Navigation Today

Don’t get me wrong, I love rogaining, but I am starting to wonder if, like dinosaurs and Morse Code, rogaining might have had its glory days, unless we adapt.

I am a keen bushwalker and I am partial to off track walking, so I used to rely heavily on my map and compass to get me to where I wanted to go, but things are changing. The last couple of walks I have been on, I have found myself relying on my phone and Avenza and its georeferenced digital maps much more than my compass or printed maps.

On a recent bushwalk I lost the track (in my defence, it was pretty faint) and was stuck in some very thick scrub which I had neither the time or the patience to fight. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and dialled up All Trails and could tell from the GPS that I was about 10m east of the track, so about 2 mins later I was back on the track. I reckon my map and compass work is pretty good but there is no way you could navigate with the same level of accuracy.  In fact the only downsides of using a phone for all navigation are:

  1. The risk of losing it. I have now dropped my phone and walked off in the bush four times. Luckily I have been able to find it each time. Having said that, lots of people lose their compass.
  2. You will need a battery backup and these are relatively heavy.
  3. It is hard to route plan on a phone due to the small screen size.

These disadvantages are easily outweighed by the fact that you will always know precisely where you are down to a few metres. In fact I recently completed a five day walk with my compass in my pocket the entire time, but I think I only used it once and only then because I couldn’t be bothered opening the compass app on my phone.

Map and Compass

I love the fact that I am skilled in using a map and compass, but the reality is that for everything other than rogaining and orienteering this skill is wasted and probably redundant.

I ask myself why a young person today would bother learning Morse Code or how to navigate using a map and compass. I saved my pocket money in high school to buy myself a Morse Code tapper, which must seem bizarre to anybody under 40 today.

.. ……. .-.. — …- . ……. .-. — –. .- .. -. .. -. –.

I know that both orienteering and rogaining do attract young people, but for how long?  The apps that you can use for navigation are still reasonably new and not well known to everyone.  I think as the use of these apps are more widely known people will ask themselves why they should bother learning to use a map and compass, the same way they would ask themselves if they should learn Morse Code.

What do the Stats Say?

In the last two years our participation rates have been influenced by COVID but it seems our best attended events were in 2011 and 2015 and I worry that this is a trend. I was stunned by the poor attendance at this year’s night rogaine. I could not really explain why so few people attended. Personally, I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday evening than bashing around Darling Mills Creek and the surrounding suburbs, but as it turned out I was catering so I didn’t get to join in.

MG = Metrogaine, MI=Minigaine,  AG=Autumngaine, PP=Paddy Pallin,  NB= Night Rogaine, LM = lake Macquarie,  NC = NSW Champs, PG = Paddlegaine and SG=Socialgaine.

It will be interesting to watch the stats over the next year or two to see what happens.

How to respond?

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Dylan Thomas

This may be blasphemy, but I think we should prepare ourselves for a new category of competition where any, and all, electronic devices are permitted and geo-referenced digital maps are provided to competitors before the start. We would still retain the map and compass class for the purists (dinosaurs, like me). It would be interesting to see what the take up of this new category might be.

At the end of the day there is much more to rogaining than just navigating using a map and compass. I am passionate about rogaining mostly because of the places I see and the competition, both of which would not be diminished if I was using GPS navigation.  In any case I would back myself and my team mates to beat most GPS navigators using our traditional tools of nothing more than a map, compass and watch.

25 Responses

  1. 1. “I love rogaining” too – and I suspect that your two “o”s should have gaps between the dashes …
    2. IMHO the median column doesn’t really need to be there as it does not provide us with any greater understanding of the figures – the averages are much more informative. Also – insert “nerd alert” here – adding the median figures from each event is not the way to find a “median of the totals” as it has resulted in a median total of 2524 which is higher than every year’s total number of competitors! The correct method is to take the median of the annual totals, which would have resulted in a median of about 2242.

  2. In my view rogaining is an art not a science. It is the skill, experience, and concentration required to move effectively and efficiently off track for long periods using imperfect tools and knowing how to correct mistakes using topography, deduction, and sometimes even recognising changes in flora. And throw on top a healthy amount of competition and great company. If I want to race around the bush knowing exactly where I am all the time then I go trail running.

    IMHO I think we need to accept that only certain personality types are attracted to rogaining and it is that that is the limiter and not age. Its a tough sport that involves a fair amount of discomfort!

