Orienteering 1-2-3

"O" is for orienteering, the fun "thinking sport" of land navigation. Read your map, plan your route strategy and walk, jog, or run at your own pace on your chosen route.

An orienteering course consists of a start, a series of controls to be visited, usually in a specified order, and a finish — all marked on a highly detailed map. As recreation or education, the question is... Can you complete the course? As competitive sport the question is... How fast can you complete the course?

WEAR outdoor clothes suitable for your pace and likely weather
BRING a compass (if you have one) and a whistle (for emergency)


At Registration you will sign a waiver, sometimes pay a fee, and be given:

  • Control description sheet: What you will seek at each control location
  • Control card/finger stick: To prove you found the controls (see NOTE below)
  • Map: If pre-printed maps are available, your course is already on it. If not, you'll need to go to the table with Master Maps to copy your course onto your map. Neatness counts!

NOTE: Traditional control cards are made of cardboard or Tyvek and contain numbered boxes. At each control location you will find a flag with a pin-punch hanging at it with which you mark your control card to prove you found the control.

In the past 10 years, more and more U.S. clubs have purchased and are using electronic timing systems. With this system you carry a finger stick containing an electronic chip and insert the stick into the recording device at the control to show you were there. At the end of your course you can receive a printout of the course time including the time taken to find each control. Our FAQ section describes how the system works.


If you've never orienteered before, please ask for basic instruction on how the "game" works and how to orient your map. Once you think you're ready, be sure to register with the starter so the club knows who's on the course.

  • Take your map, control descriptions and control card to the start to clock in. On your map, the start is shown by a triangle.
  • When the Starter tells you to GO, you can choose your route to Control #1 and move away from the Start.
  • When you find Control #1, check the flag's code and if it matches the one on your control description sheet, use the special punch hanging with the control flag to mark your Control Card in box #1 (or dip your electronic finger stick in the hole of the recording device until you hear a beep and/or see a light flash). Then proceed to Control #2, then #3 and so on, in order.
  • After your last control, go to the finish which is marked on your map with a double circle.

You must go to the finish and clock out whether you complete your course or not!

The beauty of orienteering is that you participate at your own pace and think it all out for yourself. All the satisfaction, successes, and mistakes are yours alone. Orienteering is a balance of physical and mental challenge. An orienteering race is an exhilarating mind-and-body workout!


CONTROL: the spot you are looking for; the exact middle of the circle on the map

CONTROL MARKER (also called a flag, bag, kite): A 3-sided nylon box kite with each side showing the standard O sign which is a square divided diagonally into a white half and an orange half. Hanging with the marker is a special clipper-punch which will make a distinct pattern of punch-dots in the box on your control card. If you are using electronic timing and you don't hear a beep or see a flash on the recording device, use the clipper-punch to mark your map to prove you were there!

CONTROL CODE: A number or symbol printed on the control marker to identify which marker it is. Examples: 234, B1, AX

CONTROL DESCRIPTION SHEET (or cluesheet): A list of the controls on your course with their codes (see above) and a description of the feature that is marked by the control flag.

CONTROL CARD (or punchcard): A card with your name and entry number and a series of numbered empty boxes which you punch at each control to prove you found it. Or an electronic finger stick containing an electronic chip to record your progress through the course.


Orienteering is a family sport. At every meet, there will be a range of courses from novice (White) to advanced beginner (Yellow) to intermediate (Orange) to advanced (several colors). It's fine to go around a course as a pair or small group until you develop the confidence to go by yourself. As you gain experience at the Intermediate level (the Orange Course), you should soon be ready to "go solo."

The courses are detailed below. Each course has a given approximate distance; however, these are measured from point-to-point and the distance traveled by a participant will be longer. O courses are designed based on a time standard.You can figure roughly an hour to complete a beginner course and perhaps between 1 and 2 for an intermediate course. As you gain experience you will also gain speed; experienced youngsters can finish the beginner course in 20-30 minutes!

The best way to learn land navigation is to get "dirt time;" that is, get out there with a map! Another excellent idea is to find an experienced orienteer as soon as you finish your course and discuss your route choices with him or her while they are fresh in your memory.

To get regular information on meets, as well as access to members-only skills clinics, workshops and seminars (usually available from larger clubs, but tell the organizers you're interested), join your local club. Members also enjoy a discount on their meet fee.

1 — Beginner Orienteering

In the U.S., the easiest courses are WHITE (novice) and YELLOW  (advanced beginner). You should feel comfortable with the skills developed on these courses before attempting an intermediate-level course.

