Orienteering at French Creek

Terrain & Mapping

by Eric Weyman


The following article is a revised reprint of a piece that originally appeared in the March/April 1992 issue of Orienteering North America. Eric, a member of DVOA, is a former US Champ.

During the past two decades, French Creek State Park in southeastern Pennsylvania has worked its way into the vocabulary of the American orienteer. The term "French Creek" now signifies the type of terrain and associated navigational technique characteristic of this state park.

"French Creek" orienteering is not limited to this park; the existing maps of Mont Alto (QOC/SVOC), Macedonia Brook (WCOC) and sections of many other areas have strong similarities. However, French Creek is the original (1982 US Champs) and now stands as a classic example of this type of orienteering.

So, what is it?

Part 1 - The Terrain

In the big picture, French Creek terrain is characterized by large, rounded hill masses. Typically, a map covers one or two of these hills. While the hillsides are large, they are not overly steep, and, as a result, courses are not excessively hilly, usually less than three percent climb.

On the ground, the terrain is characterized by the lack of obvious, recognizable features. The landscape is not sculpted by ice, like the hills of New England or the Hudson Valley, nor is it dissected by surface drainage into ridges and valleys, as in the Washington DC (QOC) area.

While there is a near absence of medium-sized features, there is an abundance of small and subtle features; some would say that there is an abundance of "non-existent" features as well. However, to orienteer well here, one must learn to recognize and even rely on many features that in other terrains are insignificant or unmapped.

On an inspection of the existing maps, it is apparent that the contours aren't detailed, but they aren't very smooth, either. The ripples are not the work of a nervous draftsman, but in fact accurately reflect the many subtle spurs and reentrants in the terrain. In addition, the spacing of the contours is also worth noting since they accurately depict changes in slope that are often more apparent in the terrain than on the map and are a very useful feature that most orienteers are not accustomed to using.

Typically, the first question of a French Creek novice is, "What are all those brown triangles?" The reply is that each one is a charcoal terrace, also known as a platform, kolbotten, charbonniere, kohlenmeiler or terasse in other corners of the earth. The puzzled expression of the newcomer usually continues. To clarify: charcoal terraces are circular, flat areas, approximately 10 to 12 meters in diameter, excavated on hillsides to provide a level area for the making of charcoal. In fact, scuffing the ground reveals the telltale carbon-black soil, noticeably different from the common red-brown soil of the area. Many of these terraces have small borrow pits nearby, sometimes mapped as a brown "u."

Like the contour features, the rock features are also small and subtle. There are almost no large cliffs or boulders, but there are many small boulders and areas of stony ground/boulder field, both large and small. In fact, much of the area is noticeably stony underfoot, although not necessarily mapped as anything. The stony ground when mapped is usually well defined. On some hillsides, the pieces of stony ground form a linear pattern with "flows" oriented perpendicular to the contours.

There is a light but continuous network of trails throughout the park. There are also many old logging trails, most of which have virtually disappeared except for places where they left ruts or eroded into the hillside. Faint traces of trails can be found connecting terrace to terrace, but they are usually too indistinct to be mapped; however, this bit of knowledge has helped more than a few orienteers.

The forest is almost exclusively hardwood with a few renegade evergreens that can be very noticeable after the leaves have fallen. Some sections are thick with saplings or mountain laurel. The predominant "white" forest is variable but in general presents above-average runnability and visibility for the middle Atlantic region.

Aside from a couple of small ponds, water features are primarily confined to low-lying valleys that can be very wet in contrast to the hillsides, which have almost no water features.

The Mapping


The high standards of modern-day orienteering mapping are critical for making French Creek terrain usable for fair, competitive orienteering. Thoroughness in content and precision in location are essential because the navigation takes place on delicate details. Without a reliable map, the orienteering becomes a frustrating game of chance with poor odds. (Granted, some people have already said that about their French Creek experience on a good map.)

DVOA was fortunate that the area was already covered by good aerial photography. As a result, the first basemaps, produced by Svein Bakken of Norway, were very good, highlighted by extremely accurate contours and the unrequested plotting of some charcoal terraces and fallen trees, which were helpful to the mappers.

The club was also fortunate in getting Steve Templeton to do the fieldwork for the first modern-day map of French Creek, prepared for the US Championships in 1982. Steve's decisions and standards regarding what and how to map have stood the test of time and, in hindsight, were remarkable, considering that neither he nor anyone else had any prior knowledge of this terrain.