    I say this having experienced rogaining at all levels with my daughters from when they were 13 and older, who have struggled to find like minded friends. Similarly, I can count on 1 finger the number of my friends who are prepared to give it a go. I’ve heard similar comments from many other rogainers (so its not that I am social cave dweller!).

  3. As someone who enjoys the satisfaction of “old fashioned” navigation using map/chart and compass on land and at sea, I support Chris’s proposal of a new category that allows electronic devices for use in rogaine navigation. Participants could then take their choice and the competition between the two groups would in itself be interesting. I’m sure that this kind of adaptation would help to make the great sport of rogaining much more attractive to new generations. Who knows? It might even eventually tempt them to try out a map and compass one day?

  4. It’s good to keep an eye on participation rates as this helps ensure survival of the sport. However, if you were to graph the total participants year on year, I think you’d see a small but gradual increase (ignoring the covid years). Having more (and different types of) events allows a wider net to be cast. I’ve been wanting to do the night rogaine since it launched but have been defeated by injuries and unavailability of rogaining partners. This year it was a clash with Navshield that precluded my entry.

    As for the map and compass, I love their simplicity – and being able to get away from a screen for a few hours.

    Rogaining seems to have survived across generations. Given the articles’ premisis of needing to adapt, maybe it’s time to draw in the next generation with a Pokemon Go Rogaine??

  5. Being able to use a map and compass requires observational skills – looking up, around, keeping track of features. Being aware of what’s around you and taking it all in. A phone (or another device) with a GPS does not. The only skill required there is to ‘follow the dot’, resulting in a course that only tests one’s athletic ability.

    (Full disclosure, I’m no dinosaur – I grew up in the era that bridged the gap between no-one having a phone and everyone having a phone – best of both worlds, I reckon!)

  6. I fully agree with Andrew. The joy of rogaining is navigating successfully with those imperfect tools. There are few greater joys than navigating in the dark through complex terrain and have the CP marker “pop up” exactly where you expect it to be.

    It would be quite unfair to include teams using GPS navigation and teams using traditional navigation in the same event as the GPS teams would inevitably “lead” some traditional teams into CPs thus creating a distortion.

    And I’m not convinced that there is a problem to solve here anyway. Your figures suggest that in NSW the decline in numbers has been a Covid driven issue rather than anything else. In my nearly 20 years on the ARA Executive, through to 2018, we saw the total rogaining participant numbers across Australia continuing to trend upwards. There wasn’t an increase every year but the trend line was upwards at a mean rate of a few percentage annually. I’m sure Covid has stopped that, but I would like to think that it is only temporarily.

    1. While, I agree, the participation rates in rogaining have been slowingly increasing, the participation rates in other adventure sports such as trail running and Tough Mudder have grown much faster and we have failed to keep pace with this market.

      I think our product is pretty good, the problem as I understand it, is our poor marketing of our sport.

  7. Maybe if GPS was the standard navigational tool when the rules of rogaining or orienteering were developed then I suggest it would have been included without a second thought.

    I think it would make little difference to good navigators, and for the plodders like me in fact may slow things up as we fiddle around squinting at screens second guessing ourselves.

    It may give newcomers who grow up with GPS more enthusiasm for the off track events, and may allow more crossover from the boom in trail running.

    We have already embraced technology that was never imagined back in the day in the form of lighting. We are a long way from a dolphin torch and a full moon. For better or worse.

    As for numbers I agree with Andrew. Spending the day scrub bashing competitively is just not an activity that appeals to most. Trail runners want to run, bushwalkers want to slow down and take photos and eat camembert and discuss the problems if the world. …Rogainers are an unusual category.

  8. A couple of points on participation, which everyone will intuitively know:
    – Simple linear regression on the Paddy Pallin 2011-2019: participation drops by 0.88 people for every 1km away from Sydney. Yes, I looked up the historic results/venues and calculated the distance on Google maps.
    – Simple linear regression on event duration: participation drops by 0.93 people for every 1 hour of duration.

    The best attended events (Paddy Pallin & Metrogaine) are close to Sydney (5m population) and a 6 hour event (city people are soft? That’s a light hearted joke). The lowest attended events are the Champs & Autumngaine, typically far from Sydney, 12 / 24 hour duration and a tough challenge – the travel time, a whole dedicated w/e, the exercise duration, the scratches – that just attracts less people.

