Beginners Advice to Orienteering Cubs

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What is Orienteering?

If you enjoy spending time in the outdoors, then orienteering might be the right sport for you.

Orienteering is an exciting adventure sport which requires speed, navigation skills and good strategic planning. Although it is a competitive sport, many people choose to participate in orienteering just for fun and view it as a great day out that the whole family can enjoy.

Orienteering for beginners

Normal foot orienteering courses contain a series of controls (checkpoints) which must be visited in a certain order. Participants are given a map of the area that shows where the controls are, but does not plot a path between them. The maps are different from standard Ordnance Survey maps, because they give a more detailed view of the area. Many of the keys and symbols are also specially designed for orienteering purposes. Skilled participants are able to interpret these maps so that they can plot the best course between the controls.

Participants are also given a control description sheet. This sheet provides a little bit of additional information about features in the landscape that will allow them to find the actual control. These descriptions are brief and can be limited to certain words or phrases.

A red and orange control flag is also placed at the control point to allow participants to identify the right location. Some regional bodies add an extra stripe of colour to their flags to help to make orienteering more accessible to people with redgreen colour blindness. People with redgreen colour blindness may struggle to pick out the orange of the flag against the background of green forest or countryside.

Controls are normally marked with a unique reference. If the reference does not match the control reference on the map or description card, then it is not the right control. Many permanent orienteering course areas actually have a vats array of different controls dotted around for different routes, so participants must check reference numbers carefully to make sure that they have found the correct one.

Once a participant has found the right control, they will need to “punch” their card. Historically, a hole punch would be connected to each control, and each hole punch along the course would have a different formation of pins. These formations could be used to identify that participants had been to the correct checkpoint.

Although some orienteering courses do still have traditional hole punches and cards to punch, many courses now use electronic checks. Participants have a special device called a “dibber”, which is tapped against a special device at the control. The dibber records each control that is tapped and what time the control was reached. Once the participant checks-in at the finish line, they are able to download their electronic route card to see how they did. Many people still refer to this as punching, even though a hole punch is not used.

Choosing the “best” route between controls is vital if a participant wants to get around the course in a quick time. Participants must interpret the information given to them on the map and then play to their strengths. The direct route may not always be the fastest, especially if the map shows that a patch of impenetrable forest lies between the present location and the control point.

If physical speed is your strength, then you may choose to do a much longer route which should be clear from hazards. Over time, participants learn what they are good at, and what they are not so good at. This should help them to pick a route which works for them.

Competitive orienteering

In competitive orienteering events, participants are normally set off using a staggered start system. This helps to prevent participants from getting in each other’s way.

It is recommended that participants do not try to follow each other whilst out on the orienteering course. The person in front may be lost! Conversely, the leader may have very different strengths and weaknesses than the follower.

There are hundreds of permanent orienteering courses across the United Kingdom. These are great places to visit if you want to try orienteering for the first time. If you are primarily interested in the map reading aspect of the sport, then you do not have to run or jog. Many people view orienteering simply as a fun day out in the open air.

If traditional foot orienteering does not appeal to you, there are actually a number of different orienteering disciplines to try out. Mountain bike orienteering (or cycle orienteering) is one of the most well established forms in the United Kingdom. Participants must cycle between controls. A unique variant of mountain bike orienteering also exists, where participants must choose which controls they visit based on a points value. It is important for participants to plan a route that allows them to get as many points as they can in the allocated time.


What Equipment do I need for Orienteering?

One of the best things about orienteering is that it is a relatively inexpensive hobby to pursue. This makes it the perfect pastime for families to get involved in, or for people to take part in on an irregular basis. If you do decide that you would like to start orienteering in a more competitive manner, then you can always upgrade your kit to help you to improve your game.

A map and checkpoint recording device will normally be provided to you by the venue. The recording device can be as simple as a punch card, but some venues now use electronic “dibbers” which record when you get to each checkpoint.


A compass is really the only thing that you “need” to be able to take part in orienteering. A compass with a flat, rectangular base and a movable dial is the best choice for orienteering, because it can be set down properly onto your course map.

You may be able to rent or borrow a compass from some orienteering courses in the UK, but it is always best to check ahead. Although some people do take part without a compass, they are far more likely to get lost or head off in the wrong direction!

Good Outdoor Shoes

Whilst orienteering, participants can cover a lot of different types of terrain. They should wear strong, waterproof shoes that are comfortable enough to run around in. Fell running shoes or normal trainers are a good choice. Walking boots may be too heavy if you are trying to move around the course quickly, but they are OK for people who are orienteering for fun.

Some people buy special studded shoes which are designed to provide extra grip on difficult terrain.