Fieldwork at French Creek is especially critical because a very high percentage of the features don't appear on the basemap. Furthermore, the mapper cannot walk around and sketch in the missing and corrected features, which is possible in some terrains. Rather, almost everything must be located by systematically pacing and compassing from the known points on the basemap. Even with a good base, the work is tedious and is some of the most time consuming relative to the paucity of features that end up on the map (excluding areas with poor basemaps).

Why the Brown Triangle?

During this past winter (1999-2000), two visiting Russian mappers--Vladimir Zherdev and Alexey Zuev--asked, "Why use a brown triangle to represent a charcoal terrace?" That's a fair question, since the feature is not triangular but round, and other countries use black or brown circles to depict these same features.

There are several reasons, but the simplest is that Steve Templeton, who gets credit for "discovering" this feature at French Creek, chose to symbolize it with the brown triangle, and subsequent mappers have followed suit. Why did Steve use the brown triangle? Steve, being British, was almost certainly familiar with the British tradition of using the brown triangle for terraces.

There is a rationale to this tradition as well. The charcoal terrace is an earthern feature and, therefore, should be brown and not black. Certainly it is a man-made feature but not a man-name material. Many features of all types are man-made, but in orienteering mapping, the material generally dictates the choice of color, e.g. water features are blue, vegetation features green, etc.

The most intuitive symbol would probably have been a brown "O," but such a feature could easily be confused with a small-contour knoll.

Another rationale for the triangle relates to the perfect flatness of the terrace required for charcoal making. In order to establish a level plane, geometrically it's necessary to establish a minimum of three points of the same elevation in a triangular, not linear, relationship.

One more point: The IOF control description (number 6.8, 1990 edition) for the charcoal terrace is a triangle inside a circle.

It's always difficult to say who applied which rationale when, but these are the factors involved in answering the question posed by the Russians.

The Details

Black Features (rocks, cliffs, trails)

Most black features are mapped conventionally. Stone walls that occur infrequently tend to be low compared to Hudson Valley and New England stone walls. Cliffs are almost nonexistent, but it only takes about 1.0m in height for a cliff to make the map.

Stony ground is rather typical in appearance but is mapped in greater detail and more precisely than in most terrains. This is done in part because stony ground has more relative importance at French Creek but also because it usually occurs in more distinct, definable areas compared to other terrains. At the same time, much of the terrain is somewhat stony underfoot and only the areas of noticeably denser and larger rocks are shown on the map.

Some very distinct trails offer relatively rough running because of rocks and ruts. This happens particularly on steeper slopes where trails are more susceptible to erosion.

The minimum height of boulders is generally 0.8m, but this varies somewhat across the map, depending on local context. Some 0.5m boulders are mapped when there are no other surrounding rocks and good visibility. On the other hand, there are some very rocky areas where the standard is up to 1.2m.

Brown Features (contours)

Some small ditches are mapped that usually represent washed-out sections of old trails.

Knolls and dot knolls can be very low, and contour features in general are subtle.

Charcoal terraces are mapped as completely as possible. Of course, some are more distinct than others, but none were left off the map for being indistinct.

Rootstocks (the crown of roots of uprooted trees) are shown with a brown "x." The drawback to rootstocks is that they come and go over time. The decision was made to map rootstocks conservatively, even though some would call that a contradiction in terms. At any rate, the minimum standard is approximately 1.5m, with some smaller ones included if they were "iron hard" and would withstand weathering.

Another small detail, unique to French Creek, is the "circle ditch" discovered during the mapping of the area. This feature, represented by a small circle of five dots, is a slightly elevated flat mound, surrounded by a small furrow, approximately 5m in diameter, that is theorized to have been made to anchor the logs of the hut of the charcoal tender. In reality, they are very difficult to spot and, arguably, more valuable as a conversation piece than for navigation.

Green Features (vegetation thickness)

These thick areas can be divided into two categories of vegetation. Most of the thickets on FC East are primarily saplings with some vines and thorns sprinkled in. The edges of these areas are difficult to define and will change marginally over time. On the other hand, mountain laurel vegetation is more obvious, clearly defined and does not change significantly over time.

Individual evergreens are shown on the map with a green "x". Contrary to most French Creek features, these are often more obvious in the terrain than on the map, particularly after the leaves fall off the hardwoods.

Blue Features (water, marshes)

Except for some marshy valleys and scattered small ponds, there are not many water features. As in most places, water features are often dry. It is worth noting that mapped streams always have a noticeable watercourse, and ponds and marshes are mapped not by the presence of water but by associated vegetation or lack thereof, in the case of ponds.

Other Thoughts

French Creek terrain provides typical beginner's level orienteering, utilizing the trail network, a couple streams and the nearby point features. However, once the orienteer leaves the security of the linear features, the difficulty switches almost immediately to the advanced level. So what does the Orange (intermediate) level orienteer have to look at?

