Orienteering Basics

Here’s what orienteering looks and feels like…with France’s Thierry Geourgiou (best orienteer of all time) and some top Americans, too.

What’s orienteering?

Orienteering is a competitive international sport that combines racing with navigation. It is a timed race in which individual participants use a specially created, highly detailed map to select routes and navigate through diverse and often unfamiliar terrain and visit control points in sequence. Courses also can be enjoyed as a walk in the woods, with difficulty levels from beginner to expert offered at most events.

You can learn the basics of orienteering in half an hour, and spend a lifetime honing your skills. All you need to get started is a compass, a sturdy pair of running or hiking shoes and a sense of adventure!

Orienteering course map

Orienteering course map

The standard orienteering course format is a point-to-point race: A course of controls that must be taken in a specific order (see numbered points on map, left). Length varies from a few kilometers for beginners, to ten or more kilometers for experts; the level of difficulty also varies, from staying entirely on trails to advanced navigational challenges (See “How to Choose a Course.”)

A standard orienteering course consists of a start, a series of control sites that are marked by circles, connected by lines and numbered in the order they are to be visited, and a finish. The control site circles are centered on the feature that is to be found; this feature is also defined by control descriptions (often just called clues), a list of which you’ll receive along with your map, or printed on your map.

Out in the terrain, an orange-and-white control flag  marks the location that you have to visit. To verify your visit, you may use a pin punch hanging next to the flag to mark a control punchcard. Different punches make different patterns of holes in the paper. Many clubs, including NTOA, now use electronic “punching” as well, using a finger stick with a chip inside it that records your time at each control you visit (we use paper scoring for Beginner courses and e-punch for Intermediate and Advanced courses).

Electronic punching (left) and pin-punch (right) for scoring

Orienteering is all about navigation: how you get from  control to control is not specified, and is entirely up to you; this element of route choice and the ability to navigate through the forest are the essence of the sport!

Most orienteering events use staggered starts to ensure that each orienteer has a chance to do his or her own navigating, but there are several other popular formats. For example, we have “Score-O” events where instead of going to point to point, you try to find as many controls as possible, in any order, within a specified time.

Choosing a course

This is a description of the orienteering course levels and the skills required to do each one — ordered from easiest to hardest. This list is to help you decide which orienteering course and/or which training session to select. Above all, remember that orienteering is intended to be fun. Choose the course which challenges your current skill level but is still easy enough to be fun for you! In the U.S., orienteering courses are described using a color. Learn about each one below.

White: Easiest — for beginners, especially kids. Length: 2-3 km
Yellow: Easy — for experienced beginners, such as adults with outdoor experience. Length: 3-5 km.
Orange: Intermediate — a mix of easy and more challenging control points. Length: 4.5-7 km.
Brown: Advanced, short length — difficult navigation, shorter physical challenge. Length: 3-4 km.
Green: Advanced, medium length — difficult navigation, moderate physical challenge. Length: 4-7 km
Red: Advanced, long length — difficult navigation, longer physical challenge. Length: 6-9 km.

Now, some details on what you need to know and what you’ll learn with every course type.

WHITE: Choose this novice course if you are just beginning to orienteer and have had little or no experience. Before starting you should know (and will learn at an NTOA beginners clinic):

— How to interpret map symbols and colors (legend)

— How to orient the map to North using a compass and/or land features

— What are the basic objectives (rules) of orienteering competition

— What to do when hopelessly lost (how to use a “safety bearing”)

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

— Following land features (“handrails” such as trails, roads and streams)

— Learning to relate the map to features on the ground

— Judging the distance between control locations

— Gaining self-confidence in map reading

YELLOW: Choose this beginner course if you have had some experience with orienteering and are quite comfortable with the beginner course, or have done a lot of hiking using topographical maps. Before starting you should know:

— Everything listed for the White course above

— How to read contour lines

— How to select and follow a “handrail”

— How to select and use an “attack point”
How to interpret a scale and judge rough distance

— How to take a rough compass bearing

— How to select a route choice (safer vs. shorter)

— How to “recover” from an error by backtracking to last known point

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

— Following handrails to an attack point (rather than to the control)

— Taking a bearing from the attack point to the control

— Judging fine distance between the attack point and the control

— Selecting between simple route choices

— Recognizing “collecting features” and “catching features”

— Reading and interpreting contours

— Recovering using attack points and maps features

ORANGEChoose this intermediate course if you are moderately experienced with orienteering, you have mastered the white course and done a few yellow courses and been very comfortable with them. Before starting you should know:
— Everything listed for the White and Yellow courses
— How to navigate with or without a “handrail”

— How to select and use “collecting features” and “catching features”

— How to “aim off”

— How to “simplify” a map

— How to follow a compass bearing

— How to recognize and avoid “parallel errors”

— How to read IOF control symbols (descriptions no longer written out)

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

— How to navigate cross-country with confidence

— Make route choices (according to your personal strengths and weaknesses)

— Recovering from “parallel errors” and other mistakes

— Fine map reading while traveling

— Visualization of contours

— Judging physical challenges and pacing yourself

BROWN, GREEN, RED: These courses have the same advanced difficulty and vary only in the length and physical challenge. Brown is shorter, Green is medium length, and Red is long. (Some national events offer an even longer Blue course.). Choose this advanced level course if you are an experienced orienteer and have done several orange courses with confidence. Before starting you should know:
— Everything listed for the other courses

— How to “pace count”

— Advanced techniques such as attacking from above, contouring, thumbing your map, red light, yellow light, green light

— How to evaluate your own physical and orienteering skills

— Extensive recovery techniques

This course is designed to give you experience in:

— Pacing yourself (physically)

— Recognizing the challenges presented to you by the course setter<

— Perfecting your orienteering skills

— Discrimination of mapping details

Adapted from an article by Karen Dennis that first appeared in the “Beginners’ Clinic” feature in the June 1995 issue of Orienteering North America, the magazine of the sport in the United States and Canada. ONA frequently publishes helpful features such as this one.It’s available by subscription, but the best way to receive it is with a membership to Orienteering USA


Your First Event

So, are you ready to try orienteering? An orienteering event is similar to a running or biking race in that there is a place to register, a start, a finish, results and awards. However, there are quite a few differences, too. 


