Navigation Lesson #10: Night Orienteering

Night orienteering. Intimidating at first but once you get the hang of it, flowing through an orienteering course at night is thrilling. It’s where your team will be most challenged in a race and where it’s most critical you work together.

Go safe and simple. Sometimes in the daytime you can get away with running along on a rough compass bearing and figuring out where you are along the way. It’s not so easy at night. You have fewer features to use to help relocate along the way, since you can’t see too far away. Break the route into safe, simple sections and move from one large feature to another, especially obvious ones like hilltops and water features and those within the beam of your headlamp. Look for sections that have less obvious catching features (terrain that you can match to your map), and either do something easier, or be really careful there.

Rely (more) on your bearing. Stay on a straight bearing more often rather than take shortcuts around slower features like small hills and thicker vegetation. That doesn’t mean you have to take a straight bearing from your current CP all the way to the next CP. Again, break the leg up into parts. Take a bearing along one part of the route, then when you get to the end of that part and have to change direction (e.g., the end of a valley or meadow), take another bearing and so on. If possible, rely on nearby trails more so than bushwhacking. Bends in trails are more visible than contours in the woods and will act as good attack points. Tolerate extra distance on a trail or along a handrail (creek, ridge, powerline) in exchange for the certainty of your location.

When following a bearing, point your compass/direction of travel arrow toward a tree or object that is closer than you normally would during the day so you don’t lose sight of it. Repeat the process over and over. Have two teammates setting and following bearings with their compasses. Keep each other from drifting off the bearing. If you suddenly feel lost, slow down or stop to really think about it. Don’t lose contact with the map. Relocating is much harder at night than during the day.

Measure more. Before the race, determine how many paces (every other step) or steps you go through “normal” woods over a set distance such as 100 meters and how long this takes (walking, fast walking/jogging and running). This person (or two depending on size of team) on the team keeps count and time between CPs to help the team know when they should be approaching the place to change direction or the area of the CP. At night, add about 10% to your daytime pace count to get an accurate nighttime pace count. Remember that steps are shorter at night and you’ll have a tendency to stop short at night, thinking you’ve gone further than you have.

Use all your senses. In addition to the tips above, pay attention to your other senses. For example, you may hear frogs calling on a pond, cars on a nearby road or a stream rushing by. The breeze may feel stronger as you approach the top of a hill. It can be helpful to turn off your light at times and use your night vision to check out silhouettes of landforms.

Light up the night. The ideal adventure racing headlamp should be lightweight, very bright with a wide beam, durable and reliable, with run-times that last all night (and not cost a fortune, right?). It’s a pretty overwhelming purchase with all of the considerations. Do your online research but try on various models at your local outdoor gear store. Comfort matters. Ask experienced racers. Consider carrying an additional lightweight back-up light to use for map reading and in case of technical problems with your main light. And we haven’t even talked about bike lights. Some racers will use their headlamp but having a light on your handlebars and another on your helmet (wired to a battery pack in your hydration pack to keep weight off your head and for longer run time) is ideal if you have the budget. Rear flashing light too of course.