Orienteering: a Run (or Walk) in the Countryside - Explore! Orienteering: a Run (or Walk) in the Countryside - Explore!

Orienteering: a Run (or Walk) in the Countryside

First, let’s define orienteering. There are lots of orienteering definitions, but let me offer my own simplified version:

Orienteering is a walk or run that may be competitive and requires participants to read a map and use a compass to find and follow the quickest path from one established point to another in sequence, typically across unfamiliar terrain.

That’s a definition of foot orienteering,  the subject of this story, but there are is also auto orienteering, canoe orienteering, ski orienteering, equestrian orienteering, bicycle orienteering and others that would be defined similarly – except for the mode of transportation.

Before one gets to the actual participation in an orienteering event or meet, the organizers have a lot of work to do.  First they must identify an area that will accept the event and not be damaged by participants traveling every which way around it.  It’s best if the area has a variety of terrain and surface features (trails, waterways, rock outcrops and so on). Next, they must define the course.  Finally they must prepare a course map and other materials that are provided to the competitors.

Orienteering Course

An orienteer approaches a control point.

An orienteer approaches a control point.
“Tajfuto”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The course is a series of control points that each participant must reach, in order, to properly complete the event.  The points are typically not connected by a road or trail so participants must decide the route they will take to get from one point to the next using only a provided map.  The points are shown on the map and there are flags marking each point along the way.  The objective is to get through the course as quickly as possible while visiting each of the control points in order.  The fastest route is not usually the shortest route, so orienteers must carefully consider and plan their attack – quickly.

As the participant reaches each control point they must record their presence, typically by punching a supplied card they carry using a punch that has a specific shape associated with and attached to the point.  There are electronic devices that are sometimes used that record both the individual and the time they visited the point.

Orienteering Map


Example Orienteering Map

Vegetation: White is forest, yellow is open area, and green indicates reduced runability.
by Leinad – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5

Orienteering maps are specially designed for each course.  The example above displays only the terrain information typically included on the map. Maps are often at a scale of 1:10,000 (sometimes 1:15,000) meaning one centimeter on the map is 100 meters on the ground, so they are pretty detailed.  Colors indicate general vegetation and water (blue). Contour lines typically show 5 meter elevation changes.  Various other features are shown in black.  Map symbols are universally used because as a European sport, language cannot be a barrier.

Superimposed on the map are red circles and lines indicating the course and order in which control points are to be reached.  A map showing all of these features is displayed at the bottom of this page.

Control Description Sheet (Clue Sheet)

Control Description Card

Control Description Sheet
SVG by Maciej Jaros (commons: Nux, wiki-pl: Nux); Original by Leinad (File:Control description.svg) [CC0]

Control points are not normally hidden, like geocaches, yet a clue sheet is needed for participants to be sure they reached the correct point.  In the example shown here,  there is the starting point (shown with a triangle arrow) and ten control points.  When the participant arrives at control point 1, he will find that it is marked with the number 40.  Often a single orienteering event will offer courses of different difficulty levels that sometimes use the same control points, although in a different order.  Thus, while point ’40’ indicates a place on the ground, the point labeled ‘1’ is only on the map provided to participants of a particular skill level.

The card shown here is for competitors of class M16 (males of age 16).  The course is 4.1 km long with an elevation climb of 120 meters.  For the row numbered 1:

  • 1 is the control number, the first point the competitor is to reach, as shown on the map
  • 40 is the control code, a number attached to the control point in the field.

The next six columns (C through H) use internationally recognized symbols to describe the point.  For point one:

  • The arrow in column C indicates that among similar geographic features,   this one is the one on the southeast.
  • Column D indicates the type of feature, in this case a hill
  • Columns E and F would provide additional information about the feature noted in column D if needed.  In this case such information was not needed.
  • Column G specifies the location of the control flag on the hill.  In this case, on the top.
  • Column H is used if there is additional information needed.

The last row on the form tells the competitor to follow a marked route 180 meters from the last control point to the finish line.  The International Specification for Control Descriptions provides all the details for the symbols that may be used.

Control Card (paper or electronic)

Example Control CardWhile the Control Description Card helps insure that a competitor is at the correct point, a Control Card registers that they were actually at the point.  The example to the left shows 25 numbered boxes corresponding to the control points on the course.  When a paper punch is used,  the punched hole must be in the correct box.  The hole made by the punch is different for every control point on the course.

Electronic punching systems may be used instead of the traditional pin punch system.  In the U.S., two systems are approved for use, the Emit Electronic Punching and Timing System and The SportIdent system.  These systems include a memory stick or card (or ‘dibber’ in the UK) that includes information about the competitor and is carried along on the run.  In addition a station is located at each control point and stays there.  When the participant reaches a control point, they introduce their device to the station which registers information about the competitor and the time the competitor was at the point.

Orienteering Gear

Everyone needs a compass and appropriate clothing, but there are some other inexpensive pieces of gear that can be helpful.


  • Compass. Typically this is a simple baseplate compass like the Silva Explorer shown here.  There are special thumb compasses that more advanced orienteers use.  These are designed to be easily carried and quick to use without all the features of a general purpose compass.
  • Clothing.  Just wear clothing appropriate to the conditions you will be crossing during the event.  You will want good hiking shoes or boots and long pants (for protection from brush).  The rules in some countries require full body coverage.
  • Map Case. If it’s rainy,  you will want a clear plastic covering for your map.
  • Plastic Sleeve. Some competitors use a clear plastic sleeve that they attach to an arm to hold the control description sheet.
  • Map Board. Some orienteers use a map board that holds the map in front of them and leaves their hands free. This is much more important with other types of events like ski or bicycle orienteering where the hands are already full.

Finding an Event

Now that you know what orienteering is and you want to try it,  you need to find an event or at least an orienteering course.  Some communities have permanent orienteering courses set up.  These allow you to practice the sport without any competitive pressure.  Typically points are marked with a post or some other permanent feature and lack the flag and recording devices required of a competitive event.  Check with your local parks department to see if they have ever heard of such a thing.

OrienteeringUSA offers a calendar of events, both sanctioned and unofficial, around the world.  There are also orienteering clubs scatted across the U.S.  To find the one closest to you see www.us.orienteering.org/clubs.

Chances are there isn’t an event or club near you.  That gives you a great opportunity to start a club and begin by holding beginner events as you build community interest.  OrienteeringUSA offers some great advice about starting a local club and will even provide assistance.

Orienteering for Beginners Video

Further Reading:

Rules for Orienteering USA Sanctioned Events

International Specification for Control Descriptions

Orienteering Map

This is a full orienteering map showing terrain, human construction, vegetation and the course (in pink). In this case, the course begins and ends at the double circle (top center) and control points are numbered 1 through 15.  The multi-colored curved lines seem to show alternative routes participants took.  They would not be provided on a map given to competitors. Map image by oskar karlin from stockholm, sweden (sprint-herrar) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

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