Beginner New to Orienteering?

14th Sep 21

Orienteering is an exciting adventure sport that exercises both the mind and the body and is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Participants walk or run whilst navigating their way between a series of checkpoints (controls) around a course using a detailed map and sometimes a compass. There’s no set route between the controls, so you have to decide which way to go and then find your way there without getting too lost.  The skill and fun come from trying to find the best way to go.  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. In competitive orienteering, the challenge is to complete the course in the quickest time.

Orienteering can take place almost anywhere from the remotest forest and countryside to urban parks and school playgrounds.  It’s a great sport for anyone who just loves to be outdoors.  It is also a very good way for runners, joggers and walkers to improve their navigation skills. You can take part individually, or as a group.  Several courses of different length and technical difficulty are normally on offer at each event. If you enter one of the least technical courses you can study the map before you start.  On other courses, you receive the map when you start, so you can’t plan your route or check out where the controls are in advance.

Orienteering is sometimes known as ‘The Thought Sport’.  Decisions are needed from even before reaching the Start of the course right through to punching the Finish.  These decisions are usually based on information received from what can be seen on the ground, information received from the map, personal navigation skills, personal fitness, confidence in abilities and so on.

Check out this video of BBC Breakfast’s Mike Bushell taking part in orienteering.

What's special about the map?

Orienteering maps are drawn to a large scale, mostly 1:10000 (1cm on the map = 100m on the ground) or 1:5000 (1cm = 50m).  They are very detailed and large scale and show footpaths, fences, streams and many other small features such as small depressions in the land surface. Importantly, they also show the type of landscape around you, such as fields and woodland, and even how thick the woodland is; this is indicated by the colouring on the map. Using this information you can then decide whether you can run through the woods or if the vegetation is so thick that they are best avoided. Map-reading and route choice are skills which, over time, competitors refine with experience.  The course from Start (the triangle) to Finish (double circle) is printed in purple.

The colour of a symbol can often give you a clue about what it is.  There may also be a key to the colours on the map.
Black – this is usually used for rock features e.g. cliffs, crags and boulders but can also be used for man-made features.
Brown – this is used to show land shape, including contour lines, gullies, pits and knolls (small hills).
Blue – this is used for water features e.g. streams, lakes and ponds.
Green – this is used to show density of woodland and undergrowth. The shade of green indicates how much the woodland or undergrowth is likely to impede your progress.  Progressively darker shades of green mean increasing density and slower pace.  Note however that open (runnable) woodland is White.
Yellow – this is used for areas without trees.  Solid, strong yellow is used for closely cropped grassy areas and grassy spaces such as playing fields.  Paler yellow is used for rougher terrain such as tussocky grass and heather.  There can be quite a big variation in the actual runnability on light yellow areas.

How do I know how hard the courses are?

Most events have a course suitable for beginners and as you become more confident you can choose a course which is more of a challenge in terms of technical difficulty or distance if you wish. Age is no barrier to the fun of orienteering, and family groups often take part in events, walking around some beautiful countryside together.

Choosing a Course

Courses are normally graded by a colour indicating the increase in technical and physical difficulty. ‘White’, ‘Yellow’ and ‘Orange’ courses are designed for complete beginners. These courses are usually short (up to 2.5K in length) with checkpoints (orange and white flags) on paths or visible from the path. Green, blue, brown, and black courses get harder and longer and are only recommended if you have some experience. Some events use the equally beginner-friendly ‘score’ format, where you choose which checkpoints or controls to visit in the time limit.

Orienteering can, of course, be a highly competitive sport with elite athletes competing at the very top level in world competitions. But most people compete for fun and personal satisfaction with local and neighbouring clubs. Orienteers enjoy the social side of the sport, meeting up with friends at, and after, different events, and making new friends is easy.

Don’t you get lost all the time?

No you don't! Everyone gets lost sometimes, but you work out where you are sooner or later! So don't be put off, because after a few events you will become much more confident and as your navigational skills increase, you'll spend less time making mistakes.

