group of sports that requires navigational skills
Travel topics > Activities > Sports > Orienteering

Orienteering is navigation across terrain using a map and, when needed, a compass. Orienteering skills are useful to outdoor enthusiasts. In deserts and mountains, these skills can and often do save lives, as well as making outdoor adventures less stressful and more enjoyable.

Orienteering map with key

Understand edit

The orienteering skills needed while hiking differ substantially from those needed in usual orienteering competitions. What you learn at any orienteering club or orienteering event is certainly useful, but you should also train orienteering in a hiking context and get some advice specific for hiking in terrain resembling that which is ahead, before going for demanding wilderness backpacking.

The biggest difference between typical competitive orienteering and wilderness orienteering is the quality of maps and the distances. In the wilderness you will – to a much bigger extent – have to infer the characteristics of any terrain from hints on the map. You will also have to decide where minor streams can be crossed, where to find good water and where to put your tent, in addition to choosing a good path for advancing. On the other hand, you are seldom in a hurry and you need much less precision.

Try it edit

Orienteering is a fun activity for travellers. Avid orienteers have been known to plan all their vacations (and work related travel too) around opportunities to go orienteering. See the article on New Mexico for information about orienteering there.

There may very well be a hiking club where you live. They often arrange events also for inexperienced non-members and can help you get going.

Just using a map and compass at any hike or walk in the nature will teach you much. Tips on what to look for (read: advice from an orienteer or experienced hiker) will make you learn much quicker.

GPS edit

While satellite navigators have become affordable and easy to carry and use, the necessity of traditional orienteering skills have in no way disappeared. You need orienteering skills to judge the information offered by the device and converting it to a real life route (and to get along would the device fail).

In many cases the device gives you an exact position and the direction to your next waypoint. But the shortest path is seldom ideal, sometimes even dangerous. Having made a typing mistake (or prematurely assumed your map uses WGS84 coordinates) you may be directed to the middle of nowhere. And in the backcountry you should use batteries sparingly, which means having the device turned off most of the time.

Maps edit

Shop selling maps

When abroad, you will probably use maps that differ significantly from those at home; orienteering maps for competitions may be standardised, but other ones may not be. Learn the most important symbols, colours, height between contour lines et cetera, check magnetic declination and the coordinate system (which may have to be used at least when coordinating with GPS devices and to get help) and try to find out how reliable the information on the map is.

Different terrain and kind of orienteering have different requirements on the map. While maps used in orienteering competitions should lead you some metres from a certain small rock, when hiking in open terrain the map getting you a few hundred metres – or even a few kilometres – from the destination might be enough for you to find it. While orienteering maps are often in the scale 1:5,000, outdoor maps may be e.g. 1:25,000, 1:50,000 or even 1:100,000. With smaller scale you need fewer sheets, but in difficult terrain you may need the big scale ones. Depending on terrain different features may be the key for finding and following a good route. Topography (hills, valleys and mountains) is nearly always important, but e.g. water sources, character of swamps, roughness of terrain and denseness of forest are more important in some regions.

Dedicated orienteering maps mark the magnetic north, so using a compass is straight forward (if the map is recent and thus reflecting current declination), but other maps may use geographic north or lines parallel to geographic north at another location (according to map projection quirks). While magnetic and geographic north more or less coincide in some countries, elsewhere they may differ by 15° or more.

Where resources for high quality map making are not available, much coarser maps, e.g. with only mountains, lakes and infrastructure decently marked, may have to be used (as in most backcountry before the time of cheap aviation and satellites). With such maps you have to be able to make sound assumptions on the terrain at your route and find features you will surely recognize. Unless you are confident about your skills, having a guide or only following well maintained trails is a safer option.

Sun and stars edit


In lack of a compass, the sun, moon or stars can be used to find cardinal directions.

For using the sun, you should know it is in the east in the morning (6 AM) and in the west in the evening (6PM), and where it is at noon (north of the tropics: in the south, south of them: in the north). Interpolate as needed, and remember this is sun time, not standard time (so in Paris, subtract an hour or two from what your watch shows).

On the northern hemisphere you should know how to find the Pole Star, which is constantly nearly exactly above geographic north (near the Equator the Pole Star is low, near the North Pole near zenith, so probably difficult to use in both cases). On the southern hemisphere you have the Crux, but it is quite far from geographic south. You can get a point farther south by extrapolating a line between the stars. If you know when other stars are in certain directions, you can use them too.

