Introduction to Orienteering

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What is orienteering?

(For a couple of videos that describe the sport of orienteering, see our Video page.)

Orienteering is a sport that gets you off the roads and into the forest preserves in the Chicago area. It has been popular in Europe for many years and is just starting to be popular here in the US.

For a nominal fee ($10) you are given a detailed 5-color map of the forest preserve that is made by our club. You copy one of the five offered courses onto your map and pick up a Punch Card and a Clue Sheet. The Clue Sheet tells you exactly what natural feature you're to look for inside each of the 100m diameter circles you've drawn on your map. You report to the start table for a start time and then you're off into the woods, trying to find each of the control features of your chosen course where you punch your card, and return to the finish line in as short a time period as possible.

It's a fast treasure hunt! Sometimes a compass is nice to use, but usually you can navigate using the features marked on the map, just as you would a street map.

How do I try orienteering?

Just show up at one of our events. We always offer a free beginner's clinic that will teach you what you need to know.

What should I wear?

For beginner's courses (White and Yellow) wear any clothing and footwear suitable for a hike or run. For intermediate (Orange) and advanced (Green and Red) courses, you'll want long pants and long sleeves to provide protection from scratches. An inexpensive unlined nylon warm-up suit works well. There are special orienteering clothes and equipment that can be ordered from GO Orienteering at (847) 293-4253.

What courses are offered?

Usually CAOC offers the following 5 courses:

White: For the beginner. White is suitable for adult and teenage novices. Younger children should be accompanied until they have learned to navigate for themselves. White courses are 1.5 to 3 km long, measured in a straight line from control to control. Your route will be longer than the straight-line distance. The course follows trails and controls are placed on major features. Before starting you should know how to interpret map symbols and colors and how to orient the map to North. There are always club members available to teach beginners how to interpret the map.

Yellow: For the advanced beginner who has experience on White or has done a lot of hiking with a topographical map. Yellow courses are 2.5 to 4 km long and mostly follow trails but some controls are located in the woods just off a trail. Before starting you should know how to select and follow a "handrail" such as a stream, how to select and use an "attack point," how to interpret scale and judge rough distance, how to take a rough compass bearing, how to select a route choice (safer vs. shorter), and how to recover from an error by backtracking to the last known point.

Orange: An intermediate course, 4 to 5 km long, which goes off trails and into the woods. The control points are located on major features or are close to major features that can be used as attack points. The Orange course puts more emphasis on both fitness and on navigation skills and requires the orienteer to make choices among two or three routes between controls. Choose the Orange course if you have achieved accurate, consistent navigation on Yellow courses. Before starting you should know how to navigate with or without a "handrail," how to read and interpret contours, how to use "catching features," and "aim off," how to follow a compass bearing, how to recognize and avoid "parallel errors," and how to judge distance by "pace counting."

Green and Red: Expert courses that have controls placed at the most difficult-to-find locations. Green (4-5 km) and Red (6-7 km) courses differ only in length, not in navigational difficulty. Choose Green or Red if you have done several Orange courses with confidence. Before starting, you should have excellent "pace counting" skills, have advanced techniques such as "attacking from above," "contouring," "thumbing your map," "traffic light orienteering" (red light, yellow light, green light), know how to evaluate your own physical and orienteering skills, and possess extensive recovery and relocation techniques.

How long will it take to do a course?

That's really hard to say. It depends on whether you walk or run. But more than that it depends on how well you navigate.

All courses are measured in a straight line from control to control. Hills, marshes, rough terrain or other obstacles often make straight-line travel difficult, unwise, or impossible. And of course you will get disoriented and go the wrong direction.

All orienteers get disoriented. We never admit to being lost, just temporarily disoriented. We run the wrong direction, or run too far in the correct direction. It's part of the fun. At some point, every orienteer has discovered that they were not where they thought they were.

Top orienteers average 6 minutes per kilometer over very rough terrain. Here at our local meets a standard of good orienteering is 10 minutes per kilometer. Thus on a 2 km White course, the winning time should be around 20 minutes. However, others are often three or four times longer, or up to an hour and 20 minutes. On a 3.5 km Yellow course the fastest and slowest times would be about 35 minutes and 2 hours. For a 4.5 km Orange course times might range from 45 minutes to 3 hours. There is a 3 hour limit on any course.

It's better to do a course that's too easy than one that's too hard. If you do a course that's beyond your current navigational ability, you end up wandering blindly hoping to get lucky and find the control. You can learn far more by choosing a course that's slightly challenging rather than one beyond your current skills.

You can do a second course at no charge at our local events. Some people arrive early and do the White course and then do the Yellow course the same day.

What is an orienteering map like?

Orienteering maps show boulders, cliffs, ditches, and fences, in addition to elevation, water features, vegetation, and trails.

