What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport for everyone, whatever their age or experience. Elite and recreational orienteers, men and women, young children and over 90-year-olds can enjoy the sport together. Orienteering is a sport for the whole family.

It is easy to learn the basics, but the challenges provided can be endless. Orienteering provides an exercise activity which is both physical and intellectual in nature; hence its other name – “cunning running”.

Orienteering is a family of sports that involves competitors using detailed maps to navigate their way round unfamiliar terrain. Usually this involves visiting a number of designated control (or way) points.

Foot Orienteering

On the course, orange and white flagged control markers are set in the places that correspond to the points marked on the map. The winner of the competition is the participant who has completed the course by visiting all the control points, in numerical order, in the shortest time. Fast running alone will not make you a winner. You must also choose the best route between the control points and find the markers without wasting unnecessary time. 

Do I need to be fit?

You may walk, jog or run, alone or in a group – your choice. Fitness is not a necessity, although it does help,particularly in serious competitive orienteering. You may treat the event as a race or simply as a stroll, with the search for controls providing an extra element of interest.

What do I wear?

Just wear clothes suited to walking or running in farmland or city parks. Any kind of walking or running shoe will be OK.

How long does it take?

This depends entirely on your ability, level of fitness and the course you choose to run.

  • White: Easy Navigation. Mostly on tracks. Best for beginners and younger children.
  • Yellow:  Slightly more complicated navigation. Mainly along tracks but with opportunities to short cut across country. Better for older children and adults.
  • Orange: Mostly off road, navigating on features like hills and vegetation. Better after trying a couple of yellows.
  • Red: Described as ‘as hard as the map can make it’ Reds usually have three different lengths: Short; about 3-4km, Medium; about 4-6km, Long; about 6-7+km. Should only be attempted when you are confident with orange courses.

If you are unsure as to your skill level try the White course first and, if you find it easy, follow up with a Yellow course.

The Orienteering Map

Orienteering maps are different from other maps in many ways, for example their north lines point to Magnetic North, and the scale of the map is usually much larger than other kinds of map, so a lot more detail can be shown. When you first see an orienteering map, take a good look at the legend, which tells you what the symbols on the map mean. They generally appear in only five colours:

  • Black symbols are the most important for a novice orienteer. They show man-made features like roads, tracks, fences and walls, as well as rock features like boulders and cliffs.
  • Blue shows water features, either larger obstacles like lakes, rivers, sea and marshes, or smaller details like ditches, water troughs and streams.
  • Brown shows the shape of the land, mainly by use of contours. A contour is an imaginary line connecting points of the same height. When you are going up or down hill you will be crossing contours. Contours may initially be difficult to understand, because they’re not actually painted onto the ground ! So you have to imagine them. As your orienteering improves, the information in the contour shapes will become both easier to understand and more important to you. Don’t worry if they look like meaningless squiggles at first.
  • White - One peculiar feature about orienteering maps is that trees which you can run through or under are shown as white; only denser bush or undergrowth is shown as green, in different shades. The darker the green, the more difficult the vegetation is to get through.
  • Yellow is used to denote open areas

Navigation and map reading - where to start? 

Orienteering training guidelines for various levels can be found on the Orienteering New Zealand. Have a look at the information on the coaching framework page

What do I do at the event?

Full instructions will be given at the event, but listed below are a few basics:

Most events will be ‘Sport ident’ events (an electronic timing system) At these you will need to fill out an entry form, which can be found by the Caravan. This should be handed in to the crew inside the Caravan before you start (Along with the equivalent fee). Occasionally there is a ‘clip-card’ event (manual timing) You will need to choose a course and to fill out a clip-card, including the stub, with your details (These will be handed out prior to the Start along with the maps and a sheet describing the location of the controls.)

You, and / or your team, will start at a separate time from everyone else on your course. So select and reserve a “Start Time” at the Start Times board. If there is none, they will probably be allocated at the start.

Present yourself to the Starter three minutes before your Start Time. If it is a clip-card event, give the stub from your clipcard to the Starter and wait for them to tell you to start. ( The clipcard is perforated to make it easier to tear off the stub.)

There will be a five second countdown then go for it! Navigate the marked course taking any route between controls, but in the correct numerical order, and clip/ ‘bip’ your card at each control. ( Before punching confirm thatyou are at the correct control – there are other controls out there that may not be on your course.)

After completing your course ALWAYS go to the finish, even if you don’t complete the whole course. This is so we know that you’re not lost in the forest!


Major calamities very rarely happen at orienteering events. A short, advisory Safety Notice will be attached to each map. Please take a few moments to read it.

Sit tight if you get completely lost

If you get lost, try to retrace your tracks to a recognisable position on the map. Never wander aimlessly without a plan, because you may leave the potential search area. Listen and wait for another orienteer. Find a control or a major track, or landmark, then sit and wait for searchers. They will check these areas first.

Other types of orienteering

To test your navigation in different terrain, you can try Mountain bike Orienteering (MTBO), and Ski Orienteering. PAPO has several MTBO events throughout the year, so check the events calendar. The Remarkables Orienteering Club (ROC) organise a Ski Orienteering event which is usually on the middle weekend of the winter school holidays. It is a relaxed, but fun event with scope for those who really want to blast around on skis. 

Please no smoking, no fires, no litter.

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