So you decided to sign-up for an event -- Great! Below are the basics that you’ll need to know in order to successfully navigate a course. There’s also a short FAQ section at the bottom to help answer the primary questions that usually are asked.
If you haven’t already done so, please read our What To Wear and Your First Meet guides. Both contain great information on what you’ll need to know prior to the event. It would also be a good idea to study our Map 101 section to get a better understanding of the basics of an orienteering map.
Let’s start this section out by assuming that you have your map and compass in hand, and have officially started your course. The steps below are what you’ll follow to assist in getting you from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Step 1 - Find the Starting Point on the Map. The starting point is indicated by a magenta triangle. The center of this symbol is the starting point and where you should currently be standing on the course. NOTE - the start triangle is often in the same location as the finish, which is a double circle.
Step 2: Find North on your Compass. The red end of your compass needle always points north. Note that the compass will only work if it’s held flat and always from metal objects such as zippers and belts.
Step 3: Orient the Map. Orienting the map properly is one of the fundamental skills in orienteering and leads to successful navigation. To orient your map, rotate the map until it lines up with physical features around you, such as trails, lakes, and buildings. For example, if the lake is to your left, then rotate your map until the lake on the map is also to the left of your current location. You can also place your compass on the map and rotate the map until the north-lines line-up with the north-pointing needle. Now that you have it, keep in mind that the most important lesson to learn on the course is to constantly turn your map - orient it - to match your surroundings. This means that if you are heading south, you should be holding your map “upside-down”. When your map is properly oriented, everything on the map lines up with your surroundings and makes it much easier to navigate on-the-fly.
Step 4: Find your First Checkpoint. From the starting point on your map, locate your first checkpoint by following the magenta line from the start triangle to the next checkpoint. Note that the location of the physical checkpoint on the course will be in the center of the magenta circle on the map.
Step 5: Face the Direction of Travel. Keeping the map oriented, rotate your body until you are facing the first checkpoint. Remember that major features on your map (buildings, trails, etc.) should now match the features on the ground in front of you. This is good sign that your map is oriented correctly and you are facing the correct direction.
Step 6: Choose your Route. Now that you’re facing your first control, what's the best way to get there? If you’re on a Beginner course, you’ll usually follow trail. If on an Intermediate or Advanced course, you’ll most likely find that going off-trail is the optimum route. Though, when off-trail, you’ll still be presented with multiple route options. For instance, do you go up and over a hill, or around it? Or do you go through a short, dense area, or take a longer, less dense route? These questions are the essence of orienteering and what make the sport so great.
Step 7: Proceed Feature-by-Feature. While on your way to checkpoints, the best strategy is to break the route into smaller segments and conquer them one-by-one. To do this, find a few notable features on your route and make sure you find each one along the way. For instance, you may tell yourself “go until you reach the trail intersection, then turn right and run to the edge of the woods, then run along the stream until you find the checkpoint.” This strategy ensures that you’re on-route and always know where you are on the map.
Step 8: Stay in Contact with the Map. “Staying in contact with the map” means that you make sure you always know where you are on the map. This sounds extremely basic, but it’s something that even the most experienced orienteers will miss from time to time. To help with this process, remember to “thumb” and orient. Thumbing involves moving your thumb along the map to track your progress. For instance, once you arrive at a trail intersection, move your thumb to that location on the map. This allows you to quickly know where you are when you glance at the map. And also be sure to orient your map as you’re running. For instance, if you’re running north and then change direction to west, be sure to rotate your map 90 degrees to the right to keep it facing north. This keeps the map always pointing north and allows you to look at the map “in real-time” without having to do the rotation in your head.
Step 9: Find and Verify the Control. The physical checkpoint that you’re trying to find is an orange and white flag. Once you find it, look at your clue sheet and find the number that’s adjacent to the control you’re on. That number should match the number that’s on the control flag. You’ll want to make sure you do this because it’s sometimes common for two checkpoints to be very close to each other and you want to ensure you’ve found the correct one.
Step 10: ‘Punch’ the Control. The e-punch not only proves that you visited the control, but also creates a digital time-stamp of when you arrived. To use your e-punch, insert the tip of it into the hole on the base-station. Keep it in the hole until the base-station beeps. Once it beeps, you’re ready to proceed to your next check-point.
That’s it! Continue to repeat the steps above until you’ve reached your final control. Once done, head over to the finishers’ table and a volunteer will download the data from your e-punch. Most events will have a monitor on the table, which will display the finish time from those have completed the course. They’ll also provide a paper print-out which will show you your ‘splits’ (the time between your check-points).
Frequently Asked Questions about Orienteering 101:
Q. On the map, I see magenta-colored lines that go from one checkpoint to the next. Is that the route I need to follow?
A. No, it's not. The line between the control circles is there to show you at a glance the sequence of controls. It’s not the route that you should or need to follow.
Q. Do I have to find the checkpoints in order?
A. In most cases, yes. At all of our ‘standard’ events this is the case. However, we do host some “score-o” events throughout the year in which they can be collected in any order. For more information about our different event types, see our Event Types page.
Q. I’ve never used a compass before and they look intimidating. What do I need to know?
A. No worries! The compass is actually used much less than most people think… especially on beginner courses where it’s mostly map reading skills that are used. The main function of the compass is finding north and orienting your map. Participants will not be “taking bearings” or even touching the dial on the compass.
Q. What type of compass should I use?
A. The two prominent types of compasses that are used are the baseplate compass and the thumb compass. Baseplate compasses are the traditional compasses that most people are familiar with. These compasses are both inexpensive and widely available. MNOC also rents these compasses for $1 at our events.
The thumb compass is a specialty compass that advanced orienteers use. These compasses are typically preferred because it’s easy to hold both the compass and map in one hand. They also help significantly with ‘thumbing’ (you thumb with the compass tip vs your thumb), and has a more stable needle and quicker ‘time-to-north’.
Q. On the map, I my checkpoints are numbered in order such as 1, 2, 3, etc., but their corresponding numbers on the physical checkpoints on the course are something like 32, 45, 36, etc. Why are they different?
A. Keep in mind, that at any given event, there are typically multiple courses. And since the same checkpoint may be on several different courses, it’s impossible to have the numbers in order for every course. For example, checkpoint #1 on the beginner course might be checkpoint #5 on the intermediate course. So having a unique number marking on each control, such as 32, tells each participant regardless of their course, that they are at the correct control.
Q. Are there any orienteering classes where I can learn more in-person?
A. I’m glad you asked. MNOC holds a ‘skills clinic’ in the spring of each year. On top of that, if you come to any of our events ~30 minutes early, we have plenty of volunteers on site that will be more than happy to give you the basics and answer any questions you might have.
Q. Are there good web sites on orienteering?
A. In addition to this site, you can also find excellent information on the Orienteering USA site.