Is orienteering like military navigation?

No, most military navigation (and Boy Scout or Girl Scout navigation) tends to be an exercise in compass bearing and pace counting - such as, go 140 paces at 71 degrees then 180 paces at 125 degrees. Orienteering, on the other hand, is all about map navigation. You must try to match the map to the terrain around you. The key is at all times to know exactly where you are on the map.

How do you plot UTM points on the map?

Orienteering doesn't use UTM coordinates. In adventure racing, checkpoints might be given as UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates. But you don't need them for orienteering.

Are there any orienteering classes?

CAOC offers a beginner's class at 9:30 a.m. at every meet. The 15-minute class is repeated as needed throughout the morning. The basics of orienteering are very simple. Most people believe orienteering is a compass sport; it is really a map sport. The skill is in matching the map to the terrain around you.

Are there good web sites on orienteering?

Yes. In addition to the CAOC site, check the U.S. Orienteering Federation site for information and on-line lessons about orienteering, maps, and compasses.

Are there good books on orienteering?

A good beginner's book is Orienteering: The Sport of Navigating with Map and Compass by Steven Boga. You can sometimes find copies at outdoor outfitters such as REI, or Dick's Sporting Goods. It is also available at Other orienteering books can be found there, and at orienteering suppliers such as GO Orienteering. But really, there is no need to do any prior study. Just come to a meet. The best way to learn is by doing. Really!

What is the CAOC schedule?

Orienteering in the Midwest is a spring/fall sport; in the summer there are too many bugs and flourishing vegetation for comfortable forest running. Our current schedule is on-line.

Can you give me more details?

Most local meets begin at 9:30 a.m. on respective Sundays with a Beginners' Clinic for first-timers. Master maps and registration are available too, so orienteers can be ready to go by the time first starts are handed out at 10 a.m. Meet fees are a reasonable $10 per person (and only $7 for CAOC members). Make sure you bring a whistle for emergencies. If you choose the Orange, Green or Red courses wear a long shirt and long pants for protection from underbrush and bugs. The maximum time allocated for courses is three hours. In order to have as much time as possible, please try to start before 11 a.m., since control punches and markers will be picked up starting at 2 p.m. Please make sure that you check in at the finish so that a search party is not organized unnecessarily.

Can I join the club?

Yes. Club members can run in local events for only $7. And they get a newsletter telling of future plans, training tips, schedule, other events, a junior team, etc. See the membership page for more information or simply download and complete the membership form.

Is orienteering difficult?

Orienteering is easy to learn but difficult to master. It's always challenging. Orienteering is often called the "thinking sport" because it involves map reading and decision-making in addition to a great workout. Orienteering is a sport for everyone, regardless of age or experience. The competitive athlete can experience the exhilaration of running through the woods at top speed, while the non-competitive orienteer can enjoy the forest at a more leisurely pace. If you love maps, exploring, and the great outdoors, try orienteering. It is easy to learn!

Can you go as a group?

Yes, but orienteering is essentially an individual sport, just like running a 5k race. It is better for each person to choose a course to try on their own, and compare route and results later. If you choose to go as a group, try to limit the group size to 2 or 3. If there are more than 4 people, one person navigates and the others just hike. We charge $10 for the entire group and provide the group with one map. We recommend that the other people in the group each purchase a map for $3. It is more important that each person have a map than it is for each to have a compass. Rental compasses are available at registration for $1.

What's competitive orienteering like?

Many folks like to walk and take time to enjoy the woods as they orienteer. Others like to race as fast as they can—they like the competitive aspects of the sport.

The intermediate and advanced courses require the orienteer to choose between several routes. Is it better to go straight over the hill or to run a longer distance around the hill? Are you going through the marsh or around the marsh? Would it be better to take a long, easy-to-follow route or a shorter, tricky route? Every runner must swiftly size up the terrain, calculate the energy requirements involved, evaluate the options, and then blaze a route.

Orienteering is a balance between speed and accuracy, and there's always a fine line, whether you¹re a beginner or advanced. If you run too fast, you'll wind up overall going a lot slower. The trick is to never run faster than you can navigate. In orienteering as in life, the race is not always to the swift. Speed helps, but if you're better at navigating, you'll win.

To navigate well requires keen observation and great mental concentration. You must think fast on your feet; you cannot stand still in one spot while planning your route. You have to plan your route while you run. Competitive orienteering requires you to solve complex problems while in an oxygen-depleted state.

Orienteering is always different. You don't know what challenges are ahead of you. You're forced to be mentally and physically resourceful the entire race.

There's something magic about going out in the forest, using a map to see what's going on, navigating accurately to the spot where you expect to see the control, and wham, there it is!

Are there awards?

