In orienteering, you use a map and a compass to locate a series of checkpoints shown on a specialized topo map, choosing routes–on or off trail–that will help you find all the points and get to the finish in the shortest amount of time (assuming that you choose to be competitive).
The element of route choice is what makes orienteering a mental challenge. It is not enough to simply be able to move faster than other orienteers, you must out-think them as well. Because of this, orienteering is often called the "thinking sport" because it involves map reading and quick decision-making, in addition to athletic ability.
Each point, or "control," is a distinctly mapped feature, such as a stream junction, boulder, or hilltop, and is marked with an orange-and-white flag, or "bag."
In order to prove that you have visited a control, you use a punch hanging from the bag to mark your control card (which is given to you when you register on the day of the event). The patterns of the punches vary, and each course will have its own unique set of punches. Alternatively, if "e-punch" is being used, there's a small electronic box at the bag, and you insert a small "e-stick" that you carry–the control number and time of visit are recorded in your e-stick.
Most events use staggered starts, to help ensure that you get to navigate on your own without interference or distraction (or assistance) from other participants. The route you take between controls is up to you.
Check the events page for large events, or view the schedule for a club in your area (or where you wish to visit). If you'd like to try orienteering on your own, there are also permanent courses in a number of places around the U.S.
At local events, the organizing club charges a small fee which covers the cost of the map you use (which you keep!), usually $4-10 depending on the local club. Regional and national ranking events will charge more (see "What's an A-meet?").
The only piece of equipment you really need to go orienteering is your brain. However, the following may also be useful:
Taking your dog for a run on your orienteering course may seem like a great way to exercise the dog and have fun. However, experience has shown that dogs and competitive orienteering are generally incompatible.
If you are a recreational orienteer on a beginning-level (White) course that stays on trails, bringing the family pet may be appropriate if park regulations allow it, the dog is used to crowds, and you are planning to walk, rather than run or jog. Dogs may also be appropriate at urban orienteering settings, such as city streets, city parks, and school campuses. Please use common sense. If in doubt, check with the event director before the event to discuss your particular situation.
Orienteering events are held regardless of the weather! It is very rare for an event to be canceled on the day of the event. Generally, that happens only because of extreme conditions.
If an event does happen to be canceled, it will be noted on the event Web page as soon as possible. If you have any doubt, you can call the Event Director.
While the majority of events in the U.S. are point-to-point events on foot, the organizers might also organize other fun formats, including Score-O (you choose the route among a number of points and try to visit the most/get the most points) and Scrabble-O, trivia-O (where you have to answer a question at the control location), or a special course that might be used for training a specific skill needed for successful orienteering.
Other event types may include line-O, individual relays, and string-O for the little ones. Trail-O, which provides opportunities for the disabled to emphasize map-reading skills over physical ability, is expanding in the U.S.
The designation "A-meet" is given to the highest-quality orienteering events. In order to receive such a designation, the event must be sanctioned by Orienteering USA. There are a variety of criteria that must be met in order for Orienteering USA to give its approval, both in terms of the courses offered and in terms of the organization of the event.
Across the country, there are perhaps twenty A-meets a year. Many people travel great distances to attend an A-meet. You might think of A-meets as "national" meets. Orienteering USA maintains a ranking system whereby competitors can compare themselves to other competitors across the country. Only events that are part of an A-meet count towards the rankings.
Usually, A-meets cover two or more days. One standard format is to have two days of competition, with the final standings based on each competitor's total time for the two days. Another standard format is to have a three-day event with a Sprint Course on the first day, a Middle-distance course on the second day, and a Long course on the third day. (See: What are Sprint, Middle and Long Courses?) Other formats are possible.
Generally speaking, when a club maps a new area of good quality, it will then hold an A-meet on that terrain. Entrance fees for A-meets are higher than those for local meets (though still lower than a typical running race) to help pay the expenses of making the map. Pre-registration is required for A-meets, and start times for each event are assigned in advance to make the event run smoothly.