It’s very unusual for the top competitors to get lost for any significant length of time, and when every second can make the difference between winning a medal and not, they generally consider even a few seconds’ hesitation to be time wasted.

Do you have to be able to run for hours?

No you don't! Courses come in a variety of lengths and navigational difficulty so there should be something suitable for all levels of fitness. Participants can walk, jog or run at their own preferred pace. You can treat the event as a competition, or if you are not so fast, as a leisure activity, getting to see areas that you might not normally visit.

Doesn’t everyone just follow each other?

All the runners on the same course will start a minute or two apart to prevent everyone from following the person in front. Sometimes people catch each other up, but it’s never a good idea to blindly follow someone in case they make a mistake or they’re not looking for the same control as you.

How do you know when you’ve got to the right place?

Each control is marked by a small orange and white marker, and has a unique code, which is also on your map, so you can check to make sure you’ve found the right one.

Can’t you just cheat and say you’ve been to all the controls?

Everyone carries an electronic chip that they register at each control to prove they’ve been there. When you finish, you get a printout of how long you took between each control, meaning you can compare with other people and see where you lost time.

Where do you do it?

Anywhere! Big races in the UK recently have taken place in locations ranging from the streets of Central London and Edinburgh to remote mountainsides in the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District. Races take place across the country every weekend, with common venues including forests, moorland, town centres, parks, and university campuses.

Do you need loads of expensive kit?

You’ll need outdoor clothes and trainers or trail running shoes.  There may well be rough ground and you can expect to sometimes get quite wet and muddy, depending on the area.  Choose your clothes according to whether you expect to walk, jog or run.  If you are going to walk, come suitably dressed for a country walk at the time of year.  You should always wear full leg cover unless you know you will be orienteering on streets.
If you have a compass and know how to use it, even at the most basic level, then take it.  You could even attach an elastic or string loop to your compass to keep it comfortably on your wrist.  Some races might require you to carry a whistle for safety. You can cheaply hire the electronic timing chips at each race, and your entry fee will include your own copy of the race map.

Sounds great! How can I give it a go?

The best place to get started is at a local event. Events are usually held on Saturday or Sunday mornings, or a midweek evening.  Although pre-entry is often required for events at the moment, if you ask one of the helpers for advice they will be able to guide you both in course selection, and in getting started.  The next events that HAVOC and local clubs are offering can be found here.

Want more information?

There is a useful Newcomers Guide on the British Orienteering website. British Orienteering is the sport's governing body and is sometimes known as BOF (British Orienteering Federation) and consists of 12 regional orienteering associations.

Manchester & District Orienteering Club (MDOC) / Greater Manchester Orienteering Association (GMOA) have launched 'Get Out & Go', a series of four new films targeted at novices and newcomers, thanks to a grant from Sport England.  

Filmed in urban parks during Summer 2020, the short videos show beginners all the basics of orienteering, from the special way maps and courses are drawn, though a range of useful skills and techniques, to simple route choice, planning ahead and reading the map on the run.

Episode One

If you want practical help with navigation or other aspects of orienteering, contact the HAVOC Club Coach:

Ready for your first event?

Details of upcoming HAVOC events can be found here


We hope you enjoy the experience and will want to join HAVOC, see the Membership page for further details.


Anytime Orienteering

If there are no suitable local events to try in the near future, Permanent Orienteering Courses and Virtual Orienteering Courses are available for you to try at any time.

Permanent Orienteering Courses

There are a range of Permanent Orienteering Courses, where you can try out orienteering in a more informal setting. 

Permanent Orienteering Courses are a great way to get outside and go orienteering at a time and place that suits you. Permanent Orienteering Courses offer a huge amount of variety, from urban courses in city centres to rural routes through beautiful scenery. They are on your doorstep or further afield helping you to discover new places.

No matter what your level of experience and fitness is there are definitely courses to suit you.

