What is orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport for everyone, whatever their age or experience. Elite and recreational orienteers, men and women, young children and over 90-year-olds can enjoy the sport together. Orienteering is a sport for the whole family.

Orienteering is in a family of adventure sports (such as adventure racing and rogaining)  that requires competitors to use maps to gain advantage by navigating their way round unfamiliar terrain. Usually this involves visiting a number of designated control (or way) points.

It is easy to learn the basics, but the challenges provided can be endless. Orienteering provides an exercise activity which is both physical and intellectual in nature; hence its other name – “cunning running”.

What are the benefits of orienteering?

  • It is a form of cardiovascular exercise, no matter how fast you go, you are getting outside and moving
  • It stretches your brain, providing a new intellectual challenge
  • It strengthens all your muscles, body and mind
  • It develops self-confidence 
  • It requires you to be calm and composed with your decisions whilst on the move 
  • It is a sport you can do at any age - all can have a go

Foot orienteering

You follow a course on a map looking for orange and white flagged control markers. They are set in the places that correspond to the points marked on the map. The winner of the competition is the participant who has completed the course by visiting all the control points, in numerical order, in the shortest time. Fast running alone will not make you a winner. Choosing the best route between the control points and finding the markers efficiently is the best practice to aim for. 

Do I need to be fit?

You may walk, jog or run, alone or in a group – your choice. Fitness is not a necessity, although it does help, particularly in serious competitive orienteering. You may treat the event as a race or simply as a stroll, with the search for controls providing an extra element of interest.

What do I wear?

Just wear clothes suited to walking or running in farmland or city parks. Any kind of walking or running shoe will be OK. It is useful to wear eye covering if in the forest to protect your eyes from branches, or if required for reading fine detail on the map. 

How long does it take? And what level to start on?

This depends entirely on your ability, level of fitness and the course you choose to run. These levels are sometimes called classes and then there are age grades as well. If you are unsure as to your skill level try the White course first and, if you find it easy, follow up with a Yellow course.

  • White: Easy Navigation. Mostly on tracks. Best for beginners and younger children.
  • Yellow:  Slightly more complicated navigation. Mainly along tracks but with opportunities to short-cut across country. Better for older children and adults.
  • Orange: Mostly off road, navigating on features like hills and vegetation. Better after trying a couple of yellows.
  • Red: Described as ‘as hard as the map can make it’ Reds usually have three different lengths: Short; about 3-4km, Medium; about 4-6km, Long; about 6-7+km. Should only be attempted when you are confident with orange courses.

How are orienteering maps different to other maps?

Any kind of map may be used for navigation technique (even a street map), but the best ones are detailed five-colour topographic maps developed especially for the orienteering sport.  Orienteering maps are different from other maps in many ways, the accuracy is amazing.  Many hours spent on cartography and mapping for it the maps to be customised to cover the event area in rich detail.  The maps have fine detail in order to simplify the landscape around you. Most people know how GPS works – you find your location and you tell it where you want to go. But although a GPS is very good at getting you to that next location with speed, it doesn’t tell you anything about how or why to choose different route choices to get to the places and what way is best to pass along the way,  route finding and route choice is the essence to grapple with in all map adventure sports.

Orienteering maps help teach navigation technique

Orienteering maps support spatial thinking by helping us to visualise where objects are in relation to one another and help you to notice the detail in the landscape. 

An orienteering map is a topographic map with extra details to help competitors navigate through the competition area. The event maps show many topographic features, including boulders, cliffs, ditches, and fences, in addition to the elevation, vegetation, and trails. The maps include many symbols unique to orienteering, using the International Orienteering Federation's standard mapping symbols to describe the details on the map. Declination doesn't come into play, because all orienteering maps align with magnetic north, not true north. That simplifies map reading when you have to navigate while moving quickly. 
When you first see an orienteering map, take a good look at the legend, which tells you what the symbols on the map mean. They generally appear in these five colours:

  • Black symbols are the most important for a novice orienteer. They show man-made features like roads, tracks, fences and walls, as well as rock features like boulders and cliffs.
  • Blue shows water features, either larger obstacles like lakes, rivers, sea and marshes, or smaller details like ditches, water troughs and streams.
  • Brown shows the shape of the land, mainly by use of contours. A contour is an imaginary line connecting points of the same height. When you are going up or down hill you will be crossing contours. Contours may initially be difficult to understand, because they’re not actually painted onto the ground ! So you have to imagine them. As your orienteering improves, the information in the contour shapes will become both easier to understand and more important to you. Don’t worry if they look like meaningless squiggles at first.
  • White - One peculiar feature about orienteering maps is that trees which you can run through or under are shown as white; only denser bush or undergrowth is shown as green, in different shades. The darker the green, the more difficult the vegetation is to get through.
  • Yellow is used to denote open areas

Have a look at some orienteering maps here

Navigation and map reading - where to start? 

Orienteering training guidelines for various levels can be found on the Orienteering New Zealand. Have a look at the information on the coaching framework page

What to bring to the event

  • Compass. Bring one with a stable needle, many orienteers quickly progress to a thumb compass, as it stays placed on the map at all times for reference. We have a few for hire if you are new to orienteering - ask at registration. 
  • Whistle (see safety FAQ information below) .
  • SIAC or Sport Ident Stick (SI Stick) . The old punch card system is rarely used unless electronic controls fail.
  • Watch to keep track of course closure time. Walk to the finish or contact the controller (their phone number is on the safety instructions at the start) if you are not likely to finish in the required time before course closes. 
  • It is useful to carry water on hot days, for longer events, for children,  or if you know you will be out for a while. Shared water facilities is more difficult to arrange along with pandemic awareness. 
  • For large pre-entry events you will have a competitor number pinned to the front of your top if you are in a championship class. 
  • Many orienteers carry a control description holder on their arm as a quick reference so they do not loosing map contact of where they are on the map . The descriptions are on the map, but may not be a convenient for quick, fast reference, so we have separate control description sheets. Control descriptions for your course will be available at the start as well being printed on your map. Easy courses have full verbal descriptions, after that they then progress to an internationally recognised symbol system. This enables anyone doing the sport anywhere in the world to be able to read the same symbols on an orienteering map.  There are on-line games to learn Map Symbols and Control Description Symbols.

