You’ve no doubt heard of the pastime of orienteering, in which you dress up in your finest hiking regalia, navigate miles of hairpin-turn mountain roads to an appointed trailhead, hit the trail with maps designed to get you lost, and dash through the bush to get it over with ASAP.

This is the Bearded Spock Parallel Universe of Hiking, where up is down, left is right, and “Do Not Enter” signs mean “it’s fine to head this way to Checkpoint 3, and besides, what kind of moron doesn’t know the sign is for cars, not orienteers?”

Not that I’m complaining. If my wrong turn hadn’t taken me half way to Albuquerque, I’d have been sitting there on the picnic table at Joseph D. Grant County Park with nothing to do after about 57 minutes, violating my “hike must last longer than drive to get there” rule.

My only gripe is that to my mind, the next best thing to the towering exultation of victory is the perverse pleasure of coming in dead last (to my enduring chagrin, my hometown always came in 297th in those “top 300 places to live in the United States”; I always wanted to be from the worst town in America). Bad as I was, somebody robbed me of the honor of being worst. Alas.

So this is what happened: Sunday capped the Bay Area Orienteering Club’s three-day O in the Oaks competition, which pitted some of the best orienteers in the West against the relentless hillsides of Grant Ranch. All rookie whining aside, finishing an orienteering competition courses is a major achievement — the organizers give you a map with contour lines and a few landmarks, and you have to head out into those hills with a full head of steam and hope to finish without inducing a myocardial infarction. The top competitors are runners, not hikers, with a superior knack for scanning maps, reading terrain and avoiding wrong turns.

BAOC is friendly, helpful outfit that also offers “recreational” orienteering courses better suited to people who have come to rely on these things called trails to keep them from perishing in the wilderness. Steve Sergeant of Wildebeat fame invited me to come along this weekend’s outing … I thought about inviting some Two-Heel Drive regulars along, but I wanted to see what it was like first — and figured it’d be better for my credibility if my most avid readers didn’t have to organize the search-and-rescue operation to get me back to civilization.

So this is what it’s like: busloads of guys and gals with 3 percent body fat are ferried up the road to the overland equivalent of a double-black-diamond moguls route (some require a mile of hiking just to get started), while beginners and Boy Scouts take the bunny-slope versions near the event HQ. Advance registration is mandatory for the hard-core routes, but mere mortals (and the directionally challenged) can show up on the day of the event and sign up for a recreational course. Sunday’s outing cost $6 to enter and $3 to rent an electronic memory-chip doodad that records the route.

Beginners can take a quick how-to course and choose from the easiest course — which is all on trails — and the next-easiest, which requires a bit of bushwhacking. First timers who’ve done lots of hiking should do fine on the next-easiest.

Let’s do the pictures:

Sample maps

BAOC leads events all over the region. Here’s a sampling of event maps.

Today's times

Competitors’ times are listed on these printouts.

The starting point

Here’s the starting point.

The sign-up sheet

The sign-up sheet.

High-tech operation

After you register, you head over here to get your name and entry number into the computer system.

What the map looks like

Here’s my map. A compass is not mandatory, and going without one can get you on your way to that coveted last-place finish. This route is less than two miles, so the checkpoints are actually much closer together than you might imagine if you used the maps provided by the parks department. Most of my stops were no more than five minutes apart — but my wrong turn was like 50 minutes between stops. Object lesson: if you see no checkpoints within about 10 minutes, you’re almost certainly going the wrong way. I followed my usual bull-headed determination to get to a point where I knew exactly where I was and got back on course from there. Slow, but not slow enough. I’ll know better next time.

A checkpoint

A sample checkpoint. You stick your memory-chip doo-dad into this thing; it beeps and records your time and location. You must do all the checkpoints in order to avoid disqualification. The rookie-orientation course will fill you in on how it all works. If this were on a college campus there’d be a requirement to toss back a shot of tequila at each stop, and the most ardent collegiate orienteers would play to lose (not that I’m recommending this, mind you).

Young guys hot-footing it

I suspect these guys were from a Boy Scout troop — trotting to juice their finish times.

Here's the finish line

Here’s the finish line. They were about two minutes from sending out a search party for me.

Steve Sergeant, Jean Higham

Steve and Jean, the WildeBeat team.

Leaping on leaves

A time-honored autumn tradition: kids leaping into piles of fallen leaves.

Competitors check their scores

Competitors check their scores.

Competitors return

Hardy orienteers return from one of the “orange” competition courses to record their times. The guy in the blue jacket was walking with a cane. People of all ages ran the courses.

Checking our scores

Giving our scores one last check. Steve was in ninth place at this point. Jean came in just ahead of me — she had a much better excuse for her time: a bobcat sighting that required a 10-minute break to admire its antics.

A few more first impressions about orienteering:

  • It could make you a better hiker. It obliges you to learn how to decipher contour lines, map legends and other cartographic oddities.
  • Trail runners should give it a try. Plain ol’ hikers have no chance against the top competitors, but I’d imagine any veteran trail runner could be very competitive.
  • If you don’t get lost, you need a bigger challenge. Once I figured out my wrong turn and got back on course, the rest was laughably easy, and over way too soon.
  • If you’re not competitive by nature, stick to hiking. Orienteering is a race, the point of which is to either a) win outright; b) finish higher than you did last time; or c) best somebody you find really annoying. Not playing to win is sort of like going to the horse races and not betting.