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:
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.
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.
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
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
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 Amazon.com.
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
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
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
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
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.
- Find North. The red end of your compass needle always points
- 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.
- Find Your Location on the Map. If you're standing at the
start, you've got it made; you're at the start triangle.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,
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