Probably the most usable feature is the stony ground, which often occurs in large, distinct pieces and functions as an area feature comparable to fields and marshes in other terrains. Even when the stony ground is complex in its outline, it can still be generalized into a usable area feature. To a lesser extent, areas of green (thick vegetation) can be generalized in the same way.

In addition, there are some intermediate-sized contour features that might not be obvious on the map but are recognizable in the terrain. One example is a multi-contour hillside that is noticeably steeper than the slopes above and below. Usually accompanying these steeper pitches is a "shoulder" at the top edge of the slope where it levels off and a "bench" on the lower side of the slope where it levels off before dropping off further below. For all of these features, it is important to pay attention to the spacing of the contours, which is a skill most orienteers rarely apply.

There are more common intermediate-level contour features such as ridges, valleys and hilltops that are mostly large, broad and can be counted on two hands to cover the whole map. Nevertheless, they can't be ignored because there really aren't many other intermediate-sized features.

More to Come

Many first timers to French Creek comment that there are many details on the map but nothing to see in the terrain. It usually takes a return trip or two to realize that not only are the details all there, but they are precisely mapped, and, once the orienteer makes some adjustments, navigation is in fact possible.

Part 2 - Navigation

This article, reprinted from the May 1992 issue of Orienteering North America, addressing orienteering at French Creek is still relevant to most DVOAers since this terrain continues to be the centerpiece of DOVA meets and training. It is our home turf, our largest and most accessible nice forest and our primary classroom for advanced orienteering.

However, the relevance of this article is not limited to French Creek. The basic principles discussed here certainly apply, in varying degrees, to all terrains. While French Creek terrain is unique, and extreme in some respects, it is a great place to learn orienteering because it clearly requires, and hopefully teaches, strong fundamentals and discipline.

There are some skills and circumstances not addressed at French Creek. Most notable is the absence of complex map reading terrain, especially detailed contour map reading. Still, French Creek is a fine home terrain from which to move on and up. Results seem to indicate that DVOA/French Creek orienteers adapt better to other terrains than do outsiders coming to French Creek.

Intermediate Level Advice

Much of the discussion here focuses on advanced-level orienteering, but a few concepts are especially relevant for Orange and Yellow course orienteers (intermediate and beginner levels). Of course, advanced-level competitors should be able to apply these suggestions as well.

Map Generalization

Being able to generalize the map picture is an extremely useful skill to apply to areas of rock detail and, to a lesser degree, to vegetation and wet areas.

Rough Compass

The intermediate courses frequently require crossing through sections of terrain that only have advanced-level point features on the map. Therefore, accurate use of rough-compass technique is important to get to the linear or area collecting feature on the other side.

Aiming Off

"Aiming off" is the compass technique of intentionally going to one side of the direct line in order to hit a collecting feature on the intended side, then proceeding along that feature in order to find the control or an attack point before moving on. This is used in situations where the likelihood of finding the objective by direct bearing is low and not worth the risk of missing it. At French Creek this applies almost everywhere, since there are few obvious supporting features.

Contour Reading

Though few intermediate-level contour features-such as valleys, ridges and hills-exist, the ones that are there are rather easy to recognize and must be utilized. While noting these shapes, you should also be aware of the direction of your travel relative to the contours, whether it is directly uphill or downhill, or at an angle to the slope of the hill, or directly along the slope, contouring along the hillside. Paying attention to the direction you want to travel relative to the slope, especially when used with rough compass, can be an effective combination.

Attack Points

Of course, attack points are important on all levels of courses, but for intermediate-level competitors the application is simpler. Almost every reasonable Yellow and Orange level attack point will be right along a linear feature, usually a trail, but sometimes a stream or clearing. My advice can be boiled down to one rule: don't leave a linear feature without first finding a sure attack point. One warning: often very similar features lie along the linear feature, such as bends, junctions, rocks, terraces, rootstocks, etc., so it is usually worth taking some extra time to check multiple confirming features before staking your attack. When carefully designed, French Creek Yellow and Orange courses aren't necessarily difficult. In fact, there are probably more than the usual number of easy legs if the course setter properly errs on the conservative side when there aren't appropriately difficult features. Usually the "O" problem is very straightforward: rough compass through the featureless hillside to the next linear feature, find a known point and repeat. This pattern and the other intermediate-level concepts certainly underlie the advanced-level orienteering as well, with a few more complexities thrown in.

