Orienteering Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Orienteering?
- How can I try Orienteering?
- How do I get to an event?
- What equipment will I need?
- What do I do when I get there?
- What course should I run?
- Where do I find my local club?
- Where can I get more information?
- How important is the compass?
- What is meant by electronic punching?
1. What is Orienteering?
The simplest definition is that it is finding your way from one point to
another, using only a map and your head. Orienteering is usually
done in the woods, with the participants on foot. At a typical Orienteering
event, several courses of varying difficulty are laid out in the
woods by the event organisers. Each course consists of a series of checkpoints
(or "controls") marked by a brightly coloured, distinctive Orienteering flag.
Participants are given a map with the locations of the checkpoints circled.
The starting place, the sequence in which you visit the controls, and the
finish location are also shown. Using this map, the participant must find his or
her way from one control point to another in the order specified. At each control,
there is a paper punch which makes a distinctive pattern. The participant or
Orienteer uses that to punch a card, which proves that they've actually been to
that control point.
Orienteering can either be considered a competitive sport or a casual recreational activity,
depending totally on your own attitude towards the event - at most
events, you will find people of all inclinations and athletic abilities.
The winners are often competitive and race around the course,
usually running the whole way.
But others regard Orienteering as a recreational activity. People
come out alone, with friends, or with family, admiring
the view and taking time to appreciate nature. It can be considered a walk
with some mental challenge added. Competitions are held at all levels including
the World Championships.
There are usually several courses at each event which vary in difficulty.
What differentiates them is the length of the course and the placement of
controls. For experienced Orienteers, the course might be 8-12km (5-8
miles) long, and finding the control markers would require advanced
navigational techniques and an experienced pair of eyes reading the map. On
the other hand, the course for beginners would only be about 2-3km (1-2 miles)
long, and the controls would all be prominently displayed near paths. The
other courses fall somewhere in-between.
There are variations of orienteering that are also popular, such as
Ski-Orienteering (which takes place on cross-country skis), relay
competitions and Night-O. You will sometimes find, especially at low-key
club events, some of the less common variants such as 'score orienteering' or
2. How can I try Orienteering?
The simplest way to start Orienteering is to go to an event. Look
through the fixtures list for a convenient one.
Alternatively, you could contact a member of your local club
who will be able to help get you started.
3. How do I get to an event?
Unfortunately, Orienteering events rarely take place near a bus route so it
can be very difficult to get to them without a car. If you do not have a car
and cannot talk a friend into bringing you, then your best bet is to
call somebody in a local club as they may be able to organise
a lift for you.
If you are mobile, then you will need directions for the event. There may be
directions to the event in the fixtures list.
Alternatively, you may be able to use what details are provided there (e.g.
grid references) to find the event on a road map.
Once you get close to the area of the event, keep your eyes open for "orienteering signs" -
these consist of a square divided diagonally into red and white, with a black
arrow to direct you.
4. What equipment will I need?
All that you need to start orienteering is:
- Clothing that is suitable for a walk in the woods -
you should not mind too much if they get dirty.
A pair of boots or strong runners is a good idea.
In wet weather a raincoat is pretty much essential.
You should not wear jeans, especially if it is raining.
- A change of clothing for after the event.
- A red biro to fill in the control card and to copy the course onto your map.
- A clear plastic bag, to protect the map if it's raining.
- A whistle. Sometimes, the organisers insist that you carry a whistle to call for help if you injure yourself.
- Approximately £2 to £3 - the usual cost per person.
- A compass can be useful but it is certainly not essential for beginners, despite
all the misconceptions.
There is other specialised orienteering equipment that you will
see experienced orienteers using such as orienteering suits, studded shoes,
compasses etc.). However, there is absolutely no need for you to get any of
this until you start orienteering regularly.
5. What do I do when I get there?
The goings on at an orienteering event can seem a bit bureaucratic and
off-putting when you're not used to them. However it's all reasonably simple.
Once you have arrived and parked, look out for "Registration". This can be in
a car or a tent, with a "REGISTRATION" sign or a list of courses
and prices in front of it.
Next ,choose a course from the list and ask to enter it. You can
enter individually or in a group. You will then normally receive
three pieces of paper:
- A map
- A list of "Control Descriptions" that give a description of each
control that you must find on the course (sometimes the descriptions
are written on a large sheet and you must copy them down).
- A control card. This is made of 2 parts - the main card and a stub.
Fill your name and course onto both parts of the control card.
Write your car registration on the stub (this is for safety).
If you are in a club or know your class then you can fill these in too.
There may be a copy of the map with corrections marked on it. These are
typically new paths, new fences, felled forest, out of bounds areas that you
should not enter. Copy these onto your map.
