An orienteer in action.

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a fun outdoor adventure sport suitable for a wide range of ages and fitness levels.

The aim is to navigate between checkpoints, called "controls" marked on a special orienteering map. There is no set route, so the skill and fun come from trying to find the best way of getting between the controls. In competitive orienteering, the challenge is to complete the course in the quickest time.

Only one person starts on one course at any one time, so people can't just follow each other. Starts are usually spread over a couple of hours. This means parents can both run if they want to, taking turns whilst their partner babysits or accompanies the children on a junior course. Alternatively some families prefer to go round their course together.

At every event there is a range of courses on offer designed for different age and skill levels. An electronic system is used to prove each participant visited the correct controls in the correct order, and record times at each control.

Here is a video to whet your appetite. And here are some reasons why you might enjoy orienteering.

Where does it take place?

Orienteering has been adapted to a range of types of terrain. Traditional "cross-country" orienteering takes place in forest and woodland areas, and may include open heath and moorland. Smaller scale local events tend to use parkland near towns. Urban events use networks of streets in towns and cities which might involve planning a route through underpasses, over bridges and around buildings.

Some areas, particularly around here, are quite flat, but in other parts of the country you might find yourself having to run up and down steep slopes.

What course should I choose?

Courses are planned to common standards across the UK, and internationally, so even though each orienteering area is different from any other, you can know what to expect from any particular course. At a colour-coded event (the majority), courses are designated by colours. These range from white (very short and easy) through yellow, orange, light green and green to blue or brown (long and hard). Runners of any age can enter whichever course they like.

White and Yellow are for novice juniors, whilst an adult newcomer would usually be advised to start with an Orange course which would be between 3 and 4km long, while longer courses might be up to about 10 km. These lengths may sound short if you are used to road or cross-country running, but they are measured in a straight line between controls, which is often not the fastest route, and do not allow for getting lost! Adult courses are designed so that the winner will finish in about 45 minutes, with most taking an h our or more. Younger or less confident children can start with a very easy white course about 1.5km long. In general shorter courses are easier than longer ones, but there are some exceptions, for example to cater for active older orienteers, of whom there are many!

How can I get started?

The clubs in East Anglia all put on events which are open to all, and we try to schedule these to avoid clashes, so that we can all orienteer as often as possible. These include colour coded events in the various forests in the region, and urban events. It is possible to travel further, to events organised by neighbouring regions, and to national competitions.

There are also variations on the usual type of course, such as relays, night events (in case you think navigation is too easy when you can see), score events (at which you have to visit as many controls as you can in a fixed time), or head-to-head sprint races.

In addition, many clubs now offer regular events aimed at newcomers - for example WAOC's Park-O, and SMOC's Keyne-O series. These provide a more limited choice of courses but operate on the same principles.

In the pre-Covid era, it was usually possible to turn up on the day and choose which course you wanted to run. However, at the moment no events can accept entry on the day, and all events require pre-registration so that you can choose or be allocated a start time slot. This is necessary to prevent too many people appearing at the start at the same time, so that social distancing guidelines are met.

Information on how to register or pre-enter an event can be found on the website of the organising club. You will also find details of any alternatives to conventional events, such as MapRun activities, which the club is providing.

Do I need special clothes and equipment?

An example map.

You don't need special clothes to start with, especially for parkland and urban courses, but for cross-country orienteering you will need full-length trousers such as tracksters, rather than shorts, and often a long-sleeved top. Unless the weather is cold, you will want thin clothes so you don't get too hot. Trainers are fine for footwear, but don't wear anything too nice as they will probably suffer from undergrowth in the forest, as well as getting wet and muddy - this applies to clothes as well. Once you become a regular, you'll want to buy some special orienteering kit in club colours, and some hard-wearing O-shoes.

You will be provided with a pre-printed waterproof map, and there may also be a separate list of controls with descriptions. There are various products available for holding control descriptions, for example on the forearm or wrapped around the wrist, but to start with, just remember to bring some safety pins.

You will be able to hire the electronic timing chip (dibber) if you do not own one. You will probably need a compass, and most clubs can loan you one. Traditional baseplate compasses are OK, but most orienteers use specially designed orienteering compasses which attach to a thumb.

A whistle is advisable to call for help if you injure yourself, and may be compulsory in some areas (usually not in East Anglia) involving steep or exposed terrain.

What happens when I am at an event?

Here is a video which describes some of the basics.

Remember to check for any final details or other notices on the organising club's website before you travel to the event, and plan to arrive with enough time to prepare yourself and get to the start.

If you have your own dibber, you can usually go direct to the start. Otherwise you will need to collect your hire dibber from and enquiries/registration point (usually in a tent near the parking area). Once you have everything, make your way to the start, leaving enough time (5 minutes) to move through the start grid once you reach the start, before you actually set off on your course.

Once a slot is available in the start grid, or when you are called up by start official, clear your dibber, and enter the grid. Once every minute, the person at the front of the grid starts, and everyone moves up one position. A minute before your start time, you move into the final box, and prepare to move off when the start clock beeps.

With electronic punching systems, you need to punch as you start, which starts your race clock, and only then can you pick up your map. On the way round your course, each control is marked on the ground by a red and white marker, and is identified by a two or three digit code so you can't (shouldn't) punch the wrong one by mistake. Once you've visited all of the controls in order there's just the short (usually) sprint to the finish, giving you a chance to show just how fast you can really run.

You can find more details on individual club's websites, and on the British Orienteering website, but if you have never tried the sport, you may find this guide, written by one of our clubs for their Park-O events, helpful.

How can I find out more?

The best way to find out more is to come to an event and have a go - see the British Orienteering fixtures page. You might also want to get in touch with your local club for more information.

Site maintained by Helen Nisbet on behalf of EAOA. Page last updated on 9th April 2024 at 4:50pm