Basic Navigation Routine

This section explains the most basic elements of orienteering technique that you need to have working like clock work, as a basis for all your orienteering. There are links below to a series of videos that show how to use these ideas in practice.

Basic Navigation Routine

Here is a visual summary of a Basic Navigation Routine. This is what you need to be able to do to orienteer reliably. You must master this or orienteering will always seem a mystery and you will keep getting needlessly lost!

You can download the summary below and it is discussed in more detail as you read on. It can be helpful to have a copy of this summary on a smartphone or printed out, to refer to before competing in races as a reminder of the routine.

Basic Navigation Routine page 1 v3
Basic Navigation Routine page 2 v3

These skills are expanded upon in the Skills Tool Kit under the Intermediate Skills section.

As you read Better Orienteering, it connects you to many resources you can use to improve.

If as you read this it becomes clear that it has started too far down the orienteering learning curve for you then watch some of the introductory videos in this section and then come back to these skills and techniques discussions later when you have tried a few more orienteering events. You may find one of the recommended books will help too. 

Reinforce the basics

If you haven’t watched the 10 videos on the basics of orienteering from the Irish Orienteering Association, then they will give you a good overview of where you start with navigation.

It can help to learn about the same skills from different sources, reading, watching videos etc. When you hear the same ideas from several different angles it can help it make sense. The extensive links in the Resources and Websites section can help you quickly find other material to compliment what you read and view on Better Orienteering. See:

Orienteering USA skills pages give another good overview

Orienteering Australia map reading training exercises

Orienteering Australia has some map reading training exercises in their Coaching Tips section. You can attempt a series of exercises and tasks to develop your understanding of map reading. Each topic has a free download to work through.

See Orienteering ACT
Coaching tips on Map Reading – Orienteering ACT:

1 About the coaching tips
2 Contents page
3 How to use the guide
4 Contours
5 Orientating the map
6 Man-made linear features
7 Introduction to vegetation
8 Naming contour features
9 Water features
10 Rock on! Identifying rock features
11 Earthworks
12 More Man-made features
13 Variations on vegetation
14 Contours #2
15 On course. Following the course on the map

Why this guide?

Use this overview to track where you are in progressing through Better Orienteering

What follows next is some explanation of why this guide was produced, an overview of the approach it takes and then a fuller explanation of the basics introduced above in the Basic Navigation Routine Visual Summary.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

This guide, after the beginner section, is aimed at club level orienteers of all ages, who have some experience and are seeking to improve. 

My intention is to summarize the key techniques that prove most helpful on a regular basis, so that they are easy to remember and apply consistently.

Once you read beyond the Beginner section, some familiarity with a range of very basic orienteering navigation techniques is assumed, such as how to take a bearing, and how to read contours.   The discussion of techniques here is not intended to be exhaustive, just a framework covering the essentials, that you can then build on.

You may find it helpful to read more in some of the Suggested Reading.   

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

Orienteering is one of the most demanding sports there is.  Nothing else combines the high level of physical challenge resulting from running through terrain and the intense mental challenge arising from detailed navigation.  I amazed that after 40 years of orienteering there is still more to learn and much to re-learn.  The typical learning curve for new orienteers is at least 3 to 5 years to get their navigation up to a high standard and combine it with good fitness, but once you are hooked it becomes addictive.  Then you need to keep your skills fresh with practice.

The only route to getting better is to make mistakes, understand what went wrong and seek to avoid repeating them.  Improving at orienteering is largely about understanding what mistakes you made, how they came about and how to watch out for them in future.  Better orienteering then becomes a matter of routines and habits to set you up for a reasonable run, whilst being alert to a catalogue of potential errors.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

Routines, concepts and strategies

The term”skills” actually covers several different things, so it is helpful to break it down a bit further. This guide summarises the Routines, Concepts and Strategies that I have found most helpful from personal experience and from talking with many other experienced orienteers.  It also deals with some of the most common errors and how they come about.  For the purposes of this guide these terms are intended to mean the following:

Routines are the ways of solving navigation problems applied to every race and/ or every leg.  These should become reliable habits that give the basis for all your navigation. This includes for example, always keeping the map oriented to north.

