New to Orienteering?

What is it?

It’s a race in which the runners choose their own routes to visit a number of checkpoints. The maps are highly detailed, specially prepared for the sport, and the runner only sees where the checkpoints are once their race is underway.

Put aside thoughts of walking in boots in a group , all wearing rucksacks – although you could do that if you really want, as orienteering is a very flexible sport:

  • Adjusting the physical and navigation difficulty make it suitable for different levels of fitness and all ages.
  • It can take place in forests, on moorland, in parks, on the streets, and even indoors – some schools have proven extremely challenging venues for route choice.

We have made a short introductory film.

The video covers the orienteering map, courses, controls, equipment and what to wear, and ends with the presenter Graham Gristwood linking to our series of short Skills Videos so you can easily see explanations of useful techniques.

The terrain is often physically challenging, and to do well strength and balance, as well as speed and endurance, are required. The race goes to the person who best combines running with map-reading and complex decision-making at speed.

When someone starts out in the sport it is rare that they can navigate as fast as they can run. Generally newcomers should have modest expectations at their first few races, but getting better will happen quickly – and will likely continue for years. All orienteers have to decide how fast to run at any time, given that a mistake with navigation will normally cost much more than is lost by slowing down to get the navigation right, so you should not worry about taking enough time to make the decisions.

The key navigation skill is matching the map with the terrain that is seen, whether it be in wild terrain, or the complex levels of the Barbican Estate in the City.

There are a great variety of races – differing terrain, differing course lengths, differing levels of difficulty, not to mention differing conditions from the season and the weather, and it is often said that of course no two orienteering races are the same. There are also relay and other team format races, and as a club we pride ourselves on fielding teams to take part in these, and we encourage all members, even those quite new to the sport, to join in our teams.

At the top level, orienteering is a highly competitive sport, and there are competition structures including annual national championships. The best British athletes compete in world competitions – Kris Jones  won a medal in the 2018 European Championships. The majority of people, however, like in any sport,  participate for their own pleasure.

Typically an “event” includes a set of courses catering for the widest possible range of ages and abilities. The social side of the sport is very important too, and you will soon meet many other like-minded people from all walks of life.

The combination of the physical and mental challenge,  and the other people attracted by making and tackling such a challenge, together with the often beautiful places visited, have convinced many that this is the best sport yet invented.

GB Orienteering Athletes September 2017 (one of them a SLOW member!)

Where does orienteering take place?

Events are organised by the volunteer efforts of orienteering clubs such as SLOW, and can be held almost anywhere where access is available. Events are generally open to everyone, with the option to enter in advance, or turn up on the day. Nowadays more than half our own events are in streets or parks, often based on a pub.  The rest of our programme is in the countryside. For other clubs the balance is different.

Most countryside events are held in areas of natural beauty, usually forests or heathland. Orienteering is a superb way to get out into the countryside and into beautiful terrain which you would otherwise never have visited, whilst enjoying an adventurous sport at the same time.

Can technology help?

It can certainly help you get a feel for the sport. You can find videos yourself, but you might like to look at this one made with a combination of headcam, GPS and software to synchronize both with the map. It’s from our City of London race and is by Andis Ozols of the Derbyshire club Derwent Valley.

How can I try it?

Come along to an orienteering event and choose a course. There is no need to have any coaching or practice beforehand – first-hand experience is the best way to see if it’s for you.

There are various types of event, but all will have courses suitable for newcomers. Join us at an evening event in a park in the summer, or one in woods on a Sunday morning, or a street event based in a pub one weekday evening.

For details of upcoming events see the SLOW events page. This includes details of forthcoming events organised by SLOW, as well as links to details of events organised by other clubs in the south-east.

Who are SLOW? Should I join?

Any newcomers to the sport are welcome to come along to a few orienteering events before joining the club – come along and try out the sport and see if it is for you. If you enjoy your first few events you should look into club membership, which contains many benefits – full details about SLOW and how to join the club can be found here.

What equipment do I need?

