What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a competitive international sport that combines racing with navigation. It is a timed race in which individual participants use a specially created, highly detailed map to select routes and navigate through diverse and often unfamiliar terrain and visit control points in sequence. Courses also can be enjoyed as a walk in the woods, with difficulty levels from beginner to expert offered at most events.

Control description, or clue, sheet, from PTOCA standard orienteering course consists of a start, a series of control sites that are marked by circles, connected by lines and numbered in the order they are to be visited, and a finish. The control site circles are centered on the feature that is to be found; this feature is also defined by control descriptions (sometimes called clues, right), a list of which you'll receive along with your map, or printed on your map. Out in the terrain, a control flag (below) marks the location that the orienteer must visit.

Control flag or bag or markerTo verify a visit, the orienteer may use a punch hanging next to the flag to mark his or her control card. Different punches make different patterns of holes in the paper. Many clubs now use electronic "punching" instead, using a finger stick with a chip inside it that records your time at each control you visit (one standard electronic control station is depicted below right).

Sportident control station The route between "controls" is not specified, and is entirely up to the orienteer; this element of route choice and the ability to navigate through the forest are the essence of orienteering.

Most orienteering events use staggered starts to ensure that each orienteer has a chance to do his or her own navigating, but there are several other popular formats, including relays, mass-start endurance events, and "Score-O" events in which the orienteer must find as many controls as possible within a specified time (rogaine is an endurance version of score-O).

Originally a training exercise in land navigation for military officers in Scandinavia (See "A brief history," below), orienteering has developed many variations. Among these, the oldest and the most popular is so-called foot orienteering--this refers to orienteering while running or walking on foot. Typically, when people use the term orienteering, this is what they're referring to. But now people also orienteer on skis, mountain bikes--even in canoes!

A brief history of orienteering

The history of orienteering begins in the late nineteenth century in Sweden, where it originated as military training. The actual term "orienteering" was first used in 1886 at the Swedish Military Academy Karlberg and referred to the crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass. The competitive sport began when the first competition was held for Swedish military officers in May 1893 at the yearly games of the Stockholm garrison. The first civilian competition was held near Oslo, Norway, in October 1897.

At the end of World War I, the first large scale orienteering meet was organized in 1918 by Major Ernst Killander of Stockholm, Sweden. Then President of the Stockholm Amateur Athletic Association, Killander was a Scouting movement leader who saw orienteering as an opportunity to interest youth in athletics. The meet was held south of Stockholm in 1919 and was attended by 220 athletes. Killander is credited with coining the Swedish word orientering, from which the word orienteering is derived, in publicity materials for this meet. Killander continued to develop the rules and principles of the sport, and today is widely regarded throughout Scandinavia as the "Father of Orienteering."

Baseplate protractor-style compassThe sport gained popularity with the development of more reliable compasses in the 1930s. The first international competition, between Swedish and Norwegian orienteers, was held in 1932. In 1933, the Swedish compass manufacturer Silva Sweden AB introduced a new compass design, the protractor compass (see left). Until the introduction of the thumb compass, the protractor compass would remain the state of the art in the sport.

By 1934, over a quarter million Swedes were actively participating in the sport, and orienteering had spread to Finland, Switzerland, the Soviet Union and Hungary. The nations of Finland, Norway and Sweden all established national championships, and remain, along with Switzerland, the dominant nations in the sport today. The Swedish national orienteering society, Svenska Orienteringsförbundet, the first national orienteering society, was founded in 1936.

Find out how and when orienteering came to the U.S.

The first international governing body for orienteering was the International Orienteering Federation, which was formed by Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Germany, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany in 1961. National orienteering federations from 67 different countries, including the U.S. and Canada, are members of the IOF today.

World championships were held biannually from 1961 to 2003, and are now held every year. The only World Orienteering Championship to be held in North America took place at Harriman State Park, just north of New York City in 1993.