What happens at the event?

Full instructions will be given at the event, but listed below are a few basics:

Most events will be ‘Sport ident’ or S.I. events using an electronic timing chip system. You will carry this timing device with you to check in at every control and at the finish – it is usually placed on your finger to 'punch' controls. You can hire these at events for $3 extra with your event fee. Some participants at competitive events might be using the SI Air Card - it is a touchless timing device – you don’t have to physically punch the control for it to register you’ve been there.  It will still beep and lights will flash, but no 'punching' is required.  It saves valuable seconds for the fast orienteers.

Before starting you will need to fill out an online entry form (unless it is pre-entry event).  Head to the registration tent, after reading the event safety instructions and paying the entry fee (see general event costs here) , enter your details and course on one of the laptops. You will need to complete an acknowledgment and waiver to say you have read the health and safety details for the event before you can enter. 

For large organised competitions, you, and / or your team, will start at a separate time from everyone else on your course. So you might be given a “start time”  in advance. If there is none, they will probably be allocated at the start. If it is a pre entry organised competition, you will need to present yourself at the start at least five  minutes before you start. At all events there will be a countdown and you will be given any extra safety instructions and given the go ahead to start. 

Often you will follow a ribbon to the start triangle on your map, then the navigation begins and you navigate the marked course taking any route between controls, but in the correct numerical order (unless it is a rogaine or score event, when you can choose your route). 

When you reach a control, confirm that you are at the correct control number – there are other controls out there that may not be on your course. Then you 'bip' or  ‘punch’ your card at each control, making sure you hear a noise and see a flash of red light. Only if the control is NOT working,  you can clip a box (R1, R2, R3) on your map. 

After completing your course ALWAYS go to the finish, even if you don’t complete the whole course. This is so we know that you’re not lost in the forest! Then download at the caravan to receive your time split printout. When you download we can tell from your device what controls you actually visited and in what order, and the time you took between each control. We hand out all your split times on a piece of paper to every participant after you have downloaded the information from your Sport-ident / electronic timing chip. If you have hired a Sport-ident you hand it into the caravan after downloading.  If you have a 'MP' on your splits or results, this is recording that you have missed a control on your course, so it is recorded as a 'mispunch', so always check the control and course numbers as you are punching and progressing through your course. 

We keep track of everyone who has not downloaded at course closure.  Safety procedures do kick in if we are missing download information from participants. 

Is there a time limit?

Yes, you will have at least 2-3 hours to do your course (depending on the type of event).  But on every day there will be an advertised course closure time.  Wear a watch!, and abandon your course and come back to the finish by the course closure time.  Unfortunately you will be recorded as DNF (“Did not Finish”).  This is a safety rule and it is not flexible unless by prior arrangement withe the controller.

Event details

As we are all volunteers, the orienteering courses are often developed in the weeks or months preceding the event, when people get round to it in their spare time. Final details get placed on the website once the event is fully planned and checked by the controller in the week(s) preceding the event. Orienteering differs from rogaines in that we often have several levels of difficulty courses on each event, which means you can find an event that suitably challenges you. All this takes a bit of time as along with course planning, there is liaising with the landowners, providing basic facilities and making sure all participants have a good time out exploring. 


Major calamities very rarely happen at orienteering events. A short, advisory safety notice will be printed out at each event, with safety bearings.  Please take a few moments to read it.

Use your whistle only in an emergency, the distress signal being six blasts at 10 seconds intervals, then a minute pause before repeating the pattern.

If you hear a whistle or come across somebody who is injured then you must investigate / help out.  Please report any incidents to the event organisers.

Sit tight if you get completely lost

If you get lost, try to retrace your tracks to a recognisable position on the map. Never wander aimlessly without a plan, because you may leave the potential search area. Listen and wait for another orienteer. Find a control or a major track, or landmark, then sit and wait for searchers. They will check these areas first.

If I do not want to finish – what do I do?

You can give up for any reason (injured, don’t feel well, not having a good time, hungry, been out too long) but you must check in at the finish – otherwise we will think you are lost and launch a search and rescue mission. Try to contact the controller if you are running beyond the course finish time (if there is coverage) , otherwise head back to the finish directly, if possible.

Your result will be recorded as DNF “Did not Finish”.  At orienteering events there are always a few people who DNF and there is no shame/failure attached to this.  It all happens to us sometimes on different orienteering events!

How can I prepare for orienteering? What orienteering training is on offer?

Keep fit and active as much as possible. To train for navigation,  go enter as many orienteering events as you can. As a PAPO member you are invited to numerous training events in the lead up to large competitions, with coaches on hand. If you are not from Canterbury checkout some events near you on the Orienteering NZ website.

Do I need to be a member?

No, you don’t need to be a club member to participate. But if you are interested in attending quite a few events, it makes financial sense to join-up. And if you want to really get into improving your navigation, you'll get the  benefit of extra member training events.
If you are interested in joining, the membership year runs from July until June the following year. After January the membership is half price. Join up 


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