own once I wasn’t able to keep up with him anymore.”
It wasn’t long before Smith was also a big fan, and now the whole family is hooked.
“We’ve participated in the sport as a family, making for a great family outing,” says Smith. “It’s a fantastic sport for the kids as it’s fun (like a scavenger hunt in the woods) while at the same time getting them outside doing some physical activity, learning some important skills and developing confidence.”
“Orienteering combines the benefits of a walk in the woods and a treasure hunt. Courses are set at levels that range from novice to advanced, allowing families to participate whether they have no experience or have been orienteering for years. It is a sport that is easy to get into, but that never ceases to provide challenges.”
- Errol Thomson, participant
“It’s fun while at the same time getting you outside exercising both your body and your brain.”
- Jeff Smith, participant
What you’ll need:
- A decent pair of hiking boots or trail runners
- Long pants
- A sense of direction
- Compass, timing chip and whistle (rented at the event)
- A map (provided)