    If participation is a problem, the sport can always recruit through 6-hour street running competitions in Sydney (sorry NSW, I know that’s so capital city centric). But, I appreciate that’s not the type of rogaining that anyone reading this page is interested in. The challenge is then converting the 6-hour street runners into bush rogainers, and more importantly recruiting people who are willing to volunteer countless hours to mapping and setting.

    1. CORRECTION – participation drops by 9.3 people for every 1 hour of event duration. i.e. 56 less people for a 12-hour event than a 6-hour.

  9. Looking to draw a parallel from some other sports… fighting with a sword (fencing) and shooting bows and arrows (archery) – they are still sports even though their use was functionally obsolete along a time ago. Those sports continue because they have a passionate niche of participants… just like rogainers and orienteers. So, even though phones are used for navigating in everyday use, the obsolete compass can still have a purpose in the tech world, being used for fun.

    As for a sport of finding geo-locations with your GPS and phone… that sport already exists – geocaching. Although possibly the geocachers haven’t thought of hosting a 24 hour event yet, with a goal to collect as many geocaches as possible, but when they do, maybe they’ll call it GeoCache Roagine, or, Rogaining 2.0?

    The sport of Orienteering asks itself the same questions. The growth area seems to be sprint O, courses with a winning time of 12 mins, hosted in a complex urban jungle like a Uni or school. It does seem to appeal to a younger market, it’s more athletic, the whole thing only occupies 1-2 hours including travel time, often conveniently located in the city, and, maybe most importantly, it can grow the sport as it’s more suited to TV and spectators. That doesn’t quite work for Rogaining – sprint R is team orienteering.

    Rogaining like Orienteering will never be a mainstream sport, but as Chris rightly prompts – it is important to consider how to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing world, to find the right path for the sport to continue and flourish for those that enjoy it.

  10. I found this letter from the Goriane Gazette of 1888, from Rev Peter Annulor:

    “Witnessing, as is my annual habit, this year’s Goriane Gallop, and marvelling at the ever enthusiastic runners making their way from the mill to the station, a heretical and forlorn thought entered my mind: will running races go the way of the dinosaur?
    Now that so many youths make their way thither and yon on the safety bicycle, at speeds far in excess of what is possible by foot, we are seeing travel to neighbouring villages for social intercourse at unprecedented levels. It is impossible to imagine that, in the future, interest in mere running, without the use of the obvious and pervasive cycling technology, will persist.

    Who would be interested in watching or participating in a running race when one can propel oneself at twice the speed, still using merely one’s body? We have seen the 4 minutes and 30 seconds mark broached for the runners in the mile, but I fear humanity will never know a mark of 4 minutes 15 seconds, let alone anything lower: there will simply be no interest in attempting to achieve it.

    I assume cycling races will become the norm. But if yet further mechanical devices of yet-to-be-discovered type emerge (and who among us could rule that out?), cycle races, too, will have their day, and die in due course.”

    Yours mournfully, Rev P Annulor

    1. Ah – the Rev Peter Annulor is a distant relative on my mother’s side (my family migrated from England in the 60’s) and was very well respected within his parish for his down to earth practical wisdom, common sense and ironic wit.

      He helped many a young parishioner to plan their route through the difficult terrain of life – an instinctive ability that his whole family seemed to share – so much so that his mother – a divorced logophile – effectively named him after his calling….

      Like the bifurcation in the responses to this post, there will be those who solve this mystery by hard mental effort and simple manual tools, and those who may resort to technology – they may arrive at the same destination but with very different levels of satisfaction I suspect…..

  11. I suspect that La Nina has some effect on numbers. Wet washed-out trails across Sydney. It’s not been great conditions and I know this has discouraged me from entering a couple of events in the past year.

  12. If I can give a perspective of someone who has been around trail running for almost ten years (which is booming) but is relatively new to rogaining.
    The trail running scene has a lot more glitz and glamour – medals, inspirational posts on Facebook, international races at Mount Blanc with amazing live coverage, modern gps live tracking technology, expensive entry fees, plastic merchandise. Having stepped into the world of rogaining it does seem very old fashioned.
    Feel free to discuss if glitz and glamour is a good thing – I certainly don’t appreciate elements of it. But it undeinably does seem to attract the crowds.
    There are some things that rogaining can take from trail running. Their digital presence and emphasis on female participation could be replicated.

      1. I offer my perspective as a volunteer, community focussed trail running Race Director who organised 5 events in 2023 ranging from 30 to 1500 participants and also a rogainer.

