About Orienteering


If you have not already done so watch the video

Phils Grand daughter1 copyIn its most common form, orienteering involves navigating on foot between points on a pre-defined course drawn on a map. The aim is to navigate round all of the points in the correct order and in the fastest possible time. At each point there is a red and white ‘control kite’ with an identification number and some equipment to check that you have passed through that point. To aid you in finding each point you will have been given a ‘control description’ briefly detailing what feature the control is located on.

1_SI-CardsNOR use two types of equipment to record your passage through the controls. At most events this consists of a small electronic card (dibber) that you take around the course with you. At each control site there is a small box which records on your card what time you passed through. After you finish you are then able to see what your total time was and how long you took for each leg of the course.

At smaller and more informal events, we use a pin-punch to make a unique set of holes in the ‘control card’ carried by each competitor. At the finish the control card can be checked to make sure that you have visited all the controls. You will be timed around the course and results will be displayed and then published on this website.

Although orienteering is a competitive sport, many people come just for the challenge of completing the course and enjoying the scenery. At most events you will see anyone from elite orienteers, running long, technically challenging courses, to youngsters tackling short, easy courses on paths. As you set your own pace, orienteering is suitable for everyone. Some families and others take part in groups.


Courses are graded according to their length and technical difficulty. The courses provided will depend on the location of the event and the anticipated levels of skill and experience of the participants.

The colours shown in the table above relate to the length and navigational difficulty of the colour coded courses offered at Level D and C events. A youngster would be expected to start on either the white or yellow course, whilst an adult novice would begin with either the yellow or orange course, depending on their confidence. The organiser may also put on other courses to better suit the participants needs. e.g. A long easy course. A competitor’s progression can then be made either towards longer courses with the navigation remaining the same, or on to courses with more challenging navigation, up to the appropriate length for their fitness.





  • White Courses (XS) are very easy with all controls on paths. They are mainly used by 6-10 year olds and family groups.
  • Yellow Courses (XS-S) use simple linear features like paths, walls and streams. They are mainly used by under 12’s and family groups.
  • Orange Courses (S-M) progress to basic use of the compass and route choice. They are ideal for novice adults or experienced youngsters. Long Orange courses are used mainly by novice adults wanting a longer run.
  • Light Green Courses (S) are ideal for improvers as the navigational difficulty begins to increase and uses simple contours and ‘point’ features.
  • Green Courses (S) are used mostly by experienced under 18’s and adults wanting a short but challenging course with a very hard navigational difficulty.
  • Blue Courses (M) are a longer, more physically demanding course in comparison to the green. The distances are more varied between controls and the course attracts experienced orienteers.
  • Brown (L) and Black Courses (XL) are very physically demanding and have a very hard navigational difficulty. They are for experienced orienteers only.


Most orienteering maps are drawn specially for the sport and are at scales of either 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. You can take a look at some of our local maps using links on the Event Venues page. The maps show everything from large hills to smallest pits, open land to impenetrable forest, ditches, marshes and much more. The colours are different from those on an Ordnance Survey map so beginners need to study them carefully. Most symbols are also unique to orienteering, but there is usually a legend on the map. Maps are drawn with the North lines pointing to Magnetic North, so when using a compass there is no need to make any complicated adjustments. Download a full guide to map symbols here.

Map for websitej pegHere is an  example of part of an orienteering map. The black lines represent paths, their thickness indicating their size. The yellow area to the North (the top of the map) is heathland. South of that is woodland, the white areas being runnable, the light green less so and the dark green impenetrable. The vertical green stripes show undergrowth sufficiently thick to slow down a runner. Over the whole area there are various brown markings, some being pits or depressions, others earth banks or embankments and still others knolls or larger hills. The black crosses represent tripods built as controls in parts of the wood where naturally occurring features are lacking. There are also contour lines running across the map, some crags following these contours, ditches, a pond and marshes. The large yellow and white speckled area indicates more open land but this time with scattered trees. The olive green at the south of the map is a settlement with houses shown in black. In the SW corner is a small area of cultivated land, separated from the surrounding woodland by a fence.

The colours are an integral part of the map symbols:

Black is used for most man-made features such as buildings and rock features such as cliffs, crags and boulders.
Brown is used to show landform, including contour lines, gullies, pits and knolls (small hills).
Blue is used for water features such as lakes, ponds, marshes and streams
White and Green are used to depict the density of woodland and the extent to which it impedes progress. Open ‘runnable’ woodland is left white with progressively darker shades of green mean increased density, ranging from ‘slow run’ to ‘difficult’ (or walk) through to ‘impenetrable’(or fight).
Yellow is used for unwooded areas with a solid yellow for grassy spaces such as playing fields and a paler yellow for rougher terrain (‘rough open’) such as heather.
Combinations of yellow and green show other types of terrain which will be explained in the legend.

Age Classes

Courses can also be classified by age class. Your age class is determined by your gender and how old you will be on the 31st December of the year of the competition. So even if you not aged 40 until December you will compete in W/M 40 from January. The M/W refers to gender and there will also sometimes be Elite (E) classes available in M/W18, 20 and 21.

Control Descriptions

To help you navigate to each control you will be provided with a control description sheet. Mt Crawford Engl Control DescThe control description sheet tells you what you are looking for, e.g. a path junction, a large boulder etc. When you find the control there will be some letters or numbers which should correspond to those on your control description sheet. If they do match, you have found the right place. If they don’t, it isn’t your control!
The full list of IOF Control Descriptions can be downloaded here.

Starting the Course

Mt Crawford CourseThe course is represented on your map by; the triangle indicates the start, the numbered circles indicate the control locations and the double circle indicates the finish. You must visit the controls in the order they are numbered. At the ‘start’ you will need to ‘punch’ the control, which involves placing your electronic card (see equipment) into a unit which starts the timer. At the finish you are required to ‘download’ the information which is on your electronic card. You will then get a printout slip with your split and total time. This also confirms whether you have punched the controls in the correct order. You must download whether you have completed the course or not.


Route Choice

Julia_PaulAlthough you need to visit the controls in the correct order, the way you get to each control is key to your success. The direct line indicated by the pink line may not be the fastest when you take into account the terrain – say density of woodland, and contours. This is particularly relevant on the harder courses where paths are not the direct route. It may often be quicker to take a “longer” but flatter route.


P1000527Specially made orienteering suits are available, but any comfortable clothing is suitable. Because the more advanced courses give you the opportunity to go cross-country, maybe passing through rough vegetation, full body cover is advisable and may be insisted on at times. During the winter months, especially if you are going to walk round a course, make sure your clothing is warm enough.

Similarly, there are a number of makes of specialist shoe, all with studs or spikes for a good grip. But to start with, strong trainers or walking shoes or boots are adequate.


new_compassCompass – not essential for courses up to orange standard, but useful nonetheless. For harder courses you will need one. Compasses may be hired at events.

Sport Ident DibberDibber – not essential as you can hire one at the event but you can purchase your own at www.sportident.co.uk

Whistle – in the unlikely event of your getting injured you should carry a whistle, but it must only be used in cases of emergency.

Water – is not always provided at events so bring plenty to drink.

Watch – a good idea if you’ve a late start!

Ultrasport and CompassPoint are specialist suppliers of orienteering clothing and equipment:


A full glossary  of Orienteering jargon is available on the British Orienteering website.