Getting Started

How can you teach yourself to orienteer better?  Start here with the basics.

The Orienteering Process

  • Orient the map: using your compass and major terrain features around you, hold the map so that the north arrow on the map is pointing the same way as your compass. If you know your location on the map and on the ground, the terrain features on the map should mirror what you see around you.
    • Practice map orientation with an experienced orienteer to check your work. Start at a location that is marked on the map. Practice orienting the map using your compass, then point out features on the map and the corresponding terrain around you.
  • Simplify: There is a lot of information on the map. What can you ignore, and what are the large or unique features that will help you know where you and where you are going?
  • Select and plan your route: the "best" route is often a very individual choice. An advanced orienteer might select a technical route that would be risky for a less skilled orienteer to attempt. A fast runner might look for the most runnable route. A fatigued orienteer might select a longer route with less climb.
    • Many orienteers use a backwards planning method known as CAR.
      • Control: Look at the control. What direction do you want to approach it from? Consider characteristics that might make the control easier or faster to find.
      • Attack Point: What large or unique feature will you look for to tell you that you are approaching your control?
      • Route: What is the most desirable way to get from where you are now to your attack point? What other routes should you consider?
  • Map memory: the more you can take in and remember every time you glance at your map, the less you will have to stop to look at it.
    • This is a great skill to practice at a group training event. Augment a normal orienteering course with a memory-O "cloverleaf" off of a few controls. When orienteers reach a cloverleafed control, they find small squares of a map with 1-2 short legs tied to the control. After punching the control, orienteers must memorize the additional legs and find the memory controls before continuing on with the course marked on their map.
  • Relocate: everyone gets disoriented from time to time. A systematic approach to figuring out where you are can be the difference between an error of 15 seconds and 15 minutes. Stop, locate your last known location on the map, think about what you've seen and what direction you were moving, and how far you have gone. Look around you for any feature large or unique enough to be mapped. If there is none available, "bail out" to something that will help, such as a trail parallel to or crossing your route.
    • Consider the "Rule of Threes," as related by Peggy Dickison on Attackpoint: "The Rule of Threes comes from Tony Federer (at least, that's where I got it), and it basically is that you want to identify three things that, together, create a unique location and help you relocate. For example, it's not enough to say "I'm on a trail and there's a trail going off to my right;" the rule of threes would make you identify one more distinct thing you see. "I'm at a trail junction heading NNW, trail junction to my right, AND there's a rootstock/boulder/pit due south of me." It's not fool-proof, but it's much more reliable than using fewer things, and it makes you think about what you're seeing and match the terrain better to the map." 
    • Practice relocation in pairs. Take turns holding the map and leading the other runner on trails or through the woods. Stop at a location your partner should be able to recognize on the map, such as a trail intersection, a hilltop, a reentrant, or a boulder. Give the map to your partner and have them perform the relocation drill. When they figure out your location, it's their turn to lead you to the next spot.

As a beginner, perhaps you could try these orienteering exercises from

Send your ideas on how to train the basics.