Concepts are the ways of thinking about navigation challenges and how to solve them. They give you a tool box of skills to apply as needed. They include concepts such as Aiming Off and Catching Features.

Strategies are ways to implement the concepts you know, to maximise the chances of success. These Strategies include race preparation and how you handle mistakes. It also includes how you can plan routes to avoid errors in the first place and how you can play to your strengths.

This means that your skills operate on several levels from the near automatic use of basic techniques to being able to apply the right navigation concepts as needed and on to how to manage your psychology to make it work for you not against you.

Thus, whilst at one level navigation is potentially fairly simple, at its higher levels it is one of the most complex things we can do. If it was easy none of us would ever get lost!

There is, of course, some overlap between Routines, Concepts and Strategies and they are applicable in different ways as your orienteering improves.

For some orienteers this will all seem obvious.  However, for others, even if they have been orienteering a long time, I hope there will still be some helpful insights.  It is surprising how many orienteers are still making lots of basic errors after 5 or more years of orienteering, but that is not inevitable. It can be immensely satisfying to have mistakes free runs but for most orienteers they remain elusive.  However, by keeping your technique smooth and minimising losses it is possible for most orienteers to substantially improve.

So let’s look at the absolute basic building blocks of your orienteering, starting with the concept of having a Basic Navigation Routine that becomes a reliable habit. Without this you are setting yourself up to fail.


Basic Navigation Routine in more detail

Remember the basics, have a firm navigation routine

The visual summary at the start of this section captures the main elements of Basic Navigation Routine that you can use as the foundation of all your navigation.

You must develop a rock solid Basic Navigation Routine. If you don’t, it will hold you back for years until you get it sorted. These concepts are now discussed one by one.

Fold the map.  Always keep the map oriented to north all the time. Track where you are with your thumb or thumb compass.

Most thumb compasses work on your left hand. If you are right-handed, it can be helpful to hold the map in your left hand with the thumb compass. It may sound odd, but for many people it literally helps you switch on the part of your brain that works on spatial tasks. It dissociates map reading from tasks we normally do with our dominant hand such as writing, which helps also in spatial thinking because a map is not a book, it is a simplified picture of reality.

Try this SLOW video, Setting the Map.

The video link below takes you to the YouTube playlist for the Get Up To Speed videos. Select the video 2/9 Setting the Map from the playlist.

Setting the map

Break every leg into 3 parts;

              Exiting control (in the right direction)

            Route to Attack Point

             Finding control

When planning your route it can help to identify your Attack Point first, then plan a route to the Attack Point. The Attack Point needs to be something you can find easily from where you can go more carefully into the control.

You can also think about sections of each leg in terms of Traffic Lights, red, amber, green. You go quickest in the green or easier parts of the leg, then more carefully in an amber section and finally very carefully on the red or trickier bits such as into the control. This idea works well for some people. Personally I found it very helpful at one point in my orienteering development to identify parts of legs in that way, but as my technique improved it stopped being such a helpful way to classify many legs I was facing. The key takeaway is that you need to think of legs in sections and tackle them appropriately in terms of navigation skills and speed.

For very short legs between controls that are close together, exiting the control, finding an Attack Point and fine navigation into the next control can seem less distinct than for longer legs where they are much more clearly separate stages of getting to the next control.

Go steady to number 1 and get into the flow

Orienteering is spatial thinking.  You must let your mind get into the zone and tune into the way of thinking it needs to orienteer.  Psychologists call this Flow, where there is harmony between physical effort and thought processes. Flow is both a state of mind and the result of building up the skills base to draw on to implement in the navigation challenges of orienteering. As you go to the first control try to tune in your mind to map reading and in particular tune in your sense of the scale of the map and how you are experiencing it in this terrain.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

1:10,000 means 1 cm on the map is 100 meters on the ground. 1:7500 means 1 cm is 75 metres. However, 100 metres will feel different in different terrain e.g flat fast parkland vs steep, rough Scottish forest.

Tuning in to get good Flow means tuning out of other things. Thinking about something else will mess up your run. 

Give yourself permission to let everything else go and focus just on orienteering.  As a bonus, orienteering will clear your mind so you will think more clearly about whatever else has been on your mind later.

