North Andover, Mass. — It seemed an unlikely time for a romp through the woods. My ''blue bomber'' fought its way down the road through a machine-gun fire of rain and a wind that made occasional nasty suggestions as to which way the car should go.
I pulled into the parking lot. Several people were already there. During the next hour we would be tromping around the forest, map and compass in hand, trying to locate orange and white markers hidden in the soggy brush.
It was my introduction to orienteering - ''the thinking man's sport,'' according to the people who travel as far as several hundred miles each weekend just to find their way around the woods. Many hikers probably recall orien-teerers as the intense-looking people who crash out of the woods onto the trail only to smash their way back into the woods again.
By the way, since an orienteering meet takes considerable preparation beforehand by organizers, it's practically never canceled.
Although there are probably as many ways to orienteer as there are types of burs that like wool sweaters, the most common method - and the one organized by orienteering clubs across the country most weekends in the spring and fall - is cross-country orienteering.
Cross-country orienteering begins with registration. At tables located at the start of the course, names are taken, maps given out, and compasses rented to those who don't own one. As well, staggered departure times are assigned.
The challenge of the sport is finding the orange and white markers - or ''controls.'' For this, orienteerers use their map and the compass to calculate which direction they must go. To complete the course, they must punch in at the half dozen or so different controls in order, then cross the finish line. The shorter the time elapsed, the better one has done.
''It's hard to explain the hold orienteering has on people,'' remarks United States Orienteering Federation president Al Smith. ''For me, it's the sense of satisfaction. I enjoy the competition - not against other people - but I enjoy the challenge of trying to find these markers in the woods, and I enjoy the satisfaction I get when I get there.''
I spoke with Mr. Smith at a state park in North Andover, Mass. Several hundred orienteerers from across the US and Canada, and from Sweden, Britain, and other countries, had come there one weekend this fall for the first two days of the 1984 North American Orienteering Week. A jovial crowd of finishers was gathered nearby comparing results.
''Look at the socializing going on,'' comments Smith, who exudes a folksy enthusiasm about the sport. ''This is typical at an orienteering meet. Everyone's got a story or experience to share; how they made a big mistake or how they got there in an especially good way.''
Smith adds, ''It has a great educational value for young people. It teaches self-reliance and decisionmaking in a fun way. When a child goes out orienteering with his map and his compass he's on his own. ... He's got to figure it all out himself. And when he does right he gets an instant reward (of finding the marker).''
Smith predicts that ''orienteering is on the verge of a major growth.'' He estimates that there are 5,000 to 6,000 members of various clubs across the US - with perhaps 10,000 people having previously done the sport in the last year or so.
''Our chief problem is to make people aware of the sport. We feel that half our battle will be simply to tell people what it is and how much fun it is.''
In a cooperative effort with the Swedish Orienteering Federation, Smith hopes to double the number of clubs in the US to 100 in the next five years. The Swedes will be sending over experts to help them organize this membership drive.
Sweden is a good place to look for experts. It was here and in Norway that the sport first took root about the turn of the century. Today, orienteering is a required part of the curriculum in Swedish schools and is one of Scandinavia's most popular sports.
It wasn't, however, until the late 1960s that orienteering began to make inroads into the US.
Hans Bengtsson came to New England from Sweden 15 years ago - and brought with him his enthusiasm for orienteering. He's been president of the New England Orienteering Club since its founding in 1972 and is co-author of a respected book on the sport.
''What's interesting with orienteering,'' Mr. Bengtsson remarks, ''is that it's exercise for the mind as well as the body. Plain running you try to ... think about something else. In orienteering it's very much the other way around.''
For Bengtsson, one of the most attractive features of orienteering is that it can be a family sport. Because a variety of course difficulties are offered at most events, there's usually one appropriate for each member of a family. Families may also orienteer together as a group.
On simpler courses, controls are located at easy-to-find forest landmarks, such as large boulders or near the northern tip of a small pond. Usually there are paths that led near these points.
It's the harder courses for the more competitive orienteerers that require the accurate compass work, since the controls are often located farther away from each other, and in harder to find spots. Here's where perceptive map reading comes in - that is, figuring out from contour lines (lines indicating changes in elevation) and symbols representing, say, marsh or rocky areas, where one is.
This novice tried the advanced beginner yellow course too quickly (the white courses are the easiest) and spent a couple hours rambling vaguely around the forest. (I was never completely lost, since the compass could have led me to auto roads surrounding the woods.)
The moral is to not take on the advanced courses too quickly, since missing the markers can be discouraging.
Although I missed most of the orange and white markers, the woods welcomed me with burly oaks, yellowing a bit in the early fall; weather-beaten stone walls, built for farms long disappeared under the darkness of leaves; and the quietness of an occasional small pond. While competitors at the higher levels generally gallop through the woods from marker to marker to complete a course in the shortest time, others take a more leisurely pace to enjoy the scenery.
For equipment, some of the more competitive types may wear a special outfit. At the North American championships, for instance, the orienteering team from West Point wore impressive-looking black uniforms. Most orienteering, however, requires only sturdy running shoes and long, fairly loose pants for rougher terrain.
Because the sport, according to Hans Bengtsson, ''is defined as a navigation game in unknown terrain . . . you can apply that to just about anything. It can be done in urban areas, out in the woods, (and) in water using a canoe.''
It can also be done in snow, and this winter people in a number of clubs, including Bengtsson's, will be pulling off their running shoes and putting on cross-country skis.
For information about where the nearest clubs are in your area, write to the United States Orienteering Federation, Box 1039, Ballwin, Mo. 63011.