Hints & Tips

Top Tips for Beginners

Below are five basic skills that you need to practice to help you progress with orienteering.

  1. Fold your map – Always make sure that you fold your map so that you can easily see the part of the map where you are.
  2. Orientate your map – Always make sure that your map is the correct way round or orientated. This means that the features which are in front of you on the ground are in front of you on the map. You can also orientate your map using a compass by making sure that the north lines on the map point the same way as the north or red end of the compass needle. Each time you change direction you should change your grip on the map so that the map is still orientated to north.
  3. Thumb your Map – To help you know where you are on the map it helps if you mark your position on the map with your thumb. As you move along the ground you should move your thumb to your new position on the map. It is usual to move your thumb to the new position at a ‘check point’ such as a path junction or some other obvious feature where you will stop or slow down and check where you are.
  4. Check your control code – Once you have found a control you always need to check that the code on your control description sheet matches the code on the control. You should also check that the control is situated on the correct feature on your map. You will then know for sure that you have reached the correct control.
  5. Have fun and enjoy yourself – This is the most important skill to remember. Orienteering should always be fun and enjoyable!

Improving your skills

Once you have mastered the basics – take a look at these techniques.

Understanding the Map

Do you have to stop and think what the various colours and symbols on an orienteering map mean? If so, you are in good company as many people find any sort of map confusing to start with, let alone one with so many strange things on it! The comforting thing is that when once you have learnt to interpret them you will understand all O maps as they are all drawn using a standard set of colours and symbols. There may be slight variations on special maps made for schools or sprint races, for example, but even these are mainly standard. Even if you orienteer abroad the maps will look the same as they will all follow the IOF (International Orienteering Federation) standards.

The best way of mastering the maps is to study them after you’ve been to an event. As well as tracing your course and deciding how you might have done it better, using the techniques below, look at all the symbols and colours and make sure you know what they mean. Most maps have a legend printed on them although it may have been omitted for lack of space. If you need to see a set of symbols, ask for help at any NOR event.


linearlinear‘Handrails’ are ‘line’ features that you can follow, things like paths, fences and ditches. When you start orienteering you will be wise to use as many ‘handrails’ as possible as they allow you to keep very close contact with the map and know where you are all the time. The easier courses (White, Yellow and Orange) will have been planned with these ‘handrails’ in mind, so although you may not take the shortest route if you follow them, you shouldn’t get lost!

Attack Points

Attack points are very important features which allow you to find less obvious ones more easily. They are ones which are easy to find, possibly the junction of two ‘handrails’, the corner of a fence, a large building or something similar. As they are obvious, you can safely run to them without wasting time on detailed map reading. When once you have found them you can take an accurate bearing to the control you are looking for, and read the map carefully for any other hints it may give you such as vegetation change, contour detail etc. If you don’t use attack points, and rely on taking a bearing to a control a long way away from you, you may well run past it even if you are counting your paces. Sometimes there may be more than one possible attack point, so you can choose the one that’s easiest to run to.

Aiming Off

aimingoffThis is a technique which helps you find the ‘handrail’ type of attack point more easily. Suppose the attack point is the junction of two ditches. If you aim directly for that point (Route B), you may come to one of the ditches but not know whether to turn left or right to find the junction. Instead of running direct, if you ‘aim off’ to one side or the other (Route A), when you find the ditch you will know which way to turn to find the junction.

Catching Features

catchingfeatureA ‘catching feature’ is typically a line feature or some other obvious landmark you will see if you overshoot a control. Alternatively it can be a feature parallel to your line of running that will catch you if you wander off your straight route. In this example there is a forest road to the right, a ditch to the left, and a narrow ride beyond the knoll which is the control. You can safely aim directly for the knoll as the catching features will let you judge whether you have missed it.

Traffic Lighting

This is a technique which allows you to break down the route to the control into distinct parts. When you study the leg you may see an easy run to the first catching feature (green), a more difficult route to your attack point over which you need to slow down (amber) and a tricky piece of navigation to the actual control (red). Some long legs may need more of a breakdown than this, but the idea is to read from the map where you can gain time and where you need to be more careful.

Distance Estimation and Pacing

Judging distances is an essential orienteering skill, and this is usually achieved by pacing. When training, measure a distance of 100 metres and see how many double paces you take to run it and walk it. Remember your pace length may change late in the event when you are getting tired, and will also differ between running on paths and cross-country. With your compass you can measure how far you have to travel before turning off a path, for example, and if you count your paces you will improve your accuracy markedly.

Compass Use

Although courses up to Orange standard can be tackled without the help of a compass, simply by ensuring that you keep the map orientated to North whenever you change direction, it is comforting to have the reassurance that North is still where you think it should be! For harder courses, however, a compass becomes essential. Use it to keep the map the right way round, to check you are running the right way along a line feature, to take rough bearings towards an attack point, and detailed bearings from there to the control. Also use the ruler on the side of the compass in association with your pacing.

Visualising and Simplifying the Map

To plan the best route you need to be able to visualise what’s on the map. This means interpreting a 2-dimensional plan as a 3-dimensional picture. In particular this means being able to interpret the contour lines as the basic land form doesn’t change whilst vegetation grows or is cut down. Many people find this is a skill which only comes with a lot of practice, but it’s one that the best orienteers possess, so keep trying! Unless the leg is short, you probably won’t be able to visualise all of it, so try to pick out the main features, apply the ‘traffic light’ technique and tackle it piece by piece.

Route Choice

Julia_PaulThere should be no route choice on White and Yellow courses, but when you get to Orange or Red you will find some. On well-planned harder courses there will be much more. What will be the best route choice for you may not suit someone else. For example, will it be faster for you to run a longer route round a hill, thus avoiding a climb, or take the shorter one over the top? Or are you strong enough to fight your way through some thick vegetation in order to save some distance? As well as your fitness, you will have to take account of your navigational ability. What is the best attack point for you, and do you need to break the leg down into a number of parts?
Even experienced orienteers need to take sufficient time to weigh up the advantage of one route over another, so plan your route rather than dashing ahead without considering the next step. However, try to consider the next leg while running an easy part of the present one so you know the direction to go when once you’ve found the control. (Don’t hang about round the control as it will indicate to others where to find it!) If you’ve got a long, straightforward leg to run you may even be able to plan your route for several controls ahead.


LostEveryone gets lost sometimes! But when you do, you need to know how to find out exactly where you are. ‘Lost’ can mean several things from ‘I haven’t the faintest idea where I am’, to ‘I have a reasonable idea where I am but don’t know the exact location’. When you are totally lost, and can’t recall how you got there from the last control, there is no simple way of relocating other than to continue until you can find features which you can relate to the map. Sometimes this may mean even going to the edge of the map and relocating from a field corner or road etc. If you have some idea of the area you are in, try to remember how you got there from your last control. This will be easier if you’ve been able to visualise the map. Look around for features which might be on the map and see whether they fit. Check the direction of any line feature and possibly follow it to a junction. If you find a control, look at your map and try to see the feature on it. When all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask someone else, but don’t be upset if that person is really competitive and doesn’t want to stop!