There will be another car for "Start Times". Queue up here and get a start time
(you will need your control card). Usually, it's more normal to get
a start time when you are nearly ready to start.
Once you are ready (changed into old clothes, filled in control card, got start
time, copied down map corrections etc.), head to the start.
This is usually sign-posted from near the registration and may be a few minutes
walk away. If in doubt, ask!
When your start time is called, go up to the start official and hand them your
control card. This person will keep the stub and hand back the remaining part of the card.
Once you have handed the stub to the start official, you must give the
rest of the control card to an official at the finish before you go home. You
must do this even if you do not finish your course. Otherwise someone could
spend hours looking for you.
If you are not sure what time it is or when you should start, then you can
go straight to the start official when you arrive and they will sort you out.
Once you have been started, you should go to the master maps and copy down your
Make sure you copy down your course carefully from the correct master map.
If you mark a control in the wrong place, it will be very difficult to find it.
If you take down the wrong course then it may not be suitable for you.
The course is made up of a triangle, several numbered circles and a double
circle, all joined by lines. The triangle is the start, the circles are
the controls and the double circle is the finish. The numbers and lines
indicate the order in which you should find the controls.
6. What course should I run?
If there is a special beginners/wayfarers course then you should do this.
At colour coded events, you should try the Yellow or Orange course. At
championship events, where most competitors enter beforehand, there will
usually be one or two "entry on the day" courses. Pick one of these.
Although these courses may seem very short (1 - 2 miles), you should
note that you could end up going much further than the given distance
if you make a mistake. If you find that the course you picked was too short then you can
usually do a second one at no extra cost.
7. Where do I find my local club?
Try looking under the Irish Orienteering Association website for your club.
The easiest place to meet up with club members is at an event. It's even
easier if they are running the event. To join up, just ask the person selling
the maps or giving you your start time. There is usually a person in charge
of new members. They will give you all the information you need.
If you do join a club then it's a good idea to get to know other members
of the club.
Many clubs hold regular social evenings or training sessions. This is a very
good way of meeting people in the club.
By far, the best way of meeting other club members is to help at club run events.
8. Where can I get more information?
- There is a Network Newsgroup called 'Onet' dedicated to orienteering internationally. You
can get more information on it in the orienteering
- The Irish Orienteer is published every two months
and is the bible of Irish Orienteering. It contains a full listing of upcoming
events, results from previous events, news etc..
- Compass Sport
is the British orienteering magazine. It is less relevant to Irish orienteers but it
can contain useful information on international competitions.
9. How important is the compass?
Although the most important navigational aid used in orienteering is the
human brain, one other navigational device which is allowed and is in
general use is the compass. Compasses are useful for taking bearings
and for orienting the map so that it is aligned with the terrain
- but it is possible, in most areas, to complete a course quite
easily and efficiently without a compass (an exception would be
a flat area poor in prominent features).
The compass is the only legal navigational aid that can be used in
orienteering. Altimeters are specifically prohibited and GPS units
are implicitly prohibited by the rules. It has been stated that GPS
units could be very useful and helpful aids, but when the question
of how an everyday orienteer would use a GPS unit to defeat the
reigning US champion in a race was raised, the only valid reply
was: "I would wait at the first control for him, use the GPS
unit to knock him out, and then proceed on to victory".
Technology, however powerful, is no match for basic navigational
ability - even in the hands of a good orienteer who is also a
For further information on orienteering compasses,
10. What is meant by electronic punching?
The use of electronic punching is now becoming common at large
national and championship events. While there are two different
commercial systems available, the SportIdent system has been
chosen for use here in Ireland. The SportIdent E-card replaces the
conventional control card and consists of a small plastic stick
(6.5cm by 1.75cm) with a special memory chip embedded at one
end. This E-card is attached to the index or middle finger
of an orienteer with an elastic strap. To punch at a control, the
orienteer places the tip of the E-card into a circular hole in an
electronic control box mounted at the control - this is usually done
by bending back the finger of the E-card so that the end of the E-card
extends beyond the bent knuckle, leaving it free to be inserted
in the hole. The orienteer must then wait for confirmation of correct punching
before withdrawing the E-card from the control unit. Confirmation
is usually in the form of both an audible bleep and a flashing
light. Once confirmation is received, an orienteer can be 100% certain that
the data has been correctly stored in the E-card.
At present, there is not much information available on the subject of
electronic punching. I therefore intend to set up some pages in the near
future explaining how to control an event using the SportIdent system,
as well as discussing the advantages and disadvantages of such a system
to both the orienteer and the organiser. If you already know of such
information, please let me know.
This page is based on an Orienteering FAQ that was
compiled by Paul Tomblin and Martin Flynn.