Introduction to Orienteering (PDF - 1.48Mb)

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport, which combines outdoor adventure with map reading and navigational skills. It involves navigating though the bush, parks or streets with the aid of a specially produced map and orienteering compass, with the aim being to locate checkpoints (controls) on various natural and man-made features along the way, such as a boulder, track junction, bench seat or street lamp. Controls are generally represented by distinctive orange and white flags (pictured).

The skill in orienteering is in choosing the best route between controls — while beginners' courses may not offer choice, as you progress you will learn to decide between options — perhaps over a hill or a longer route which goes round it. It is this stimulating mental challenge as well as the physical activity that makes orienteering so popular. Each event may have a number of courses of differing lengths and levels of difficulty occurring at the same time.

Here is a British explanation which will help you pick up the concept.

You can start with an orienteering course that is a pleasant stroll, either alone or in a group, along bush tracks, and then progress when you wish to the more demanding courses as your navigating skills and fitness improve. Orienteering is a sport for everyone, no matter their age or experience. Orienteering is famous for events in which elite orienteers and recreational orienteers, men and women, aged from young children to over 90-year-olds can enjoy the sport together. You can walk, jog or run, depending on your level of fitness and how competitive you wish to be. Whilst orienteering is an individual sport, participation in pairs or small groups is encouraged at the beginner level. Participants at any event include both club members and non-members.

In competitive orienteering, the person successfully navigating their way around their course in the quickest time is the winner, hence both physical fitness and ability to read maps become important. To complete an orienteering course may take as little as 20 minutes for a short easy course, or up to 90 minutes for a longer difficult course.

Orienteering was the featured sport on ABC Radio National’s "The Sports Factor" during April 2001. Both audio and transcripts of the programme are available from The Sports Factor webpage, and provide a unique insight into the sport of orienteering. Orienteering also featured as a "cross-generational" sport with its appeal to families and provision of self-confidence to young people on the same program in October 2006 (transcript and podcast).

Orienteering comes in several flavours:

  • Foot-Orienteering – the most common in Australia where competitors run/walk,
  • Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) - similar to foot orienteering but competitors navigate mountain bikes over different grades of tracks between control points. Further details are available by following the link above.
  • Ski-Orienteering (SkiO) – not very common in Australia, mainly due to poor ski conditions. The sport is similar to MBO with competitors using standard cross country ski equipment along with a map holder attached to the chest to navigate complex track systems.
  • Trail-Orienteering - is inclusive of disabled competitors; the object is accuracy, not time. This involves determining, along a set accessible course, which of various controls in a small area is the one indicated on the map; another form involves determining the position on a map of a control viewed from a set point 30-40 meters away.

Why do people orienteer?

Lots of reasons!

It’s an adventure sport – people love adventure, and what better adventure than to have to find your own way around an unfamiliar area. The adventure can be as gentle or extreme as you want. It might be a stroll around a park, or a fast-paced dash over mountains, cliffs and streams in a foreign country.

It's a sport for life - orienteering is a truly transgenerational sport. It caters for people between 8 and 80 both as a means of fitness, adventure, challenge and competitive sport. No matter what the level, weekend hacker or international elite, all ages young and old are able to enjoy the same forest at the same time.

Fitness - many of the ailments that afflict modern society are caused by a lack of exercise. Orienteering offers an enjoyable way of getting exercise - the mental challenge of navigation takes your mind off the fact that you're running/walking. Before you know it you're back at the finish having walked/run 3-8 km (depending on course selected).

Getting out in the bush - the Australian bush offers easy running in superb terrain. Bush events are centred around Winter - so you can enjoy the crisp/cool conditions punctuated by the occasional meeting with wildlife (kangaroos, wallabies) that share the forests with us.

Social atmosphere - although it's a competitive sport, the vast majority of orienteers don't take it too seriously. A key part of the sport is the social environment before and after events - where you can swap stories with peers or ask advice from more experienced orienteers. A network of orienteering clubs, covering most areas in Australia, offers nearby contacts who will help you out until you find your own way in orienteering.

It’s as competitive as you like – orienteering can be a gentle noncompetitive stroll or it can be taken to the highest level. Elite competitors compete in World Championships yearly and with training regimes similar to the best distance runners in the world.

Learn to navigate - while navigating through the bush can be very challenging, this is only for the advanced courses. Every orienteering event caters for a range of skills and fitness - a typical event offers a range of courses with distances of 2-18 km and navigational difficulty from Very Easy through to Hard.

It's a family sport - the range of courses provided offers one suitable for every person in the family from 8 to 80; there's even a string course for young children to entertain them and introduce them to some of the concepts in orienteering at an early age.

It's a kid's sport - orienteering builds confidence in young people. By allowing participants to take part in a range of courses - at their own pace - orienteering offers a non-threatening way of learning how to navigate and to increase fitness. Typically, orienteering gives 10-12 year olds the ability and self-assurance required to venture out alone and complete a 3-5 Km course through the bush. Orienteering gives young people a level of self-confidence that few other sports or pastimes can offer.

It's an adult's sport - orienteering is often known as "cunning running" - and as we get older, this cunning becomes more and more important. Orienteering is a sport in which the fastest runner does not always win; navigational mistakes can be costly - and a slow/accurate navigator will often beat faster less accurate people.

World-wide appeal - Orienteering is practised world-wide, in all kinds of terrain, from parks to deserts. Orienteering terrain varies from dense, impassable bush to treeless areas and from mountains to plains. Many international events are open to anyone who wants to compete, not just the elite. Australians travel overseas in their droves every year for some really international adventures.

It's well organised - if you like taking part in something that's really well run or even helping to run events, orienteering offers plenty of opportunity here. Most people that take part in orienteering events are surprised at the level of organisation that is apparent.

It's great value for money - prices vary - from $4 for park and/or street runs in the suburbs of Melbourne to $8-15 for bush events and major competitions. Championships are typically around $30. Higher prices are charged for events that use colour-printed maps and require a large amount of work to arrange. Low-key events such as street events or club events charge lower-prices. Given the time required to prepare especially made maps, check areas, make-up courses and check control sites, there are few, if any sports that can claim such high value for money!


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