Don't be intimidated by the extra formality of an A-meet, nor by the fact that many out-of-town people attend. A-meets still accommodate orienteers of all abilities and inclinations. Everyone benefits from the extra-high quality. Even if you don’t wish to travel around the country to attend A-meets, you should make every effort possible to attend the A-meets that your local club hosts.
Orienteering has seven standard courses, defined by colors ranging from White (beginner/novice level navigation) to Blue (advanced navigation/longest course). At local recreational meets, you may do any course that's within your navigational and physical abilities. At national A-meets, you run in your competitive age class (award-eligible), or an open class (all ages).
In general, beginner courses are on or near trails (or other linear features, like streams, stone walls, or fences), and you look for large, distinct features, such as trail junctions or hilltops. The advanced courses all have the same level of navigational difficulty (looking for small point features, such as boulders or lone trees) but differ in their distance and climb. The "elite" courses (Blue for men and Red for women) require optimum mental and physical conditioning.
In the late twentieth century, most orienteering events in the U.S. (including almost all A–meets) had "standard" or "classic" courses. That is, a Green course at one meet was supposed to be the "same" as a Green course at another meet. This sameness is officially expressed in terms of "expected winning time." So, for instance, a Green course was supposed to have an expected winning time of 50–55 minutes. There are also guidelines in terms of distance and climb, but given the tremendous variability possible in terrain types, the ultimate definition is in terms of expected winning time. By the way, expected winning time does not mean the time of the person who comes in first on that particular day. Rather, it means the time you would expect it to take for a runner who had a ranking of exactly 100 points in the Orienteering USA ranking system.
In the first decade of the 21st century, orienteering has diversified. New types of orienteering have been defined. These changes are still under way, so you will still find some conflicts in terminology. Sometimes the Sprint, Middle, and (now almost obsolete) Short course designations are confused. But things are getting better.
Expected winning times are now only part of the story! Each discipline is also supposed to have a distinct navigational flavor. Here is the current state of things:
Orienteers use internationally recognized symbols to depict the features at which control flags may be placed. They may seem strange to beginners but as you continue the sport you learn to recognize commonly used symbols. Control descriptions may sometimes be referred to as "clues" and will almost always be printed on your course map, or on a separate sheet that you can attach to your map or otherwise carry with you.
The image below is a key to the columns used for control descriptions.
To learn about the different symbols, download the descriptions and/or use an online training game:
Electronic punching (EP) is an electronic means of calculating the time it takes one to complete an orienteering course, and also checks that one has visited all of the proper controls in the correct order on the course. It is used in place of standard pin punching and paper punch cards. The following describes how to use EP on an orienteering course.
Each individual or group going on a course needs to have an EP finger stick (also called an SI card, e-card, chip, dibber, etc.). If you do not have your own finger stick, you will have to rent one at registration (generally $1-3). At a local meet, you may be directed to an e-punch table to be added to the competitor list. Be sure your name, course, and e-punch number are entered so the organizers can determine who's on a given course (and check that everyone returns safely).
At the Start Area
Request a start time from the Start official. Then, while you're waiting for your start time, be sure to clear and check your finger stick before going out on your course. The CLEAR unit deletes any old data on the card that may cause confusing results, and the CHECK unit confirms that the card has been cleared and is ready to be used. It takes about 6 seconds to clear the card, and less than one second for a check.
When you are told to start, or when your start time has arrived, be sure to punch the START unit before heading out on your course. This writes your start time to your finger stick.
On the Course
Visit each control in the proper order (if it's a point-to-point course). Be sure to check that the control code on the unit matches the control code on your course. Insert your finger stick at each control unit, and wait until you hear a beep and see a flash on the unit. It usually takes about a second. If there is no beep or flash, the unit may be malfunctioning; if so, punch the edge of your map with the pin punch attached to the control flag to prove that you visited the control.