Orienteering is about navigation much more than it is about running

I have managed to win when injured, by walking briskly round a Green course losing no time and making no mistakes, then a few weeks later I have run and had a worse result.  If you are a fit runner and shadow a top-level orienteer in your age class most people are impressed how slowly they are running overall compared to say a cross-country race.  It is simply not possible to run at maximum pace and think at the same time. However, more fitness buys you a clearer head at any given running speed. As fitness improves then as a rule of thumb, about half the possible benefit goes on thinking clearer at a quicker speed and half on actually going faster.

Stay in constant contact with the map and compass 

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

One of the most common problems for beginners is not looking at the map enough. You need to keep continually looking at it, updating where you are and noticing new relevant information about where you now are.

One of the biggest improvements many people can make is simply to look at the map more often.

At the same time as maintaining good map contact your compass is your friend. It is essential to maximise what it can add to your navigation. When you turn tight corners especially at a control, it can be hard to turn your mental map round in your head fast enough to not mis-orientate and head off in the wrong direction. The compass does this faster and more reliably than you, so use it and believe it.

Try this SLOW video on compass use.

The video link below takes you to the YouTube playlist for the Get Up To Speed videos. Select the video 3/9 Using the Compass from the playlist.

Using the compass

When you become unsure of where you are, relocate yourself straight away

Rushing on and hoping it will work out will go wrong. Orienteering is called orienteering because it derives from the Swedish orientering, which can be translated as orientating yourself. You will need to update your understanding of where you are, that is orientate yourself, literally hundreds of times in a course. As you wander off line or make a small mistake, because you are staying in constant contact with the map you can catch the problem before it snowballs out of control and get back on line quickly. Relocation is a normal part of orienteering, all the time, for everyone

Only run as fast as you can think

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

Once you have learnt basic navigation, orienteering is about managing your thinking under oxygen debt.  You need to feel the level of clarity in your mind and how it is performing on the navigation tasks of a leg and manage your effort accordingly.  If you aim to only run as fast as you can think, then you need to learn to be sensitive to how you are thinking under oxygen debt and be honest about when you need to slow to let your head clear. If your level of navigation skill requires you to drop to a walk to avoid a big error, do it. It will save you more time in the long run than charging on into errors.

Think of it as two sides to an equation.  You vs the navigation.

Your fitness, how well you feel, how much sleep you have had, your level of navigational skill and the amount of recent practice at orienteering, how far you are into the course  
The navigation
The difficulty of the terrain, the complexity of the leg you are running, how well you know this type of terrain, where you are in the leg  

Thus, you need to match your physical effort to the demands of the navigation so that your head is clear enough to navigate well.  Anticipating how your level of effort will affect navigation means that you will plan in the literal breathing space in a leg to get the navigation right.  For example, 5 seconds gained running up a steep hill is a poor trade-off compared to the additional time reading the map more slowly at the top or getting lost.  A lot of high-level orienteers always walk briskly up steep hills staying in contact with the map as a measure of their oxygen debt.

Don’t simply import your navigation techniques from other scenarios

The approach to navigation you learnt in the Army or the Scouts, or mountaineering will need to be modified to succeed at orienteering.

In the infantry, where your life and others are at stake, then slow, deliberate and precise progress is essential.  In contrast, when orienteering you can afford to simplify large sections of some legs and move through the terrain to a catching feature at speed with confidence.  Orienteering, the only risk you face is getting off line or lost.

When mountaineering, safety is paramount and conservative route choices that are guaranteed to be executed reliably are essential.  Orienteering needs a different approach where you consider the risks in a different framework, where getting off line just means relocating not risking your life.

Map reading from Road Atlas or Sat Nav may have some helpful analogies to bear in mind orienteering, but on foot you can go anywhere, and YOU must do the simplification and zooming in and out of detail in your head.

Spend more time running with maps

There is no substitute for spending more time running with a map in hand navigating.

Open Orienteering Map UK offers the possibility to create a training map wherever you choose for use on streets and public parks. You are able to print out maps in a simplified Street map style and a “Pseudo-O” style. See under Maps for further details. You must read and respect the conditions of use set out there.

Extract of part of an OOMUK Street O map