What is Orienteering?

The basics

By definition orienteering is a sport involving a map and a compass, but that's not really very helpful for someone new to the sport.

The map is a very detailed map of a section of woods or parkland. Streams, trails, hills, depressions, rocks, etc. are all mapped in great detail and very accurately located.

The goal of orienteering is to complete a course in point-to-point order. Starts are staggered and the person successfully completing the course in the least amount of time is the winner.

A typical orienteering event offers five, six, or seven different courses of varying difficulty. The courses are named using colors:

  • White, beginners (2-3km)
  • Yellow, advanced beginners (2-3.5km)
  • Orange, Intermediate (3-5km)
  • Brown, short advanced (3-4km)
  • Green, longer advanced (4-5km)
  • Red, even longer advanced (5-7km)
  • Blue, really long advanced (8-12km)

Controls are often shared by more than one course. You might see someone at your control and be tempted to follow them, but they could be on a different course!

Although we talked above about the fastest person winning, many people enjoy orienteering for the challenge it offers and are totally uninterested in their time. Likewise, many families go as a group on one of the easier courses.

Some Details

OK, so what does a map look like? Here's a sample map from an event held on the Stuckey Pond map a few years ago:

Sample Orienteering Map

First, notice the colors:

  • White background indicates open woods. You can walk/run through open woods easily.
  • Green background indicates underbrush. The darker the green the harder it will be to get through.
  • Orange background indicates open fields. The darker the orange the easier it will to walk/run through
  • Light brown or tan indicates paved areas.

Next, let's look at some of the features:

  • Dashed black lines are trails.
  • Blue lines are streams. Generally blue indicates water
  • Black dots indicate rocks
  • Brown lines are contour intervals (topographic lines)

What about the course? Courses are generally drawn in purple although sometimes red is used. Purple is preferred because it is more visible to those with color blindness. The course symbols are:

  • Triangle - indicates the start. This is where you will be when you turn the map over at the start
  • Circles - indicates a control point. There will be numbers beside the circle indicating the order of controls to visit
  • Two concentric circles - indicates the finish.
  • Straight lines are used to connect the controls. They are used to show the general course. You do not have to follow the lines. You are free to take any route from one control to the next, but you do have to visit the controls in order.

Click here for a copy of the International Specifications for Control Descriptions.

Now What?

At the start you will be given a map and assigned a start time. Do not look at the map until your time is called. When your time is announced do the following steps:

  • Turn the map over
  • Look for the start triangle
  • Orient your map to your direction of travel
  • Figure out how you're going to get from the start triangle to control #1
  • GO!!!!

Stucky Pond mapGo? Go where? To the left is a small section of the map shown above. we'll use the first leg of the course as an example. The first thing to do is look for the start triangle. It's the purple triangle on a trail junction. The obvious route choice is to take the trail heading NorthEast. You could stay on the trail until you reach the junction where two trails come in from the sides. From this point you could follow the trail going towards the Northeast for just a little ways until you get around the Green area. From there you could take a compass bearing and follow that to the control. Or when you get to the trail junction you could continue on until the dogleg to the right. From where the trail bends to the right you could take a compass bearing and head down the hill then up to the control. Or from the start you could follow the main Northeast trail to where the trail first bends to the right. From that point you could then follow the terrain features into the control. As you can see there are many choices. If you talk to orienteers they will give you different (and maybe better) suggestions based on their experience level.

Once you find the control either punch the pink card, or if using electronic punching, insert the finger paddle into the control box. Then repeat the above steps to find control #2, #3, etc.

Next Steps

The above is only the barest outline. The real fun and challenge of orienteering is in the route choice. Do I take the long way around on a trail or do I cut straight through the woods directly to the control? Do I go up and over that huge hill or go around it? Through the stream or take the long way around that crosses a bridge? The choices are endless and provide for hours and hours of conversation fodder.

In addition to the above description of orienteering there's also Score-O where the goal is to get as many controls as possible within a set time. Usually the controls have different point values so the choice involves going for fewer more difficult controls that have higher point totals or try to get many more of the easeer controls that have fewer point values.

Then there's Sprint-O, Trail-O, Bike-O, Ski-O, Canoe-O, Night-O, but we'll save those for another time...

How Do I Learn and Improve?

The best way, of course, is to get out and do it. There are many sites on the web with far better instructions than what is offered on this page. Just Google for "orienteering". In addition, check the training pages on DVOA's site. Another great way to learn is view and analyze other orienteer's route choices. Check RouteGadget. Many orienteers have entered their route choices. It's a great way to compare your choice to others and also learn from the really good orienteers.


Orienteering - do it!