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.