What is Orienteering?

The following is a beginner's guide to orienteering in Great Britain including a description of the types of event you might come across and what to do at a typical district event. This was based upon content from various websites including those of Oxford University Orienteering club, Southdowns Orienteers, Mole Valley Orienteers and British Orienteering.

The Basics

In its simplest and most common form, orienteering consists of navigating on foot between points on a pre-defined course drawn on a map.

The aim is to navigate around all of the points in the correct order and in the fastest possible time. Attributes that make a good orienteer include running speed and strength through sometimes rough terrain, and accurate navigational skills. You will find that events tend to take place in areas of natural beauty, often forested, but also on open fellside.

The course normally consists of a series of points marked on the map. At each point there is an orange and white 'control kite' and some equipment that is used to check that you have passed through that point. To aid you in finding each point there will be a 'control description' briefly detailing what feature the control is located on.

To record your passage through the controls you use a small electronic card that you take around the course with you - these can be borrowed if you don't have your own. At each control site there is a small box which records on your card what time you passed through. After you finish, you are then able to see what your total time was and how long you took for every leg of the course. Results will be displayed near to the car park, but as people running the same course do not normally start at the same time, results are not finalised until the last runner finishes. Although orienteering is a competitive sport, many people come just for the challenge of completing the course and enjoying the scenery.

The large scale maps (1:10,000 or 1:15,000) normally have the course pre-printed on waterproof paper, and are drawn especially for orienteering to show everything from large hills down to the smallest pit. One thing to be careful of when you first see the map is that white doesn't represent open fields (as on an Ordnance Survey map), but instead runnable forest. If you are not sure what a symbol means there is always a key on the map to tell you. To make things easier when using a compass the North lines on the map point to Magnetic North so there is no need to make any complicated adjustments.

Orienteering can be a highly competitive sport and elite class athletes compete at the very top level in world competition. But many people participate in the sport for fun and there are many events throughout the year catering for the very wildest possible range of ages and ability levels. Many orienteers enjoy the social side of the sport - seeing regular faces around the UK (and abroad too), and making new friends from different walks of life. And speaking of ‘walks’, people participate at their own pace - from fast taxing runs to comfortable jogs and leisurely walks. The choice is yours. Southampton Orienteering Club, like other orienteering clubs, welcomes members of all standards, women and men, and all ages. The SOC website has information on how to become a member.

What do I need to take part?


Full leg cover is usually required at orienteering events, so shorts are not suitable. Tracksuit bottoms will do, the lighter the better, or any old clothes. Jeans are not a good idea, as if it is wet they hold the water and take a long time to dry out. A T-shirt is fine for your upper body, though you like to consider long sleeves. For footwear, running shoes are best, but any shoes with a good grip will do. Wear old clothes if possible - they will probably get dirty. You might want to bring some clean clothes to change into after you’ve finished your course - don’t forget spare shoes and fresh dry socks. Extras you might like to consider are waterproofs, a woolly hat and gloves if you think you might get cold. Keen orienteers tend to wear special clothing made of nylon, often in their club colours.

Dibber or EMIT ‘brick’

Two types of electronic ‘control cards’ are in common use at orienteering events. These are the SI dibber and the EMIT ‘brick’. These are used to prove that you have been to each control on your course. Dibbers are part of an electronic system that is used to record your progress around the course and produce personalised results for you on the day. Using this system, when you have completed your course, you will download the contents of your dibber into a computer. The data will be cumulated with others from your course and a set of results produced. You should get an immediate printout of your split times - the times that you took between each control. Full results are usually available within a few hours on the organising club’s website.


As you progress onto harder courses a compass will become useful. You may be able to borrow one from the organising club for your first event.


They are not expensive but are essential. Whistles are used if you get into difficulty to call other orienteers to your assistance. At some events you won't be able to start without one and it is always a good idea to carry one even if it is not required.


Allow around £5 - £7 for each person in your group. Juniors often pay less for their entry fee, though. You may also need a pound for car parking. This is a charge per vehicle - not a charge per person. A pound coin will be appreciated by those collecting the fee - it takes time fishing for change for a note!

Click to go back to Getting Started.