All You Need to Know About Orienteering

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Orienteering is a wilderness navigation race using a map and a compass. Courses can span large areas of diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain.

Person holding compassParticipants must use their supplied topographical map and compass to reach specified areas called controls. While many people practice foot orienteering, there are several different types of orienteering, including canoe, car, bike, ski, and trail orienteering. Trail orienteering is the most popular.

Basic Equipment

The most basic equipment needed in orienteering is a map and a compass. Any type of GPS system is prohibited. Participants should also have whatever other equipment they’ll need for the type of orienteering competition they’re participating in. For example, if they’re participating in canoe orienteering, then they’ll need, at the very least, a canoe and paddles.

Couple checking map

Length of Competitions and the Maps

The length of an orienteering competition varies. Some competitions can be a few miles or more, and any orienteering typically covers different kinds of terrain, so difficulty can vary. The maps that participants use show how long the course is as well as the topographical information that may be relevant. Each participant is provided with the same map.

The Levels of Orienteering

While many people go orienteering for fun, some orienteering competitions are very serious events. There are local orienteering events and clubs that sponsor events, but there are also regional, national, and international events.

Types of Competitions

In addition to the different kinds of orienteering, there are also different types of orienteering competitions.
People with compass and map

  • Classic: A classic orienteering competition is a race between two points. The winner is the person who completes the course in the shortest time. This is sometimes called a cross-country course.

  • Relay: This competition is also a race between two points and is judged by time, but there are teams instead of individuals, and the winner of the race is the team who completes the course in the shortest amount of time.

  • String: In this type of competition, competitors follow a string stretched around a course. Many times, competitors are supposed to write down certain items or landmarks along the way. This type of competition is usually reserved for children or people who are just starting to get into orienteering.

  • Trivia: Trivia competitions have questions at checkpoints. In order to prove that you reached the checkpoints, you have to answer the question.

  • Motala: This type of orienteering is done on a loop. The loop is made up of several checkpoints. The checkpoints can be arranged in several different ways so that there is more than one loop in a certain area. This type of competition is commonly used in schoolyards and parks.

  • Line: In this type of orienteering, a line that participants must follow is drawn on each map. There will also be controls along the way.

  • Score: Score competitions are different than the previous types of competition because the winner of the competition is the person, or team, who can get to as many specified locations, called controls, as possible in a certain amount of time. Some of these competitions last for 24 hours.

  • Sprint: These types of competitions are usually very short. The winner of this competition is the person who gets the furthest along a specified route. Participants usually have to hit specified controls along the way.

  • Night: Any of the competitions above can be held at night. Participants will have a headlamp for navigation, and the control points that participants need to get to will have a reflective marker.

Best Locations for Orienteering

Most sports can be done almost anywhere. Orienteering is no different, but there are some places that are better for orienteering or more famous than others. Here are a few of the best.

  • Darnaway, Scotland: One of the most popular orienteering spots in the UK, Darnaway was home to the very first World Orienteering Championships, and was in the running for hosting the 2015 championships, but lost out to Inverness, Scotland. If you’re thinking of traveling to Darnaway, make sure to contact the Moravian Orienteers. They know the area better than anyone and will be able to help you with everything from finding a league to join or course to run, to finding alternative orienteering sites in Scotland.

  • Bastrop State Park, Austin, Texas: One of the best permanent orienteering courses in the United States is Bastrop State Park’s course just outside of Austin, Texas. The course is always set up and is available any time of the year. An orienteering map can be found at the park’s entrance, and from there you are free to run the course. Contact the Houston Orienteering Club before you go to get an event schedule and maybe meet some new friends at one of their practice meets. When you’re done with the course, you can drive into Austin and enjoy one of the greatest cities in the state of Texas.

  • Santana do Livramento, Brazil: This small town is located almost right on the border between Uruguay and Brazil. It was home to the South American Championships in 2004. Randy Hall traveled to the area and wrote an extensively detailed blog on what it was like. If you’re interested in this area, his blog may be a good place to start.

  • Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: This site hosted the 2013 Orienteering Nationals. It is located on the western end of Lake Ontario in what is called the Horseshoe region in southern Ontario. Hamilton is an industrial city, but just outside of the city is some perfect land for orienteering. The Canadian Orienteering Nationals have been held here five different times. For detailed information on what the city is like and where to stay, check out the city’s website. If you’re in Hamilton during the holidays, be prepared to see some great Christmas decorations. The city is also home to several museums and restaurants, making it a great place for visiting even if you don’t go orienteering.


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