Route Choice

French Creek can present route-choice problems. Legs here often involve the classic, "straight through the forest" vs. "around on the trail" decision. The contour [around] vs. climb situation appears less frequently because the gradual slopes present few climbs worth avoiding.

The more frequent dilemma is the navigation-oriented route choice. Most respected orienteers advise that you base your route-choice decisions on ease of navigation, especially the risk involved in the final approach to the control. In no other terrain is this idea more important. Often at French Creek supporting features dictate only one or two reasonable approaches. It is a common practice to run wide off the straight line for the sole purpose of finding a handrail or a series of features that can be relied upon. Such a technical route choice accepts a known small time loss because of the longer route, over the possiblity of a large time loss due to error with a straight-line route. It is one which many orienteers have never considered or applied but is critical to successful orienteering at French Creek.

Map Reading

Map reading is important, as in other terrains, but at French Creek both the rough and precise map reading require a different approach. For example, stony ground-which usually occurs in distinct, well-defined, very large as well as small patches-is a significant feature and is useful for both techniques.

There are few multi-contour knolls, reentrants and spurs; therefore, rough contour reading deals more with multi-contour trends in slopes, both vertical changes in steepness and horizontal changes in hillside orientation. Noting one's relative position on a particular slope is very useful. Noting the direction of travel relative to the contours or fall line of a hillside is another rough-map-reading observation to have in the arsenal.

When doing fine map reading at French Creek, you must adjust your thinking and look for subtler features, for instance, contour ripples. You must expect to use every point feature available. This attention to detail could aptly be termed "micro orienteering." However, you won't be overwhelmed by detail, since there are seldom more than a few features visible at one time.

As always, it helps to know what features are the most reliable and easiest to recognize. The following comments should help in "weighing" features:

  • The charcoal terraces previously described are one of the most consistently usable features on these hillsides, but one must first learn to recognize their appearance from all angles.
  • Stony ground, even in small pieces, is also a relatively strong feature and might be more usable for those inexperienced in this terrain.
  • The same applies to boulders, despite their relatively small size.
  • Thickets can be used for navigation, but their usefulness depends on the type of vegetation, which is difficult to foresee.
  • Rootstocks are probably the least reliable common features because they deteriorate over time and new ones constantly are created.


As in all orienteering, you must keep the eyeballs open and the head rotating on the neck to go along with your map reading. This means not only learning to recognize charcoal terraces but also noticing everything possible to the front, side and, yes, even behind the direction of travel. French Creek visibility is usually good, and it pays to take advantage of this large area of observation. Expanding the line of travel to a corridor of travel increases the number of details you can hold onto. Some observation tips:

  • Reentrants and spurs are more apparent when viewed from the side rather than looking directly up or downhill.
  • Charcoal terraces are more obvious on steeper hillsides than on flatter areas. More excavation was required to form a level area on a slope, which results in a more obvious cut and larger fill (lip).
  • Charcoal terraces often have a different vegetation from the surrounding forest, although the change is not consistent. Sometimes they will have more sapling growth, sometimes a different ground cover, and sometimes they will look more like clearings because of the way the light hits them.
  • Look for the controls. DVOA uses the standard clean, bright orange and white control markers (unlike some clubs), which are quite visible unless you have color blindness. For those people and others, we make a point not to bury the flags nor hang them on the back side of thick tree trunks (also unlike some clubs). Even if the marker is hung at ground level (which we don't advocate), it can usually be seen from long distances. Even though we try to let the control feature shield the flag on advanced courses, very few features are large enough to conceal a fairly hung marker. It is quite common to see the marker before the feature. So, keep your eyes peeled for the orange and white.

Attack Points

Attacking controls carefully has been mentioned but is worth expanding on. The final approach is the most critical part of a leg, where the most time is lost. This is doubly true at French Creek.

Forget about wandering in and hoping to find something on the map. Expect that every control will demand a disciplined attack. You should start by selecting an attack point, not an attack area. You should decide this at the previous control, not during the middle of the leg.

Once you find the attack point, a good idea, even for elite runners, is to come to a complete stop, take a full look at the map, note every (not selected) detail, establish compass bearing and pace count, then proceed into the control with every technique "on." Certainly it's possible to find some flags by using only one or two techniques, but it makes for a very low "batting average" in a terrain where each "out" results in two to ten times the normal time penalty.

Bailing Out

Unfortunately, sometimes even doing all of the above does not produce the flag. Then what? Panic? Maybe. But a more disciplined procedure is needed: What is your memory of the approach from the last known point? Perhaps you went right, left, high, low, long or short? If you think one of these is likely, then continue the search in the likely location. Are you sure about the original attack point? Maybe you need to circle a little more.

