If you are new to orienteering then this excellent video will give you a clear picture of what it is all about. Don’t be put off by the super-fit looking people running confidently through forest, most orienteers are not as fit as them!

Video – Start Orienteering – A Newcomer’s Guide – Presented by Graham Gristwood

The video link below takes you straight to it.

Video – A Newcomer’s Guide

This newcomer’s video was produced by SLOW (South London Orienteers) with GB Team orienteers. It links to a series of other videos on techniques, that are included in the skills discussion elsewhere on Better Orienteering (in the Intermediate and Advanced sections). If you are completely new to orienteering then it is probably best to read more below and try having a go at orienteering first, then come back to the SLOW Get Up To Speed video series with a bit more experience.

Here is a visual summary of what you need to remember when trying orienteering.

New to orienteering? Here’s some tips page 1
New to orienteering? Here’s some tips page 2

You can download a copy of the tips below. It also has a full key to orienteering map symbols which is also included further down this web page. It can be helpful to have a copy of this summary on a smartphone or printed out, to refer to before trying an orienteering course, so that the basics are firmly in your mind before you set off. It is scaled for easy reading on a smartphone screen.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

The International Orienteering Federation also has 3 introductory videos appropriate for juniors. They take maps and navigation back to absolute basics and can be helpful for juniors and those with little experience of maps as they start out navigating and orienteering.

available at and linked below:

However, if you are already used to using maps, you can skip these videos and scroll down.

Orienteering Part 1- The Map

The next 2 IOF animated videos are:

Orienteering Part 2- Planning your route

Orienteering Part 3 – Finding your way

The IOF Leaflet Let’s Go Orienteering gives quick overview of what its all about.

An example of an orienteering map and course

Example map from British Orienteering – see Newcomer’s Guide

This example map is from British Orienteering’s Newcomer’s guide that sets out the basics of orienteering.

It is important to remember that when viewing any map on a computer or phone screen it will not necessarily be seen at the size it is intended to be printed at. When viewed at the correct size the details should be clear to read.

The basics for beginners demonstrated in a bit more detail

Here is a series of 4 videos from MDOC (Manchester and District Orienteering Club) that take you through what we have looked at so far in simple steps and show how you can build up the basic skills in stages.

The 4 videos are:

Getting Started – Getting Going – Getting Confident – Getting Faster

The absolute basics for beginners are demonstrated with examples of people using the skills in urban and park areas on beginner’s courses. They will help you be confident to go and try orienteering.

Plan, Picture, Direction3 steps to successful orienteering

To help you put these ideas into practice, Better Orienteering uses a simple model of 3 steps to think about when navigating – Plan, Picture, Direction

To get round an orienteering course successfully, for each leg of the course you should:

1 Plan – Make a Plan before you set off. Try to follow hand rails such as paths.

2 Picture – identify what you will see on the way. For example – I will follow a path to a junction and turn into the woodland from the open land on another path. I will see the control where the path crosses a stream.

3 Direction – Head in the right Direction following the map always keeping it orientated to north with the compass so it matches the terrain around you. Note key features you pass on the way and relate them to the map as you go. Fold the map, and move your thumb along keeping track of where you are.

Plan, Picture, Direction – 3 simple steps!

This is all explained in more detail in the Basic Navigation Routine section.

Types of map

Orienteering races take place in many types of terrain including woodland, moorland and urban areas. Urban maps are usually at 1:4000 scale (every centimetre on the map is 40 metres on the ground), or sometimes 1:5000, showing lots of detail around buildings. Woodland and moorland maps are usually at 1:10,000 (1 cm on map = 100 metres on the ground) or 1:15,000 scale (1 cm om map = 150 m on ground), giving a slightly less detailed view of a bigger area of terrain.

A woodland map Part of Hopton wood, 1:10,000 copyright Wrekin Orienteers
An urban map Wombridge and Cockshutt 1:5000 an urban map including an area of woodland. Copyright Wrekin Orienteers
Survey and Cartography by Rod Postlethwaite

Urban maps such as the Wombridge and Cockshutt map use a slightly different symbol set for urban areas compared to woodland maps. For simplicity the symbol set that is used on all non-urban maps is the one introduced here in the Beginner section.

A moorland map Part of Corndon 1:10,000 Copyright Wrekin Orienteers

The rough open moorland is coloured a dark yellow. See below for more explanation of map symbols.

Understanding map symbols

Simon Errington at Maprunner has produced a summary of current Orienteering Map Symbols to help you read what maps are showing. You don’t need to know all these symbols straight away and you can refer to the key on the map.

Orienteering map symbols summary by Maprunner

Map symbols download

The most important symbols to remember are:

Yellow is open land

White is forest you can run through

Green is thicker, slower forest. Darker green = thicker forest

Solid black line is a forest road or dirt track

Dashed black line is a path or track. Thicker dashes = bigger path

Brown lines are contours showing land of equal height

You will quickly get used to the other symbols as you encounter them.

Orienteering maps can seem complicated to beginners, but don’t be put off. They are surveyed and drawn to an incredibly high standard to provide an orienteer’s view of the terrain. Once you tune in to orienteering maps you will find they provide all the information you need to choose a suitable route and then follow it reliably.

This video, What is an orienteering map? by Andy Paterson of Clydeside Orienteers, helps to demystify the layers of information that go into making up an orienteering map.

