Your First Event

You're ready for your first orienteering event! You've found an event near you. Now what?


For many local club events, you can pre-register online; this can help clubs plan how many maps to print. Otherwise, registration at the site of the event is the norm. (At national events, pre-registration is typically required for advanced competitors; beginners can register on race day.)

At registration you'll pay a nominal fee, select an appropriate course, and be provided information for the day's event, plus a control card to mark where you go and a sheet of control descriptions. Some clubs provide the control description sheet at the start instead, or only print it on the map. Maps are typically provided at the start as well. A compass is usually not required for beginning courses, however you may want to take the opportunity to become familiar with its basics. A baseplate orienteering (Silva style) compass is best and often may be rented at events.

A brief beginner's clinic or presentation of instructions is usually available. Be sure to ask at registration; the volunteers are happy to share their knowledge.

General information regarding the terrain, courses, conduct of the event and special and unusual situations may be explained in the Event Notes, sometimes called Meet Director's or Course Setter's Notes, often on the club's website. At some events, rather than receiving a map with a pre-printed course, you may be required to copy this information onto a blank map from a master course map. Beginners are often allowed to do this before their start time at low-key events.

The control description sheet, sometimes referred to as "clue" sheet, does not contain clues at all, but precise descriptions of the control feature you will be looking for. Control descriptions may use symbols that are internationally recognized, and are usually accompanied by detailed descriptions in English for beginners.

When you are ready to go, you may proceed directly to the start area or you will be assigned a start time, depending on the event. Staggered start times are assigned to minimize following, which is not allowed. The starting official will assign a start time if needed that will be entered on your control card.

How to select your course

The rule of thumb is, if you have to ask, stick with the White (beginner's) course until you feel comfortable with the procedures and the navigational requirements of the course. Expect to spend 30-60 minutes on the white course. (Learn more about the different orienteering course levels.)

Be sure to ask what the course closing time is, or the time limit for your course, and always return to the finish to let the organizers know you're out of the woods! The organizers need to collect markers and clean up the area before they can go home, and hate to worry about dawdlers or those who forget to check out.

Ready, set, go!

At the start signal, you will either go to the master maps or begin navigation to control number one. [Map Reading 101 from Georgia Orienteering] Sometimes the beginning of navigation, marked by a triangle on the map, will be at a point beyond the actual start. Your description sheet will give specifics for the start triangle and each control including the code number; the feature (such as trail junction, hill, boulder, etc.); which one if there's more than one of the same feature in the circle; on what part of the feature the marker is located; and other descriptive information.

Even youngsters enjoy finding the control markers!Each control point has an orange and white marker flag at the precise point described. The flag will have a code (typically a two- or three-digit number but occasionally a set of letters) that corresponds to the number on your description sheet, and an electronic or needle punch. Compare the codes (there are other courses and flags and not all will be on YOUR course) and use the punch to mark that you have visited the proper control point. Continue from control to control around the course.

The finish line is usually near the final control and available for spectating. Your finish time will be recorded at the finish where you will turn in your control card. There is usually no control marker or punch at the finish line, except in the case of electronic punching. You will be listed in the event results, usually posted soon after you finish and within a day or two on the club's web site. We hope you enjoy your outing and come back again!

Some basic rules and etiquette:

  • Always report to the finish within the time allowed whether or not you have reached all the controls.
  • Controls generally must be visited in the specified order, except during a Score O.
  • Move away from controls as soon as you punch. Lingering at controls can give away the location to other competitors.
  • Orienteering is usually an individual sport, especially at the regional and national levels. For that reason, following or assisting others is not allowed, unless you're working in a team, where permitted. Rules are looser at smaller local club events.
  • Groups, if allowed, must stay together and each person should punch his/her own card.
  • Move aside on narrow paths for faster runners.

(Adapted from Your First Orienteering Event in a Nutshell by the Bay Area Orienteering Club)