Orienteering Basics

control flagOrienteering can be described as a sport or recreational activity in which the orienteer uses a map and compass to navigate quickly from point to point in unfamiliar terrain. When used as a competitive activity, it is a timed event in which the challenge is to move as fast as possible to collect a series of pre-determined checkpoints (known as controls) in the shortest amount of time.

Local orienteering clubs put on regular events in parks, wilderness and even urban areas throughout the year. At these events, you will find several orienteering courses designed to challenge anyone from recreational enthusiast to competitive orienteer.


How Orienteering Works

Click on the individual tabs below for more information.

  • Equipment you Need
  • The Map
  • The Challenge

To prepare for your orienteering challenge, you will need the following:

Compass - A simple compass will do. On beginner courses, you may not need one, but on advanced courses, the compass is important.

Whistle - A good loud whistle is used as a safety device to allow you to summon aid in the event of injury.

Watch - It is very important to keep track of the time you are on your course, so that you return to the finish before the course closure time.

Sturdy Outdoor Wear - Sturdy outdoor athletic shoes are highly recommended along with long pants to protect legs from underbrush.

Control Card or SportIdent Stick - To confirm your visit to the right control flag a control card is used. Increasingly a new electronic timing system called SportIdent is used to record your visit. These items will be provided to you at registration. Look for more info under 'The Challenge' section.

samplemapAt the start of the competition, you will be given an orienteering map, and a control description.

An orienteering map is a very detailed map that will identify the start (red triangle), finish (double circle) and the location of the control points (circles) which need to be found. 

Orienteering maps are drawn at a fairly large scale to make the map easy to read for navigation on foot and will include information such as trails, cliffs, rocks, water features, hills etc that will be of use to the orienteer to identify their precise location. Common map scales are 1:7500 and 1:10000. For more precise detail maps at a scale of 1:2500 or 1:5000 could also be used.


Control Descriptions


A control description is included either separately or attached to the map.  Control descriptions are used to describe the mapped feature (such as a rock, fence corner or path junction) to be located and the details as to where the control flag may be located in relationship to this feature.  On beginner courses, these descriptions are available in plain language.  At more advanced courses, the description sheets are provided using IOF symbols which will be introduced in a later section.

With map in hand you will head to the Start. Once given the go ahead, your time will start and you must use your map to move quickly through the terrain and find all of the control locations in the order indicated by the type of competition.

The challenge comes with how to use clever navigation and careful map reading to find the optimum route from one control to the next. This is the most exciting part about orienteering. If you are competitive, your aim will be to move as fast as possible. If you are just learning, focus on being very accurate in your choice of route.

To verify that you have found the right control flag, you will need to 'punch' the location. This serves as confirmation that you not only found a control flag, but it is the right one! This is done by using a pin punch located at the control flag. With this pin punch you will punch a Control Card that was supplied to you at registration (shown on right).

More commonly you will likely be supplied with a SportIdent stick (shown below). The SportIdent stick is worn on your finger, and as you reach the control flag you will insert it into a Sport Ident station. The advantage of using the SportIdent stick is that it can record the exact electronic time when you visited the control. When you look at your results later, you will be able to see not just your overall time, but the amount of time it took to find each individual control.

Once you have found all the controls, you get to head into the Finish!

At the Finish, you hand in your control card or will be able to download your SportIdent results and compare your effort to others.


See Orienteering in Action

Here is a great introductory video available from the Manchester & District Orienteering Club that explains all the main components of orienteering as well as giving you a look at the types of maps and basic skills involved.



Types of Orienteering Events

In general, orienteering events follow two common formats:



Point-to-Point - all controls must be visited in the order specified. No controls can be skipped and those who return to the finish without having found all controls will not be counted in the results. This format is used in all formal competitions.


Score O - controls can be visited in any order. Points are normally awarded per control with the most difficult controls receiving the highest points. A maximum time limit is imposed with a point penalty assigned to anyone who exceeds the time limit. This format requires the orienteer to strategize their route, collect as many points possible and return to the finish in time. This format is usually a fun competitive event offered at the local club.



Where to Orienteer

Orienteering opportunities are provided by orienteering clubs all over the world. Check out the 'Try out Orienteering' section of this website to find clubs in your area.


General Rules, Ethics and Safety of Orienteering

Due to the nature of Orienteering, participants are often on their own and can not easily be monitored by officials. Therefore, the onus is placed upon the individual participant to ensure they abide by the rules to promote fairness and honesty within the sport.

The Canadian Orienteering Federation Rule Book contains complete rules and regulations for all Orienteering events. Listed below are some fundamental rules of conduct which will make Orienteering a safe, pleasant and positive experience for everyone.



  • Orienteers should wear protective clothing appropriate for the terrain and conditions.
  • Orienteers must carry a safety whistle during the event.
  • Orienteers must report to the Finish official whether they are finished the course or not, and must hand in their map to the Finish personnel.
  • Orienteers must aid any injured participants they encounter on their course.
  • Orienteers crossing roads or railways must observe traffic rules.
  • Orienteering oganizers should provide safety bearing information to all competitors.


Ethical Considerations

  • Orienteers should not follow other participants.
  • Orienteers should not discuss the course with other participants while still on the course.
  • Orienteers who ask for help should be shown their location on the map and then reported to an Official at the Finish.
  • Orienteers who have finished a course should not divulge information about the course, map or terrain to others who have not yet started.
  • Orienteers shall respect the land and wilderness environment.
  • If an orienteer comes across an injured orienteer, they are obliged to abandon their course and render assistance.



  • Orienteers shall not damage, hide, or remove any controls during an event.
  • Orienteers may only use a compass plus the map provided by the organizer during the event.
  • Orienteers must visit the controls in the specified order in a point-to-point orienteering event.
  • Orienteers must not cross areas marked on the map as uncrossable or out-of-bounds.
  • Orienteers shall not damage property such as fences, gates or equipment.
  • Orienteers shall not cross through gardens, or fields with newly planted or growing crops.


Explore the next page to learn about orienteering maps.