A Beginner's Guide To Orienteering

This article was first published in Running Fitness magazine.

If you think fell racing is full on, consider what it would be like to add more dimensions to the challenge: removing the set route, the rules, the other competitors, and running while reading an intricate map...

Orienteering is the most extreme version of hillwalking I can think of. It demands an incredible balance of speed, strength, agility and concentration. Competitors have to make considered judgements while simultaneously navigating with map and compass and running at full pelt over rough terrain. There is no taped course and there are virtually no rules. Orienteers also have to be able to push themselves to their own limits, because races are usually run as time trials to prevent competitors following each other.

The sign was not proving all that helpful © Oli Johnson
The sign was not proving all that helpful
© Oli Johnson

Orienteering is about freedom - the freedom to get off the roads, get off the paths, and to plunge through the roughest, toughest terrain imaginable.
Oli Johnson

Three times British Orienteering Long Champion Oli Johnson (and this year's course planner - www.boc2011.org.uk) reckons orienteering is the most pure and liberating sport you can find: "It's just you versus the terrain – visit all the checkpoints as quickly as you can and that's all there is to it. The faster you can cover the distance, crash through the undergrowth, splash through streams and career over rocks, the better your result will be. And the more fun you'll have."

While having all this fun, orienteers can't afford to lose concentration. You can be in the best possible shape physically, but make one small navigational mistake and you've thrown away a whole race.

"The trick is not to get disorientated," says Oli. "Of course, this gets harder as the lactate and fatigue start to kick in. Weather can make a race much tougher, too. I have raced in blizzards, gales, driving hail, torrential rain, thunderstorms. It all adds to the challenge!"

Oli Johnson © Oli Johnson
Oli Johnson
© Oli Johnson

Navigation, weather, lactate and fatigue aren't the only factors that orienteers have to contend with. The rough terrain makes it virtually impossible to finish a race without scratches, cuts or bruises. What's more, because competitors map read while running, sprained and broken ankles or damaged eyes from low tree branches are common orienteering injuries. All the really significant dangers are there on the map, so you can choose your route to avoid them. However, the safest route is unlikely to be the quickest.

Burbage © Oli Johnson
© Oli Johnson
How popular is orienteering?

You could be forgiven for guessing that the extreme nature of orienteering would make it a minority sport, but there is actually a massive global network of super keen orienteers eagerly risking their limbs.

Regulars converse in incomprehensible jargon such as "I DNF'd on the brown at the last Gallopen after my dibber fell off," and wear kit emblazoned with the peculiar acronyms of orienteering affiliations: SLOW, NATO, HAVOC.

There are now 70 member nations of the International Orienteering Federation. The biggest competition on the orienteering calendar, the five day Swedish O Ringen, attracts up to 20,000 competitors from an age range of 10-90 years. The Jukola Relay in Finland attracts around 1,500 teams of seven men, who race through the night with powerful headtorches in tough Finnish forests and then enjoy a custom built outdoor mass-sauna.

In Britain, 12 regional orienteering associations cover every region. These are subdivided into 120 local clubs, all of which host several orienteering events every weekend. The Jan Kellstrom International Festival over Easter weekend is the UK's biggest competition: attracting around 4,000 competitiors annually. The Scottish 6 Day is the most popular summer event.

So what's the appeal?

One argument is that orienteering offers escapism from the control most of us are used to in our everyday lives. You're pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits over rough, unknown terrain. Of course, the price is an element of danger.

Serious orienteers enjoy another perk: events take place in some of the most spectacular, farflung wildernesses in the world, from the Karelian forests of Northern Russia to the fjells of Northen Norway. Competitions also take place amongst the glaciers of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, in the crater of Mt Fuji in Japan and among the chasms on top of The Chief in Squamish, Canada.

"Orienteering is about freedom," says Oli. "The freedom to get off the roads, get off the paths, and to plunge through the roughest, toughest terrain imaginable."

Whose idea was it?

If you're wondering who came up with the concept of orienteering races, it was descendants of hardy axe-swinging Vikings. Orienteering began as a military sport in Scandinavia in the early 20th century. The sport was brought to the UK in the 1950s by well-known athletics legends John Disley and Chris Brasher.

Historically, the Scandinavian nations have always been dominant champions at orienteering, but recent years have seen countries such as Switzerland, Russia and France challenging for the medals at internationals. Britain has also enjoyed considerable success over recent years with an individual gold medallist in Jamie Stevenson, and a relay team gold last year in the Czech Republic.

Orienteering map extract

Getting Started

Your first taste of orienteering may well be bewildering. Regulars converse in an incomprehensible language filled with jargon and slang, such as "I DNF'd on the brown at the last Gallopen after my dibber fell off," and wear kit emblazoned with the peculiar acronyms of orienteering affiliations: SLOW, NATO, HAVOC. Some competitors may well be showing off the latest super-fast racing compass or diamond-tipped running spikes.

Anyone with an interest in maps, varied terrain and adventure will enjoy orienteering and all you need to start is enthusiasm and trainers.

However, according to Oli, anyone with an interest in maps, varied terrain and adventure will enjoy orienteering and all you need to start with is enthusiasm and running trainers. He advises beginners not to be put off by people with all the fancy kit and experience, because, "once the race starts they'll all be getting lost and confused out in the forest like everyone else in spite of their snazzy kit and experience".

There are three different orienteering disciplines to choose between: 'Sprint' (12 min winning time, around parkland or urban terrain), 'Middle' (35 min winning time, highly technical terrain race) and 'Long' (90-100 min winning time, fell or forest terrain). There is also a 3-man relay discipline.

All orienteering maps are scaled at 1:10,000 and include lots of small details that aren't shown on normal OS-style maps, such as small boulders, bushes and knolls. "There is a temptation to leg it off as fast as you can and hope for the best, but that technique rarely works out," advises Oli. "It is much more productive to take your time to read the map and slow down when it gets difficult. There will be plenty of places where you can use your strength and fitness, but there are other places where it will be faster to use your head."

Punching Control © Oli Johnson
Punching Control
© Oli Johnson
What's it worth?

There are significant prizes for the international orienteering circuit and a handful of professional orienteers are good enough to support their career through prize money. However, no one is ever going to make a fortune out of orienteering. The benefit of this is that there is no problem with drugs at the international level. The motivations are simply the love of the extreme physical adventure of the sport.


Oli trains twice most days, mostly trail running and trying to avoid the roads if possible. He trains regularly with Hallamshire Harriers athletics club to improve his speed, and cross trains in the gym to improve running economy. "Whenever I can, I get out into the Peak District or other wilderness areas to practice orienteeering techniques with a map," he says. "I'm fortunate that there is a big group of orienteers in Sheffield, which makes the training more focused and much more fun."

"The big international orienteering events involve a long program of training camps in relevant terrain, so for example the preparation for this year's world champs in France will involve at least four, week-long camps out there."


Find out about your local club, fixtures and learn some basics:


Sarah Stirling © Mick Ryan
Sarah Stirling
© Mick Ryan

About Sarah Stirling

More about Sarah on her UKH/UKC Profile and on the About UKHillwalking/UKClimbing page.

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