At the start

Full leg cover is usually required at forest orienteering events, so shorts are not suitable. Apart from this rule, any sports -type clothes and trainers will do. More experienced orienteers will wear a lightweight top, running trousers and cross-training footwear for extra grip, but this kind of kit is not required for beginners. Waterproofs can be a good idea if the weather is nasty (and a cagoule may be mandated for safety), and a spare set of clothing post-event is highly recommended.

A compass will help you navigate,  although it is not essential. Regular orienteers always carry one. You will be able to find a compass at a sports shop ( or check our links page), and you can also purchase one at many orienteering events. You do not need to be an expert with a compass, but it is always useful to know which direction is north!

The typical cost for an event is £10 for a small “local” event and £15 – £20 for a larger one. There may be different prices for pre-entry via the internet and entry on the day (“EOD”). Prices are quoted  in the event details on the website of the organising club. (Typically there is an invitation or flyer, and then shortly before the event “final details”.)

The orienteering map will be provided at the event, along with an electronic chip card (there are two systems; we use “Sport Ident” so it is an “SI card”.)

What happens on the day of an event?

You should find directions to the event, along with any other details such as timings, on the website of the organising club. Most orienteering events will be signposted when you get close to the area – look for red and white signs with arrows.

A large start

When you get to an event the first thing to do is to find  “Registration”. This is usually to be found in a large open tent so should be fairly obvious, but it may be run out of a car (which should have a few signs on it!). At the Registration area you will details of the courses on offer, which should set out the length of course as well as the “difficulty” – that means how hard the navigation is.

When you register  you will hire and get an electronic timing card – the ones we use are a small red plastic stick, which you can attach to your finger. This will be used to time you through each of the checkpoints on the course.

The checkpoints that comprise the course are called “controls” and a slip called “the control description sheet” is produced for each course. This describes the terrain feature on which the control is placed, and its code, so when you reach it you can check you have the right one. Control description sheets may be available when you register, or they may be issued just before you start. If you have a couple of safety pins you can pin it to your clothing, perhaps in a way so you can read it without unpinning!

Newcomers are recommended to do easy or medium courses on their first few outings.

Many events have “colour-coded” courses, where the colour represents the length and difficulty of the course – the shortest and easiest course is usually the White, with the longest and hardest usually being the Brown. Newcomers  should try a White, Yellow or Orange course.  In the progression of colours as children get older the step from yellow to orange is the hardest one for most – orange is often quite a test.  You could perhaps try Light Green or Red if you are reasonably fit. Green, Blue or Brown courses  can be left for your second (or later) event.

A control

Please do ask for help and advice at an event, someone will be only too happy to help you. Orienteers are a friendly bunch and will always take the time to help newcomers!

At most events runners on the same course start at least one minute apart from other runners. You may agree what time you will start at registration.

Once changed, you need to make your way to the “Start”.  This may be close to registration , or not so close, ask if you are not sure. There will be an event official (or a team) there, and a routine of runners being called, picking up the control descriptions, and inspecting a blank map. When it is your turn to start you will start your timer, pick up the map, and then it is up to you.

What does an orienteering map look like?

In short, probably nothing like any other map you have seen before! Orienteering maps are drawn to a large scale, most commonly 1:15,000 (1 cm=150m) or 1:10,000 (1 cm=100m) and use an internationally agreed set of symbols. These are logical and easy to learn, and you will absorb much of the information simply by attending your first event. Most orienteering maps include a detailed key.

Example orienteering map.

Orienteering maps are drawn using magnetic north rather than ‘grid’ or ‘true’ north, and are printed in five standard colours. The colour is an integral part of the symbol:

  • WHITE is used for wooded areas which are easy to run through.
  • GREEN is used for thicker wooded areas which are harder to run through – the darker the shade of green, the thicker the forest is.
  • YELLOW is used for open areas – a solid yellow for grassy spaces such as playing fields, and a paler yellow for rougher terrain (‘rough open’) such as heather.
  • BLACK is used for most man-made features such as paths and tracks, and also for rocks and cliffs.
  • BROWN is used to show landform, including contour lines, gullies, pits and small hills.
  • BLUE is used for water features such as lakes, ponds and streams.

