Hiking kind of orienteering

Guidebook Hiking in Finland
Jouni Laaksonen 6.5.2019

I am a sports fan. Now that winter sports like cross-country skiing, nordic combined and biathlon are over I’m starting to wait for the orienteering season to start. It’s great fun to see how Tove Alexandersson, Daniel Hubmann, Natalia Gemperle, Timo Sild, Vojtech Kral, Marika Teini, Olav Lundanes, Emily Kemp, Maja Alm, Frederic Tranchard, Yannick Michiels, Tim Robertson, Hollie Orr and others compete.

Orienteering is nowadays a very watcher friendly sport, for you don’t only see the athletes run in the forest and approach the checkpoints, but you can also see on the map how they advance, and sometimes make big mistakes while trying to find the next checkpoint.

Then when it comes to my own orienteering, 1) I like orienteering, but 2) I don’t like running while orienteering. I love the hiking kind of orienteering, which is completely different story than competition kind of orienteering.

Whereas Tove Alexandersson or Daniel Hubmann may afterwards regret a choice of route that is a couple of seconds slower than another choice of route, a hiker is not interested whether his/her choice of route takes fifteen minutes more or less.


Hiking kind of orienteering

For a hiker the important thing is not the fastest possible route, but a safe way to find the target, like a wilderness hut or a campfire site. Also important is to walk along an interesting route, and with not too much ascent, or wet or rocky patches.

Hiking kind of orienteering is often easy. The easiest it is when you follow a marked trail. Also outside marked trails you often follow unmarked paths, but in the junctions you have to know which path to choose. There aren’t any signs, but your map and compass tell the right way. Or, you might follow an unmarked path until you meet a stream, and then you follow the stream downriver to the lean-to site. Or you ski across a treeless bog towards a gap between two fells. Easy going, if visibility is good.

Guidebook Hiking in Finland

Another example of easy orienteering/navigating: Last September we hiked in Pöyrisjärvi Wilderness Area with these friends of mine. Here we are orienteering along lake Maaterlompolo. Easy going, we just follow the lake. Still, the map, packed watertight, and compass are all the time readily available.

However, the more skilled and experienced you are in navigating, the more confident you are about hiking. And that’s important: a proper level of confidence. It’s not good to be overconfident, but not scary either.

(Is there a difference between terms orienteering and navigating? I’m using them as synonyms.)

When you are an experienced navigator you don’t always have to stick to marked trails. You can venture off the trails, to a cliff top you think might offer a good view, or a place where a stream plunges down a steep slope and therefore you think there might be a waterfall, and so on. And you dare step outside the marked trail and collect bilberries and mushrooms, and you know you will find your way back to the trail.

I consider orienteering one of the most important wilderness skills. Adequate skill in orienteering gives both nice moments, fun and comfort to your journey, and it is also a big safety issue.

Modern aids like a GPS device, a smartphone with GPS, or a wristwatch with GPS are great helpers (see also my posts Map apps and Outdoor maps), but still the good old paper map and compass are the basic tools.

Compass is basically a tool that points you to the north, but as such it is invaluable. With a compass you can rotate your map to fit with the landmarks you can see around you, so that you then know where you must be on the map.

Map is a piece of paper where experts have drawn the terrain into a pocket-sized document. For example scale of 1:50 000 means 1 centimetre on map represents 50 000 cm on terrain, that is 500 metres.


Taking a bearing

Just a short reminder on how to take a bearing with compass and map:

Guidebook Hiking in Finland

1. You place the compass so that the edge goes from where you are to the place where you want to go. (Here we are in Kaldoaivi Wildernes Area and I wanted to walk from the fell top of Peälljekeähtsevádda to the western of the two northern bays of lakes Tsarajavrrik.)

Guidebook Hiking in Finland

2. Without moving the compass you turn its dial so that the lines inside it are aligned with the lines pointing to north on the map. You get a bearing of 38°.
From the side of the map you find the declination in the area. In Finland declination is usually something between +7° (Western Finland) and +13°C (Eastern Finland). You subtract that from the bearing you got. This map tells the declination is 11°, so the final bearing is 27°.

Guidebook Hiking in Finland

3. Now you take the compass in your hand and turn around so that the compass needle is between the two green lines of your compass (or whatever way your compass manufacturer has used). Now the long edge of the compass will show you the direction you have to walk in to reach your destination.


Magnetic variation

In your home country the situation may be such that you don’t need to take declination into account. Also in Finland you don’t need to know anything about declination if you only walk short distances outside marked trails. But if you want to walk for example through a five kilometre stretch through a forest with no distinctive landmarks, you do need to subtract the declination.

Let’s see an example. The distance between the points in the compass pics above is about 7 km. If you don’t subtract the mentioned 11 degrees, you will find yourself 1400 metres too far to the right after you have walked those seven kilometres!

Luckily in this example you’d still bump onto the same lakes, but in a wrong place. What if you were trying to find a wilderness hut built on next to a spring or small pool? You wouldn’t find it.



After all this talk orienteering is mostly relatively easy and fun. Though sometimes orienteering can be very tough, like in the dark, or in a snowstorm.

Guidebook Hiking in Finland

As you can guess from the headlamp this is not a recent pic. It’s me 19 years ago, on a midwinter ski expedition. Daylight time is so short in midwinter you often need to start in the dark of the morning, or continue to the dark of evening.

An easy and safe way to practice orienteering is to walk along a well-marked trail, and at the same time to follow how the terrain is shown on a map. Also you can practice taking bearings in path junctions and see how your compass points to the correct path.

Sometimes you don’t know your exact whereabouts, but still that’s no big problem. I’ll write another post on topic ‘What if you get lost?’

* * *

My guidebook Hiking in Finland has been a bit delayed, as some of you may have noticed. There were more rounds of proofreading than we had thought, but now finally I’ve seen the last version of the layout. The book will be out in the near future. 🙂

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