Newcomer’s Guide

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.  It does not matter how young, old or fit you are, as you can run, walk or jog the course and progress at your own pace.

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.


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 place in Northern Ireland from local club events to our NI Colour Series. Most events have courses suitable for all ages and abilities. If you would like more information about the event please contact the organising club.

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.

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. At the ‘start’ you will need to ‘punch’ the control, which involves placing your electronic card (see equipment) into a unit which starts the timer. At the finish you are required to ‘download’ the information which is on your electronic card. This shows whether you have completed the course in the correct order. You must download whether you have completed the course or not.

Top tips for beginners

Below are five basic skills that you need to practice to help you 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 to 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!


To start orienteering very little equipment is required. You will need to wear comfortable clothes for walking or running in (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.

SI Unit







Adapted from British Orienteering.

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