Thursday, September 19, 2013

Orienteering is all About Finding Your Way

As a thirty-one-year old, it is refreshing to do something for the first time.  Such was the case last weekend when I went orienteering with my family at a large green space near my home.

For the uninitiated, orienteering is a sport whereby individuals or teams locate 'x' number of checkpoints in a specific order in an open space in as little time as possible equipped with only a map and a compass.

Groups of people of all levels of experience showed up last week: there were four levels of maps and corresponding checkpoints ranging from 'first-timers' to 'advanced'.  Much like the 'spice level' I that I tend to select at an Indian restaurant, we chose level 1.  It was easy to identify the level 4 orienteers - they were the ones popping in and out of thick forest as though the trees and bushes were not there (they were also the ones sweating).

If you want to be a bad-ass orienteer, you need a bad-ass hat

Whether you treat it as pure recreation with a child hanging from your back as I did, or as a competition, you develop important life skills through orienteering.  The term orientation means the particular direction a body points in.  With the advent of and subsequent growing dependency upon GPS technology, the public at large is losing their sense of direction.  Many young people have never used a compass before, and Google Maps is the closest they've ever come to a genuine one.

As I made my way through the forest (I actually left the navigation to my wife, who, it turns out, likes to tell me where to go on land as well as on wheels), I began to think of my introductory physics class, where we have just finished discussing vectors - displacement and force.  In future semesters, I'd like to have an orienteering vectors lab that incorporates actual movement rather than the theoretical kind that involves tracing lines while seated.

In going from one location to the next, you are merely following a displacement vector.  You are travelling in a specific direction, covering a specific distance.  To determine the direction, one must first rotate the map to match the surroundings and then locate North using the compass.  The angle to walk at becomes clear when we compare where we are to where we want to go.  The distance to cover is found by measuring the length on the map between where you are and where you are going, and using the map's scale to convert this to meters.  However, expert orienteers convert distances into the number of either walking steps or running steps.  For example, 1 cm on your map might represent 50 running steps or 100 walking steps.

After reaching the final marker, we headed back to the base where we originally began.  All in all, the trip took about two and a half hours, but we did stop for lunch (rookies).  Our total distance traveled was 2.5 km, but our net displacement was zero km.  Our average speed was thus 1 km/h, but our average velocity was zero km/h.  That's because average velocity describes the net displacement per unit time, and we would have ended at the same place in 2.5 hours had we simply not moved.

Like many things in life, orienteering is at least as much about the journey as the destination.  To translate the famous saying to physics speak: "Life is the distance traveled, not the resultant displacement..."  I suppose the original expression rolls off the tongue with greater ease.

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