What is orienteering?

The following is a beginner's guide to orienteering in the UK, including a description of the types of event you might come across and what to do at a typical local event. This was based upon content from various websites including those of Oxford University Orienteering club, Southdowns Orienteers, Mole Valley Orienteers, and British Orienteering.

The Basics

In its simplest and most common form, orienteering consists of navigating on foot between points on a pre-defined course drawn on a map.

The aim is to navigate around all of the points in the correct order and in the fastest possible time. Attributes that make a good orienteer include running speed and strength through sometimes rough terrain, and accurate navigational skills. You will find that events tend to take place in areas of natural beauty, often forested, but also on open fellside.

The course normally consists of a series of points marked on the map. At each point there is an orange and white 'control kite' and some equipment that is used to check that you have passed through that point. To aid you in finding each point there will be a 'control description' briefly detailing what feature the control is located on.

To record your passage through the controls you use a small electronic card that you take around the course with you - these can be borrowed if you don't have your own. At each control site, there is a small box that records on your card what time you passed through. After you finish, you are then able to see what your total time was and how long you took for every leg of the course. Results may be displayed at the end but as people running the same course do not normally start at the same time, results are not finalised until the last runner finishes. The complete results are usually available via the club website later that same day. Although orienteering is a competitive sport, many people come just for the challenge of completing the course and enjoying the scenery.

The large-scale maps (1:10,000 or 1:15,000) normally have the course pre-printed on waterproof paper and are drawn specially for orienteering to show everything from large hills down to the smallest pit. One thing to be careful of when you first see the map is that white doesn't represent open fields (as on an Ordnance Survey map), but instead runnable forest. If you are not sure what a symbol means there is usually a key on the map to tell you. To make things easier when using a compass, the North lines on the map point to Magnetic North so there is no need to make any complicated adjustments.

Orienteering can be a highly competitive sport and elite class athletes compete at the very top level in world competition. But many people participate in the sport for fun and there are many events throughout the year catering for all ages and ability levels. Many orienteers enjoy the social side of the sport - seeing regular faces around the UK (and abroad too) and making new friends from different walks of life. And speaking of ‘walks’, people participate at their own pace - from fast runs to comfortable jogs and leisurely walks. The choice is yours. Southampton Orienteering Club welcomes members of all standards, gender, and age. The website has further information on membership.

What do I need to take part?


Full leg cover is usually required at orienteering events, so shorts are not suitable. Tracksuit bottoms or lycra tights will do, the lighter the better, or any old clothes. Jeans are not a good idea, as if it is wet they hold the water and take a long time to dry out. A T-shirt is fine for your upper body, though you may like to consider long sleeves. For footwear, trail or fell running shoes are best, but any shoes with a good grip will do. Wear old clothes if possible - they will probably get dirty. You might want to bring some clean clothes to change into after you’ve finished your course - don’t forget spare shoes and dry socks. Extras you might like to consider depending on the conditions are waterproofs, a woolly hat, and gloves.

If you join SOC, you can purchase one of the club's tops. At larger events, retailers may be present where you can buy orienteering-specific equipment. Compass Point also has an online store.

Electronic punching

Two types of electronic punching systems are in common use at orienteering events: SportIdent and EMIT. SOC events typically use EMIT - either the standard 'card' or, for contact-free punching, the 'eTag'. These are used to prove that you have been to each control on your course and produce personalized results for you on the day. Using this system, when you have completed your course, you will download the contents of your punch into a computer. The data will be accumulated with others from your course and a set of results produced. You should get an immediate printout of your split times - the times that you took between each control. Full results are usually available on the organising club’s website later that day.

The punches are fairly expensive so you will almost certainly want to hire one for your first few events. Indeed, many people just continue to hire them at each event they go to.


For the simplest courses, you can compare features on the ground with those on the map to get the map the correct way round. As you progress onto harder courses a compass will become useful for taking bearings as well as orientating the map. You may be able to borrow one from the organising club for your first event.


Whistles are not expensive but are essential. Whistles are used if you get into difficulty to call other orienteers to your assistance. At some events, you won't be able to start without one and it is always a good idea to carry one even if it is not required.


Allow around £5 - £10 for a senior or group entry depending on the event. Juniors usually pay less for their entry fee (typically 50% at SOC events). Most events now allow you to enter online in advance to guarantee that you get a map for the course of your choosing. SOC uses the entry provider Racesignup.

At some events, you may also need to pay extra for parking (typically levied by the landowner). This is a charge per vehicle - not a charge per person.

Click to go back to Getting Started.