What is Orienteering?

[Basics] [Equipment] [Types of Event] [A Typical District Event]

The following is a beginner's guide to orienteering in Great Britain including a description of the types of event you might come across and what to do at a typical district event.

Varsity Match 2007 Classic Race - Wharncliffe

The Basics

In its simplest and most common form, orienteering consists of navigating on foot between points on a pre-defined course drawn on a map. The aim is to navigate round all of the points in the correct order and in the fastest possible time. Attributes that make a good orienteer include running speed and strength through sometimes rough terrain, and accurate navigational skills. You will find that events tend to take place in areas of natural beauty, often forested, but also on open fellside.

The course normally consists of a series of points marked on the map. At each point there is an orange and white 'control kite' and some equipment that is used to check that you have passed through that point. To aid you in finding each point there will be a 'control description' briefly detailing what feature the control is located on.

To record your passage through the controls you use a small electronic card that you take around the course with you - these can be borrowed if you don't have your own. At each control site there is a small box which records on your card what time you passed through. After you finish you are then able to see what your total time was and how long you took for every leg of the course. Results will be displayed near to the car park, but as people running the same course do not normally start at the same time, results are not finalised until the last runner finishes. Although orienteering is a competitive sport, many people come just for the challenge of completing the course and enjoying the scenery.

The large scale maps (1:10,000 or 1:15,000) normally have the course pre-printed on waterproof paper, and are drawn especially for orienteering to show everything from large hills down to the smallest pit. One thing to be careful of when you first see the map is that white doesn't represent open fields (as on an Ordnance Survey map), but instead runnable forest. If you are not sure what a symbol means there is always a key on the map to tell you. To make things easier when using a compass the North lines on the map point to Magnetic North so there is no need to make any complicated adjustments.

Varsity Match 2008 - James McMillan at the spectator control


Initially no specialist equipment is required. Any old clothes and trainers will do as long as you don't mind getting them a bit muddy. Long trousers are a good idea to stop your legs getting scratched or stung. As you progress you might consider investing in lightweight running trousers, studded shoes, gaiters, and (of course) a club top. At some events whistles are compulsory. All can be bought cheaply at an event or online. As you progress onto harder courses a compass will become useful, though the club will be able to lend you one to begin with.

Types of Event

There are many types of orienteering event. A few of the more common ones are described below.

District events

These are low-key local events perfect for beginners where anyone can just turn up and run on the day. They were formerly known as colour-coded events, refering to the ranking of the course length and difficulty with a colour scheme as shown in the table below. White is the shortest and easiest and Brown the hardest and longest. Most people start with a yellow or orange course just to get the hang of using the map.

White very easy 1.0-1.5 km
Yellow easy 1.5-2.5 km
Orange medium 2.5-3.5 km
Red medium 3.5-7.5km
Light Green hard 2.5-3.5 km
Green very hard 3.5-5.0 km
Blue very hard 5.0-7.5 km
Brown very hard 7.5+ km

Regional Events

The next step up from a district event, regional events usually have to be entered in advance. For these events, the club secretary will send out the details and the entry deadline. They differ from the district events in that you must run in your age class, and tend to be more competitive. Your age class can be worked out using the calculator below. For adult courses you specify L or S for a long or short course, respectively and in some larger events a novice (N) or very short (V) course may be offered for adult beginners. Many regional events also have some entry on the day (EOD) colour-coded courses (usually from white up to light green).

Regional Event Age Class Calculator
Age on 31 December this year : Gender :

Shortly before the event a set of Final Details will appear on the website of the organising club. This information will include your start time, and everything you might need to know about the day itself such as the type of terrain you will be running through and what facilities will be available. There will normally be a copy of these details available for you to read on the minibus going to the event. Control descriptions for all the courses may be included. Descriptions for adult courses are most likely to be given using International Orienteering Federation symbols which club members will be able to explain to you untill you get the hang of them.

Varsity Match 2008 terrain, Lunsen, Uppsala

Regional events used to be known as 'badge events'. This was because you can gain badges for attending these events. In the results you will find times which you must have beaten to gain Bronze, Silver or Gold standard. If you achieve a given standard at three events within two years (in the same age class) you can, for a small fee, obtain a badge from the British Orienteering Federation (BOF). Together with National Events, results from these events are used to compile the BOF rankings.

National Events

These events are similar to regional events but are held on top quality areas. The technical difficulty of the courses must satisfy guidelines specified by the British Orienteering Federation, and the competition is usually very high. Along with the Jan Kjellström and British Championships, national events allow you to gain the Championship Badge standard. This is usually 125% of the winner's time. As with the other badges you must achieve three such standards to gain an award but this time they must be within one calendar year.

British Championships

The British Championships are held annually to decide the British Champion in each age class. They must be pre-entered like regional events but there is still no restriction on who may enter. There is a separate British Elite Championship for those at the top of the M/W20 and M/W21 classes. There is usually an individual event on a Saturday with a relay event on the Sunday.

