Orienteering is a sport for the whole family as well as a “family of sports”. Participants use a topographical map, usually a specially prepared orienteering map, which they use to find check points in a designated area. The terrain is diverse and usually unfamiliar. Participants are “rated” based on their speed completing the course.

Orienteering began in Sweden in the late 1800’s as an outgrowth of military training in land navigation and evolved into a competitive sport. With the development of inexpensive and reliable compasses in the 1930’s the sport grew in popularity. After the end of World War II, the sport spread to the rest of the globe.

By 2010, 71 national orienteering federations were member societies of the International Orienteering Federation. These federations enabled the development of national and world championships. World championships are now held every year.

Orienteering can be a lifetime sport; there’s something for everyone to enjoy, regardless of age or experience. There are orienteering events on foot, bike, skis, snowshoes, horseback and canoe. There are long distance, night time and rough terrain events, solo and team competitions; in short, something for everyone. Most events provide courses for all levels, from beginner to advanced in experience.

An added bonus is locations selected for orienteering are chosen in part for their beauty, natural or man-made.

Health Benefits of Orienteering

Orienteering involves, walking, running, skiing, paddling, horseback riding and other forms of movement, all of which are aerobic [link to aerobic article] activities that are very good for you.

Orienteering provides an opportunity to get outdoors and explore new natural areas as well as participate with other like-minded individuals. It is a sport the whole family can enjoy, regardless of age.

How Do You Orienteer?

You can think of orienteering as a large well organized scavenger hunt outdoors. Instead of hunting for items, you are hunting for checkpoints. You use a map and a compass to locate a series of checkpoints shown on a specialized topographic map. You are responsible for 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.

The element of route choice is what makes orienteering mentally challenging. You not only have to move faster than other participants, you must out-think them as well. Because of this, orienteering is often called a “thinking sport” because it involves map reading, quick decision-making and athletic ability.

Each checkpoint, 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 reached a checkpoint, you use a punch hanging from the bag to mark your control card (which is provided to you before starting the event). Each course will have its own unique set of punches (no cheating!). Some events are now using an e-punch and you insert a small e-stick into an electronic box at the bag, which registers the checkpoint number and time of visit.

Most events use staggered starts, to help ensure that you get to navigate on your own without interference, distraction or assistance from other participants. The route you take between controls is up to you.

What Equipment Do I Need?

• Compass: Helps you orient the map to North, and take directional bearings. You can often rent one at the event.

• Suitable footwear: Lightweight hiking boots or running/trail shoes.

• Clothing: Dress for a hike that might take you through some brushy areas. The beginner’s (White) course generally sticks to trails, but other courses may go through fields and forests.

• Water/snacks: Water is almost always available, but you might want to bring your own for convenience and to drink on the course. Some events will also have post-course snacks. If it’s a nice day you can also stay afterward, eat a picnic lunch, and discuss your routes with other participants.

• Soap and water: Some areas of the country might have poison ivy/oak, which you might encounter on any course except White. If you see these plants and are sensitive, it’s a good idea to wash off with soap and water as soon as possible after you finish.

What Do I Need to Know?

Knowledge of how to use a compass and topographic map is important, especially for advanced orienteering. Here’s a link from Princeton University to teach you more about both of those skills. Orienteering clubs will also offer classes to teach you those skills.

It’s also handy to understand the “control descriptions” which provide additional clues to locating the checkpoint. Orienteering USA has a document that outlines all the control descriptions and the symbols needed for a successful adventure. You can find it here.

The Florida orienteering club has developed a very handy, user friendly one page control description cheat sheet (pdf):

The Boy Scouts have an orienteering merit badge so they have developed a work sheet that takes scouts through all the things they need to know about orienteering. It’s a great way to test your skills. Boy Scout Orienteering Work Sheet.

How can I find events?

There are many organized events all over the world. You can check out the event link at Orienteering USA, Get Lost Running Racing has California “fun” events, scrambles and rogaines (long duration/distance events), or find a club in your area. There are also permanent courses in a number of places around the U.S.

Events range between $3 – 10 depending on whether it’s a Federation sponsored event.


Geo-caching is a super high tech version of orienteering, in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geo-caches” or “caches”, anywhere in the world.

A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook where the geocacher enters the date they found it and signs it with their established code name. Larger plastic storage containers can also contain items for trading, usually toys or trinkets of little value.

For more information on geo-caching.

Topographic Map Resources

Free Topographical Maps


Satellite, Street & Terrain

U.S. Geological Survey

Magnetic Field and Online Declination Calculator

More Resources

U.S. Orienteering Federation

International Orienteering Federation

Canadian Orienteering Federation

Get Lost Running Racing – CA based events

Equipment Sources

The Compass Store

Orienteering Unlimited