Newcomer's Guide

Newcomer's Guide

Orienteering is an exciting outdoor adventure sport which involves walking or running whilst navigating around a course using a detailed map and sometimes a compass.   The aim is to navigate in sequence between a set of control points and decide the best route to complete the course in the quickest time.  It does not matter how young, old or fit you are, as you can run, walk or jog the course and progress at your own pace.

Orienteering can take place anywhere from remote forest and countryside to urban parks and school playgrounds.  It’s a great sport for runners, joggers and walkers who want to improve their navigation skills or for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Orienteering - The adventure sport for all

Community Orienteering

A great way to get started in orienteering is to contact your local club. Lots of clubs provide weekly training and activities in a non-competitive environment that will allow for skill development at a social and motivating level for people of all ages and abilities. To experience the full excitement of orienteering in a more traditional way, you will need to attend an orienteering event. Here you will find lots of experienced orienteers who will be able to help you get started. You should be able to find an orienteering event or activity near to your home by searching on the Find an Event page. 

Permanent Orienteering Courses (POCs) are also great fun and can be located in a forest, local town or country park. To find out where your nearest course is, go to the ‘Permanent Courses’ section of the website.

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The details of all the events hosted by British Orienteering or one of our clubs can be found on the Find an Event page. There are four types of orienteering events from Local to Major. Major Events are national and international competitions such as a British Championships, National events are high-quality competitions for people wishing to attend high-level competitions, Regional events attract participants from around the local Region and Local events are usually aimed at participants in a 'localised' area such as a town park. Local events are ideal for newcomers. At some events, very young children may also be able to take part on a string course, where they have their own map and follow a line of string which takes them around a set of controls marked by fun characters.  British Orienteering, in conjunction with Sport England and a range of partners, also organise Xplorer events that are great for families.


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 Local and Regional 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.

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 are 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.

Your Age Your Age Class
10 and Under M/W 10
12 and Under M/W 12
14 and Under  M/W 14
16 and Under M/W 16
18 and Under  M/W 18
20 and Under   M/W 20
*Any Age M/W 21
35 and Over M/W 35
40 and Over M/W 40
45 and Over M/W 45
50 and Over   M/W 50
55 and Over M/W 55
60 and Over   M/W 60
65 and Over  M/W 65
70 and Over      M/W 70
75 and Over M/W 75
80 and Over M/W 80


Orienteering Maps

Orienteering maps are drawn to a large scale, most commonly 1:15000 (1cm=150m) or 1:10000 (1cm=100m) but for orienteering in parks you use a map drawn in a scale of 1:5000. All maps use an internationally agreed set of symbols and these are logical and easy to learn. You should absorb much of the information simply by attending your first few events. Most orienteering maps will also provide a detailed legend to help you understand the map.

Orienteering maps are drawn using magnetic north rather than ‘grid’ or ‘true’ north, and are printed in up to five standard colours. 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.

Control Descriptions

To help you navigate to each control you will be provided with a control description sheet. The 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 found on the IOF website.


Starting the Course

The 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. This shows whether you have completed the course in the correct order. You must download whether you have completed the course or not.


Route Choice

You will complete your course quicker if you choose the optimum route between controls (Route Choice).By using the map, legend and control description sheet, imagine you are trying to navigate from control 3 to 4.

You will have found control 3 (Knoll, E. side) just before the major road. Just to be sure, check the code (31) matches your control description sheet and use the punch to confirm that you have been to that control. Now it’s your choice how to get to Control 4. You could use any route, but the three most obvious are;

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The first two ways involved following tracks and rides, but you could follow a more direct route using a compass and go straight across the rough open land and 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 will know that you need to turn right to Control 4 when you reach the vehicle track. If you aim straight for the control but can’t see it 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.

Please remember that whether you visit all the controls or not, you must always report to the finish. This is the golden rule of orienteering, preventing unnecessary searching for ‘missing’ competitors.


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 ‘checkpoint’ 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 card - 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!



To start orienteering very little equipment is required. You will need to wear comfortable clothes for walking or running in (full leg cover is recommended) that you don’t mind getting dirty, trainers and a waterproof if the forecast is bad!  All other equipment that you may need will be available to hire.


Electronic Cards

An electronic card is used to confirm that you have visited all the controls in the correct order.

There are two main brands of electronic cards, Emit and Sport Ident. 


Sport Ident

You will also need to buy a compass as you progress. 

The two main suppliers of orienteering equipment are:

Compass Point:


Rachael Elder punching a controlwith an electronic card