Multi-Day Events

The British Championships is one example of a multi-day event. Many others exist, usually run over the course of a weekend. The most popular is the Jan Kjellström, held on the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. This consists of a sprint event on Good Friday, individual events on the Saturday and Sunday, and a relay on the Monday. Another large multi-day event is the Scottish Six Day - held in August every other year - where four out of the six days count towards your final score, allowing you to have a day off and still have one bad run!

British Relay Championships 2007 - Men's Start


Relay teams consist of 3 or more people. The first leg runner in each team is given their map rolled up or sealed in a paper bag and then they all start together. The courses they follow will have some common controls but will also differ slightly. The second leg runner waits in a changeover pen for the first runner to hand over on returning from their course. By the time the last leg runner crosses the finish line each team will have covered the same distance so the first team back is the winner. The Harvester Relay, held every year in May, has seven legs starting in the middle of the night so that the first legs are run in the dark!

Sprint Events

Sprint orienteering is the newest variety of the sport. Often (but not always) held in urban locations, the courses tend to be a lot shorter than for "traditional" orienteering, with winning times of around 12-15 minutes. Though the navigation is genearlly easier, the high speed means that every small mistake and hesitation will affect your time, making it an intense racing experience.

Score Events

In score events the idea is not to complete a course. Instead, you are a given a map showing a large number of controls. Each control will have a score associated with it. The idea is to score as many points as possible but returning within the allotted time. For every minute your are late a severe penalty will be deducted from you score.

Night Events

The concept is simple: orienteering but in the dark. The technique takes a lot of practice! The serious night orienteers have huge halogen lamps fastened to their foreheads but a simple torch will do for the beginner. This is to allow you to see both the map and where you are going. There are numerous night leagues around the country so look out for details of your nearest.


Originally designed for wheelchair-bound people this form of orienteering is equally challenging for anyone. The course follows a set path. For each control marked on the map there will be a viewing point from where it is possible to see several control kites. The competitor has to select which of the controls is the one marked on their map.

Trail Quest/Mountain Bike Orienteering

Orienteering can also be carried out on bike.

A Typical District Event

When you see an event advertised it should give you directions how to get there. Often there will be red and white signs to guide you from a major road. Parking is normally in a field close to the area. Occasionally you may be asked to make a small contribution to cover the cost of hiring the field.


The first thing to do on arrival is to find registration (usually a car or tent close to the entrance of the car park). You will need fill out a small registration form and pay your entry fee - genearlly around £3-£4 for students. Your name, club, age class and choice of course will be recorded on the form. You can work out your age class using the calculator below.

District Event Age Class Calculator
Age on 31 December this year : Gender :

You will also be given a set of control descriptions. These descriptions tell you on which feature the control will be found and also a number which will appear on the control so that you know that you are at the right one. You may also borrow or hire (for £1) from here an electronic card for registering at the controls if you do not have your own. If you want a set of results sent to you then address an envelope, put the requested amount in and drop it in the box. This is now seldom necessary as the results tend to be available on the Internet shortly after the event. Signs will direct you to the start.

Varsity Match 2007 - Stephen Granger-Bevan starts


At the start you should a grid laid out on the ground - several lanes three or four boxes deep. Find the right lane for your course and join the queue at the back of it. Each minute a whistle will be blown (or a clock will beep) and you move forward into the next box. Finally you will get to the start line and someone will say, "10 seconds to go, step over the line," (this is simply to stop you tripping over it!) and then the whistle will blow and it is time to go.


JOK Chasing Sprint 2007 - Joe Mercer collects his map

You will collect your map from a box immediately after the start. The maps will be in boxes labelled with the course colours, so make sure you pick up the right one! The triangle marks the start control and the double circle the finish. The lines joining the control circles are simply to help you see which order to do the controls in. You do not have to follow the line but you must do the controls in the right order.

Spectator control at the 2007 Varsity Relay


You can now start the course for real. In front of you should be a orange and white kite. On the map this is in the middle of the triangle. Either using a compass or by aligning features on the ground with those on the map 'orientate' your map. Decide how to get to the first control and then go! On the easy courses you should be able to take a route along footpaths. As you move, try and keep the map pointing the right way and identify features on the map as you pass them. When you get to each control check that it is the right one using the letters/numbers shown on your control descriptions. Then use your electronic card to register at the control.


On your control descriptions you will find the time at which courses close. Make sure you are back before then, even if you don't complete the whole course, so that the controls can be collected in. When you have punched the last control on your course either follow the tapes or navigate the short distance to the finish. Here you will find a final electronic control at which to register your finish time. From the finish, follow the tapes back to the download tent in the car park. The golden rule of orienteering is you must report to the download tent whether or not you complete your course. If you don't, the organisers will spend hours out in the forest looking for you after the event has ended. At download your electronic card will be downloaded onto a computer, and you will be given a printout showing your split time between each control and total time overall. Nearby you will find a 'washing line' or board with other competitors results on, as well as somewhere where you can help yourself to a well-earned cup of squash.

Last Updated: Friday, 14-Jul-2023 00:00:40 BST
©Oxford University Orienteering Club

Back to Top