This article by Don Braggins was originally published in Challenge magazine in September 1995.

And now for something completely different - Trail O

Imagine a version of an outdoor sport, adapted for those with physical (mobility) disabilities, in which there is no need for classification by the degree or type of disability, by age or by sex. Indeed, a sport so 'open to all' that provided able-bodied people observe one simple rule, they too can compete on equal terms with no advantage. Add to this the fact that the sport requires no permanent buildings or facilities, that the specialised equipment necessary to take part costs only a few pounds, and that it often takes participants into unexplored and beautiful countryside for several hours, and it sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? But it is true, and it's called Trail O.

So what is this sport - Trail O? It is a version of orienteering, a sport which conventionally combines fast running with precise navigation, typically through forests or over moorland.

How on earth can orienteering, a running sport, be adapted to allow people in wheelchairs to participate?

In conventional orienteering, competitors must interpret the specialised map (which they receive as they start) while running; they are timed while they visit a number of control points, shown on the map, in sequence. Each point is a distinguishable feature circled on the map - from a simple-to-find 'path crossing' to a 'point feature' such as a boulder in the middle of a relatively featureless patch of forest, a much more difficult kind of control. The winner is the one who completes the course in the shortest time having found all the markers on that course, proved by punching a control card with the needle punch hanging at each control. Only if each pattern of needle marks on the card is correct for each control site is the time valid. The key to success is a combination of map reading and interpretation skills plus fleetness of foot; the faster you run, the harder it is to think, of course!

Trail O completely eliminates the element of speed over the ground, but makes the map-interpretation element much harder. Depending on the level of difficulty, up to five control markers are hung at each site and only one will correspond exactly with the control description and control circle position. Indeed, (in the elite class only), one possible answer is 'None of the controls corresponds'. Sites are chosen so that they can be seen from a wheelchair-navigable path or area, but they may be quite a distance into the forest or non-navigable terrain. The only special equipment needed is a compass. An escort can give the competitor physical help - pushing a chair, holding and orienting map and compass, even marking the control card with the decision according to the competitor's instructions. However, it is an important rule that escorts must not help in the decision-making process; they can give as much physical help as may be necessary, but must not offer advice or opinions to the competitor. For serious competitions, escorts are 'swapped' so they do not know the competitor they are helping.

So who is the winner if time does not matter?

The primary ranking is on how many of the total number of control sites correctly identified. That is likely to leave several competitors with the same score, so there is a second element, based on time, to identify one or two controls, which acts as a tie breaker.

But you just said speed did not matter!

Time over the ground does not matter; but at a 'timed control' the competitor is handed a 'clean' map with just one control circle and one description on it. The time to make the decision is recorded, not the time taken to get from A to B. The shorter the decision time, the higher the ranking against competitors with an equal number of correct scores.

What's all this about classes and levels of difficulty? You said there was no classification by disability.

Different classes cater for different levels of experience - you can usually decide for yourself which one to enter. Degree of disability has nothing to do with the different classes.

Aren't the able bodied at an advantage because they can look all around a control site, unlike anyone in a wheelchair?

No, it is a rule that no-one must leave the path (Trail) to gain such an advantage. Provided the able-bodied (and the more adventurous wheelchair users) observe this rule, all compete equally. Obviously, all the control markers must be hung so that they can be seen by anyone in a seated position on the trail.

Surely very few forests have tracks good enough for a wheelchair?

On the contrary, you do not need smooth paths, and it can be much more fun for disabled participants if they do get 'off the beaten track' for a change. Even an 'out and back' single track, provided it has some good features visible from it, will do - though a loop is preferable. Extra 'pushers' can be stationed at steep sections; sometimes they use ropes and become 'pullers' instead!

Wouldn't people in wheelchairs like to race between control sites?

Only a small proportion of people in wheelchairs have full strength in their upper bodies permitting them to race, and yes, racing wheelchair O events do exist. However, the multi-choice form of Trail O described here has been developed as a means of allowing anyone - in an electric, self-propelled or pushed wheelchair, with a walking difficulty, on crutches, even on a bicycle (which some kinds of disability are best served by), or any able-bodied person, all to compete in the same event on the same terms.

What about people with mental disabilities?

Research continues on the best way of providing orienteering for those with mental disabilities; a 'string' course similar to those provided for young children at conventional O events may be suitable, and some will be able to cope with the Trail O 'C' courses which have just two markers at each control site.

And what about the visually impaired?

Much more work needs to be done in this sector, but one approach is to draw 'maps' on special paper which swells where marked, when it is baked. Many 'registered blind' people have some residual vision, and blown-up colour photocopies of maps may be readable.

How can I learn more about Trail O, or help to promote it?

In the first instance, contact the British Orienteering Federation. They can tell you of any events scheduled near you, though Trail O is still quite a new sport in the UK and more enthusiasts are needed to put on more events. The book 'Trail Orienteering', by Anne Braggins, is available from BOF office, describing not only how to participate but how to plan courses and develop the sport.

Up to Trail O home page

Challenge was a magazine covering sport and leisure for people with disabilities. It is now incorporated into 'Disability and Supportive Carer'

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