Orienteering Ultimate Guide: Conquer the Great Outdoors



Orienteering Ultimate Guide

Introduction to Orienteering Ultimate Guide

​The Orienteering Ultimate Guide will help you gain the knowledge you need to get started with orienteering. Orienteering is just one of many Outdoor Activities that you can learn quickly and have fun. 

Keep reading Orienteering Ultimate Guide to become better acquainted with orienteering.

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is the sport where the orienteer uses a map and a compass to choose the quickest route through a marked course using control points. You are punched at each control point to show that you are successful with your navigation to that control point. The orienteer who goes through all the control points and has the quickest time wins.

The orienteer is the individual or group that competes against other orienteers or groups of orienteers.

Orienteering is an outdoor competitive sport with similarities to cross-country running. The difference is with orienteering you’re using a map and compass on a timed course to quickly navigate control points to a finish line.

The purpose of orienteering is to navigate a point-to-point course and get to the finish before your opponents. The first one to finish with the best time, after successfully navigating the course, is the winner. This sport is all about how quickly you can navigate through the course and can be a very strenuous aerobic exercise routine.

You have to continually improve your map and compass skills to become a more skilled orienteering athlete. The most important skill is learning how to orient the map to the contour of the land you’re navigating.

You can practice orienteering at a public park, a school campus, or a city street.

Orienteering is most popular in the Scandinavian countries but is gaining worldwide attention. There are many governing bodies throughout the world that facilitate the organization of the sport.

The first public orienteering competition was held in Norway in 1897. Orienteering roots go back to the 19th Century by the Swedish Military.

The most basic skills needed to participate in orienteering include:

  • A good judge of distance
  • Pacing yourself
  • Reading map features
  • Orientating the map to the north
  • Thumbing the map
  • Folding the map
  • Taking a compass bearing
  • Following a compass bearing

More advanced or intermediate skills needed include:

  • Simplification of route choice
  • Aiming off
  • Detailed map reading
  • Choosing and using attack points
  • Visualization of contours and other features
  • Traffic lighting (green, yellow or orange, red sections of the course)
  • Rough compass and relocate

Although there are many different types of orienteering, the most important versions are:

  • Foot Orienteering(traditional)
  • Field Orienteering
  • Mountain Bike Orienteering
  • Ski Orienteering

Other versions of orienteering that are gaining in popularity around the world include:

  • Radio Orienteering
  • Paddlesports Orienteering
  • Car Orienteering

GPS devices are not allowed during competition but can be used for recording the routes taken only. It’s completely against competition rules to use a GPS device for navigating during competition.

Are There Variations of Orienteering?

Foot (traditional) orienteering is a smart, quick, competitive sport that is played throughout the world. Throughout the world, there are many governing bodies that regulate fair play. Foot orienteering events are held in outdoor settings and throughout the year.

​Foot orienteering is the most traditional form of orienteering. Each event is a timed event where the orienteer navigates his way from control point to control point. The orienteer’s card is punched at each control point.

The first one to successfully navigate through all the control points and get there first is the winner. Speed is very important. There are many tactics that a beginner will need to learn to be successful.


Trail orienteering has evolved to allow more inclusion for those that have limited mobility. The events are not timed and control points might involve something that you can see from afar, you note what it is and then move on to the next control point. The first one to go through all the checkpoints first is the winner.


Adding Nordic skiing to foot orienteering is basically how ski orienteering should be classified. It takes all the same elements from foot orienteering but adds boots, skis, poles, and gloves. You move through various snow-covered paths to get to your checkpoint. The first one to navigate through all the control points wins.

Mountain Bike

Instead of boots and skis, you simply trade those for a mountain bike and you’ve got mountain bike orienteering. You still follow all the same rules of normally timed orienteering and add a mountain bike to move you from control point to control point at an efficient and quick pace. The first one to go through all the control points first wins.​​

What Are The Orienteering Course Types?

Standard Point to Point Orienteering

This is the standard way of orienteering throughout the world. The goal is to use a compass to quickly and efficiently navigate from control point to control point. Speed is critical for winning. The first one to go through all control points wins.

Rogaining or Score Orienteering

Rogaining is a timed event much like the standard point-to-point version but point values are more important in rogaining. Rogaining orienteers all start at the same time and go throughout the course collecting as many control points as they can in a specific time set by course officials.

It’s more about gaining points in this version. The person or group with the most points wins.

Relay Orienteering

This is a team version of orienteering. Each team has a certain number of players and each player navigates his portion of the event’s control point.

So one player on a team is moving through his portion of the event and then another team player moves through his portion of the event.

Once, the first player arrives at a control point, the second player moves out to go to his control point. So on and so forth depending on the numbers allowed for each team.

Night Orienteering

Any of the events above can still add the variable of doing the courses during the nighttime. Most courses use reflective markers for each control point.

What are the Orienteering Course Timing Types?


Sprint orienteering courses are usually played on school campuses and city parks in mostly urban areas. They usually take 10 to 20 minutes to play.