        I agree fully with Mat Collins comments and add some more.

        The growth in trail running is driven, but not dependant on, commercial operators as this generally leads to greater investment in marketing and ‘glitz and glamour’ as Mat put it. Which in turn increases participation and attracts newbies. E.g. Ironman and the ‘By UTMB’ Events. It’s debatable whether this is ‘good’ for the sport but glitz and glamour undoubtedly increases participation.

        If rogaining and orienteering are to grow, they need to, partly, learn from trail running and invest in the glitz and glamour. And as Richard pointed out, also put more 6hr events near Sydney. I would suspect many groans from rogainers (myself included) to this. Which is why I think the following:

        – NSW Rogaining don’t seriously want to grow of rogaining to the masses like trail running is. They also aren’t under any pressure too really. If they did seriously want to grow the sport big time, and were under pressure like commercial trail running operators are, then there would be more glitz and glamour and marketing investment. Entry fees would go up to cover this.

        – I don’t think using GPS or another category would increase participation. It’s professional marketing and glitz and glamour that does. Word of mouth only goes so far. Instagram goes further.

        – The sport is more volunteer intensive than trail running and other sports which is why less focus on glitz and glamour as organisers don’t have time for it. These are the 1% things and the last thing an organiser wants to worry about doing.

        – is it really a good aim to have 500 or even 1000 people at a Metrogaine? That’s a high organisational risk and a lot of work if all organised by vollies

        This is interesting in my RD context because I don’t like glitz and glamour, yet know the trail running events I organise would actually grow more if invested financially in it. I have chosen to not have medals for Coffs running festival (>1000 people) and yet I fully well know I’m missing out on an extra 100 entries because that’s how many requests I get each year for them!

        My personal view for trail running is that you need both commerical and community centred operators and the balance is skewing commercial too much. So my view is that community events are more important now in trail running, hence the events I organise are all under 200 people, with the exception of the Coffs Running Festival (a charity focussed event).

        When considering this commercial/community balance in rogaining, to my understanding it is 100% community/association based organised by volunteers. So I think commercialism, or at least the glitz and glamour that comes from it, is needed if rogaining is to grow.

        Would this be a good thing for rogaining? Is it a good thing for trail running or is trail running losing something in the process?

        I think this comes back to the fundamental question of what do we want rogaining to look like in the future?

        The Strategic Plan by Rogaining NSW has the first objective to ‘increase participation’.

        I’m not convinced that this is a key objective for rogaining, but if so, then greater investment in glitz and glamour and encouraging commerical operators to put on rogaining events (i.e. like there are in adventure races I guess) would work.

        Thanks for bringing this topic up and hope my thoughts helped!

  13. Good piece, and good comments, so I will chip in from the perspective of a person who has loved rogaining since 2005 but mostly only gets to one (sometimes two) a year. To be honest, I really don’t think I know how to use a compass properly but can read a map well and look around me, don’t rush decisions, walk not run, and somehow manage to get a respectable score for my age and whatever division I’m competing in that day. I don’t do more because driving time is a big factor, and as we live in the bottom of the Sutherland Shire there are lots of rogaines that we don’t attend because of the horrible drive to get up north. (It’s not your fault – I get why there are more rogaines up there.) I’m a 6-hr gal, and my favourite events are the midday starts because it doesn’t mean setting off a 4am, and lastly I sometimes have trouble finding a partner. Have you considered a well-designed 12-mth professional publicity campaign, and a fundraising push (or grant-seeking?) to fund it? It’s not as effective as word-of-mouth (Joel introduced Gareth to rogaining, he introduced us, I’ve brought at least a dozen new people along, half of which have done a number of events and two have become course-setters) but it’s one way to reach far more people than we can through our networks. Maybe allowing sat-nav would help, but surely the bigger barrier is that people just don’t know about it? I’m always talking about rogaining and how much fun it is, and everytime I tell someone new, they’ve never heard of it before.

  14. There has been a trend in most sports to have shorter `bite-sized chunks’. In professional sports this tends to be driven by the media. But it can also be driven by competitors, as has happened in rogaining.

    For me, an essential skill of both rogaining and orienteering is to be able to perform a mental task, that is navigating, when the body is under physical stress. In rogaining there are also aspects of teamwork, which would be compromised if the task was merely to follow a GPS route. I don’t think anyone does this perfectly, even champion teams.