Those not confused by geometry can also use the moon: as the moon gets its light from the sun, you could estimate from where the sun beams are coming. Then use the location of the sun to get the compass points. If you face the full moon, you have the sun behind your back, if you face a first quarter half-moon on the northern hemisphere you have the sun to your right. If you are north of the tropics and it is midnight, the sun, in turn, is in the north, and you are turned to the south or the west, respectively.

(South of the tropics, the directions are kind of reversed: the sun still rises in the east, but it is to the north at noon. In the tropics, the situation is more confused, as the noon sun near the equator is in the north in the northern hemisphere summer and in the south in the southern hemisphere summer; in Midsummer and Midwinter this is true for all the tropics, while in mid-spring and mid-autumn the directions are like on the rest of the respective hemispheres.)

If you cannot figure out where the sun, the moon or the stars you are seeing should be, you can still use them to keep an approximate direction. They will move only 15° an hour (360°/24h), so for any short distance they will more or less stay fixed. Keep the celestial body at the same point in your field of view, or your shadow pointing in the same direction. You can use a steady wind in a similar manner: if it's on your right cheek, keep it there. The wind is a bit unreliable; to trust it you need to be able to recognise it shifting or know it won't.

There are also signs on ground level, such as ant nests, moss and the shape of lonely trees, which are directed approximately towards or away from the midday sun. Using them requires some more training and the signs vary between climate zones.

For keeping a direction in fog or snowfall in open terrain one can form a line: the one walking last will see when the one walking first deviates from the course, as those walking in the middle are still walking on the previous course. Practise this both to get it work and to get a feeling for how accurately you can keep the course; you will walk in circles, but very much larger circles than when trying to keep a course alone.

Stay safe edit

Orienteering sign

Safety in the natural environment is an important goal of orienteering training. Essential skills taught and developed through organized orienteering events, which apply also to many other outdoor activities, include the following:

  • Know how to read a map. Look at the legend and read the text around the margins. Know what the different colors, patterns, and symbols mean.
  • Know how to orient the map to the terrain and relate features on the map to features visible in the terrain. This can be as simple as knowing which way is north, and to rotate the map so that north on the map is north.
  • Know how to use your compass. Although you should not need it most of the time, a quick glance on the compass is a valuable double check, and in fog or dense snowfall the compass is invaluable. Note that magnetic compasses react to magnets – which is not surprising, but you may be surprised to find several magnets in your gear, such as in some mobile phone cases. Also, any electronics create a magnetic field. Sometimes a compass may be permanently affected, such that it starts pointing south instead of north.
  • Find your safety bearing. Look at the map, note the locations of roads and populated places, and decide in advance which way to go in the event of serious trouble (you are lost, someone is sick or injured, etc.). Often, this decision is as simple as "go downhill" or "go uphill" or "go south". It is important to make this decision in advance, and to make a habit of making this decision, because in an emergency many people's ability to make decisions becomes limited.
  • Know the local terrain hazards, and how to avoid them. Some examples are cliffs or steep slopes or loose rocks; poisonous snakes or sharp rocks or thorns; open pit mines or standing dead trees that may fall in windy weather; risk of lightning strikes on exposed ridges and flash floods in canyon bottoms.
  • Know how to handle accidents, such as a sprain. Have a plan about how to call for help in severe cases (is there mobile phone coverage?).
  • Know out of bound areas. Stay out of private property, posted no trespass government property, shooting ranges, areas closed to public use due to specific dangers (forest fire, severe weather, unexploded ordinance, toxic waste spills, etc.) or to protect resources (municipal water supplies, archaeological sites, endangered species).
  • Don't lose your keys. If you want to orienteer unencumbered, lock your stuff in your car and leave your keys at the registration table. The person handling registrations should have a communal box for safekeeping of keys.
  • Ask questions. Do you know about attack points, aiming off, collecting features, catching features, and handrails? If not, ask for someone to give you some personal coaching before you head out on a course.

Famous events edit

  • Tiomila – Yearly overnight relay (around 100 km) near Stockholm, Sweden. Women only and youth relays in the day. Last weekend in April.
  • Jukola Relay – Yearly overnight relay in Finland (70–90 km), biggest worldwide with some 1,500 teams participating. In the afternoon before the Jukola proper is the women's Venla relay, also with more than 1,000 teams. The weekend before Midsummer.

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