Outdoor Clothes

You should choose suitable outdoor clothes to wear when you go orienteering. Depending on the length of the course, you could be outside for much of the day, so make sure that you are prepared for a change in the weather.

Long trousers and long sleeves are recommended even in warmer weather, because you could end up having to travel through long grass or dense vegetation.

Gaiters can also be worn to protect your ankles and lower legs from thorns.

Lightweight, breathable fabrics are best if you are planning on running or jogging the course.


Track your progress by using a watch to monitor the time that you have been out on the course. Some events do have a time limit, and a watch can help you to stay on track.


Some orienteering events recommend that participants bring a whistle with them, so that they will be able to attract attention if they do get lost.

In proper orienteering events, participants (individuals or groups) are set off at intervals and may not see their competitors for the whole day. Participants can get lost around the course, and a whistle can be used to summon help if needed.


It is a good idea to take water or an energy drink with you, even if you are only going out on a short course. Make sure that you always take a drink out with you in hot weather. High energy snacks can also help to give you an energy boost if you find that you are flagging.


If you are doing night orienteering then it is vital that you have a reliable, bright torch. Many competitors prefer to use a head torch because this allows them to keep their hands free whilst they run. A head torch also gives a steadier beam when you are moving.


Best Places to try Orienteering

A passion for orienteering can take you to a range of different places, from rural settings to urban jungles. Course designers tend to choose places of interest so that participants can get lots of sensory thrills whilst they are navigating the course. On the other hand, some designers have been known to create courses in very barren landscapes to really test the skills of participants.

There are numerous permanent orienteering courses (POC) across the United Kingdom (search here), and there are even more options available once you take into account temporary courses that are created specifically for fun runs and competitive events.


There are plenty of opportunities to try orienteering in Cumbria, because the wonderful landscape throws up a lot of physical and navigational challenges.

Grizedale Forest has an interesting selection of permanent orienteering courses which cater for a different range of styles and abilities. Suggested courses range from 2km to 4.2 km in length, and waterproof maps are available from the visitors centre for just £2.

In addition to the walking/running routes, there are also cycle orienteering routes for those who prefer to do their trails on a bike. The “mushroom cycle trail” is great for kids to try on their bikes, whereas the alternative cycle course has a high difficulty level and should only be attempted by the most confident cycle orienteering participants.


London is a really exciting place to try your hand at urban orienteering, as well as putting your skills to the test on parkland orienteering courses.

The urban landscape of London means that you many have the opportunity to race past some iconic London locations. If you want to try your hand at urban orienteering, you should get in contact with the London orienteering klubb, as they organise a lot of events around temporary courses. They will also be able to tell you whether the event welcomes non-club members and they can give you advice about whether it would be suitable for a person of your abilities.

Alternatively, try one of the permanent orienteering courses that can be found in a few of London’s extensive parks. These courses offer London dwellers the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

High Weald

High Weald is an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in the South East of England, which means that it is an ideal place to try orienteering if you appreciate the scenery.

bewl_waterBewl Water is one of the largest stretches of open water in the country, and is surrounded by gorgeous natural parkland.

Spread throughout this parkland there are courses ranging from beginner options through to experienced courses. Bewl Water also offers a number of different outdoor pastimes, so you can make a day of it if you are out with your family.


The countryside around Inverness hosts some of the most Northerly permanent orienteering courses in the country. The club in this hosts regular events to give member the opportunity to explore the Highlands of Scotland. The course at Nairn Links features on the world championship schedule, but an adapted course has also been created for those who are only beginners.

There are hundreds of other courses dotted about the British countryside and throughout urban locations across the UK. To find out more about courses near to you, visit the British Orienteering website. The website offers details of all permanent and semi-permanent courses, as well as providing a number of different maps for download, so that participants can take a look at the area before they make the trip.


Orienteering Jargon

If you are new to the world of orienteering, then you might find some of the terminology a little bit confusing. Once you understand some of the most common orienteering jargon, then you will find it much easier to understand what is going on in the sport.


A bearing (or compass bearing) is the direction that you are pointing or heading in as shown by the points of a compass.

To find your bearing you must use a compass to find North, and then use the compass mechanism to ascertain your direction. Even if you find compass bearings difficult at first, it is likely that you will pick up this skill very quickly! Practicing regularly will help you to find your bearing very quickly.


A control (or a checkpoint) is a place that you must visit as you move around the course. Each control will have a unique reference code which you should always double check to make sure that you are at the right one. If the code does not match the code that you are looking for, then you are probably at the wrong control!


A dibber is an electronic device which is used to help you to record your visits to the controls.

It is a small device which sits on your finger and which can be tapped into the control as you visit it. The dibber should feed back to the event’s main system and create split times for your event. You should be able to get an electronic read out of your split times and other relevant information at the end of your event.