Technical map reading is most important in a middle timed event. These events normally take 30 to 40 minutes to play.


This is the traditional timed event and the one mostly used for competitive orienteering events. These events normally take 40 to 80 minutes to play.


The longest version allows for critical details to make a difference in who wins. These events normally take 90 to 120 minutes or possibly longer to play. This is the marathon of orienteering.

What Gear Do You Need for Orienteering?

To get involved with orienteering you will need some basic gear in order to play. Because most of the gear is so inexpensive, you will most likely want to buy the best quality that you can afford.

During the orienteering competition, you will be given a map by the heads of the event. If you’re practicing, you will want to buy a map that includes the area that you will be practicing at.

Baseplate Compass With Sighting Mirror

Here is where you might want to splurge to get the compass that will last you a while. You will want to buy a baseplate compass with a sighting mirror. It’s a normal baseplate compass that also includes a sighting mirror for better accuracy.

There’s debate whether you should start with a sighting mirror on your baseplate compass while learning to navigate. Some say that you should begin learning without the sighting mirror. I say learn how to use a sighting mirror baseplate compass from the start.

Baseplate compasses with a sighting mirror are more accurate. That’s not debatable. Everyone agrees that sighting mirrors allow for greater accuracy.

Also, you can use the mirror on the compass as a safety feature. You can use the mirror to signal if you’re in distress. So, buy a baseplate compass with a sighting mirror.

Clear Map Case and Grease Pencils

Whether the weather is inclement or not, you will need something to cover your map for keeping the map dry and clean.

You will also be able to make marks on your clear map case instead of directly on a map. This way you can wipe away your marks if you need to start over.

I would recommend using a Staedtler Lumocolour Glasochrom permanent pencil. I became very knowledgeable with Staedtler pencils when I was briefly in Architecture School at Texas Tech University.

The Staedtler brand is a German-made quality pencil that will allow marks to remain until wiped away with an alcohol swab.

They are very reasonably priced and you can buy them online. You will want to buy red, blue, and black colors. You might try to buy them in a pack with the three colors already included. They are quite long so I would recommend cutting them in half.

Use the red colored pencil for:

  • marking current location
  • marking waypoints
  • cross-hatching dangerous locations
  • plotting bearings
  • potential escape routes

Use the blue pencil for:

  • routes
  • tracks

Use the black pencil for:

  • writing notes
  • grid references
  • telephone numbers or really anything

Outdoor Clothing and Running Shoes​

You never know what the weather and terrain will bring. So, you might want to bring waterproof clothing but for sure waterproof shoes.

You will want to choose running shoes that are more on the waterproof side. There are running shoe manufacturers, like Icebug, that make shoes specifically for orienteering.

If it’s on the cooler side then definitely dress in layers. Because you’re moving quickly, you will be shedding layers as you go but think of how you will carry the layers as they peel off.

Whistle for Safety

A whistle is used for nothing else but for safety. Definitely buy a whistle for safety reasons but for nothing else. During orienteering, I would recommend that you don’t blow your whistle at all unless you’re in distress. You don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf and get embarrassed.

What Is An Orienteering Map?

Orienteering Maps

An orienteering map is different from a normal topographical map. The orienteering map adds specific details concerning a specific event for a specific location.  The orienteering map is normally a small enough map to include just enough information for that specific orienteering event.

The specific details added to an orienteering map allow the orienteer to navigate through control point after control point successfully during an event. These specific details could include things like large boulders or fences not normally included on a typical topographical map.

Orienteering maps are normally produced by local race officials. The map is given to each orienteer at the very beginning of the race by race officials and has to be reliable and accurate.

What makes orienteering maps different from other maps?

Orienteering maps instead of normal maps will have:

  • Fewer words but more detail than a normal topographical map
  • Magnetic North as map’s reference point
  • Will show Man-made features including footpaths, stone walls, and fences
  • Various vegetation not shown on normal maps
  • Specific features such as out of bounds or private and restricted area markings

An orienteering map for each event will show:

  • start and finish areas
  • Control locations
  • The Sequence to follow for control locations
  • Direct route line

What Is An Orienteering Compass?

Using both a map and compass, the orienteer moves efficiently and quickly through control points to win the race. Obviously without a compass using a map might be quite tricky but not impossible. The compass allows for quick orientation of the map.

Baseplate Compass with Sighting Mirror

With a typical baseplate compass, the orienteer navigates to each control point location using magnetic North as its guide. The simple baseplate compass is the most bought and used throughout the world.

A great add-on to any baseplate compass is the sighting mirror. A sighting mirror is used to navigate in a more targeted and efficient manner.

Alternative Thumb Compass

The alternative to a baseplate compass would include a thumb compass. This compass, held in place by the thumb, is joined together with the map and can be read while running.

Orient the Map

The baseplate compass is used to orient the map. By orienting the map, the orienteer can use the map to move in the correct direction based on magnetic north.

