Orienteering Lingo

Educator Ed Hicks, founder of Orienteering Unlimited, has put together a glossary of orienteering terms. For more information and to see illustrations of many of the terms, visit his Visual Glossary. The lists below have been adapted from his main glossary page.

Many terms that orienteers use will be familiar, but there are also terms unique to the sport. The list below includes terms used to describe orienteering terms and techniques and common descriptions of orienteering landforms.

Orienteering terms and techniques

Aiming off: To deliberately aim to one side of a control or feature so that you know which way to turn upon hitting the feature before seeing the control.

Attack point: An obvious feature near the control point from which the control can be located by navigating carefully with map and compass.

Bearing: The direction of travel as indicated by the compass.

Catching feature (also called collecting feature or backstop): An obvious feature on the map and ground located beyond a control or other sought-after feature that indicates that the target feature has been overshot (passed by).

Control: A checkpoint on an orienteering course that a competitor must visit to complete the course

Control marker (also called a control, marker, bag or flag): A three-sided marker (usually orange and white) placed at features on an orienteering course. It usually has a punch or other marking device attached to mark a control card as proof that you visited the control.

Control card or punch card: A paper card carried by the competition to mark at each checkpoint/control if manual punching is used (see e-punch).

Control circle: A circle drawn around a feature on the map to indicate the location of a control marker. The feature should be in the exact center of the circle.

Control code: Numbers on a control marker that enable participants to verify that it is the correct one (on rare occasions letters may be used instead of numbers).

Control descriptions (sometimes referred to as "clues"): A list given to each participant that briefly describes each control features in order. It also gives the control code. See IOF symbols.

Control feature: A natural or man-made feature on or next to which the control is hung.

Control number: A number drawn beside each control circle on a map. On a cross-country course, they indicate the order in which the controls must be visited. The top of the number points to Magnetic North.

Course: A sequence of control points marked on the map that are to be visited by the orienteer.

Dog-Leg: Positioning of a control which favors approaching and leaving a control by the same route, thereby leading other competitors to the control. Course design which results in a dog-leg should be avoided.

E-punch: A finger-stick worn while orienteering as part of an electronic timing system (as opposed to manual timing).

Fine orienteering: Precision navigation in detailed terrain usually demanding careful use of map, compass and pace counting, and usually involving short course legs.

Finish symbol: If it shares the same location as the start, it will be a circle with a triangle inside; if its location is separate from the start, it is shown as a double circle (circle within a circle).

Folding the map: Orienteers fold their maps along the line of travel to aid concentration on the leg being run, and to facilitate thumbing their position.

Goat (or billygoat) event: A long-distance endurance event similar to cross-country orienteering courses. It usually has a mass start and often includes special rules, such as permission to skip a control. Learn more about goat races here.

Handrail: A linear feature that closely parallels your route and acts as a handrail to the next control.

Leg: A section of a course between two control points.

Linear feature: A feature that extends in one direction for some distance; e.g., paths, fences, stonewalls, and streams. Used as handrails.

Master map: A map displayed near the start from which competitors copy their courses onto their blank map; in bigger events, courses are pre-printed on the maps. More experienced orienteers will copy the course onto their map while the clock is running. Novices should be allowed to do this before being given a start time.

Orienting the map: Matching the orientation of the map to the features on the ground. This is one of the fundamental skills in orienteering, and leads to successful navigation. The map can be oriented either by comparing the map directly with the terrain or by using a compass to orient to north.

Pace counting/pacing: A system of counting double-paces (every time the left or right foot hits the ground) to measure distance covered. An orienteer would measure the distance between two points using the scale on the compass and then count his/her paces until the distance was covered. Pacing allows orienteers to know when they have gone too far and missed the feature they were looking for.

Point feature: A feature in the terrain that only occupies a small area. Frequently mapped examples are boulders, pits and mounds, stumps, and root mounds. Point features are not suitable as control sites for novice courses unless they are on a handrail.

Precision bearing: Some compasses can be used to take a precise bearing (degrees clockwise from north) which can then be followed in the terrain.

Punching: The act of marking the control card with the punch–in the case of electronic timing, inserting the e-punch into the slot in the control station or "e-box."

Rogaine: An extended score event, with time limits of 3, 6, 8, 12 or 24 hours, generally using large-area maps (at 1:24,000 to 1:50,000 scale, versus the 1:5,000 to 1:15,000 scale of a typical orienteering map), and often a team rather than solo event. The acronym "ROGAINE" was invented in Australia in the 1970s from a combination of the inventors' names (ROd, GAIl, and NEil). Learn more about rogaining here.

Safety bearing: A compass bearing that will bring a lost orienteer to a road or other major, recognizable feature. It may be added to the control description list as a safety measure.

Safety whistle: A whistle that can be used if a participant is injured or lost. The International Distress Signal is six short blasts repeated at one-minute intervals. Whistles are required at many orienteering events and are often available from event organizers for a small fee.

Thumbing: A technique for holding the map, using your thumb to indicate your present location. To do this properly, it is often necessary to fold the map, preferably along the line of travel.

Land forms / map symbols

Charcoal platform: Seen on a number of maps in the U.S., particularly in the northeast states, this terrain feature is generally circular and flat with different vegetation than the surrounding area. The "platforms" provided a level surface to transform logs into charcoal. (Note: The symbol used to depict a charcoal platform varies among clubs and is not a standard IOF symbol at this time.)

Contour: A solid brown line on a topographical map connecting points of equal elevation. Index contours (usually every fifth contour) are shown with a darker line.

Depression: An indentation in the earth, generally rounded at the bottom. Smaller depressions are mapped with a 'u' symbol; larger ones use contour (or form) lines with tag lines pointing into the depression.

Fight: Vegetation that is difficult to run through or impassable (shown on the map with the darkest shade of green).

Form line: An intermediate contour line showing distinct terrain variations, mapped as a dashed brown line.

Gully: A steep-sided valley on a hillside, mapped as a solid line crossing one or more contour lines.

Knoll: A small hill, mapped as a small circle or oval. Larger knolls are shown using contour lines; smaller ones are solid brown shapes.

Legend: A list of the symbols represented on the map.

Magnetic north line: Shown on every map, it can be aligned with the north arrow of a compass to orient the map to the terrain. The spacing between north lines varies depending on the scale of the map. All words and symbols used are also aligned to the magnetic north lines.

Pit: A sharp-sided depression, depicted with a small 'v' symbol.

Reentrant: A small, relatively shallow valley running down a hillside, where water could flow. On a map, the contour lines point uphill where a reentrant occurs.

Scale: Orienteering maps are usually 1:10,000 (1 cm = 10,000 cm or 100 meters) or 1:15,000 for normal competition, 1:4,000 or 1:5,000 for sprint competition.

Spur: A small ridge. On a map, the contour lines point downhill for a spur.