Master Map

Some events provide participants with a map of the area that does not have a course drawn onto it; however they will offer a master map for you to look at. You will be expected to accurately copy the route down from the master map before you begin the course.

Night Orienteering

This is simply orienteering at night. Most night orienteering takes place in areas where there is very little light pollution, so you will need to make sure that you have a good torch if you want to see where you are going. The darkness means that you will need high levels of technical skill if you want to finish the course quickly.


Before dibbers, participants would have to punch a hole on their control card to prove that they had been to all of the right controls. They would do this by using a clipper punch with different formations of spikes. Each control had a unique punch. Most people still refer to checking in as punching, even if they are using a dibber in their event.


Some orienteering courses can be run in relay. One participant runs the first part and then hands over to the next. Relay teams usually involve 3 to 11 people, depending on the event. The team time is a combination of all of the legs of the race.

String Course

String courses are sometimes created for young children to help them to get into orienteering. Pieces of string are put between controls so that they children do not get lost.


TD stands for technical difficulty.

TD 1 is the easiest level and TD 5 is the hardest level of difficulty. Adult beginners should normally start on a TD 2 or TD 3 course. Almost all younger teenagers should be able to complete a TD1 course without adult supervision. Courses may also be colour coordinated to show their length or difficulty. Choosing the right difficulty will help to increase your enjoyment of the event.


How to Start Orienteering

Orienteering is an exciting adventure sport which can be tried by the whole family. One of the brilliant things about orienteering is that it is very easy to get involved in without the need for expensive equipment or professional training. It is an ideal sport for anyone who likes jogging, walking or navigation exercises.

If you are considering taking up orienteering (and I hope you are) you should read the following advice.


Those who are new to the sport require very little specialist equipment. Before you head out on a course you should invest in a good compass, but this is the only extra item that you really need.

Having said that you should wear comfortable, waterproof shoes that you can easily move about in, and you should dress for a day outdoors. Long sleeves and long trousers are recommended to avoid insect bites and scratches from branches or long grasses. If you decide that you want to continue to develop your passion for orienteering, you can buy your own dibber (electronic check device) so that you can keep track of controls.

Orienteering Maps

Orienteering maps are not like standard Ordnance Survey maps, because they are on a larger scale and most of the symbols and colourings are different.

Even if you are good at reading Ordnance Survey maps, you should take the time to familiarise yourself with orienteering maps before setting off around the course. The symbols and colours on orienteering maps have been internationally agreed, so once you learn how these maps work, you should be able to go orienteering on any course in the world.

Understanding the colours that are used will help you to navigate properly. Black is used to represent manmade features and significant rock formations, blue represents bodies of water, brown shows landforms and contour lines, yellow represent unwooded areas and white and green are used for forest.

Different shading in white, green and yellow sections helps to show how easy it should be to pass over this terrain. For example, darker shades of green represent progressively thicker patches of forest. If you see a dark green section on a map, you may not want to try to pass through this area, as fighting your way through could cost you a lot of time and energy.

Finding a Course

There are hundreds of permanent orienteering courses in the United Kingdom. Some of these courses are staffed, whereas other courses are not monitored. You should check before you visit.

At a staffed course, you will normally be able to buy or hire a special orienteering map of the area, and rent a dibber to record controls. At unstaffed sites, it is not normally possible to buy or rent equipment. If you want to visit an unstaffed site, you will need to request a map beforehand from the local orienteering group, and you will probably need to take your own equipment to record your course achievements. Maps may also be available online.

Find a Club

There are local orienteering clubs across the country. For advice on finding your local orienteering club, you should visit the British Orienteering website here.

Many local clubs also run special events that are designed to give newcomers the chance to try their hand at orienteering. Being a member of the local club will help to give you access to a lot of exclusive events. The club will also help you to develop your skills and learn new techniques that should help you whilst you are out on the course. Being part of a club also helps to give the sport a wonderful social aspect.

Children and orienteering

A lot of children are very excited by the idea of orienteering, because it is very similar to a treasure hunt. Taking your children orienteering can be a great way to introduce them to map reading skills which may be useful in other areas of their lives.

Many of the centres that offer permanent orienteering courses have short courses that are specially designed for families with younger children. These courses tend to be between 1km and 2km in length, and involve much easier terrain that is suitable for short legs and little bodies.

Children are also very excited to be able to use the dibber or hole punch to mark each control. Letting your children be in charge of the dibber will help them to feel more involved if they are not able to help with the map reading.

Some regional orienteering bodies set up “string course”, where a route is marked out with string or tape. String courses give slightly older children the opportunity to go out around a course without adult supervision, whilst also minimising the risk of the child getting lost. These courses are also perfect for children who want to practice their speed skills over mixed terrain.

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