    So a `GPS event’ would be a different thing. Notwithstanding Richard’s comment that having such an event at the same time could distort the fairness of a `compass event’, it probably is a concept that will end up happening.

  15. I just wanted to say that I am 13 and have been rogaining for 5-6 years and think that it is not falling to irrelivancy but rather as stated adapting. I also wanted to add that you see many young children with their families participating, rogaining isn’t going out of date.

  16. On the topic of GPS’s – I think Rogaining should adopt GPS watches. The main reason being that inadvertant and unintended use of GPS watches is rempant and I don’t think it will make any difference to the top 20% of teams. The only real advantage of a GPS watch is giving you distance, you still need map and compas to move in the right direction. There are currently teams with stop watches that keep track of every leg and in doing so use time to estimate distance without breaking rules. When you are navigating well and moving fast, taking time to look at distance on a watch would only slow you down and probably cause you to trip over. It could be insightful to have a trial event formally allowing GPS watches and then analysing what the consequences are on competition. I have had team mates whom don’t own watches without GPS functionality and I then ask them to participate without a watch. I don’t think we should allow navigating by phone…
    On the topic of attendance. Rogaining has a confused goal – does the Rogaining Association exist to have events for it’s active members or is it an event organiser? Either way, trail running and mountain biking events are so much more available than 10 years ago. There is now much more competition offering both experiances and recreation for peoples time.

  17. Participation in rogaining was stable until COVID and La Nina.
    Let’s see what happens over the 2023 and 2024 before considering major changes such as GPS
    BTW, trail running and rogaining are like apples and oranges – not comparable.

  18. By way of background, I am an avid trail runner (for leisure, and I enter several commercial events each year), and I am also actively involved in Orienteering, especially the summer series (45-minute events in Sydney) and also as many State League (winter bushland events, taking an hour or two depending on ability, fitness and the luck of the day) that I can get to. But my rogaines are rare, I guess because I personally prefer running alone (and I am too lazy to find a suitable partner) and “running” in a rogaine for 6 hours is a long time.
    Some thoughts:
    – How necessary is to increase participation? Do rogainers really want people all around while trying to appreciate the serenity of the bush? Although presumably more participation means more income: I have not seen the finances so cannot comment on that.
    – If considering a GPS event, then possibly a separate GPS-specific event, using different controls to the main event (or on a different weekend), could be trialled? Extra organization, I know, but it removes the issue of compass users following a GPS user to the control. And, with experience, it may be found that certain features / challenges could be set in a GPS-course that are not appropriate for a compass course (but perhaps that is wishful thinking). Only a thought – it may be too difficult to organize a separate event.
    – I’m not sure that comparing with trail running is a good idea: part of the buzz of an organized trail run is the camaraderie of people all around you, and (for me) wondering if I can catch the person that I can see in front of me, or stop the person behind me from catching up. But in rogaining you can’t (usually) see the other teams around you: it is far more of a solo event within your team, so the motivation is different. Orienteering is probably a better model to use, I am of the understanding that Summer Series is a stand-out success for bringing people into the sport so maybe something could be learnt there? Perhaps more 3 hour rogaines (not so much of a commitment for a first-timer) to bring people in, and then get those people interested in the longer events?
    Only thoughts, I hope I have expressed them clearly. I am a bit of an outsider, as aside from the 3 hour events I have not done a rogaine for many years. But I orienteer, trail run and every now and then I do an overnight bushwalk, so maybe I am the type of person that you are trying to catch……

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.
      – We want to increase the participation rate mainly because it is a great sport and we want everyone to share the joy of rogaining. We are financially sound and we are planning events this year to slightly reduce our cash on hand. You can spend hours, on a long event, and not see another team. Most of our 6 hour and longer courses can easily accommodate >600 participants, so crowding has never been a problem in any event I have attended.
      – Having an event with GPS event on a following weekend would be good to trial.
      – I agree that we should offer more shorter rogaines. I think we should offer a 3hr or similar shorter option at every event. The purists believe that rogaining is at least 12 hours and should include night navigation work, but he small numbers who attend the long events tells you that there are few purists around. I think having the option of several 2-3 hour events each year is a perfect way to get cross overs from orienteering and trail running.

      I have always been a keen bushwalker and to me rogaining is really a competitive form of bushwalking that gets you into some places you wouldn’t ordinarily see bushwalking. Most people treat 24 hours rogaines as two long bushwalks separated by a short sleep. Few competitors actually do a 24 hour event without having a sleep.

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