Orienteering 101: What You Need to Know

October 21, 2020

topographic map for orienteering

If you already love the outdoors, you’ll get hooked on orienteering. Created by the Swedish military in the late 1800s as a way for members to compete and show off their navigational skills, orienteering is an extremely popular activity today, appreciated the world over.

Dubbed simply “O” for short, orienteering is a timed event where participants navigate a natural landscape marked with a series of checkpoints. Participants, called “orienteers,” are given no route markers and must decide on their own how best to navigate the terrain and the route in which to take to reach each checkpoint — hence, using their orientation skills to complete the course. Whether they’re referred to as a course or race, participants can pick a course — from beginner to expert — of a difficulty level of their choice where they can either run or walk.

Many have described orienteers as half trail runners and half navigator nerds. With only a map and compass as a guide, orienteers find several pre-placed control markers, often with a geocache-like item, or at the very least, a check-off point. Sometimes, even a GPS is not allowed — only a good old-fashioned paper map and compass! Oftentimes, the routes are peppered with natural hurdles, creating a more obstacle-course style that challenges orienteers. To reach the end of the course in good time, they must be savvy and navigate these obstacles.

Orienteering Clubs and Courses

Does orienteering sound right up your ally? If so, here are some different ways you can get more familiar with this fun outdoor activity. From state organizations to private clubs and more, take a look at these sources to find local orienteers who can teach you the basics of orienteering.


Track Down an Orienteering Club

There are countless orienteering clubs to be found, and more than likely, a club that’s pretty local to your area or region. For a state-by-state breakdown, take a look at the national organization Orienteering USA. Through this website, you can find many orienteering clubs that hold meets and provide training to help you get started. As a complete novice, we suggest exploring their articles to learn the basics and even learn a few tricks.

men walking in muddy puddles

Next to the more well-known Orienteering USA, there are many other clubs and resources to be found, such as:

  • Local parks and recreation departments
  • Outdoor recreation stores
  • School-affiliated programs
  • Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts (for younger orienteers)
  • Online sites such as Meetup or Eventbrite

Show Up at Local Meets

Many orienteering clubs will hold local meets. If you can, track down an online calendar or get in touch with someone who can tell you when and where to show up. Many orienteering clubs offer on-the-spot registration, along with orienteer orientation for novice newcomers. Try out a beginner course on your first meet. And if you don’t yet own a compass, no worries — most orienteering clubs rent those out, too!

control point prism

Find Permanent Courses

Some local parks might offer permanent courses, which are perfect for beginner orienteers who simply want to decide if it's an activity they would enjoy in the long run. Many courses are considered quite casual and low-key, allowing you to try orienteering independently and at your own pace. Check the park website or a local orienteering club’s website to find permanent courses within your area.

Proper Gear and Clothing for Orienteers

One of the greatest things about the outdoor activity of orienteering is it’s actually quite affordable. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get started, unlike some outdoor activities that require lots of specialized equipment made specifically for your excursions. In general, an orienteer just needs the proper clothing and a few pieces of gear to get started. Here are a few ideas of the basic gear and clothing you need for orienteering.

  • Waterproof Footwear – You never know what kind of obstacles you might encounter, so aim for waterproof hiking boots made with GoreTex. Once you level-up and get more competitive, then you can invest in some trail runners.
  • Layered Clothing – Make sure to wear layers. You never know how the weather can suddenly change. Have an outer shell layer like a rain jacket to protect you from getting wet and a base layer should the temperatures drop. Always wear long sleeves and long pants to protect yourself from brush and mud, especially when you begin more challenging courses. If it’s cold, gloves and a hat are necessary, too.
  • Baseplate Compass – Choose a light baseplate compass with a sighting mirror (for flashing search and rescue crews in an emergency). As one of the Ten Essentials, this is a must any time you head out into the woods. But when orienteering, it’s part of your core equipment, so choose one with declination adjustment. Maps, however, are not necessary as these are provided before you start the course.
  • Safety Whistle – This bit of safety equipment could really get you out of trouble. On the trail, even a twisted angle might be enough to opt out and summon help. So have some kind of whittling device on you at all times!

Must-Have Orienteering Gear for Longer Courses

When you set out on a longer O for say, multiple hours or days, there are a few more pieces of gear you absolutely need.

orienteering essentials

  • The Ten Essentials – As mentioned, a compass (or some sort of GPS or navigational aid) is one of the Ten Essentials. But make sure you have the other nine as well! From a First Aid Kit to shelter and extra food, on longer courses, it pays to be prepared.
  • Tactical Flashlight – While the modern Ten Essentials calls for a headlamp for those after-dusk hours, a tactical flashlight is a wise backup to have. Tactical flashlights offer several high beam and strobe lighting options, and are just exceptionally durable and able to take on accidental tumbles on rocks and more.
  • Hard Travel Case – Depending on the type of orienteering course you might be doing, such as mountain bike orienteering, a hard travel case can really come in handy. It can keep all of your gear protected and secure as you bounce around trails. Take a look at our Pelican cases to find smaller, more portable sizes for lighter orienteering courses, too.