But sooner or later it's time to bail out, and it is usually sooner than most people practice. Bail out quickly and bail out wisely. Pick the nearest, strongest feature available. If there is any doubt about the original attack point, find something different.

The Compass

Both protractor and thumb compasses have been used successfully at French Creek. The bottom line on either compass is that the user must line up the needle with another line. Whether that line is the north line on the map or the hairline inside the housing doesn't seem to matter. The key to choosing a compass is picking one that provides confidence, and is the easiest to look at and hold still. It also helps to find a compass that reminds the user to sight into the terrain ahead and to repeat the whole procedure frequently. Accurate bearings have little to do with the compass but everything to do with the user.

"Absolute" Orienteering

Another skill that has special application to French Creek is knowing and keeping track of one's position in absolute terms in the absence of a frame of reference of recognizable features. In other words, when traversing a featureless or clueless hillside, it is important to pay attention to the direction of travel relative to compass direction, climb vs. descent, distance (pace count) and angle to the contours. This means keeping track of your movement on a blank sheet of paper or on the X, Y and Z axes, if you will, so that when it comes time to get back on the map you have a good localized idea of where they are. This can avert a gross position displacement brought on by observing parallel or similar features. There will always be a charcoal terrace, with a small depression, a little rock detail, a borderline rootstock or a subtle reentrant nearby.

Island Hopping

John Overton-formerly of IUPOC and DVOA, now with LAOC-coined the term "island hopping" to describe the style of map reading from one small feature to the next. This emphasizes the importance of selecting a route that utilizes the available features and using every detail on the way into the control. "Island hopping" can be considered synonymous with "charcoal-terrace hopping" at French Creek.


Obviously, the best way to learn about French Creek is to train here on the existing maps. Attending some of DVOA's local events is fine, but for a newcomer I recommend taking in French Creek at a leisurely walk for many hours before trying to do anything at speed. Learn how the features appear in the woods, especially the charcoal terraces. Observe what is mapped.

Note the contours and how those shaky ripples can be observed. Check out the stony ground, and notice how the boulders can be seen or not seen from different angles and in different vegetation. Proceed detail by detail, and you will probably find that you can navigate by these little features if you are careful. Then gradually learn to do this at a jog with the appropriate stops. Then develop your route choice and attack system. These basic skills will take you a long way.

Of course, many people can't easily get to this area. Still the basics can be practiced other places. The essential routine (attack point - stop - map read - pace count - compass - and eyes open) can be trained on any map or even without a map, for that matter. My technical training for the '82 U.S. Champs at French Creek was done on selected sections on Allamuchy and Silver Mine (both HVO), which are prime examples of northeastern glaciated terrain and unlike French Creek in most respects. It was the exercises, not the terrain, that proved to be very relevant for French Creek.

Closing Thoughts

French Creek presents an extreme type of orienteering. It is technically difficult and demands a disciplined system of navigation, incorporating many skills simultaneously. It takes a keen awareness of risks and percentages to do well.

Let me comfort you by pointing out that the French Creek system is not complicated, especially if you adopt the conservative approach, which I highly recommend; then you won't have to agonize over the risk. The only option is the safe or simple option, and the required steps are usually obvious.

The skills used at French Creek are the 3 R's (reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic) of orienteering, not always the most interesting, but they provide a very sound basis for other styles of orienteering. In comparison, most other terrains provide an easier, less rigid style of orienteering that allows, even encourages, the cutting of corners.

Most advanced courses, regardless of terrain, have one or two controls that must be approached in the French Creek style, to be sure of finding the flag with an appropriate degree of certainty. Any section of terrain with few features or difficult to recognize features should kick-in this mode, even though the appearance of the forest and map may have nothing in common with French Creek.

A good illustration of this point for me came with the 1985 Australian World Championships. The classic terrain was perhaps unique to Australia. In most of the area, the good visibility and obvious features made for a very routine style of map reading and rough compass. That is, up until a couple of controls from the end. Here the contours became subtler, the features became smaller and further apart, and the visibility dimmed slightly. Some serious adjustments were required, to a style very reminiscent of French Creek. Some competitors adjusted, some didn't, and some probably got lucky. Whatever the case, split times indicated that in many cases, medals were won and lost here.

Many experienced orienteers from around the world-yes, even Scandinavians-have floundered on their first visit to French Creek. However, once an orienteer makes the proper adjustments, he or she can attain clean runs and surprisingly fast per/km times.

Helping Eric with contributions to this article and editing were Mark and Mary Frank, Bob Putnam and Ed Scott.