The Orienteering Map

While there are many forms of orienteering, the common element that applies to all of these is a map. In most cases, the map identifies:

  • Where you start; usually identified by a triangle. As you leave the start, your name, course and start time will be recorded.Section of map showing start triangle and first control
  • A series of control sites that are to be visited by you; these are marked by circles and numbered in the order (1, 2, 3, 4....) in which you must visit them.
  • A description of what to look for at the Control Site - e.g. 1m rock, track junction, head of watercourse - this is called a 'feature' and is usually marked on the map. The circle that appears on the map is centred around the feature to be found - with a bright flag and punch located at the centre of the circle. The punches (pins or electronic) on the control stand are used by the runner to mark his control card or electronic tag, to prove they have visited the control site.
  • A finish location; where organisers will welcome you back, record your finish time and calculate your result. (Note that although the time is recorded, many orienteers take part for the enjoyment of being there - the walking category is one of the fastest growing aspects of orienteering).

Other things that might be on a map include:

  • Key or Legend - that identifies what each of the symbols on the map mean
  • The map scale - that allows you to work out how far it is between points on the map
  • The contour interval - contours are lines on the map that tell you how high/low various points are. The contour interval is the height distance between adjacent contour lines - typically 5 metres.
  • North-South lines - that tell you which way is magnetic north - so you can turn the map so that features on the ground are aligned correctly


Orienteering maps are made especially for bush navigation and show much more detail than most topographic maps. Such maps depict natural features such as contours, watercourses, rock detail and vegetation as well as constructed features such as roads, building and power lines. Long lines across the map with arrowheads show the direction of magnetic north. Orienteering maps are always produced with the top of the map aligned to magnetic north. 

A scale bar shows the scale of the map — usually, 1 cm equals 150 metres (1:15,000) or 1 cm equals 100 metres (1:10,000). For park and school maps of smaller areas, the scale may be even larger eg 1:5000 enabling a lot of detail to be shown. 

Most maps produced for orienteering are printed in colour. Different types of features have characteristic coloured symbols as follows:

  • vegetation — white is for open, runnable forest, while green patches are for denser vegetation bush which will impede progress, and yellow areas are for open land;
  • water features — are marked in blue and these could include creeks, dams and marshes even if then are dry; 
  • earth features — are marked in brown and they include contour lines which show the shape of the land, and other things such as earth walls and termite mounds;
  • roads, rocks and man-made features — any mapped rocks and all man-made features (roads, tracks, fences, powerlines, buildings, etc) are all marked as black.
  • Grey may be used to show areas of crossbale bare rock, or areas under a building which are passable (generally only on urban maps) Diagram explaining contours - see Coaching Tips

Contour lines join points of equal height above sea level and are used to depict the shape of the terrain. They are often considered the most important navigational tool on the map and are important if evolving to harder courses. The height intervals between contours on a map are regular, usually 5m on most orienteering maps.  The shape and the position of the contours indicate the shape of the ground.  Contours relatively far apart, show gently sloping ground while those close together indicate steeper ground.  Topographic features such as spurs, gullies and saddles have their own contour patterns which experienced orienteers can understand and use to help them to navigate.  Sometimes slope lines (small tags on the contours) are used to indicate the downhill side of the contour.  Form lines (indicated as dashed brown lines) may be used to show distinctive land shapes eg. small knolls between the contour lines.

Coaching tips produced for private use only are available here.