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 video series with a bit more experience.

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

You can download a copy of the tips below. It has a key to orienteering maps on the second page, (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

Orienteering Part 2- Planning your route

Orienteering Part 3 – Finding your way

Juniors may also find this short story about trying orienteering an easy way to understand what it is all about. It was originally published in Yes Mag a Canadian children’s science mag. Its an easy to read introduction.

The full article is on Orienteering Canada’s website and linked here (Orienteering Canada also has many other resources for more experienced orienteers):

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Colour coding of courses explained

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’..

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

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!

Now that we have covered the basics of what orienteering is about, this video from the Irish Orienteering Association10 Elements of Orienteering, gives another look at how it starts to join up. It covers some of the basics skills and ideas you will need to work with to go orienteering.

Reviewing each of the 10 elements individually will make it clearer what skills are being explained and demonstrated. 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 – see 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

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

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. and linked below.

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 we pages for lists of upcoming races.

Have a look at the section Where can I try orienteering? (See menu)

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.