Preregistration is highly encouraged. It speeds up the registration process on the day of the race, helps us to determine how many maps are needed and helps keep club costs down. Instructions for preregistration will be on the event web page. Incidentally, preregistration ensures you will get a map with a preprinted course. We always bring extra but if there appears to be a lot of race-day registrants, then we will ask the latter to draw their course on a blank map  — on the clock!


Wear comfortable running shoes or light hiking boots, long pants (for protection against underbrush and poison ivy), a watch (as there is a time limit), and, ideally, some eyewear to protect against branches. Bring a whistle (to call for help in an emergency) and a compass. The compass should be a simple protractor style with a clear baseplate — you can usually get one at an outdoor or sporting goods store for less than $15. However, we also have whistles to give new orienteers, and loaner compasses.


Water will be available at the Start, Finish and at select locations on the course (indicated on your map). However, we encourage all participants to carry their own water in hot weather to prevent dehydration.

Registration and Check-in

Registration is where you check-in, pay your event fees and turn in your signed liability waiver. You can download the waiver here and come with it already filled out, or we have blank copies at Registration. You will receive a “punch card” that has your identification, course information and a sequence of numbered squares. We’ll talk more about what you will do with the punch card below. Advanced orienteers may need to rent an e-stick, and they’ll pick it up down the table from Registration.

Beginner’s Clinic

There is a Beginner’s Clinic before every meet at approximately 9:30am that lasts about 15min. They will explain how special orienteering maps, are drawn, what clue sheets are, and how to use your punch cards. The instructor will discuss how to read the map and share some strategies for getting around the course.

Start times

After registration (assuming you’re on a White or Yellow course), proceed to the start-time assignment table. Because participants are to navigate on their own (except for Groups), everyone starts at 1-minute intervals.  Make sure you’re in the right line for your course. The start time will be a number that indicates the number of minutes after the first start, which is usually at 10:00 a.m. So, if you get a start time of 7, your start time is 10:07; if it’s 70, your start tie is 11:10.

At the Start

Be sure to show up several minutes before your assigned start time. Look for the line corresponding to your course color. You’ll be called up at 3 minutes prior to your assigned start. Listen to instructions from the Start officials. Each minute you’ll move forward. Two minutes before you start, you’ll get clue sheets that contain useful details about the location of the controls on course. One minute before: You’ll receive your map. Don’t turn it over; put it into the plastic bag provided, to keep it dry.

On the Course

Don’t be in too big a rush to run off for Control 1 (C1) — you might run off in the wrong direction. Take a moment to orient yourself and your map. Navigate from control to control around the course from C1 to C2 to C3, etc. The control location is identified by an orange and white control bag. When you arrive at a control, check your clue sheet to make sure you are at the correct control. Each control has a unique identifier number that has been included on the clue sheet. If you are at Control 1, use the red plastic punch attached to the control bag to punch square numbered 1 on your punch card. Now, reorient yourself and proceed to C2. Punch the square numbered 2, etc.


When you finish turn in your punch card. Most events have a 3-hour time limit  for course completion. Even if you don’t make it to all controls, or you decide to leave the course, it is important that you check in at the finish and turn in your punch card. We keep track of who starts and want to make sure everyone finishes safely. If we don’t have your punch card, we will assume you’re still in the woods, maybe in trouble, and may spend hours looking for you. 

Results & Awards

We will check that you have made it to all of the controls and compute your time. Final results and the awards do take a bit of time to compile because we have to wait for almost everyone to finish. You may have started at 10 am and finished by 11 am. However, this may may before others have even started. We typically have awards at about 2:00 pm

Health Tip

If you are allergic to poison ivy, treat your clothes and shoes like highly contaminated articles. Wash your hands as soon as possible and do not sit in your car in contaminated clothing.

For Group Leaders

We have an active community of JROTC units who regularly participate in our events, making for some healthy competition and camaraderie!

Orienteering is a great activity for groups, including:

— Families
— School classes and clubs
— JROTC units
— Scout troops
— Sports clubs
— Meet-ups
— Church groups
— Corporate team-building

Although only individual competitors are awards-eligible, many groups find it rewarding to send out orienteers in teams of 2-4 people as a team-building activity. Our registration system supports group entries and enables you to purchase extra maps–because it’s more fun and educational when everyone gets a chance to navigate.

For a complete guide to how to bring your group to an NTOA event, download our Group Leader Guide!


Ready to learn more right now? Find your way to some helpful orienteering resources.

First: Join and follow North Texas Orienteering Association on Facebook! We want to be your best Texan orienteering friends. Follow us on Instagram, too.

Orienteering USA: Our national federation site has an incredible collection of info and education on the sport–definitely start here!

Attackpoint: Where the international orienteering community meets online to talk about the sport and each other. Log your training and learn from other people. Find events all over the world!