Video – What is an orienteering map?

Using the compass

When using an orienteering map you need to keep it lined up with north for the map to make sense of the terrain around you. Thumb compasses are the most popular compasses for orienteering. Most of the time you won’t need to do more than use the red compass needle to keep the map lined up to north, however, this explanation from Silva shows how you can get more from it if you need to, by taking a bearing between points on the map. Silva – How to use a thumb compass

This helpful overview of compasses by David Jukes of BKO covers many of the issues beginners encounter with compasses.

Understanding control descriptions

The controls you look for in orienteering courses are described in symbols that are used in orienteering all around the world.

The table below from Maprunner shows what the symbols used in orienteering control descriptions mean.

Beginner’s courses usually have a description in plain English alongside the symbols.

A helpful summary of control descriptions from Maprunner

Control descriptions

Don’t be put off, these control descriptions symbols become easy to understand very quickly.

How orienteering courses are graded

Orienteering courses are colour coded according to difficulty. The colours used do vary between countries, but you will be able find out when you register which is the right course for you. The colour coding here is the one used in the UK.

Orienteering is split into courses of different levels of difficulty and physical challenge on a colour coding system, so you will be able to find a suitable course to try. Smaller events follow the colour coding system and you sign up for the course at the race, referred to as ‘entry on the day’. When you register for a course they will help you pick a course that is suitable for your fitness, experience and age group.

The major competitions are split into age classes instead where you will be competing against people of similar age to ensure a fair race.

A bit more detail of the colour coding system and how it relates to the technical difficulty of courses is explained in this leaflet Colour coded courses and technical difficulty by David Jukes of BKO

Major races usually require you to enter beforehand for the age group classes, but they normally have some colour coded courses you can enter on the day as well, typically White, Yellow and Orange.

The age groups for orienteering races go from under 10s to over 90. Juniors are in 2 year age groups up to 21, adults over 35 are in 5 year groups.

Photo by Rob Lines of Phil Broadhead M90

Orienteering is for everyone, as Phillip Broadhead (Wrekin Orienteers) M90 British Champion 2019 proves!

What if I get lost?

Don’t worry getting a bit lost is normal. If you can no longer match the map to the terrain around you STOP and work out where you are. Here are some basic steps that will help you get back on track matched to the word STOP.


Stop – don’t keep going and make it worse!


Trace where you have been on the map


Observe what significant features are around you and Match them to the map

PPlan again

If you can work out where you are, then you can either continue with your Plan, or make a New Plan.

If you are not sure where you are, then it may be necessary to Retrace your steps and try again. Don’t feel bad about doing this if you need to, just continuing will simply get you more lost. Above all, don’t panic, because you will usually be no more than 200 or 300 metres from your last known point (if you have been following the map as you go). You can always go back to your last known location and try again.

(Thank you Wojciech for suggesting STOP as the way to summarize what to do when you get lost).

The basic elements of navigation

Now that we have covered the basics of what orienteering is about, this video from the Irish Orienteering Association10 Elements of Orienteering videos, give another look at how it starts to join up. (Thanks to IOA for permission to integrate these videos). They cover some of the basics skills and ideas you will need to work with to go orienteering. We return to these skills in more detail in the next section Basic Navigation Routine that talks about the foundations for successful orienteering.

Don’t worry if these ideas are not all totally clear yet – as you try orienteering they will make sense. they are included here to give an idea of what you are aiming for. It will help to look at these videos again after you have tried orienteering, because there are a lot of ideas to take on board. The ten short videos are listed below:

To view the videos visit

The 10 Elements of Orienteering playlist includes:

Intro – What is orienteering?
Reading the map part 1
Orientating the map
Route choice
Compass skills
Reading the map part 2
Route choice 2
Start ‘n Finish

Different types of orienteering

Orienteering competitions are divided into the following types:

Foot orienteering There are races at different distances – Sprint, Middle, Long and Ultra-long – and on different types of terrain – urban, forest, moorland. This summary Long, Middle, Sprint by David Jukes of BKO gives more detail on the differences

Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) – Sprint, Middle, Long

Ski Orienteering (Ski-O) – different distance races

Trail Orienteering (Trail-O Trail-O is for all physical ability levels, even those with significant physical mobility impairments and focuses on accurate map reading rather than running speed. This summary Trail O by David Jukes of BKO gives more detail

Orienteering world-wide

Orienteering may be a world-wide sport, but its homeland is Scandinavia.

This short video from the Swedish Orienteering FederationOrienteering, more than just running“, gives a flavour of the different types of orienteering you can get involved with. After just a few words in Swedish at the start, it is a well produced video showing footage of people competing at all the types of orienteering available. Hopefully it can inspire you as to the world of navigation fun that orienteering opens up.

Orienteering more than just running
An overview of all the types of Orienteering – urban, forest, mountain bike and skiing

Where can I try orienteering?

You can try orienteering at one of many races run all across the UK throughout the year. You can also try orienteering at permanent courses you can visit at any time. For countries other than the UK search for your country’s orienteering association web pages for lists of upcoming races.

Have a look at the section Where can I try orienteering?

You now know what orienteering is and how to come along and have a go.

Enjoy trying orienteering and do explore the rest of the Better Orienteering website! There are also free downloads, more videos and links to many resources in the Suggested Reading and Resources section.