Special terms, concepts, and gear

Orienteering maps

An orienteering map is a kind of topographic map made specially for detailed navigation. "Topographic" means that it shows the shape of the land -- hills, valleys, and so forth. It also shows many other features relevant to navigation, including streams, trails, fences, clearings, thick brush, and so on.

Although other types of orienteering maps exist, most orienteering maps are made to a common set of standards used around the world. Standard orienteering maps are printed in five colors, with each color used for a different class of features:
Man-made features, such as roads, trails, buildings, and fences, as well as rock features such as cliffs, boulders, and rocky ground

Topographic features, such as hills, valleys, ridges, earth banks, and ditches

Water features, such as lakes, ponds, swamps, and streams

Normal forest (this is different from government maps which may show fields with white and forest with green)

Clearings and fields

Thick brush and other vegetation, such as bushes or thorns
The symbols for features are generally fairly intuitive. For instance, light green shows light brush, and dark green shows dense, difficult-to-penetrate brush. Trails shown with a thick dashed line are bigger and wider than those shown with a thin dashed line. Nonetheless, it is worth spending a few minutes becoming familiar with the legend before you start. Take special note of the symbol for any feature particular to the area, such as large logs in the Sequoia forests.

Note that the north lines drawn on orienteering maps point to magnetic north, which is where compass needles point. Disregard anything you may have read about magnetic declinations, true north, or grid north ... we make it easy.


Orienteering compasses are different from most other types of compasses, such as boating, sighting, or military compasses. In a pinch, any type of compass in which you can see the needle can be used, but orienteering compasses have some advantages.

The most common type of orienteering compass is the baseplate variety. The compass needle sits in a housing in the center, which is set on a clear plastic baseplate. With this compass you can set bearings from where you are to where you are going, which is useful for finding places with few nearby features to guide you. Another type of orienteering compass is the thumb compass. Preferred by some for competition and by others for its simplicity, the thumb compass allows for quick reference since it is held on the map as you go. The thumb compass lets you orient the map with ease, but, depending on the type, may not let you set bearings. Learn more about bearings in a later section titled "orienteering skills".

Special terms

A small valley or draw running down a hillside (a "u" or "vee" shape point into a hill).

A small ridge or protrusion on a hillside (a "u" or "vee" shape pointing out of a hill).

A small hill.

A brown line on a map used to show points of equal elevation. Contours show topographic features and are usually taught to children after they have mastered map reading and basic navigational skills. Books listed in the resources provide good explanations of contours.

This is the point circled on the map which you are to find, which can be any type of feature. At orienteering events, the circled feature is always one that is depicted on the map. The orange and white nylon marker placed at the point is sometimes also called a control.

The orienteering course is the set of control points you seek. Courses are set for different difficulty levels so that there's something for everyone.

A leg is the portion of a course between two consecutive controls.

Linear feature
A trail, stream, fence, stone wall, or other feature that is basically linear, which can in some areas include the edge of a large clearing. Contrast this with point features, like boulders and cliffs, or area features, like small clearings.

Catching feature
A large feature which is not easy to miss in the direction you are heading. You might use a catching feature, such as a lake or large trail beyond the control, to "catch" you if you miss the control.