If you punch a wrong control by mistake, or punch controls out of order, it does not matter as long as you eventually punch all of the controls in the proper order. Thus, for example, if you find and punch control #4 before control #3, it is okay as long as you then find #3 and punch it, and then revisit #4 and re-punch it before continuing on to #5. Also, it does not cause any problems if you happen to punch a control that is not on your course.
Remember to punch the final control on your course–that is, the last control before the Finish, often called the "Go" control. It is sometimes very close to the Finish, and may be easy to overlook.
At the Finish
Punch the FINISH unit at the Finish line. This writes the finish time on your finger stick.
After the Finish
Then go directly to the EP table and download your results. To do that, place your finger stick in the download unit until it beeps (which can take several seconds). You will be told if you completed the course correctly and what your time was. You will receive a printout of your splits. You may keep your map and the splits printout.
Keep In Mind...
Be sure to check in at the EP table whether or not you finish your course, or if you decide not to go out on a course after you have entered your name in the competitor list. If you do not check in, you will be listed as a missing runner, and we will have to initiate a search for you.
Also, please be aware of course closing time, at which time the control flags will start being removed from the park. It is discourteous to the organizers not to return to finish by course closing, because we start to worry whether you are lost or injured, and have to keep a group of orienteers around to do a search party if you do not return.
Electronic punching (e-punching or EP) is a faster, better way to record your visit to each control on an orienteering course. Instead of carrying a paper card and punching it at each location, you wear a plastic e-card, or "finger stick," which contains a microchip. At each control site, you insert the finger stick into a control unit, which records the control number and time onto the microchip. When you finish the course, you download the data at a transfer station, and receive an instant printout of your time and splits. Even better, you can view compiled printouts that show everyone's splits for the course, so you can see where you gained or lost time.
Getting an e-card
Clubs in the U.S. and Orienteering USA use the SportIdent e-punch system. If you do not own a SportIdent e-card, you must rent one at events where e-punching is used. You can also buy an e-card (see O Vendors); prices vary depending on model (currently $35-60). This becomes your personal finger stick with a unique ID number, and can be used at all (SportIdent) e-punching events–locally, nationally, and internationally.
See 'How do I use electronic punching' for use of the finger stick on your course. All e-punch results for each course are printed and posted periodically during the event, so you can compare your time and splits against everyone else's. In addition, a link to the splits is available on the event's Web site when the results are posted there.
Here's how to decipher the color-coded WinSplits information in e-punch results on some clubs' Web sites:
Want to know more?
You can search the WinSplits online database (which lists worldwide events) for many e-punch events.
Like any outdoor activity, orienteering does carry risks, however remote. These may include sprained ankles, bee stings, snakes, mountain lions, wild pigs, pot farmers, and disgruntled adjacent-land owners. However, the most realistic and serious concerns are poison ivy or oak and tick-borne bacterial diseases like Lyme Disease.
What do I need to know about ticks and Lyme Disease?
Awareness and knowledge about Lyme Disease are perhaps the most important factors in its prevention. Wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants. Use duct tape to seal your pants and gaiters to your shoes to prevent ticks from crawling up your legs. Insect repellents such as DEET can be used on your skin and permethrins on clothes. After an orienteering event, do a careful tick search. Have a friend examine your back and scalp.
If you find a tick, remove it by grasping its head with tweezers and applying gentle traction. Sometimes it can be useful to save the tick to determine what organisms it may carry. Place it in a closed container such as a 35mm film canister with a cotton ball moistened with water.
Learn more about Lyme and tick-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control Web site.
When an orienteer does not complete a course, one of the following abbreviations will appear in the finish-time column of the results:
See our O Vendors page to find companies that offer a wide range of orienteering supplies, including compasses, O' suits, gaiters, awards, books, teaching materials, videotapes, and computer simulations.
[Adapted from BAOC's FAQs]