Intermediate Techniques

It may help to look at the section How well am I orienteering? before reading more here.

Once you have a rock solid Basic Navigation Routine, you will want to think about how to save time and how to avoid making errors under pressure. To do this you can extend the range of skills Concepts that you are confident of executing reliably and you can develop Strategies to cope with common errors and minimise the chances of them losing you a lot of time.

You can then approach a course confident in having a solid basic technique and a toolbox of concepts that you can apply as necessary. The strategies in this section are to help you maximise your chances of being able to use those tools effectively.

Skills Tool Kit

The Skills Tool Kit Visual Summary includes simplified diagrams to show the basics of what a range of core skills entail, along with map extracts to illustrate these skills in practice. These skills operate at every level of orienteering with varying levels of complexity. You can mix and match and adapt these skills concepts flexibly as needed.

The Skills Tool Kit scan be downloaded as a free pdf

The following schematic diagram, Route choice and executing a leg, captures a lot of the thought processes in navigating a leg. It combines strategies to employ such as identifying an Attack Point and Corridor to move through, with a series of processes you need to undertake throughout the leg.

The purple circles are indicative of a sense of the level of certainty you will need of your exact location at varying points through a leg – in the same way that a circle on a smartphone or GPS changes size depending on how certain it is of your location.

With Route Choice option A, following a Hand Rail, the purple circles are small indicating that you could know with a high degree of certainty where you are when on a path.

With Route Choice option B, moving through a Corridor of features you might have less certainty of your exact location but be confident of where you are going, heading for a Catching Feature and the circle placing you is larger.

The permutations of skills and processes for different legs are endless, so you will need to follow a Basic Navigation Routine and then flexibly draw from a Tool Kit of Skills as needed on route.

The orange, green and red runner symbols remind you to consider the appropriate speed for different parts of a leg and the navigation challenges they present and to think of the leg in sections – red= slow, orange = moderate speed, green = faster. Remember some legs are best taken slowly all the way between controls. Some other legs allow a section of much faster progress.

Review these skills from different angles

It can useful to read about these skills and to view videos on them from different sources to help them make sense to you. See the extensive links in the Websites and Resources section for links to skills videos and downloads. It may help to buy one of the suggested books on orienteering as well.

A helpful extract from Discovering Orienteering – Skills, Techniques, Activities by Charles Ferguson and Robert Turbyfill, discusses 5 core skills including the concept of planning legs in the following order: Control, Attack Point, Route (CAR) – as a core navigation strategy

Apply the Skills Tool Kit during orienteering and in analysing your route after races

You can analyse your orienteering after you run to see if you were able to apply these techniques. Have a look at the Race Analysis section. It is really important to draw your route onto the map after each race and identify where you made mistakes and think how you can avoid them in future. It is also very helpful to look at other people’s routes from GPS traces on Routegadget (see Maps section under Suggested Reading) and on World of O, maps website, where you can see routes from many elite orienteers in races across the world.

Strategies to use the basic skills effectively

It is important that you also understand a range of strategies to employ so that you can join these skills up and use them in practice. Orienteering is much more than just knowing a range of navigation skills.

We will now review a range of Strategies or approaches you can take, and relate them to skills concepts they can work with. We are building a set of ideas that will help you join those skills up effectively. That is why this website does not just list skills one by one.

It is easy to lose time but very difficult to make it up

Your best chance of speeding up is to minimise loses and aggregate small gains.

For example, it is easy to lose 10 seconds a leg by stopping too much.  With 15 legs on a course that is 2.5 minutes.

If you have good Control Flow minimising stopping at each control you can easily save another 5 to 10 seconds per control or more.  That results in another potential 2.5 minutes.  However, Control Flow can be very hard to master.

Thus, smooth technique can save 5 minutes in 15 controls.  It takes a leap in fitness to run that much faster.

Photo: Steve Rush

Everybody makes mistakes all the time

GPS traces have transformed orienteering analysis.   See:

World of O website   and


Photo: Steve Rush

It is very revealing to see how the best orienteers take different routes on legs and how sometimes it makes little difference, whereas other times it is critical.  They also vary their speed to match the terrain.  Examining a Men’s World Championships Long course GPS traces, it was instructive to see the eventual winner slowing to a slow jog for the last 200 metres into a difficult control where others made the biggest time loses.  The fastest route involved going straight but with a lot of opportunity to mess up near the control.  It takes a lot of discipline to back right off the speed knowing that the time lost is nothing compared to the potential losses from a mistake. A World Championship was won or lost on knowing when to back off and be certain of getting difficult navigation right.  Playing the percentages well, delivers results.

If you are running fit then it can be important to hold back in a controlled way knowing you could be going faster, but also knowing that speeding up will force errors and lose more time overall.

Anticipate errors and enjoy continually relocating

The more experience you have the better you get at anticipating errors of what is likely to go wrong with a leg.  You can then plan accordingly.  For example, Aiming Off to the side of a control or to a visible Attack Point, is about anticipating drift on a bearing or on a slope and thus ensuring you know which way you will have drifted. 

