Coaching tips

Fri 5 Feb 2021

This set of coaching tips is aimed especially at members new to orienteering but will also be useful revision for some of our more established members. If you are new to the sport and would like some individual coaching please let Brendon Howe, our lead coach, know so that we can tailor something to meet your needs.

Setting the map

It’s much easier making route choice decisions if the ground features and those shown on the map are lined up. Then what you see, for example, on the left of your path on the ground should correspond with what’s on the left of the path you are following on the map. To set the map, use your compass to align the map with magnetic north; line up the compass needle with the north lines shown on the map, with the needle pointing north. North lines are normally at the top of the map but do check as I have seen them in other alignments to enable the mapped area to fit onto an A4 sheet for printing. You may have to turn the map around to get it set. Now the map is set you should be able to more easily determine the direction you need to go to find the next control. Make sure that you hold the map at the centre line of your body. Whenever you change direction (e.g. at a path junction) make sure that you turn the map so the north lines on the map are still in line with magnetic north. In this way the map will always be set to north and this should enable you to keep good terrain - map contact. If you don’t have a compass you will need to initially align the map with a feature on the ground (e.g. an obvious building or line feature).


Thumbing the map

I still remember my early orienteering days when I would realise I had no clear idea where I was on the map. Thumbing the map, keeping your thumb in the position on the map where you currently are, is a very useful tip and is much more important now we have electronic recording. If you forget where you are you may miss a control. To thumb the map you need to fold the map so that the area you are currently in and the next control are visible. Don’t fold too small or you might make one of my other mistakes – the parallel error where the feature you are running along is actually off the section of map you are looking at. Put your thumb on the map just behind your current position. As you move forward move your thumb so that it follows your route on the ground so that you are always sure where you are. Refold the map as necessary as you move over the terrain. Setting and thumbing the map are two essential techniques to learn. Practise them whenever you can.



It’s always useful to know how far you have gone between two controls and pace counting is an easy way of doing this. It is particularly helpful when running along paths or ‘going straight’ in relatively featureless areas, although I do it routinely when off paths. You will need to practise this on your own as everyone’s pacing will be different. Measure out 100 m on a flat area of track. Count the number of double paces (i.e. every time your left leg strikes the ground) that you take to cover the 100 m length at normal competition speed. Remember that as you get tired your stride is likely to become shorter. Running through the terrain will also be different to running on a path, and pacing uphill and downhill will also be different. As a very rough guide I normally take 40 double paces to cover 100 m on the flat. If you practise this technique it becomes second nature and easily used as part of the armoury of techniques you can use to confirm your location. Don’t forget to check the scale of the map you are using; you need to know what distance you need to cover between controls (or distinctive features) to determine how many paces are required, and the distance measured in cm on the map will differ depending on the scale of the map.



Again in my early days (and still sometimes even now) I meet a person with large rucksack/carrying small person/walking dog etc at a control. They walk off and I run off and we meet again at the next control! Map reading is easier if you go slowly. You should run at a speed at which you can easily read the map. There’s no point sprinting off if you then loose contact with the map and have to spend ages relocating.


Map memory

People new to orienteering sometimes have no clear idea of the route they took to get around the course when they finish. It’s really good practise to sit down at the end of an event and sort out where you went between each control and mark your route on the map, even if the route you took is a series of squiggles as you meandered around the landscape. With practise you should be able to remember where you had a good clean leg and where you made the horrendous mistakes. Once you have marked your route on the map you can compare split times with others that did the same course, and determine if your route choice was a good one or not.


Attack points

When you’re deciding on your route between controls do you have a definite attack point for the next control?  An attack point is an obvious and definite feature close to a control site that should be straightforward to locate.  An attack point could be a path junction, a distinctive tree, a large depression etc. When planning the route from A to B you need to decide on your attack point for B before leaving A and work back from that to determine your optimal route to B. You can then use the ‘traffic light’ system; you run as fast as you can to your attack point, which will be easy to find, and then slow down for the fine navigation needed to locate the control.  You may need to take a compass bearing to find the control from your attack point.


Compass bearings

What is a compass bearing? In its simplest form the compass is used to ‘set’ the map, that is, to make sure the map is oriented correctly with respect to magnetic north. This enables you to match the map and the terrain over which you are moving.  If you have ever made an 180˚ error when leaving a control you probably did not have your map orientated correctly. A bearing is needed if you are going off into the terrain away from any linear features, particularly in relatively featureless areas. If you don’t know how to take a bearing using the compass speak to someone at the next event you attend for help. ‘Experienced’ orienteers are always happy to discuss and share navigational tips with others.


Catching features

So you’ve identified an attack point and used a compass bearing to find the control. What do you do if you miss it? Is there a catching feature nearby?  A catching feature is something obvious that should make you realise you have over run the control, and should stop you from going further. A catching feature could be a linear feature such as a path, fence or stream, or something less linear such as a vegetation boundary or a distinct change in the land shape or slope.  At this point you may need to relocate to find the control.


Control sites

Have you found the correct control? Always check the control code before you punch. Don’t forget that the control descriptions are there to help you identify the correct site. Always have in mind the feature you are looking for. If the control description says ‘depression’, don’t run off to check out a control that is hanging on something that is obviously not a depression. It won’t be yours!



It’s happened to all of us! You’re having a good run with only a couple of controls to go. Then you notice that what you’re seeing on the ground doesn’t seem to correspond with what’s on the map. What do you do? Well what you don’t do is assume the mapper has got it wrong and carry on regardless. What you should do is realise you’ve made a mistake somewhere and stop! Check your compass. Have you got the map aligned correctly? Look around you. Is there an obvious feature on the ground that should be on the map? This could be a large re-entrant, a knoll, a large depression, a footpath junction, a stream junction or any other mapped feature (including a control site that’s not yours-controls should always be on a definite feature). Inspect the map carefully. Can you work out where you are? If you can you’re away and back in the competition. What if there’s nothing obvious on the ground around you? Do you remember where you were when you were last certain that the map and terrain matched? Can you get back to that position (even if it’s the last control you visited)? You will need to be able to remember the course that you took that got you to the point where you realised you were ‘lost’. If you can you’re back on track. What if you can’t find an obvious feature on the ground/map or remember how you got to where you are? Don’t panic! You need to get to a position where you can match map and terrain. Align the map. Look for a ‘catching feature’ – something obvious that will stop you when you reach it. Is there a north/south path (or any other ‘line feature’ on one side of the woodland block that you’re in? Set off for your chosen catching feature. Once there check again for obvious features. If there are none move along the line feature until something major appears. Use this to work out where you are on the map. Plot a new route to your next control! What if you’ve plotted a course to your control to find that the control you’ve found is not the one you expected? Check the control code again to confirm it’s not correct - on several occasions when tired I’ve run away from the ‘wrong’ control, relocated and found myself back in the same place at the correct control! If you are really at the wrong control look at the control site. What feature is it on? Check the map and see if you can find the control site. If you can, plot a route to your correct control. If not you’ll have to go through the relocation process outlined above. 

Everyone gets ‘lost’. The difference between a good and a not so good orienteer is the speed with which they realise they are ‘misplaced’ and relocate.


Jean Fitzgerald

Saxons Coach

See other entries Categorised under: Coaching