The basic concepts behind Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) course design, for the most part, are focused on providing multiple route choices, hosting events at venues with challenging and diverse terrain, and building in navigational complexity.

However, as you or your club begins to consider offering MTBO races, there are certain “gotchas” that should be considered when designing a course that is very different from the ones found in Foot Orienteering, and go beyond just the simple added challenge of having mountain bikes at your an event!

Fortunately, MTBO America has collected some of what we felt is the most encountered MTBO course designer problem. Hopefully, these seven (7) tips can help make the difference between success or disaster of your next MTBO event.

#1 – Event Culture
MTBO is not the same as Foot Orienteering.  You should think of mountain bike orienteering as mountain bike racing that hides the course, then challenges the rider to use orienteering to not only discover the course but make strategic choices that will prove to be the shortest and fastest path to the finish. It is a subtle yet important difference that will drastically impact your race turnout. The unmistakable popularity of mountain bike racing is the draw MTBO event organizers need to use to increase turnout. By going after the mountain bike market above and beyond the orienteering market, you expand your exposure to potential racers.

#2 – Venue Selection
Almost all State and National parks (that allow mountain biking) are great for Sprint and Middle Distance course designs. In the United States, a Sprint Distance course is about 3-6 miles, while a Middle Distance course is about 5-12 miles. Unfortunately, many parks near major cities are small and often do not have enough room to run a Long Distance course. This is why event designers should consider rural country road networks, utility companies with long high-powered cable runs, or even contacting farmers with orchards or cattle ranches since they usually have several hundred acres covered by tractor/truck trails. These locations would be ideal if you’re looking to design a Long Distance course that needs about 15-35 miles to be successful. Additionally, many adventure racing courses incorporate Middle and/or Long Distance course designs interwoven into their events that offer excellent “proven” locations to hold an MTBO only event. Just remember to always get a permit from County, State, or National park officials, and/or permission (in writing) from private property owners BEFORE finalizing the plans to your course design.

#3 – Trail Restrictions
Finding locations that are friendly to mountain bikes is key to any successful MTBO event. Unfortunately, many State and National parks in the United States have strict rules regarding what trails mountain bikes can ride on. Environmental laws and attitudes in several States make mountain bikes out to be as destructive as 4×4 vehicles, and yet allow horseback riding where mountain bikes are not allowed to go. Because of this, you have to police your own riders during any event and keep them from riding in restricted areas, on restricted trails, or even from bushwhacking. Ideally, you should create MTBO course designs that incorporate course choice features that make off-limits trails and bushwhacking routes unattractive whenever possible. Where those design options are not viable, you should place Course Marshals at potential trouble spots and be very draconian about rule violators. Off-trail riding in some parks can carry a heavy fine, and many will literary kick your club out FOREVER if your event is linked to violators. Many park property managers will require an action plan or assurances that your design and event management will prevent these violations from occurring.

#4 – Map Design
Since all checkpoints should be located on or just off a given trail, most of the more involved OCAD symbology, often needed in foot orienteering events, is not needed. Mountain bike orienteering uses a more abbreviated list of symbols. The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) currently produces specifications for international MTBO mapping requirements (circa 2007) that focused primarily on European-specific rules (Orienteering USA is expected to have an MTBO mapping specification in 2012). Most Sprint and Middle Distance courses can be designed to fit on 8.5 x 11-inch or 11 x 17-inch paper. These sizes are ideal from map boards and cases. Additionally, printing on one side of the map is always recommended over two-sided printing. Whatever you decide to do, always make sure that the maps are done at least a two-weeks prior to race day, and that the checkpoints placed into the course match the checkpoint locations on the final map. Neglecting either detail will hurt the timing and success of your MTBO event.

#5 – Map Boards
There are a few American orienteering vendors that sell map boards. Outdoor supply stores like REI and even other suppliers like have various map holders, cases, and boards for sale. Unfortunately, like other orienteering gear, they are imported from Europe and are not cheap. However, you can technically make your own with about $40 of supplies at a Home Depot or Lowes. You will find that MTBO riders are usually on their own for map boards as they are with providing their own mountain bikes or bringing their own helmets. Those riders who also adventure race will either have them already or use softer “map cases” that can be clipped to a hydration backpack. Your events might see everything from mapboard made with a clipboard, duct tape, and a freezer bag, to the latest in Italian mapboard designs. Regardless of what your riders use, you must direct them to be as careful as possible when reading the map while riding. This can be just as dangerous as texting and driving!

#6 – Course Control
Bib numbers are important in determining who is on and off the course. Some riders who have registered for your MTBO event checked in, paid, received a bib number, and synced their e-punch, may STILL not show up to the starting line. Mechanical failure prior to starting is a common reason, but if you do not control access on and off the course, you will never know if they started and be looking for a rider who discovered a broken wheel spoke and when home rather than tell you they were leaving. One of the best ways to control the race start is to not give out the map until the individual rider bellies up to the starting control and then stagger each start by 1 to 2 minutes to allow some distance between riders. If a rider never gets a map, they never get their bib number recorded as entering the course. An audit of the e-punch control could tell you the same information, but if you need to start looking for a rider in an emergency, a quick check of the start and finish list will tell you who is in, and who is still out on the course at-a-glance. Fortunately, mass starts are more designed for Relay and Long Distance courses, but can equally be controlled by having Heats or Groups of racers launched in 1- to 2-minute waves. Each time, you have the capability to record their bib number just before they leave the start, and then cross-check that bib number then they come into the finish. By adding your course marshals into this process of recording every bib number that comes by their choke-point, then ensuring you an almost near-real-time snapshot of where racers are on your course at any given time.

#7 – Happy Spectators
Like it or not, the demand for more spectator-friendly orienteering is already here. Technology has already changed traditional orienteering into a more competitive and interactive sport. This is why the more information you can provide spectators about when and where their rider is on the course, the better the perception of how well your event went might be. Spectators that feel engaged and informed about their particular rider tend to have a more positive experience. Positive experiences tend to be shared with their friends and family who in turn may want to come out and see what this “mountain bike orienteering thing” for themselves. The potential for an upswing in participation at consecutive events should not be wasted by neglecting your spectators waiting anxiously at the finish line.

Posted by Tommy Dauntless

Dauntless has been mountain bike racing, adventure racing, and orienteering for over 20+ years and has been building and directing mountain bike races for the better part of two decades. He was the first race director to design and direct MTBO races in the United States in 2010, and help launch the entire Orienteering USA effort to send athletes to the World MTBO Championships. His love for MTBO comes from competing in MTBO in Australia and wanted to bring the sport of MTBO to America.