What is orienteering?

Orienteering is a navigation sport! Checkpoints are circled on a specially prepared map, and you decide your own route between them.

Should you go straight, through the forest and up the hill? Or perhaps take the longer but flatter trail for awhile? These are the kinds of decisions that run through an orienteer’s mind.

Orienteers use only map and compass to navigate, but compass knowledge is not needed to get started. In fact, the primary skill in orienteering is reading the map and relating it to the terrain, and you can do that with just your eyeballs.

How does it work?

Check-in at registration and pick up an SI-stick (memory stick worn on finger), whistle, and compass if you need them. Show up early and ask the event organizer for a quick tutorial on what to expect and how to read the map.


  • At the registration tent, dip your SI-stick into a unit (this action is called "punching") that says “CLEAR”; this will clear the old data off your SI-stick. Punch the "CHECK" unit with your SI-stick to check it has been cleared.
  • Find the lane with your course labeled on it, and take a control description (more on that later), if available, which is a small slip of paper.
  • When it’s your turn, follow the start volunteer’s instructions.
  • The start volunteer may also have the "CLEAR" & "CHECK" units in case you forgot to do that at registration.
  • The start volunteer will then tell you when you can pick up your map (but don’t look at it yet!), and will confirm that you have the correct course map.
  • And finally, the start volunteer will tell you when you can proceed to the start, which is where you will punch the "START" unit.
  • As soon as you punch the “START” unit, your race clock begins, and you may look at your map!

Interval Starts
At an interval-start event, participants start in waves one to two minutes apart.

Mass Starts
At a mass-start event, everyone starts at the same time, which is very exciting. You will still clear and check your SI-stick, but will not need to punch a start. Arrive at the start area 10 minutes before the start time to receive the Meet Director’s final instructions.

Alright, the race has begun, now what?

  • Find the start on the map, which is a magenta triangle
  • Orient the map, so that it matches the terrain
  • Put your thumb or compass tip on the map, to track where you are
  • Find the next checkpoint (called a "control") on the map, choose a route, and off you go!

Visit the Skills page to learn basic navigation skills.

At a point-to-point event, you’ll need to find the controls in their labeled order (number 1, 2, 3, and so on). Each control is in the exact center of a magenta circle on the map, with magenta lines connecting them to help you see where the next one is. You do not need to travel on the line, rather, you get to choose your own route!

At Score-O or rogaine events, you can find controls in any order!

So you’ve navigated your way to the center of a circle; what are you going to find there? A bright orange and white flag, likely hanging from a stand, with a numbered control unit on top.

So you should punch it, right? But wait! If there are multiple courses, you need to make sure that this control is on your course and not another. That’s what the control description is for, that little slip of paper you got at the start. Control descriptions are also printed directly on the map.

The first column numbers the order that you must find the controls, the second column shows the "control code", the number that you will find printed on top of the control unit on top of the control flag, and the other columns have orienteering symbols that aren’t important to understand quite yet.

If the number in the second column of the control description matches the number you see on top of the control unit, then punch the control. The unit will beep and flash as confirmation. In the rare case that the unit does not beep or flash, use the red pinhole-punch dangling from the flag to punch your map (it does not matter where).

Note: it’s okay if you accidentally punch the wrong control, so long as you eventually punch all the correct controls in the correct order.

Once you’ve found all the controls on your course, head to the finish, which is marked as two concentric circles on the map. Similar to the start, there will be a "FINISH" unit. Once you punch the finish, your race clock stops.

After you finish, go to the registration tent to download the data from your SI-stick. If you’ve rented an SI-stick, you can also return that here.

Once you’ve downloaded, you’ll get a receipt that shows your split times, which is the amount of time you took between each control. Part of the fun of orienteering is comparing your splits with friends, and discussing the routes you took between each.

Even if you have not finished your course, you MUST return to download, so that event staff can confirm that you are not still out on the course. If you do not download, a search party may be sent after you.

That’s it, you did it!

How much do I need to know?

You don’t need to know a thing!

That’s right. Most events feature a beginner and intermediate course, or are otherwise adjustable to your ability.

If you can find the washrooms by reading a building map, then you can orienteer.

What's an SI-stick?

An SI-stick records your race. At each control, you’ll dip the SI-stick into an electronic box ("unit"), which will beep and flash as confirmation. After you finish, you’ll download the SI-stick at the download tent and get a receipt that show which controls you visited and how long you took between each; these are your “splits.”

Part of the fun of orienteering is comparing your splits with people who completed the same course, and discussing the routes you took!

Do I have to run?

Orienteering is for all speeds, fast and slow. Whether you want a thrilling or relaxing experience is up to you!

How long will it take me?

