New to Orienteering?

What is Orienteering?

Sun 3 Mar 2019

If you haven't tried orienteering before or are not very experienced the following links will help you get started.

Orienteering is an exciting adventure sport suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Participants have to navigate their way between a series of checkpoints (controls) shown on the map as quickly as possible. There’s no set route between the controls, so you have to decide which way to go and then find your way there without getting lost.If you haven't tried orienteering before or are not very experienced the following links will help you get started.

What sort of areas are used for orienteering?

Events take place in parks, woods, and open fells or even in the streets of some towns. You can take part individually or as a small group and everyone gets their map at the start. Several courses of different length and technical difficulty are normally on offer at each event. If you enter the least technical course you can study the map before you start. The fastest person to visit all the controls in a particular course in the right order is the winner.

What do you need to do at an event?

The aim is to select your route to each control point marked on a map as quickly as you can. At these points on the ground you will find a bright orange and white “kite” and a stake holding the numbered recording device you are looking for.

Control marker kite

Before the start you will be given a very small electronic recording device (a 'dibber') which you attach to a finger. When you present this to the recording box it instantaneously logs your success in reaching that control. At the end of the course the dibber gives a printout of your total time for the course and a breakdown of the time you took for each leg of the course.

Orienteering maps and courses

Orienteering maps are very different to Ordnance Survey maps. They are very detailed and large scale and show footpaths, fences, streams and many other small features such as small depressions in the land surface. Importantly, they also show the type of landscape around you, such as fields and woodland, and even how thick the woodland is; this is indicated by the colouring on the map. Using this information you can then decide whether you can run through the woods or if the vegetation is so thick that they are best avoided. Map-reading and route choice are skills which, over time, competitors refine with experience.  The courses are printed on the map. Click here to see small segments of some of Saxons mapped areas.

How do I know how hard the courses are?

Most events offer a range of courses with varying degrees of navigational difficulty, so there’s something to suit all ages and levels of experience. The easier courses stick to paths, while the harder ones require more complex navigation and advanced map reading skills. How the courses are graded will vary from event to event, so it's best to ask one of the event volunteers, who'll be happy to recommend a course for you to try. Click here to see snippets of courses suitable for novices (yellow) and experienced (green) orienteers.

Each event has a course suitable for beginners and as you become more confident you can chose a course which is more of a challenge in terms of technical difficulty or distance if you wish. This allows young orienteers to match their skills against their peers and those who, as the years pass and are not so fast, to do the same with their age group. Age is no barrier to the fun of orienteering, and family groups often take part in events, walking around some beautiful countryside together.

Orienteering can, of course, be a highly competitive sport with elite athletes competing at the very top level in world competitions. But most people compete for fun and personal satisfaction with local and neighbouring clubs. Orienteers enjoy the social side of the sport, meeting up with friends at different events, and making new friends is easy.

Don’t you get lost all the time?

No you don't! Everyone gets lost sometimes, but you work out where you are sooner or later! So don't be put off, because after a few events you will become much more confident  and as your navigational skills increase, you'll spend less time making mistakes.

It’s very unusual for the top competitors to get lost for any significant length of time, and when every second can make the difference between winning a medal and not, they generally consider even a few seconds’ hesitation to be time wasted.

Do you have to be able to run for hours?

No you don't! Courses come in a variety of lengths and navigational difficulty so there should be something suitable for all levels of fitness. Participants can walk, jog or run at their own preferred pace. You can treat the event as a competition, or if you are not so fast, as a leisure activity, getting to see areas that you might not normally visit. The winner’s time for the hardest and longest course can vary between 15 minutes and almost two hours, depending on the type of event.

The top competitors will often be national standard road or cross-country runners, but the mental component is just as important and they also need fantastic navigational skills in order to win medals.

Doesn’t everyone just follow each other?

No you don't! All the participants on the same course will start a minute or two apart to prevent everyone from following the person in front. Sometimes people catch each other up, but it’s never a good idea to blindly follow someone in case they make a mistake or they’re not looking for the same control as you.

Visiting a control marker

How do you know when you’ve got to the right place?

Each control is marked by a small orange and white marker, and has a unique code you can check to make sure you’ve found the right one.

Can’t you just cheat and say you’ve been to all the controls?

Everyone carries an electronic 'dibber' that they register at each control to prove they’ve been there. So no cheating! When you finish, you get a printout of how long you took between each control, meaning you can compare routes with other people and see where you lost time.

Where do you do it?

Anywhere! Big events in the UK in the past year have taken place in locations ranging from the streets of Central London and Edinburgh to remote mountainsides in the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District. Events take place across the country every weekend, with common venues including forests, moorland, town centres, parks, and university campuses.

What equipment do I need?

Do you need loads of expensive kit? No you don't. If you intend to run you’ll need running clothes and trainers, including long running trousers if the event is in the countryside. If you intend to walk, walking boots or trainers are OK. Bear in mind that you might be going through vegetation, so don't wear your best clothes. A compass is very useful, particularly on the more difficult courses, but you’re not allowed to use a GPS or the map on your phone to help you!

Some events might require you to carry a whistle for safety. You can hire the electronic dibbers at each event, but if you decide to continue with the sport you will probably want to purchase your own. Your entry fee will include your own copy of the event map.

Where/when can I try it?

Sounds great! How can I give it a go? There are orienteering clubs across the UK, offering events at weekends and sometimes on weekday evenings. In the South East, Saxons, in conjunction with neighbouring club DFOK, hold an event each month on Saturday mornings (the Kent Orienteering League - KOL), and a night event (Kent Night Cup - KNC) every week from September to March. Saxons also hold around six Sunday events each year. Just check the event details on the web site and turn up. Let the people at registration know you are a newcomer and one of our members will show you what you need to do to get started. They will explain the registration and start process, help you choose a suitable course for your experience and ability and talk you though the differences between an OS map and an orienteering map (orienteering maps are much more detailed). If you know what time you are aiming to arrive and would like some initial coaching phone the organiser in advance and they will try to ensure that either a club coach or an experienced club member are available to talk to you.

Video tutorials

South London Orienteers (SLOW) have produced a series of eight videos showing different techniques used in orienteering. The videos are presented by different athletes from the GB Orienteering team and filmed in different locations. This first one is a newcomer’s guide.

SLOW YouTube channel see the full set of videos here

Useful links

British Orienteering event calendar

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