Expect to have to continually relocate yourself so that you can remain on course overall.  Relocation from big mistakes should be easier if you are constantly placing yourself within a small area of map within which you are navigating and relocating on a finer basis.  Accepting relocation on a small scale and a larger scale as part of what orienteering is and getting good at it will make a huge contribution to your overall speed.  A positive attitude to relocation frees up thinking space to continue to navigate well.

Try this SLOW video on Aiming Off. Aiming off is part of a strategy to avoid catastrophic relocation and executing it well at speed often involves small scale relocation to pull it off.

The video link below takes you to the YouTube Playlist for the Get Up To Speed videos. Select 5/9 Aiming Off from the playlist.

Aiming Off

Treat every leg as a new beginning

During a race, don’t stress about mistakes, forget them and move on. Don’t let them affect how you approach the next leg, otherwise one mistake leads to rushing or frustration.  Just like rushing, frustration kills Flow and more mistakes follow.  Even in the highest level of competition, the winner will be able to identify time losses, but they will have responded to them calmly and moved straight on to focusing on the next leg.  You don’t have the mental capacity to be reviewing a mistake at the same time as successfully facing the next leg’s challenges.  The time to think about mistakes is after the run.

Photo: Steve Rush

You cannot afford to respond emotionally to mistakes as having done something “wrong”.  Continual small mistakes are what orienteering is all about and learning to be happy about them and be pleased for relocating from them, speeds you up a lot and frees up mental space for the next navigation task. Unhelpful emotions such as a fright or flight response to danger, shut down our thinking to tunnel vision. Helpful emotions free us up to be the pianist in a concert hall playing a Beethoven piano concerto, or to be the runner who emerges from the forest with a class win. 

Ignore other people and never talk

Photo: Steve Rush

Responding to other people’s presence modifies our behaviour in almost all situations.  In orienteering it leads to rushing and mistakes such as getting pulled off line.  Be aware of others potentially coming out of a control for example, but have it as a background awareness, and still navigate in to the control yourself.  It is incredibly easy to be distracted.  You do not know how someone else is doing in the race until the results, what you see in the forest usually tells you nothing.  Talking breaks your concentration and others concentration too, by breaking your flow of navigation thinking and nearly always causes errors.  Navigation under oxygen debt will be taking up 100% of your cognitive abilities, you literally do not have the spare capacity to talk.

I remember feeling very unfit when I saw another competitor still running on a very steep hill high up in the Pyrenees when I was walking (briskly), but I knew that if I ran it would blow my chances later in the course, so I ignored the urge to try to also run.  It turned out that he won M21E and went on to also win M21E at the Swedish O-ringen (a week-long Orienteering competition each summer) in the same year.  He was one of a very small number of people fit enough to risk running on that slope.  I wasn’t one of them. Most often people you see are not on your course, or they may shoot past you to a big error in 5 minutes time. You must ignore them and run your own race.


Route Choice – Look at the options for a leg, weigh them up, then commit

Route choice is the heart of good orienteering. Route choice is something you will be revisiting at every level of skills development. The discussion in the Beyond Advanced section links on to Route Choice analysis of some of the best orienteers. (See World of O website). On a very long complex leg even the very best orienteers may have to stand still and way up the options for some 10 or 15 seconds.  Then comes the time to put aside second thoughts and commit to getting on with it.  Don’t keep modifying your route unless you have decided to review the leg at a particular point, by breaking it down into sections, or it becomes very clear that the terrain is forcing a change.  If you re-visit the overall leg route choice you are adding in the decision-making time again, slowing you overall.  If indecision adds in more than 30 seconds you would probably have been better off just getting on with your first choice.  If you try to go over that decision-making process again whilst also doing complex navigation it will force errors. However it may be OK to reevaluate when on a path or other line feature and your mind has the processing capacity to handle the task.

This SLOW video on Route Choice is a helpful introduction to a complex issue where there is ultimately no substitute for experience.

The video link below takes you to the YouTube Playlist for the Get Up To Speed videos. Select 7/9 Route Choice from the playlist.

Route Choice

Understanding the shape of the land is central to good Route Choice and navigation on route.

This SLOW video discusses how to use the information that contours showing large features gives, in Route Choice and navigation.

The video link below takes you to the YouTube Playlist for the Get Up To Speed videos. Select 6/9 Large Contour Features from the playlist.

Large Contour Features

Know when and how to simplify

Stay in constant contact with the map” is often misunderstood as reading every feature everywhere.  The reality is much more complex.  Depending on where you are in a leg and how difficult the navigation is you can think of your interaction with the map as in effect zooming in and out of the detail as appropriate.  It’s a bit like a Sat Nav showing more detail when leaving an address, less detail when on route along main roads and then full detail again near your destination.  However, even when in a part of a leg where you are simplifying the amount of detail you are concerned with, notable features can help confirm your location.

Whilst Simplification is considered here in the section Intermediate Techniques, it is such a core technique that it can be considered and refined at any level. It sounds simple but is in fact a very complex thought process. You can extend your consideration of Simplification by thinking about your Mental Maps and Notable Features covered in the Advanced Section.

This SLOW video gives a great introduction to Simplification.

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