First of all, courses are measured as the crow flies, meaning directly from one checkpoint to another. However, since you are not a crow or bumblebee, you will travel farther than this distance as you zig-zag to get to each checkpoint. Course distances are published in kilometers, so a good rule of thumb is to ’round up’ the kilometers to miles to approximate how far you will go.

So for example, at a 5-km course, you may actually travel about 5 miles.

Alright, now that you’ve estimated how far you will go, anticipate moving a bit slower than your average hiking or trail running pace (depending on whether you plan to hike or run). You can only move as fast as you can navigate! Plus, waist-high ferns can really slow you down. Also, you are bound to get a bit fuddled here and there.

Still want a ballpark? Most courses take about 40-90 minutes, with some notable outliers.

How do I choose a course?

Not sure which course to choose?

INTERVAL-START EVENTS generally offer a Beginner, Intermediate, Short Advanced, and Long Advanced option.

  • Beginner courses stay on trails, and are good for children accompanied by adults.
  • Intermediate courses take short excursions off-trail, and are appropriate for new teens and adults.
  • Advanced courses may have routes completely off-trail, and may require reading subtle map details to navigate. The challenge of an advanced course depends heavily on the venue, so read the map notes for more information on what to expect.

MASS-START EVENTS are typically score-o format, meaning that you can find controls in any order and the goal is to find as many as you can within a time limit.

There are no course levels for score-os, however, this format is especially beginner-friendly, since you get to decide the difficulty of every control, simply by choosing which to find. Also, if you’re having trouble finding a control, you can just skip it!

What should I wear?

Dress for your speed. If you plan to walk, quick-drying hiking pants and day hiking shoes are a good choice. If you plan to run, running tights, tall socks, and trail running shoes will suit you better.

Cover your legs. Even in a seemingly tame park, you may find yourself wading through ferns or scraping through scrub-brush. Except for at very urban venues, leg coverage is advised, whether it’s pants, soccer socks, or even a padded gaiter.

Can I do it in a group?

Yes! You may participate in a group as large as 6 people, though for the best experience, we recommend that your group be only 2 or 3 people, so everyone stays engaged in the activity.

Also, we recommend that everyone in your group carry a map.

Will it be crowded?

Typically, no.

At an interval start event, only a handful of participants start their course every minute or two, which spaces people out.

Even at a mass start event, participants can typically begin in any direction they want, which also spreads people out.

Typically we see 30-70 people at an event so your experience out on the course will really be your own!

You’ll see people going to and from controls, but they’re likely on a different course or at a different point in your course than you.

Can I follow other people?

Following is against the rules and can result in disqualification. Most orienteering events are designed to discourage following. If you see another orienteer, they may be on a different course, at a different point on your course, or they could even be making a navigational mistake! It’s better to focus on your own race, and don’t follow others.

What do I do if I get lost?

If you don’t know where you are on the map:

  1. Stop!
  2. Put your map down, look around you, and look at the features you see in the terrain. It’s okay to move around or seek higher ground to see more features. Note what direction the features are facing as well.
  3. Try again to find those features on the map, in the orientation that you see them.

If you’re still confused, then either:

  • Go to a larger, more prominent feature and try again.
  • Or, backtrack to where you last knew you were.

Finding larger features and backtracking are usually enough to relocate yourself, but if you are still very confused, it is okay to ask for help if you encounter a non-competitive orienteer. You are more likely to encounter an orienteer by waiting near a control.

If you are still very confused and don’t see anyone around, you should do one of the following, depending on your situation:

  • Head toward a large feature like a road to head back to the finish, if you are confident in your ability to do so. Many venues, even very rugged ones, have large features like roads that can help you navigate back to the finish.
  • If you cannot navigate back to the finish, due to being absolutely lost or injured, then blow your whistle using three short blasts, and repeat until someone finds you. Note that orienteers are obligated to abandon their course and attend to the call of a whistle, so only blow your whistle if you are truly lost or hurt and cannot make it back to the finish.

And finally, if you do not return to the finish by course closure time, a search party will be organized to find you.

What do I do if I become injured on the course?

All participants MUST carry a whistle on the course. Complimentary whistles are available at the start tent (please only take one).

If you are injured on the course and need assistance, blow three long blasts to call for help.

If you hear a call for help, abandon your course to find the person in distress.

What happens at course closure time?

At the course closure time, volunteers will begin picking up the controls.

You MUST return to the finish by course closure time. If you do not return by course closure, event volunteers will begin coordinating a search party.

If you need a long time on the course, start as early in the start window as possible, wear a watch, and be prepared to cut your course short to make it back by the course closure time.

What if I don't finish my course?

If you’re ready to call it a day, you are welcome to cut your course short. However, you MUST return to the finish tent to inform staff that you have returned safely.

(this content was adapted from Cascade Orienteering Club)