Get started orienteering at your local club. This web site includes a listing of all the U.S. clubs5, and a link to the Orienteering Canada6 web site if you live in Canada or close to the Canadian border. Almost all events have courses for beginners, and many have string courses for young children. If your local club doesn't have a string course set up, ask the organizers about it.
The club hosting the event will provide the map. A compass may not be needed for a beginner's course. If you have one, bring it along. Any compass in which you can see the needle will do to start out, though a baseplate compass like that shown below can be more useful than one with just a floating needle. If you do not have one to bring, the club may have compasses to rent.
Outdoor, hiking, and camping stores carry a selection of compasses, and they are also available from orienteering supply vendors7. A baseplate model similar to the one shows can be purchased for ten to twenty dollars. The cheapest one is fine, but get one with a clear plastic baseplate and direction of travel arrow designed for orienteering. A lanyard (wrist strap) for the compass is helpful.
Wear comfortable walking clothing that you don't mind getting a bit dirty. If it's cold, wear several thin layers of clothing for adjustability, but avoid cotton which holds water. If it's warm, wear light pants but not shorts, since you may encounter brushy vegetation if you go off trail.
Bring some water and, if you want, something to eat afterward.
The registration table is probably the first thing you'll see at an orienteering event. Registration is usually open for a specified period, for example, 10 am to 1 pm. You can arrive and register at any time during that period. However, make a note of anything that might not be available throughout the event, such as beginner's instruction or a string course. Also be aware of course closing times so that you can return to check in with the organizers before they start worrying about your safety.
You will need to pay a small fee for the map, and sign a waiver. The organizers will give you a map of the forest, and sometimes a control card and control description sheet. If you do not have a compass you can usually rent one, though you might not need one for the beginner course. A map case (clear plastic bag) is usually available too, which can help keep your map, control card, and control descriptions organized and dry.
For the white course, sign up to go out singly or in groups of two or three. Get a map for each person if possible (sometimes at an extra charge). It is not necessary to have an adult in every group that goes out, but children get a lot more out of it that way. Leaders of youth groups with too few leaders may want to be out on the course helping each group or at least help each group as they start.
If the club uses a multi-piece control card to keep track of controls visited, fill in the information requested on all parts, and specify the course you are doing. The control description sheet (sometimes simply printed on the map instead of supplied separately) lists the map features you will be looking for on the course, which will help you when you see the course map. Occasionally a club will have you copy your course from a master map; having the control description sheet handy can help insure you circle the correct feature! After registering, you can usually start the course as soon as you are ready to go.
A short orientation session is usually available. This session will give you a few quick pointers on reading a map and how the game is played so you can do your first course. It is a good place to ask a lot of questions. Ask about the safety bearing to use in case you get totally disoriented and just want to return to the start (and how to follow that bearing).
Beginners' instruction is usually brief and introductory; just enough to get you going your first time out. If you want to learn more, request a guided map hike if there are enough volunteers available; ask about beginner clinics (usually scheduled a few times a year), or read one of the books listed in the resource section, available from your local library, a bookstore, a sports store, or an orienteering vendor.
The string course usually has a separate start and finish location, and its own map. It is often organized in a do-it-yourself fashion without any timing. Get a string course map and mark the course on it if necessary. Do the course with your children if they are very young, but let older children do it themselves if they prefer. Since the course is marked the entire way, even pre-schoolers can usually finish the course by themselves.
At the start you will be given a start time. On occasion you will have to copy your selected course from a master map onto your map (take time to copy it carefully); but more and more clubs are providing pre-printed maps to save you this step. Look again at the sample white course map that shows the general set-up of a course.
The start area will be marked with a triangle. On a typical point-to-point course, each checkpoint you will be finding, called a "control," is circled and numbered sequentially. The control description sheet describes the feature you are looking for inside the circle; for instance, a boulder, knoll, or trail junction. A double circle denotes the finish.
Once you start, plan your route to the first control. Find your place on the map shown by the start triangle. Relate the features shown on the map near the start to the terrain around you. Pick out which way to go to get to the first control. It sometimes helps young children if you help them orient the map, then ask them to physically point their finger in the direction they need to head toward the first checkpoint. What is the feature you are looking for? Be sure to ask this out loud and involve your children. Don't expect them to do everything their first time out or they will be frustrated, but do let them take part in the decision-making so they don't become bored. You can use your compass to show where north is, and line your map up so that the north arrows printed on the map line up with the north arrow of your compass. Be sure to keep your map always oriented to north so you don't get turned around.
As you reach each control, check the control description to see that you are at the marker with the correct code for your course. If not, look around to problem-solve and determine where to go next. Ask if you've gone far enough, or perhaps too far, or down the wrong trail. Backtrack if necessary until you reach a place where you knew where you were (this process is called "relocating"). If the control code matches the one on your list, mark your card to prove you found it. Be sure to re-orient your map to determine where to go to continue the course. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the forest.
You may run, jog, or walk on your course, but be sure to check in at the finish within the required time, even if you do not complete the course, so that the organizers are not searching for you. Check out the results board; results are usually posted as they come in, even for beginner courses. It is often fun to compare the routes you took with other people who did the same course.