"I saw someone running off-trail in the park!"

“Stay on the trail.” It’s good general advice to anyone in a national park or wilderness area for minimizing impact on wildlife, and it’s what we teach our own children as stewards of our precious natural resources.

And yet, a small set of selected activities are widely recognized as low-impact exceptions to this rule, including backwoods hiking and mushroom collecting. At first glance, individuals walking or running quickly through the woods with maps may not appear to be participating in a similar low-impact activity, and occasionally even an experienced nature enthusiast with limited knowledge of orienteering may be alarmed by this observation and raise vocal concerns about off-trail activities in the park without checking the facts. 

The documents below offer deeper analysis about the real environmental impact of orienteering, but consider this one comparative fact: In an orienteering meet, the navigational objectives are retrieved from the woods after just one day of use, removing all incentive to ever bring foot traffic to those locations again; contrast this with environmentally safe backwoods hiking and mushroom collecting, in which the navigational objectives remain a source of continued interest for years of returning foot travel, and eventually, new trails.

Orienteers realize that going off-trail is a privilege, earned each meet through informed cooperation between course setters and local land managers who know what areas of the park should be avoided or marked off limits on course maps. Some parks with particularly unique or sensitive vegetation or nesting birds in specific seasons may even be designated as on-trail orienteering parks, typically suited best for beginners at backwoods navigation.

Because of these and other reasons, orienteering consistently ranks among the lowest impact recreational uses of managed natural areas, and is an excellent way to build the next generation of environmentalists who appreciate the unspoiled outdoors. Learn more!

For further reading:

International case studies:

  • Dartmoor. Comparison of the environmental impact of orienteering and other off-track recreations in the Dartmoor National Park, UK.
  • Titterstone Clee. A study into the effect of an orienteering event on breeding wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) at Titterstone Clee, Shropshire, UK.
  • Namadgi National Park. A study on the impact of the 2007 Oceania Championships in the Namadgi National Park.
  • Bow Valley. A study on the impact on ground perennials of a major orienteering meet in the Bow Valley national forest in Alberta.
  • Julimar Forest. A brief study examining the vegetation impact of an orienteering event in Western Australia, as published in the OAWA newsletter.
  • Western Australia. A brief study of the impact of orienteering on lichen-covered granite rocks. Published in the Conservation and Land Management Newsletter, 1988.