Orienteering Basics

Orienteering BasicsThe sport of orienteering combines physical exercise with a mental workout. Athletes hike, run, bike or ski while navigating with a map and compass through a series of control points (checkpoints) to reach a finish line. Though there is a competitive aspect to the sport, many participants simply enjoy orienteering on a recreational level.

History and Scope

In 1897, the first public orienteering competition occurred in Norway; though, military exercises similar in scope and function existed prior to this. Since its inception, orienteering federations have spread throughout the world. The International Olympic Committee recognizes the International Orienteering Federation, or IOF, as the governing body for orienteering.


Competitors in orienteering need a map, compass, whistle, control card, appropriate clothing for the environment and knowledge of land navigation. Although a variety of compasses are used, they share similar features, including a baseplate with a scale, a direction of travel arrow and a compass needle that rotates quickly. Orienteering maps are topographic maps that include terrain features that are easily identifiable (such as boulders) and grid lines are oriented along magnetic north. Control points are also marked on the map. The control card is marked with a punch at each control point on the route. The whistle is used for emergency signaling.

The Course

Courses are classified by color, according to difficulty and length of the course. White and yellow courses are designed for beginner-level orienteering and range from 2 to 4 kilometers in length. Orange courses are for intermediate-level athletes and typically range from 4 to 5 kilometers. Advanced courses are colored brown, green, red, and blue, depending on the length of the course. Advanced courses run from 3 to 12 kilometers. Some events also include a string course intended for children, where a string lies along the route to aid children in finding their control points.

Navigating the Course

At the start of each event, athletes begin the course at a starting point and move along a route of their choosing to a series of control points marked on the map. Depending on the course environment, athletes travel by foot, mountain bike or skis. Experienced athletes navigate using terrain association until they reach a location near the control point, referred to as an attack point, before switching to dead reckoning. Each control point is visibly marked with a control marker. Upon reaching the control point, the athlete uses the attached control card punch to mark the control card and then proceeds to the next control marker on the route. Once the athlete progresses through each control point, the race then turns to a finish point. While the athletic speed of the participant is certainly an important factor, route selection and accurate navigation play a far more critical role in completing the course in a timely manner.

Orienteering Variations

The IOF recognizes foot orienteering, trail orienteering, ski orienteering and mountain bike orienteering as orienteering subtypes. Some orienteering events occur as relays where the athlete must return to the starting point after each control point. However, a number of orienteering-type events have sprung up around the world outside of the IOF. Among these are mounted orienteering on horses and canoe orienteering, utilizing canoes and kayaks. Rogaining is an ultra-orienteering competition with events lasting 24 hours or longer. In mounted orienteering, participants navigate on horseback.

Article Written By David Chandler

David Chandler has been a freelance writer since 2006 whose work has appeared in various print and online publications. A former reconnaissance Marine, he is an active hiker, diver, kayaker, sailor and angler. He has traveled extensively and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida where he was educated in international studies and microbiology.

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