White courses should be around 2km — a bit over a mile. The course should follow paths, trails, and sometimes roads. Junior beginners should always start with a White course. For safety's sake, an adult should accompany the child, but allow him or her to hold the map and make the route-choice decisions.

Yellow courses should be about 3-4 km, a bit over 2 miles. The course should follow obvious "line features" such as trails, fences, streams, walls, ditches, but there will NOT be a control at every decision point. Adult beginners often find White too short and easy and prefer to start with a Yellow course.

BEGINNER SKILLS: At this level, you need to be able to consistently hold the map so that it is lined up with the land around you (ORIENTING THE MAP) and understand some of the information on the map (BASIC MAP-READING). Add THUMBING THE MAP (in the Intermediate skills section below) and you'll never get lost!

Orienting the Map

You need to hold the map so that it matches the land you see. When you look at your map, things to your left are on the left of the map, things to your right are on the right. Your map can only help you if it is lined up with the real world. An upside-down map will lead you the wrong way! Turning your map around so that it matches the land around you is called orienting the map.

You can usually orient your map by looking around you and finding obvious features such as buildings and roads. Find these features on your map and then rotate your map until everything matches.

You can always orient your map (even in thick forest or fog) by using a compass. Hold your map flat, look for a Magnetic North line on the map and place your compass flat alongside it, lining up the edge of the compass baseplate or its "Direction of Travel" arrow on the North Arrow on the map. Holding the compass on the map, rotate them together until the RED end of the floating magnetic needle in the compass also lines up with the map's North Arrow.

Now, the map's Magnetic North Arrow, the compass "Direction of Travel" Arrow (or baseplate) and the compass's floating magnetic needle ALL AGREE. Now, the map is oriented.

Practice orienting your map until you can do it in a few seconds. Discipline yourself to always orient your map every time you look at it!

Basic Map Reading

Orienteering maps follow International Standards and use the same colors and symbols worldwide. Bear in mind that these standards developed along with the sport and reflect the roots of Orienteering as an open forest exercise for all ages, so maps need to be clearly readable by weak eyes in limited light. The purpose of an O map is to show distinctly recognizable features and to indicate how quickly you can move across the ground.

MAGNETIC NORTH is always shown on Orienteering maps (generally as straight to the top of the map). In fact, Magnetic North lines are overprinted across the map so you can see them even if you fold the map in your hand. The map's Magnetic North lines match your compass (the magnetic needle's red tip).

Orienteers ignore "True" North. Many roads and property lines and USGS maps are oriented on True North. Magnetic North can be west or east of of True North (Magnetic Declination), depending on where you are across the country. This is because the Magnetic North Pole is in northern Canada while the True North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world.

The SCALE of an orienteering map will usually be larger than you see elsewhere. Take some time to check this out. A larger scale means a smaller amount of land is made larger, which allows for more detail to be shown; the map is "blown up." A "generous" cartographer (map-maker) will provide a bar scale which shows the line length of some given distances. The edge of your compass often has a ruler.

The MAP LEGEND or KEY shows what the symbols mean. Again, these follow international standards, with the following colors and their uses:

  • Black: man-made plus rock. buildings, roads, trails, fences, plus boulders, cliffs
  • Brown: contours and landforms (leave these for later)
  • Blue: water, i.e., lakes, ponds, streams, ditches, marshes
  • Green: vegetation of various densities, classified by the speed you can get through it (the darker the green, the harder it is to get through)
  • White: runnable forest. Confusing at first, it was chosen to show features in open forest. (Think of white as extremely light green.)
  • Yellow: open land. (Think of yellow as sunshine getting through.)

For beginner courses, concentrate on man-made features, especially trails. But keep comparing the map with what you see.

2 — Intermediate Orienteering

The intermediate course is the ORANGE course. Orange courses are about 4-5km long (2-4 miles) and will not stay on trails. The controls are located on or near obvious, distinct features ("collecting features"). On the more difficult legs, a backstop or "catching feature" should prevent you wandering too far beyond the control if you miss it. The legs of an Orange course may vary widely in length and should offer distinct route choices.

INTERMEDIATE SKILLS: This is the level where you learn the heart of land navigation. In addition to Beginner skills, you need to add some understanding of contour features, attack points, distance judgment, bearings, aiming off, catching features, and relocating.

Contour Features

A contour line is a line of a given elevation, equal along its entire length. The contour line next to it is either higher or lower, like stair steps. The vertical distance between adjacent contour lines is the contour interval. The contour lines on the map reveal the shape of the ground (topography). If the contour lines are close together, the ground is steep. The best way to learn to "see" the shape of the land from the wiggles of the contour lines is to go out with a map and compare them.