A new video has just been released by the Orienteering Foundation, explaining how to get started on a Permanent Orienteering Course.

The video sets out how to understand the map and how to orientate it to match the environment around you. It gives examples of the checkpoints you could be looking for and shows you how to download a map.

HAVOC have a series of local Permanent courses.  Details can be found here

The BOF POC database is here which gives details of courses all over the country.

Virtual Orienteering

One further alternative is to try Virtual Orienteering, using the MapRun app on your phone (or watch).  MapRun is an app, that when downloaded to your smartphone, is used to participate in an orienteering event.  The app will show a map on your screen with the orienteering course marked on it.  As you navigate around the course the app will record your gps track and which controls you visit.  When you finish your course the app will produce your result which is usually a combination of time taken and points scored for the controls that you visited.  The app will also produce a results list so that you can compare how you did with other participants.

HAVOC have a number of MapRun courses, details of which can be found here.  That link will also give more information about the application and how to use it.


8 Tips for Orienteering Beginners


1. Orienteering Techniques

Two very important techniques to remember are:
(a) Be familiar with the map colours and symbols – see above.
(b) Know how to align your map.  Aligning your map means you turn your map so that it matches the landmarks as you pass them.  The easiest way to start this is to line up the North lines on the map (the lines with the arrows at the top) with North as indicated on your compass.  Stand facing North and hold your map in front of you so that you can see the features properly and match them up with the features on the map.  You can then turn your map around each time you change direction.  Think in terms of how you might turn a road atlas upside-down when you drive from Inverness to Edinburgh.  The proper name for this technique is Setting or Orientating the map. 

2. Setting off to go to the Start

Make sure you have everything you need for your course before setting off for the Start.  You should have a compass, electronic timing device (SI Card) for your finger, or a control card if you are to be punching manually, and you should be wearing appropriate clothing.

3. At the Start Area

You will have to clear your SI ‘Card’ by punching the electronic box marked ‘Clear’. Hold your SI Card in the box for a few seconds until it beeps and a red light flashes.  You may also be asked to punch a box marked ‘Check’. If you try to punch the Check box and nothing happens you need to go back to the Clear box as you haven’t cleared properly. 

4. Start boxes and Start Line

You may go through a series of up to 4 ‘boxes’ marked with tape on the ground.  You move through at minute intervals before starting. When you reach the Start line and are told by the Starter that you can go, make sure you punch the electronic Start box to start your electronic timing. Pick up your map, and find the Start triangle on the map. You need to match this with what you see at the Start Kite on the ground. 

5. Going around your course and punching controls

From the Start Triangle you then make your way to control 1 marked on your map. When you get there, check the control number matches number 1 on your control descriptions then punch it. Move on to control 2 and so on until you’ve visited each control on your course in order.  Remember that if you are an experienced runner, but new to orienteering, you may be able to run much faster than you can keep in touch with the map!

6. What if you get ‘lost’ or make a mistake?

You could go straight back to the last control you visited and take it again from there or you could look around and find a very obvious feature on the ground and then find the same feature on the map. You should then be able to continue on your way.  For most courses, you must punch each control in order shown on the map and on the control descriptions i.e. 1,2,3,4 etc (not the numbers which identify the control as being the correct one when you reach it).  You will be disqualified if you visit the controls in the wrong order – electronic punching checks this.  If you punch the wrong control or miss one out it’s still ok so long as you go back to the last correct control and take it again from there.

7. The Finish

Remember you haven’t actually finished your course until you punch the Finish. This means you must keep running after you’ve punched the last control as your timing doesn’t finish until you actually reach the Finish and punch it.  You can then relax!

8. Download

After you’ve punched the Finish, head for the ‘Download’. Here you will be asked to put your SI Card into the Download box. This produces a printout of your time and includes your split times so you can see how long it took you to run between controls. 
You’ve now finished and before long you’ll be able to check the Results to see how your results compare with others on your course.  In due course the full results will be uploaded on to the organising Club’s website.