Reading the Map

compassmapOnce you have oriented your map correctly, the next challenge is being able to relate the features on the map to what you see around you and then choose your direction.

When you are just starting out, it is advisable that you do not rush this process. It is a frequent beginner error to want to move too quickly and not ‘stay in touch’ with the map, which may cause you to head off in the wrong direction.



Folding and Thumbing the Map

Orienteering is all about being able to figure out where you are on your map so you can decide where to go next. Folding and holding the map, in a certain way, can help this process.

First, fold the map so you can see the immediate area of where you are located.  This may require one or two folds of the map. Next, place your thumb (or corner of your compass, if you prefer) on the section of the map where you are located. This skill of tracking your location is known as ‘thumbing’ the map. As you travel along, glance at your map and re-adjust your thumb to your new location.

This simple trick will help you find your location on the map quickly without having to visually scan the entire map every time you need to look at it to figure out where you are. As you move around on your route, you will need to re-fold the map from time to time so you can again position your thumb easily on your known location.  With practice this becomes a very speedy and proficient process which can save you considerable time, especially if you wish to become more competitive.


Using Map Symbols

Reading maps is all about understanding map symbols and matching them to terrain. Initially, you may need to consult the legend of the map, however, it is easy to learn to recognize most common symbols used.

If you have access to an orienteering map of a local area, it is highly recommended that you head outdoors and practice simply walking with the map and comparing the symbols to what you see in the terrain. This can also be a very relaxing outdoor activity.

Review the orienteering maps page for some useful reference sheets to learn more orienteering map symbols.





Simple Route Choice - Following a Handrail

Time to navigate! Have a look at this sample orienteering course. Where would you go?

Following a trail is easy and intuitive for anyone starting to practice navigation. Orienteering refers to such linear features (such as trails) as handrails.  A handrail is defined as a linear feature on a map that parallels your route and can be used as a quick aid to navigating yourself to the next control. 

Beginner orienteering courses are designed to allow the orienteer to stay on handrails.  This is a safe and easy way to introduce anyone new to orienteering.  If a handrail lies conveniently along the intended path for the orienteer, they usually represent the most efficient and fastest route to get from one control to the other. 




Try this out - Look closely at the map above. From the Start Triangle head towards Control 1 and so on. What handrails would you use to get from control to control? Once you visualize your route, mouse over the map to see a potential solution.


Simple Route Choice - See it in action

Here is a short video produced by the Irish Orienteering Association, that shows what it will look like to follow a handrail.


Checking Off / Collecting Features

The next valuable skill for a new orienteer is to continually confirm their position on the map by noting the features in the terrain with what they see on the map.  The practice of mentally noting these features and comparing them to what they see on the map is called ‘checking-off' or 'collecting features’. 

In this example, there is a handrail you can follow from Control 3 to 4. However, it is an indistinct trail. This means you will need to pay more attention to other details to make sure you stay on track towards control 4.

Visualize travelling from Control 3 north to Control 4.  You are at a trail junction, the first thing you should see is the small clearing on your left with two small cliffs on either side of the clearing and very close to the left-hand side of the trail (A).

Next, you should notice a swamp coming up on your right (B) as the trail bends slightly to your left and back right again.  As you continue to head north, you should also see a boulder field to your left (C).  Continuing on, two boulders appear in close proximity near a slight bend in the trail (D) and then you may notice a small indistinct stream starting to run parallel to the trail you are on (E). 

When the trail crosses the small stream at (F) and another indistinct trail may appear on your righ, you will know you are getting close. Your final confirmation just prior to looking for Control 4 is the distinct bend in the trail (G).  Once you reach this bend, you can anticipate that Control 4 (which is a root stock) is going to appear a short way off the trail to your left and northwest from the trail bend.


Using Catching Features

As the name implies, the term catching feature is a feature that will ‘catch’ the attention of the orienteer. The definition of a catching feature is an obvious feature on the map that is easily recognized on the map and also in the terrain that will alert the orienteer that they have overshot the control or other feature they were looking for. 

As per the previous example above, if you were looking for Control 4 and found yourself at the roadway north of the control, you will quickly realize you have gone past the control. Once you have run into this 'catching feature', you will now know to turn around and head back to the area near the trail bend to look for the control.


Getting Going

Here is another excellent video presented by the Manchester & District Orienteering Club that will tie together some of your basic techniques you need to get started as well as introduce the elements of choosing a route.

These basic skills should give you enough information, so that you can confidently try orienteering on your own at a local event. Make sure to review the map symbols as well as how orienteering works so you know what to expect. Have fun at your first orienteering event!

If you are ready to expand your knowledge, go to the Advanced Skills Section.


Next Topic: IOF Symbols