Controls are often placed on contour features such as hilltop, knoll (small "bump"), depressions, earth bank, spur (small ridgeline), and re-entrant (small valley). Some of these are shown on the map by the contour lines themselves, others have special symbols. All are brown on an O map.

Attack Points

For each leg, the best approach is to choose a point close to the control where you can be 100% sure of your position on the ground and on the map. From this attack point you can use compass bearing and pace counting (plus whatever else the map shows you) to reach the control.

You should vary your speed. For each leg, look ahead to the next control and select an attack point. Get there as fast as you can. Now, slow down and navigate to the control itself.

Distance Judgment

Sometimes you need to be able to tell how far you've traveled. For example, you might want to leave a trail 70 meters from a particular junction. To measure off that distance you need to know your pace length. This is generally done by counting your paces along a measured 100-meter course. Remember to make allowances for terrain and gradient.

Distances in orienteering are measured in meters (m). Americans can "round off" a meter as a "generous yard" (approximately 3.28 feet). Since 100cm equals 1m, this becomes extremely handy when working with map scales. Map scale is given as a ratio of 1:xxxx, where one unit on the map equals xxxx units on the ground. So if you have a map with a scale of 1:10,000 (a common O map scale), then 1 unit on the map = 10,000 units on the ground. It doesn't matter what the units are (as long as they're the same)! So 1 inch on the map = 10,000 inches on the ground. You can divide by 12 to get that in feet if you have a calculator. But if you use centimeters, then 1 cm on the map = 10,000 cm on the ground and all you need to do is divide by 100 (just knock off two zeros) to get that in meters! So 1 cm on the map would be 100 meters on the ground (328 feet).


From your attack point, you'll need to know in which direction to travel. There are two methods to figure out this direction or bearing.

A competitive orienteer's thumb compass usually will not have degrees marked on it! Hold the map and compass level and carefully orient the map. See which way the control is on the map and project that off into the "real world." If your map is properly oriented, you can tell "by eye" approximately which way to go. The farther you have to go, the less accurate this "eyeball" method is.

To set and follow a bearing with a baseplate compass, place your compass on your level map with the plate arrow ("Direction of Travel") pointing along the line you want to follow (connecting your attack point to the control). Then twist the round housing (bezel) so that its North line matches the Magnetic North lines on the map. Rotate the map and compass together so that the floating magnetic needle lines up with the housing. The plate arrow is now pointing exactly the direction you want to go. Look in that direction, pick out something (ex.: a tree or thicket) a good distance away and go toward it. Refer to your compass for the direction and stay on your bearing. When you reach your chosen object check your compass again and select another object. Keep track of the distance you've gone (see Distance Judgment, above) so you don't over-shoot the control.

Aiming Off and Catching Features

Sometimes it is to your advantage to aim to miss the control! First, you must realize that you're usually not going to aim perfectly to the control and go directly to it. Looking at your map, you might see that beyond the control on the right side, for example, is a big, obvious "catching" feature such as a ridge or stream, while on the left side is just more forest. Obviously, if you are going to miss, you want to miss to the right side. So aim as best as you can, and then purposely head a little to the right (in this example). Another great advantage is that now you don't need to look both ways for the control; you know it will show up on your left because you have aimed off to the right.

In general, when you look on your map from your attack point to the control, look beyond as well. What would you see if you ran past your control? This catching feature is how to tell if you've gone too far.


At all levels, it is possible to become disoriented and lost. When you realize you are lost, you must relocate. This means giving up the search for your control and instead, finding some obvious feature to again locate yourself on the map. Then you can choose to abandon the course or have another attempt at your control. A safety bearing will get you to a major line feature such as a road or river from anywhere on the map. A relocating feature is an unmistakable feature, such as a large lake or hilltop, junction of roads, trails, streams, etc. The sooner you decide to relocate, the better!

Thumbing the Map

This is a great technique that will keep you from getting lost or confused. As you gain skill, it becomes a great technique for increasing your travel speed as well! It is based on maintaining map contact.

Find your location on the map. Hold your map in one hand with your thumb close behind your location (don't cover it up). Shift your thumb on the map as you make progress on the ground. When you come to an obvious feature on the map and on the ground, shift your thumb to mark your new location. Keep your thumb on your map as a "You Are Here" marker and you'll save yourself lots of time and confusion!

Many competitive orienteers use a thumb compass which allows them to hold their compass and map in one hand. You could easily use the corner of a baseplate compass as your pointer instead of your thumb so you can check location and direction at the same time.