A Note About GPS

The whole objective of orienteering is to practice old-school navigation techniques. GPS units are considered a rule violation and, in general, orienteers strictly use their compass and maps to navigate. However, some advanced orienteers use a GPS device — not for navigation, but to analyze their performance. Essentially, they record the precise path they take on their course (without looking and cheating, of course), downloading the data after the race. This record allows them to critique their own navigation skills and pinpoint where they could have made better choices along the way.

So, it goes without saying that using a GPS device to navigate is a big no-no along the orienteering course. But if you want to use it to track your efforts, go right ahead! Ultimately, it’s an honor system. Plus, where would all the fun be if you used technology to tell you precisely where to go?

What to Expect on Your First Orienteering Meet

To better prepare you for your first orienteering meet, here is a breakdown of what you can expect:

Registration Area

When you arrive, find the registration area. There, you will sign a waiver of some sort, choose a course and pay an event fee. If you forgot your compass or have yet to purchase one, you can rent one through the registration area, too. We should also mention that you will receive your map later, not at the registration area. From there, you will be directed to a newcomer orienteer instructor, along with other novice beginners.

orienteering competition

Start of the Course

Find where your registered course begins and get in line. Typically, an orienteering meet may have several lines — anywhere from three to seven courses — so it’s important to find the correct course. To keep orienteers from overlapping, each course will release a runner at the same time, staggering them instead.

Before each runner is released on their path, they will receive an orienteering map. An orienteering map is basically a topographic map, but with some extra details to designate the meet area and surrounding areas, giving you at least a centered region where you can’t get too lost. Before you head out on your first O, make sure you know how to read a topographic map.

There will be orienteering symbols, which are crucial to learn ahead of time. Also, an orienteering map will not include declination, since they align with magnetic north for simplification purposes. This makes the map much faster to read while darting through the woods!

Navigating to Controls

Once you set off on your orienteering course, you will need to navigate yourself from one control to the next, using only your map and compass. Beginner courses oftentimes offer a more simple main trail, while intermediate and advanced courses offer a more rugged off-trail experience, complete with maybe some rock scrambling or creek crossings. Use your map’s descriptions or symbols to navigate to each control.

E-Punch vs. Paper Punch

As you find each control along the course, you will need to record your visit to say “I was here!” This recording device could be anything from a paper punch to a marker. However, most meets these days use some sort of electronic “punch” system that uses an “e-punch” timing stick. Like learning how to read a topographic map, make sure you know how to use electronic punching and how to read the splits.

orienteering maps

Punching in at Controls

Keep in mind that the same controls might be used by multiple courses that day. In the same vein, you will also stumble across controls that are not for you. In other words, pay attention and only punch controls along your course’s orienteering map! Use your map as a guide along with the control’s unique identifying number.

If you get distracted or swayed off course by other orienteers, and fail to double-check your control’s ID to your control description, it can result in a mispunch and disqualify your time. Also, keep in mind that typically the series of controls must be punched in numerical order. Still, some orienteering meets do vary, so be sure to verify the course’s format and rules with registration.

The Finish Line

Punched your last control? Head for the finish line. Okay, so it’s not so much a definitive line as it is more likely the beginning area where you started. Either way, you’ve completed your first O, so a huge congrats! If you purchased or rented an e-punch, you can also collect a printout of your overall time and time between each control, located at a download station.

Tips for Novice Orienteers

Ready to sign up for your first orienteering meet and register for a course? Here are some additional tips for first-time orienteers on the trail.

  • Slow and Steady – Until you’re ready for a more intermediate or advanced level, take it slow and steady. This is not a race! Instead, take your time and read your map, taking wise routes.
  • Ignore Other Orienteers – Like we mentioned, you need to ignore other orienteers. Not only can they misdirect you, but as a beginner, you start to compare. They could be on an entirely different course, so mind your own business and get those controls punched!
  • Study Orienteering Maps – While you don’t get your orienteering map until you start the course, you can still study up on other orienteering maps to learn common symbols. This way, you won’t be overwhelmed on your first outing.

shop pelican cases


Sign up for our newsletter and get exclusive access to new product launches, special offers and much more.