Your first orienteering event

Finding an event

If you are in the Southampton area then one of the best sources of information about upcoming events is Southampton Orienteering Club’s events calendar. Another useful source is the Find Event page on the British Orienteering website. This lists events all around the UK, and has links to information about these events provided by the organising clubs. See the page on different types of event if you need guidance when choosing an event.


Most events now allow you to enter in advance and some may require you to do so. This helps the organising club know how many maps to print and ensures that you'll get a run on the course of your choosing. Entry to SOC events is typically through the Racesignup service.

For local (Level D) events, colour-coded courses are typically used as shown in the following table. White is the shortest and easiest course, following linear features with a control at every decision point. A yellow course is slightly longer and there will be one or two decision points (e.g. a path junction) between each control. The orange course is longer still and there may be multiple routes to get between the controls. The fastest route will often involve using a rough compass bearing to cut corners. Most adults start with a yellow or orange course to get the hang of using the map.

Light green is harder still with controls often situated away from linear features. Green, blue, brown, and black are the hardest courses with the colours just signifying longer and longer courses.

Colour-coded courses

When choosing a course, don't overestimate your ability. Courses may look relatively short, but the more technically difficult ones are likely to involve going across country rather than along paths. This could mean you have to go through undergrowth, cross streams, and so on. There will almost always be hills to climb. Climb is measured for each course, and is presented in metres. Generally, longer courses have more climb. Courses are also measured in a straight line from control to control. You will almost certainly travel further than the course length suggests because you are unlikely to be able to go in a direct line from one control to the next.

If you don't have your own, you may also need to hire an electronic card for registering at the controls.

Getting to the event

When you see an event advertised, it should give you directions how to get there. Often there will be red and white signs to guide you from a major road. Parking is often in a field close to the area. Occasionally you may be asked to make a small contribution to cover the cost of hiring the field.


If you haven't pre-entered the event, when you arrive you will need to find registration (usually a tent not far from the parking). You will have to fill out a form with your details, pick a course, and hire an electronic card if you don't have your own. If you pre-entered but are hiring a card, you will still need to go to registration to pick up your card.


At some events, the start may be adjacent to registration. At others, there may be a walk to get there. If you have been allocated a start time, make sure you know how far it is and leave plenty of time to get there.

When you get to the start you may see a clock. ‘Call up’ is usually three minutes before your actual start time. At the start, you may find a grid laid out on the ground - several lanes, three or four boxes deep. Find the correct lane for your course and join the queue at the back of it. Each minute, a whistle will be blown (or a clock will beep) and you move forward into the next box.

One of the boxes may contain blank maps. See if you can work out where the start is! Although the control descriptions (which tell you the feature and number for each control) are often on the map. You may also be able to pick up loose control descriptions in the start lane. These save the competitive orienteer precious seconds unfolding their map to check that they are at the correct control.

Finally, you will get to the start line and someone will say, "10 seconds to go, step over the line," (this is simply to stop you from tripping over it!), and then the whistle will blow and it is time to go. If it is a punching start, make sure to punch the control unit just after the start line. You will often be reminded to do so by the start official.


The maps are pre-marked with the courses. If you are on the shorter, easier courses you may sometimes collect yours at the start before ‘call up’ time. This is so that you can check on your course before starting to be timed and get any help that you might need - understanding the map or planning routes.

On other courses, you will collect your map from a box immediately after the start. The maps will be in boxes labelled with the course colours, so make sure you pick up the right one! The triangle marks the start control and the double circle the finish. The lines joining the control circles are simply to help you see which order to do the controls in. You do not have to follow the line but you must do the controls in the correct order.


You can now start the course for real. In front of you should be an orange and white kite. On the map this is in the middle of the triangle. ‘Orientate’ your map either using a compass or by aligning features on the ground with those on the map. Decide how to get to the first control and then go! On the easy courses you should be able to take a route along footpaths. As you move, try and keep the map pointing the right way and identify features on the map as you pass them. When you get to each control check that it is the right one using the letters/numbers shown on your control descriptions. Then use your electronic card to register at the control. 


On your control descriptions you will find the time at which courses close. Make sure you are back before then, even if you don't complete the whole course so that the controls can be collected in. When you have punched the last control on your course either follow the tapes or navigate the short distance to the finish. Here you will find a final electronic control at which to register your finish time. From the finish, follow the tapes back to the download tent in the car park. 

The golden rule of orienteering is that you must report to the download tent whether or not you complete your course. If you don't, the organisers will spend hours out in the forest looking for you after the event has ended.

At download, your split times that are recorded on your electronic card will be downloaded onto a computer, and you will be given a printout showing your split time between each control and total time overall. Most clubs now publish their event results on their website later the same day.

What Next?

If you enjoyed your first orienteering event, you might like to take part in some more. Use the links from the SOC website to find out about clubs in your area and other orienteering events. You might even decide you want to become a club member. The website has information on how to become a member. If you require more information in general about orienteering in general, the British Orienteering website is a good starting point.

If you’d like to practice your skills, SOC has a number of permanent orienteering courses in local parks. These are a great way to try orienteering out without going to a formal event. A list of the local permanent orienteering courses are available from the SOC website.

Click to go back to Getting Started