A sample orienteering map is shown above (taken from the British Orienteering website). This includes a typical orienteering course, a key of symbols (bottom left) and a list of descriptions of each of the control points (bottom right) – see below for more explanations of these.

The course on this map is a red colour standard course. You will see that the Start is marked with a triangle, each of the control points are marked with a circle, and then the Finish point with a double circle. This notation is used for all orienteering courses (although most maps will not include the words “Start” or “Finish”, so remember that the Start is a triangle!). You will always be at the Start point when you pick up your map (and this will be marked with an orienteering flag that the start official will point out).

The course above has 10 controls to visit – note that you must visit the controls in the correct order, 1-10. The route you take between the controls is entirely up to you.

The control description sheet (see bottom right above) contains details of the control codes and a description of the location of the flag. For example, control number 1 has code 33 and is located at a  boundary between some forest and open land. When you find the control with code number 33 you will know you have found control number 1 – “punch” it with your SI card, and move on to number 2!

Sample route choices

Choosing a route

(adapted from the British Orienteering website)

Look at controls 3 and 4 on the map extract, where some possible routes have been added in pink. Using the map, say you have now reached control 3 (knoll, eastern side), just before the major road. To make sure, you check the code (31) and punch your SI card to confirm you have been to that control. Now you have to choose how to get to control 4. You could use any route, but the three most obvious are:

A. Go north up the road until you reach a path on your right. Follow this until it passes through a gap in the fence and then continue along a wide ride. When you reach the vehicle track, turn right (south east) and follow it for 150 metres, bringing you to control 4, code 77.

B. This time you go to your right (due east) across the rough open land until you reach the fence bend. Follow the short section of fence until a wide ride is reached at the next bend in the fence. Now follow the ride as it curves around to the left. Upon reaching the vehicle track, go left for 250 metres until you come to control 4.

C. The first two ways involved going around, following tracks and rides, but you could follow a more direct route, using a compass and going straight across the rough open, through the open forest until you reach the rough open, through the open forest until you reach the vehicle track. If you do, it will be best to ‘aim-off’ to the left, so you can know that you need to turn right to control 4. If you go straight for the control but can’t see the control when you reach the track, you won’t know which way to turn. Although slightly longer and a bit slower, aiming-off can save time in the long run.

What do the controls flags look like?

Control site

The picture here shows what you are looking for. All orienteering controls look like this, with a red and white marker and control code number so you can check you have found the right control – you can see that this control has code number 115. You “punch” your SI card by inserting it into one of the red boxes on top of the stake.


Your time finishes when you punch the Finish control (located at the double-circle). You should then proceed to the “download” computer (usually back in the car park), where your SI card will be read to confirm you have visited all of the controls in the correct order. You will then be given a print-out of your total time, along with the time you took between each control. Note that even if you don’t manage to complete your course, you must always go to the download point, so that the organisers know you are not still out in the forest! They need to know everyone is back safely.

There may be a results display. Almost certainly there will be people to talk to about your run, if you want.

Complete results will usually be published on the organising club’s website later that day. As well as overall results you will be able to see how long every competitor took between each control – by comparing times you can see how you did control by control.

What next?

Hopefully you will enjoy your first orienteering experiences and be keen to come back for more. Keep checking the SLOW events page (with its associated links) for details of forthcoming future events.

A good way to become more involved in the sport and meet other club members is to join the club and sign-up to our weekly emails.

Once you have completed a few orienteering events, you may be interested in working towards some of the orienteering award schemes that are available. These are a great way of gaining some recognition that your orienteering is improving.

There are many internet sources of inspiration and encouragement.

For a document try these tips here on our own site.

Or review these eight short films we released in early 2019.

We hope to see you at a race soon.

The  first  and the last photos, and the landscape after the “where” heading, are by Ian Buxton on Flickr.

Orienteering in London and Surrey. British Orienteering's Club of the Year 2013. Community Amateur Sports Club accredited.