Beginners Guide to Orienteering

Newcomers Guide to Orienteering

 Orienteering is an exciting outdoor adventure sport which involves walking or running whilst navigating around a course using a detailed map and sometimes a compass.   The aim is to navigate in sequence between a set of control points and decide the best route to complete the course in the quickest time.

Orienteering operates in way that allows people wandering, walking, skipping, jogging, running, and sprinting all participate in the same event. Some are there for a dander with the family, some to get the head cleared in the forest, some to train and some to win! All of which is totally normal and accepted in our sport. You’ll be made welcome no matter your motivation!

Orienteering can take place anywhere from remote forest and countryside to urban parks and school playgrounds.  It’s a great sport for runners, joggers and walkers who want to improve their navigation skills or for anyone who loves the outdoors with the flexibility to progress at your own pace. You can orienteer alone, or in small groups of family or friends.

The details of all the events hosted by NI Orienteering or one of our clubs can be found on the Fixtures page. There are many orienteering opportunities in Northern Ireland from local club events to our NI Colour Series. Whether it is a league, a championship, a trophy, or a series there will always be a range of options available for various levels – if in doubt or you need some guidance – just ask!

If you would like more information about the event, please contact the organising club or our Development Officer, Ric Gamble at

Our Clubs and hubs also host many activities too, these are used as training for club members and are a great way for newcomers to try the sport. No results are published for activities. As well as the fixtures page linked above, you can also stay up to date on events and activities by following our clubs and hubs on Facebook (more information at the end of this page.)

DIY Orienteering

You can also Orienteer at anytime using permanent and virtual courses. We know life is busy and it’s not always possible to attended events and activities, so we have implemented DIY Orienteering which is available across the country. You can read more about this and download maps at the following links.


 The information below should answer any questions you may have about getting started but remember; We find the best way to understand how our sport works is to come along, have a go, AND have a chat with the people on the ground. You’ll find we are very happy to discuss all the details of orienteering with you. We can even make sure somewhere is there specially to meet you and help you get started!

 Orienteering Maps

Orienteering maps are drawn to a large scale, most commonly 1:15000 (1cm=150m) or 1:10000 (1cm=100m) but for orienteering in parks you use a map drawn in a scale of 1:5000. All maps use an internationally agreed set of symbols, and these are logical and easy to learn. You will absorb much of the information simply by attending your first few events, but a comprehensive booklet of these symbols can be ordered through the National Office. Most orienteering maps will also provide a detailed legend to help you understand the map.

Orienteering maps are drawn using magnetic north rather than ‘grid’ or ‘true’ north and are printed in up to five standard colours. The colours are an integral part of the map symbols:

  • Black is used for most man-made features such as buildings and rock features such as cliffs, crags, and boulders.
  • Brown is used to show landform, including contour lines, gullies, pits and knolls (small hills).
  • Blue is used for water features such as lakes, ponds, marshes and streams
  • White and Green are used to depict the density of woodland and the extent to which it impedes progress. Open ‘runnable’ woodland is left white with progressively darker shades of green mean increased density, ranging from ‘slow run’ to ‘difficult’ (or walk) through to ‘impenetrable’ (or fight).
  • Yellow is used for unwooded areas with a solid yellow for grassy spaces such as playing fields and a paler yellow for rougher terrain (‘rough open’) such as heather.
  • Combinations of yellow and green show other types of terrain which will be explained in the legend.

 Control Descriptions

To help you navigate to each control you will be provided with a control description sheet. The control description sheet tells you what you are looking for, e.g., a path junction, a large boulder etc. When you find the control there will be some letters or numbers which should correspond to those on your control description sheet. If they do match, you have found the right place. If they don’t, it isn’t your control!

The full list of IOF Control Descriptions can be found on the IOF website, but here’s a very useful Control Description Summary.

Starting the Course

The course is represented on your map by; the triangle indicates the start; the numbered circles indicate the control locations, and the double circle indicates the finish.  You must visit the controls in the order they are numbered unless a score event).


To start orienteering very little equipment is required. You will need to wear comfortable clothes for walking or running (full leg cover is recommended) that you don’t mind getting dirty, trainers and a waterproof if the forecast is bad!  All other equipment that you may need will be available to hire.

Electronic Cards

An electronic card (usually called a dibber) is used to confirm that you have visited all the controls in the correct order. They are worn on your finger and usually a real hit with children! At the ‘start’ you will need to ‘punch’ or ‘dib’ the control, which involves placing your electronic card into a unit which starts the timer. Then you must visit the controls in order and punch each one. At the finish you punch and then are required to ‘download’ the information which is on your electronic card at the registration. This shows whether you have completed the course in the correct order and you will receive a paper printout. You must download whether you have completed the course or not.


 Below are five basic skills that you need to progress with orienteering.

  1. Fold your map– Always make sure that you fold your map so that you can easily see the part of the map where you are.
  2. Orientate your map– Always make sure that your map is the correct way round or orientated. This means that the features which are in front of you on the ground are in front of you on the map. You can also orientate your map using a compass by making sure that the north lines on the map point the same way as the north or red end of the compass needle. Each time you change direction you should change your grip on the map so that the map is still orientated north.
  3. Thumb your Map– To help you know where you are on the map it helps if you mark your position on the map with your thumb. As you move along the ground you should move your thumb to your new position on the map. It is usual to move your thumb to the new position at a ‘check point’ such as a path junction or some other obvious feature where you will stop or slow down and check where you are.
  4. Check your control card– Once you have found a control you always need to check that the code on your control description sheet matches the code on the control. You should also check that the control is situated on the correct feature on your map. You will then know for sure that you have reached the correct control.
  5. Have fun and enjoy yourself– This is the most important skill to remember.  Orienteering should always be fun and enjoyable!


Head over to our Find A Club page for links to our 3 clubs and 3 hubs currently operating in Northern Ireland. Being a small country, all our clubs and hubs are closely connected with members participating, competing, and socialising alongside each other throughout the year. In Orienteering, you will find a fantastic community of like-minded people and you’ll explore areas you didn’t know existed.

If you have any questions on your journey into orienteering, please get in touch, we would be happy to help. Contact

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