Once the map is oriented in the correct direction, the orienteer will take a bearing. This bearing will set the path that needs to be traveled in order to head in the correct direction.

Compass Essential for Orienteering

For some courses, a compass is not needed but it’s best to practice using the compass for future harder events. Always use a compass no matter how easy a course might appear.

A compass is essential for participating in orienteering. It’s good practice to purchase the best compass that you can afford with your budget. It will last nearly a lifetime and it will be better to purchase a good one that you can use forever.

What are Control Descriptions in Orienteering?

The orienteering control description gives a pictorial representation of what features will be noticed on the map in any particular location. It also gives pictorial symbols and distance information from control point to control point to the finish line.

The IOF set the standards for the control descriptions for the world. This allows for uniform and wordless recognization of features on a map that any orienteer, from any country, should understand.

Although the use of control descriptions during an event is incredibly helpful, you can still win an event even if you didn’t quite understand the symbols during the event.

If you’re a beginner, you will learn control descriptions as you go to each event you attend. Ask around either before the event or after the event. It is more important to understand how to visualize distances and also to understand how to use a map and compass than to understand every symbol on a control description.

The faster you learn the control descriptions, the quicker you will elevate your orienteering skills. Look at the symbol and the description of the symbol and ask yourself what the symbol is trying to convey to the reader of the symbol. Does the symbol best describe what the feature is?

What Is The Standard Orienteering Basics of Play?

Orienteering success means being the first to reach the finish line, with the fastest time, after navigating successfully through all the control points.

Receive Your Map and Control Descriptions

After event registration, you start by receiving your map and control descriptions from the officiating judges. Being able to read and interpret your map is the key to navigation in orienteering. Also, knowing how to use a compass is extremely important.

Staggered Start Times

Starting times for the orienteers during an event are normally staggered. Remember it’s your individual time, control points recorded on your punch card, that is important to calculate the winner. If you have the fastest time after all the control points then you’re the winner. Yay!

Plan Out A Strategy

Once you’ve started and you’re getting to know the map for the course, figure a strategy on how you will maintain speed throughout the course. Having a strategy is key to winning. Well actually, running real fast, navigating great, and having a strategy is key to winning.

Begin Navigation

  • Get your map oriented correctly
  • Choose your best routes through the control points
  • Choose the best navigation features for this control point
  • Get going and get to your first control point
  • Repeat the process for each control point, including the finish line
  • If you’re off course, identify the last control point, notice features around you and locate on map, then relocate to an area that gets you back on course

Finish The Race

If you’ve been recording your movement with a GPS (yes legal for recording movements only) stop the recording and analyze the results right there or wait to analyze when you get home.

You will want to compare your actual results from the GPS with what your strategy results might have looked like. Did you get off course in any area and why do you think so? Something you can do better for the next event?​​

Are There Any Recognized Orienteering Governing Bodies?

The governing bodies that regulate and set rules for play include International, National, Regional and Local versions.


The International governing body for orienteering is the International Orienteering Federation (IOF) based out of Finland. The International Olympic Committee recognizes the IOF as the international governing body for the Olympics.


There are national organizing bodies in just about every country. These national bodies provide for rules, regulations, and safe play of the sport.

In the United States, Orienteering USA is the nationally recognized regulating body.

In the United Kingdom, British Orienteering Federation is the national organizing body.

In Canada, Orienteering Canada is the national organizing body.


The national bodies break down their own regional governing bodies based on regions of their national areas.


Local clubs are organized but are regulated by the overall National organizing body. These local groups can be made up of closed groups or groups open to the public. Some closed groups might be only for military organized groups.

How to Join an Orienteering Local Club?

To join a local orienteering club near you it’s best to go to Orienteering USA and see if there are any clubs near you.

For instance, I live in Las Vegas but the nearest club is in Los Angeles.

Check out this link first and enter your zip code. You will be directed to a club near you:

Orienteering USA Clubs Near You – Orienteering Ultimate Guide

This is a great place to start. You can also Google “orienteering clubs near me”. Check around and you might find a local organization not affiliated with Orienteering USA.

Conclusion to Orienteering Ultimate Guide

Orienteering is a great sport for kids and young adults to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Running through the woods, navigating difficult terrain, providing a challenge while still allowing you to have a blast.

Learning from the skilled individuals in your club or those involved with training sessions will help develop your skills.

The sport also provides an outdoor education experience in nature. You can learn about important forestry tidbits, how to find your way with natural navigation techniques as well as common plants of the area.

Discovering new places is also a part of orienteering. Hiking, walking, running to different locations to discover fun spots to visit is amazing! You’ll also expand your map reading skills too.

Orienteering is a sport that provides exercise with a relatively low risk of injury. Unlike road sports or sports played inside on lawns and courts, the orienteer must navigate via instinct and natural navigation techniques outdoors. There is little chance of getting hit or falling on the ground while running through leaves, bushes, and more.

Don’t hesitate to email us if you have questions about orienteering.