"Traffic Light" Orienteering

Vary your speed. When you don't have to think about your route (for example, as you move along a trail) go as fast as you can — GREEN LIGHT. But when you have to think about your route choice (for example when you reach a trail junction), slow down! — YELLOW LIGHT. "Inside the control circle," proceed with caution! — RED LIGHT

3 — Advanced Orienteering

All O Courses above Orange require Advanced technique. In the US, these courses are: Brown, Green, Red and Blue (from shortest to longest). Length is the only difference and can vary from 3 - 12 km. A local O meet may have only one or two Advanced courses (or even none!). A nationally sanctioned "A" Meet will have them all, and orienteers compete within age and gender groups.

For Advanced courses, the course designer is free to set legs between ANY mapped features, trying to design legs with multiple, and sometimes difficult, route choices. To break your rhythm, the legs should be of significantly different lengths and directions. They should also avoid helpful Relocating Features, and you might not ever run on a trail!

To complete an Advanced course, you need nothing more than the Intermediate-level skills, executed accurately and reliably. Once you consistently and comfortably complete Orange Courses, you should consider moving up. However, do NOT try an Advanced course on your first attempt at Orienteering, PLEASE! We want you to have fun, not frustration!

As with all skills, it is far better at first to be accurate than fast. Take your time, avoid mistakes and develop confidence. However, the real skills of the sport of Orienteering come in when you try to be FAST. You'll notice your mental powers decrease as your physical exertion increases — in other words, if you run fast, you run stupid. The trick is to balance your physical and mental exertion. Sure, if you had all day, you could figure out every leg — but if you run hard, can you think well enough to complete the course?

Some Tips

Review THUMBING THE MAP. An advanced orienteer holds map and compass in one hand and keeps track of her/his position with tip of compass or thumb. S/he is moving too fast to be able to study the map — only glancing at it maybe every 10 seconds. Don't completely stop to read your map — keep moving! Don't try to read everything on your map at once; pick up bits at a time. When you're following a trail or walking up a steep hill, then you can take more time to study your map more carefully and plan ahead.

SIMPLIFICATION: You don't need to locate everything on the map that you go past! If there are, for example, 10 small knolls and one pond on your chosen route, ignore the knolls and use the pond as a collecting feature. If there are lots of crisscrossing trails, ignore them all and use something else to keep track of where you're going. Most importantly, try to simplify as much of the leg as possible up to your attack point, noting only the most important features.

PLAN AHEAD: The simplest example is on your approach to a control marker. Before you reach the control, you should look ahead to the next leg and at least have a general idea of which direction you will be leaving the control marker. Run up, punch, and get out of there! By standing at a control marker to look at your map, you serve as a beacon to other orienteers who may be searching for that particular marker. Good orienteers not only know exactly what they are doing now, they know what they will do next. They use the easy bits of the leg they are running on to study route choices for the next leg.

HANDRAILS: Often, your route choice will be almost parallel to a line feature like a fence or stream. An Intermediate orienteer will go to the line feature and travel along it. The Advanced orienteer will look for it, but use it as a handrail, judging how far away from it to stay.

COLLECTING FEATURES: You chosen route may be "a bit left of this, and then a bit right of that, then on to that". These are collecting features - you mentally check them off as you pass, trying to stay the right distance away.

CONTOURS AS LINE FEATURES: If you are able to run around a slope without gaining or losing elevation, contour lines can be as useful as any other line feature.

MAP DETAIL: You may need to navigate through or into very complex areas (for example, old quarry workings can be amazing). If it's complicated, and you must read the detail, go slowly enough to do it properly. Accuracy is best.

STRAIGHT LINES: The line joining the control circles is the shortest distance. The best orienteers stay as close as possible to it and feel you should only choose a longer route if there's a compelling reason. The better you get at navigating, the straighter your course.

ROUTE CHOICE: Planners will be trying to test all aspects of land navigation technique. Study each leg as a separate problem and look for the most appropriate solution. Where there are choices, choose the one which suits YOU and your skills best.

ASSESS RISKS: If you could memorize the map at one glance and judge distances and bearings perfectly, you could run flat-out all the way around. All you ever need is "just enough" — but what is that? And what if you miss a control? Assess risks and take chances. Racing means operating right on your limits — if you don't others will!

REVIEW AND COMPARE ROUTES AND "SPLITS": Soon after completing a course, mark on your map with a pencil the exact route you took. Turn your map over and make notes of your route choices and how they turned out. Using a watch with lap splits (chronograph) or the printout from SportIdent, you can record your time on each leg. Find other orienteers who ran on your course and compare your route choices and split-times for each leg. It's the best way to learn!