Not at local meets. At national meets there are awards based on age and gender classes.

Can you describe how the map and compass will be used to navigate from the start to the first control?

Yes. These eight steps are adapted from Orienteering: The Sport of Navigating with Map and Compass.

  1. Find North. The red end of your compass needle always points north.
  2. Orient the Map. Place your compass on the map and rotate the map until the magnetic-north lines on the map line up with the north-pointing needle. Keep the map oriented through each of the following steps.
  3. Find Your Location on the Map. If you're standing at the start, you've got it made; you're at the start triangle.
  4. Pick Out Features Around You. First on the map, then on the ground, look for prominent features. Whether it's a stream on your right or a cliff on your left, relate the ground features to the corresponding symbols on the map.
  5. Face the Direction of Travel. Keeping the map oriented, move your body around the map until you are facing the first control or an intermediate objective. Now the features on the map match the features on the ground in front of you.
  6. Choose your route. You are facing the first control, but what's the best way to get there? On the White course, you will usually follow an obvious feature such as a trail. On Yellow and above, finding the optimum route usually means taking a shortcut.
  7. Pick Out a Prominent Feature Ahead. First on the map, then on the ground, look for a prominent landmark. Look as far ahead as possible. Say you want to reach a trail junction that is just beyond a sharp bend. You can't see the junction, but you can see the bend, and so you know which way to move and about how far it is.
  8. Proceed to that Feature. Follow your chosen route. Stay in contact with the map; look for features you see on the map as you walk. As you change direction, remember to rotate the map to keep it oriented. Move your thumb along the map to track your progress. Look at the map in relation to the terrain; check off features on the map as you find and pass them on your route to the control. At the control, identify the control marker to ensure that the code is the same as on your Clue Sheet; if not, you're at the wrong place!

Repeat these eight steps, moving from control to control. You can do the White course without pace counting or taking compass bearings. To be successful at orienteering you must be able to relate features on the map to the features on the ground. That's the main skill of orienteering at any level.

What compass should I purchase?

The compass is used much less than most people think. Orienteering skills involve using the map, not using the compass.

You can rent a compass at CAOC meets for $1. If you do purchase a compass for orienteering, get one with a transparent base and a needle in a rotating capsule or bezel. The compass will be placed on the map and the map will be rotated until the magnetic-north lines on the map line up with the north-pointing needle. Then you are finished using the compass and you will use the map to navigate to the next control.

Compasses suitable for beginners include Nexus Star 7NDL ($9), Suunto A-10 Partner ($10), Silva Starter 1-2-3 ($11), Silva Polaris ($14), Nexus Expedition 3NL ($16), Suunto Woodsman A30L ($17), and Suunto M-3D Leader ($29). Children with small hands will probably prefer compasses with small base plates. Some compasses have additional features such as magnifiers and hole templates for drawing circles and triangles. These basic compasses are available at outdoor outfitters such as REI, and Dick's Sporting Goods as well as at specialized orienteering suppliers such as GO Orienteering. You do not need a "sighting" compass (one that has a mirror or a slit to look through to get a precise bearing). Precise compass bearings are of no use in orienteering.

After you orienteer for a while, you may want to replace your basic compass with a competition orienteering compass. The competition compass has a fast settling needle—no waiting for the needle to stop turning. The competition compass also has a very stable needle—the needle stays steady while you run. In contrast, basic compasses require you to be stationary to get a bearing. If you are standing still, the competition compass is not more accurate than the basic compass. Only orienteering suppliers such as GO Orienteering carry competition compasses.

How do you adjust the compass for declination?

The compass needle points to magnetic north rather than true geographic north. The angular difference between them is called declination. Orienteering maps are drawn to magnetic north are therefore there is no need to adjust for magnetic declination.

What happens if I get lost and I'm left alone in the woods?

All orienteers, elite or novice, occasionally get "disoriented." You think you're a certain place on the map but you're not. Beginner courses follow the mapped trail system. By following the trail you'll reach a spot where you can "relocate." That is you'll once again know exactly where you are on the map. Often the best way to do this is to backtrack and return to a known point. As you gain experience you'll become disoriented less frequently and relocate more quickly. Over 99.999% of beginners find their own way to the finish. We go retrieve the others. For that reason it's important that you always return to the Finish, even if you didn't complete the course. That way we won't unnecessarily organize a search for you.

How many people attend your meets?

Typically around 200-250. Some are in groups and some orienteer as individuals. We start people at 1-minute intervals on each of the five different courses.

Can I register in advance?

Yes. Advanced registration is strongly encouraged. By registering in advance, you will get a map with the controls pre-marked on it and save money compared to registering the day of the event. Otherwise, you will need to copy the control locations from a master map before you start. Additional details about the on-line system will be provided on the web page for each meet.

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