Beginners Guide

New to Orienteering?

South Wales Orienteering Club


New To Orienteering?

Don't worry!! There is plenty of help and support at the local and summer events and are recommended as an introduction to orienteering. Feel free to e-mail the organiser to let them know you are coming or just turn up. Either way you will be very welcome.

There is good introduction video on Youtube, click here for the link, this will open in a new window.

The following gives an overview of orienteering and includes:-

For more intermediate and advanced advice and information please click here.

Overview of Orienteering

Orienteering is an outdoor sport where you navigate using a map and a compass. It is a family sport and is suitable for both the young and the old, the fit and the not so fit, the beginner and the expert.

The object is to run (or walk) to a series of points (controls) shown on a map as quickly as possible. For the beginner, the controls are likely to be on a path, for the expert the control could be almost anywhere. At each control you find a red and white box-kite and a punch (or an SI unit) that is used to prove that you have visited the correct control. Each control will normally be located on, or at, a distinct feature, such as a path junction, stream or a hilltop.

The sport involves three key skills, map reading, route-choice and navigation. Most maps used in orienteering have been specifically designed for the sport to give competitors enough information to enable them to know where they are all the time. The two most common scales are one centimetre to one hundred meters and one centimetre to one hundred and fifty meters. The map will include distinctive features such as paths, boulders, ditches, fences and vegetation boundaries.

Orienteering is a sport that anyone can take part in, regardless of age or experience. At most events there are courses suitable for a complete novice. Parents often walk round with young children. Courses at regional (badge) and national events range from those for the children aged 10 and under to those for the over 80's. Quite often there is a string course or the toddlers at the larger events. Something for everyone.

At SWOC, we organise about 10 events a year. These can vary from small local events, that may attract less than 20 competitors, to (occassionally) a large national event attracting several thousand competitors. In addition to events in South Wales, most club members will also travel to events organised by neighbouring clubs, such as Swansea Bay, Bristol, and the Forest of Dean. We are very lucky in Wales to be honoured to have some of the most fantastic and idylic areas for orienteering. But for the more serious amongst us, we travel even further afield to some of the other most beautiful parts of the UK including the Lake District, Dartmoor and the highland and lowlands of Scotland. Many of the areas that are used are not normally available for public access.

There is a lot of jargon related to the sport. Most experienced orienteers take the jargon for granted, but it can be confusing to the inexperienced. We have provided a jargon busting guide, that is also hopefully informative enough to help you.

Orienteers are generally very friendly and approachable. Certainly at local events, most will help you relocate (see what I mean about jargon) if you get lost and there is always someone at registration willing to spend time with a novice.

Try orienteering, you won't regret it!! Check out the Events page to see when the next local event is.

Beginners Guide

What skills do you need to be able to take part in your first event? Very few if you take your time and enjoy the countryside.

You need to be able to orientate the map so the map corresponds to the land around you. When you look at the map features on your right should be on the right of the map.

Basic compass skills will help with this process, but are not essential.

You also need some basic map reading skills. All orienteering maps use standard international colours and symbols. The purpose of an orienteering map is to show recognisable features and indicate how quickly you can move across the ground from control to control. The three key bits of information on a map that you need to look at before you start are:

  • The magnetic north lines that point to the top of the map;
  • The scale. This will be either 1:10,000 (1cm to 100m) or 1:15,000 (1cm to 150 m);
  • The map legend.

On a beginners course all you need to worry about are black symbols, as these represent man made features such as roads and paths. The different colours of the terrain give information about runability. Dark green for instance represents very thick woodland, whereas white is fast runable woodland. The following link (which opens in a new window) shows a summary of all the map legends used on orienteering maps.

Equipment Required

What equipment do you need to bring with you? - Really very little.

