What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport that combines running and navigation — imagine a cross-country running race where everyone picks their own route.

Orienteering is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. It can be enjoyed as a walk in the woods or as a competitive race combining strategic thinking, navigation, strength, and high-intensity cross-country running.

How does an orienteering event work?

At a typical orienteering event, participants walk, jog, or race a course which is marked on their map from the start, through a series of mandatory locations that must be visited in order, and then to the finish.

The start is drawn on the map with a triangle, the mandatory locations, or controls, are drawn as circles and are numbered in the order they must be visited, and the finish is drawn with a double circle. The start, controls, and the finish are connected with lines in the order they must be visited to help follow the course visually.

At the location of each control, there is a marker, called a control flag, which has a unique control number (e.g. "53"). Competitors can look at the control descriptions on their map to make sure they are at the correct control location. The control descriptions also contain other symbols that describe the location of the control relative to a feature in the terrain (e.g. "at the eastern side of the large boulder"). If you are new, don't worry too much about control descriptions or ask another orienteer to explain some of them to you. You can print out an explanation of control descriptions and a map legend from the Maprunner website. Note that Sprint Orienteering maps (e.g. the University of Calgary map) use a slightly different standard and contain a few more symbols and colours such as areas that are forbidden to enter/cross (see the Sprint-map legend from Maprunner).

Control flags usually have some type of device to record the competitors' visit. It may be a uniquely patterned hole-punch or, more commonly these days, an electronic device, which works with a memory stick carried by the competitor. This is how the event organizers ensure that competitors have completed the course successfully.

Participants choose their own route between each control. Simple routes involve following tracks and other line features like fences or creeks, more complex routes might involve following a compass bearing, running between point features like boulders or thickets, or following the contours. Finding the best route for you in the shortest time is the challenge.

At the finish, competitors hand in their control card or download the data from their memory stick to a computer. Results are then collated and if memory sticks (also called electronic punching) were used you can find out how long you took for each control and compare to other runners.