You Can Get There From Here

All About the Little-Known But Increasingly Popular Sport Called Orienteering

by Cathy Cockrell

The local orienteering club is open to novices and those interested in the sport as recreation. Its website is
To many of us a map is what we dig out of the glove compartment when we get lost on the highway.

To James Scarborough "two-dimensional representations of data" are what he makes to earn a living and what guide him through unfamiliar woods to the finish line in record times.

A geographic information specialist for the Department of Landscape Architecture and a Berkeley geography grad, Scarborough is also an elite competitor in the sport known as orienteering, ranking second in the United States.

An orienteer uses a detailed map and a compass -- and nothing more -- to locate markers in the landscape in as little time as possible.

"In terms of land navigation," says Scarborough, "orienteering maps are the best they get."

Each land form such as earthen wall, dry ditch, knoll, pit, depression or root stock has an orienteering map symbol.

So does every water feature (such as crossable or uncrossable stream, seasonal pond, water tank, marsh or trickle), linear feature (foot path, junction, power line, firebreak, tunnel, rock pile), rock and vegetation feature.

A black X indicates a man-made object such as an abandoned refrigerator or car, which sometimes serves as one of the marked features or "controls" that an orienteer is looking for. "You'd be amazed," says Scarborough, "how far people can get those refrigerators into the woods."

Originally developed in Scandinavia as a military exercise, orienteering became popular as a sport in Scandinavia, then Europe, and is now gaining adherents throughout the world.

Scarborough's family first learned of the European pastime through his mother, who is English. In 1979 his father, a Berkeley geography graduate, Class of '59, started the Bay Area Orienteering Club and organized a meet in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park. Three years later, Scarborough, then eight, ran competitively for the first time.

In the 14 years since, Scarborough has gradually acquired skills and experience to choose the optimal route through the landscape using an orienteering map or to make the best judgment in the face of surprises when running a course alone.

Here in California most orienteer-ing competitions are held on public land, a lot of which is used for grazing. "Sometimes," he says, "you find a bunch of bulls right on your course. In a funny way, there's a route choice: do I go through the bulls or around them?"

In the past two years he has competed in the Junior World Championships in Poland and the 1993 and 1995 World Championships in New York State and Germany. In the U.S. Championships outside Dayton this October, he placed second.

But second in the U.S. is "low down in the world orienteering scene," Scarborough says. So hecontinues to work hard to develop the unique hybrid of physical, technical and strategic skills that earn orienteering the nickname "the thinking sport."

"I learned most of the technical stuff from Dad," says Scarborough.

As an undergrad, where he ran varsity cross country and competed in the PAC 10 competition, coach Tony Sandoval helped him develop the running skills that become increasingly critical for advanced orienteers.

Unlike "a lot of students who are on the diploma mill," Scarborough has continued his physical training with Sandoval beyond graduation.

And this summer he trained with elite orienteers in Scandinavia to perfect some of the advanced competitive skills that make a difference at the highest echelons of international competition.

"I lost 30 seconds on the 14th control on day two," he says of his recent performance at the U.S. Championship outside Dayton. "It was my big mistake."

Scarborough attributes his orienteering prowess to being "spatially oriented," a gift that helps both in orienteering and "the work I like to do."

At the Applied Environmental Geographic Information Science lab he is currently developing parcel/address maps of the City of Berkeley that policy makers can use to analyze and address crime patterns.

He plans to apply to the landscape architecture graduate program, which will lead, he thinks, to many potential opportunities, given the explosion of "the spatial aspect of data analysis" made possible by computers.

Meanwhile his appreciation for detail and precision will continue to serve him off the job as well -- whether reading the contour lines between himself and the manmade control marked by a fat black X, or analyzing his route choice in yesterday's competition.


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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