Sensible shoes - If you intend to run, old trainers with some good grip that you do not mind getting wet. Young children often wear Wellingtons at their first few events. As you get more experienced and start to jog or run round a course you may wish to buy specialist orienteering shoes that give you grip and comfort whilst running over quite rough terrain. You can buy these from specialist equipment retailers that normally attend the larger events;

A whistle - You should have a whistle. A whistle is mandatory for some events though not all but is highly recommened. The whistle should only be used in an emergency when you need to summon assistance. At larger events you can normally buy a whistle for as little as 99p. I use a safety pin and a bit of string to attach it to my clothing.

Comfortable clothing - The clothing needs to fully cover the body. You are not normally allowed to wear shorts, as there is a danger of getting cuts from brambles etc. If it is cold wear several layers. You can always take a layer off as you warm up. If it is wet, a waterproof is sometimes compulsory.

A compass - On a beginners course you do not always need a compass. However, it is still a good idea to get used to holding a compass as you go round your course. Make sure the compass has a transparent base plate through which you can see the map. At the time of writing you can buy a suitable compass for under a tenner.

Map Case - A clear plastic bag to keep your map in.

A watch is useful - You will need to know what the time is. This is particularly important at score events.

A red pen - At local events you will need to mark your course on your map. Many of the arger eevnets have the course pre-marked for you, but not always.

Safety pins - These are often used to attach control cards or control descriptions on to your clothing. This keeps them safe and quickly accessible.

First Event

Your first event should, ideally, be a small local or colour coded event. Look on the Events page of the SWOC web site. In addition to a list of the annual fixtures, we normally post a page giving final details of each event a couple of weeks before it takes place. This will include details such as directions, courses available and start times. It also includes the name of the organiser and contact details. If you have any questions, give the organiser a ring.

The difficulty and length of a course at a local or district event is denoted by its colour, (until recently these events were referred to as colour coded). It is probably best to talk to someone at registration about which course will be suitable for you.

At local events SWOC tends to have the following courses:

  • Yellow - This course is normally between 1km and 1.5km long and is suitable for all beginners and children aged between 8 and 12. A yellow course will stay on the paths. Younger children often do these courses accompanied by an adult;
  • Orange - A slightly longer course up to 2km long. Whilst slightly more difficult than a yellow it can be a good course for older beginners and adult first timers. Mostly on paths ;
  • Light green - This course is starting to get more difficult and may be up to 4.5km long. Controls will be away from paths but not too difficult to find. Suitable for older runners and improvers;
  • Green - A technically difficult course up to 5km long. Not suitable for beginners;
  • Blue - As for green but longer. Definitely not suitable for a beginner, no matter how good you think you may be;
  • Brown - As for blue and green but longer still. Will be over 7km, could be 10km with plenty of climb.

The quoted course length is as the crow flies. On the more difficult courses, with a lot of route choice the actual distance travelled could be significantly greater.

When you arrive at your first event, you will normally need to go to registration. This is often a car with plenty of people milling round. At larger events it could be a tent. Registration is normally open for a pre-defined period only. You can arrive at registration any time during that period.

At registration you will fill out an entry form that includes basic information such as the course you want to do. After paying a small fee, you will be given a map, a control card, and a control description sheet. The control description sheet lists the feature where each control can be found and provides a unique number marked on each control so you can check that you have found the correct control.

Even if you are competing as a pair, perhaps accompanying a child round a course, it is a good idea to get a map for each person. If it is your first event mention this at registration and someone will spend time with you explaining what you have to do.

After registration you will need to go the start. Sometimes you will be given a start time at registration. At the start you will probably need to copy the course onto your map. At larger events you get a map with the course pre-printed.

At each control you need to punch your control card with the punch found hanging from the control. This proves that you visited the control. The larger events use electronic punching known as SI. An SI 'dibber' are normally available for hire at the event. If it is an SI (or EMIT which is another rarer form of electronic punching) then it may be worth checking before the event with the organiser that one is available for hire.

Be sure to check in at the finish, even if you do not complete the course, so that the organisers are not searching for you. For SWOC events, the results are normally on SWOC's website within a day or two.

For more intermediate and advanced advice and information please click here.

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