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HOW TO ORIENTEER - Courtesy The South London Orienteers

What is Orienteering ?

Orienteering is a challenging but fun activity, requiring both skill and physical ability. Participants - in groups or as individuals - leave the starting point at regular intervals and must find their way to a number of controls, set out at various features in the area and return to the finish, after visiting each control in sequence. A smart card is used to register your visit at the controls. The competitor with the shortest elapsed time is declared the winner.

Events are held in a variety of areas such as urban parks and school grounds but also in remote bushveld areas. Special maps of the area are supplied by the organisers at each event. The courses are pre-printed onto the map, showing each control point marked by a circle, with straight line routes between each control. Route choice is however free and determined by the competitor. A Description sheet - with information such as unique control number and land feature - are provided at registration. Courses vary in length from 2 to over 10km's, but there are up to six course levels to choose from at each event.

Our Club offers training opportunities from basic instruction, with the aim of introducing newcomers to the sport and later to some more technical aspects. As you progress, you learn to read the map, measure distances, use a compass and find your way over the terrain.

Come and try your first event ! (See HOW DO I GET STARTED)

Can someone teach me ?

Sure !. Ask for assistance at the Registration table at each Club event - they can assist you with all your Orienteering basics and questions. They will be only too pleased to help you. Alternatively just give one of the Club Contacts a call to arrange a free lesson.

How to Choose Your Course

The Urban Series comprising three courses of between 2 to 4km, are on offer at 10 events at the beginning of the year and are held in park type terrain, such as schools and parks. These events are ideally suited for beginners, children and family groups - as they require very basic navigational skill and are in very easy-going terrain. The experienced Orienteers also take part in these events - and treat them as sprint contests.

During the cooler months there are up to fifteen events held in the country side as part of the Bush Series. Here one may choose between six different grade courses, ranging from 2 to 10km's. These course grades are colour-coded and follow prescribed levels of complexity and physical requirements.

How to Progress

Orienteering is not only meant for the very fit and fast runner. The idea is to open the past-time to as many people, with varying degrees of physical ability, from as many walks of life, as possible. To facilitate this, Orienteering events normally have several different courses, which range in suitability, catering for everybody. The courses are standardised and colour-coded for convenience :

YELLOW - elementary course, with very simple route-following skills necessary. The route can be navigated by following "line features" (eg. paths, fences) and very prominent land-marks. Distance is between 1,5 to 3km and is suitable for children over the age of 8, families and groups of beginners. The total amount of climb is limited to below 40m. There are normally between 7 to 10 control points on this course. No compass skills are necessary.

ORANGE - very similar to the Yellow course, with slightly more distance (2 - 4km) and a few control points that may be a bit further off a line feature. Suitable for groups, families and newcomer individuals, that are prepared for the extended distance. Expect around 10 to 12 control points.

RED - sometimes included specifically for runners, requiring the distance, but with limited navigational skills. This course would be between 5 to 8km long with control features similar to those on the Yellow and Orange courses.

LIGHT GREEN - is a "bridging" course, intended to introduce the not-so-newcomer to a slightly more technical level. Some control features become more demanding - navigation away from line features may be included on some of the legs. Distance could be anything from 3 to 5km, with total climb normally limited to around 70m. Expect around 10 - 12 control points. Compass reading skills are not compulsory, however, this is where learning the skill begins.

GREEN - courses are the step up to more technical Orienteering. Compass skills are generally required, as the control points are situated away from line and very prominent features. Expect distances of about 3,5 to 4,5km, with total climb sometimes reaching 100m.

BLUE - here the course is both technically and physically demanding. Compass skills are very necessary. Course lengths will vary between 6 to 8km with anything up to 250m of total climb.

BROWN - is the course for experienced, fit orienteers. Compass skills and route planning are very necessary. Distances range from 7 to 10km, with climb sometimes extending to 400m.

When to move up a course

Starting out in orienteering, you will be advised to compete at either the YELLOW or ORANGE course level (depending on the age and fitness level of the competitor). Once you have mastered the process, of locating yourself on the map, correlating where you are on the ground, navigating your way round the course and finding all the controls - all without too much confusion, then you are ready to move up to the next grade of course.

Before moving up to Light Green or Green, attend one of the compass reading courses, held every now and then by the RACO Club - or get a competent member to simply show you how !.

Further promotion up the grades will depend upon your physical abilities and your progress with navigation on the lower courses.

When choosing a course in which to compete, consider the following :

  • Read the Planners comments on the various courses he has offered - he is the only person who knows how tough or easy they are.

  • The terrain - look around you when you arrive - how well do you normally cope with this type of terrain ?

  • How well do you know the area ? When last did you run here, if at all ?

  • Weather conditions - is it conducive to easy running ?

  • How well or fit are you on the day ?

  • Is there sufficient time for you to easily complete the course before they close ?

  • How good actually are your orienteering skills ?

  • Take into account both the length and climb of the courses

  • Do not move up a course, unless you are easily completing the course level you normally enter and you are positive about all of the above

  • If you are in any doubt, ask for advice - the Planner and Controller are normally not far away from registration.

Basic Rules

  • Control points shall be visited in sequence - no random control visits are allowed without pain of disqualification

  • The EMIT electronic card will be downloaded at the finish by computer. There is also a white back-up ticket attached - just in case modern technology fails us !

  • Don't follow other competitors (they may be more lost than you are!)

  • Don't ask for directions (unless you are really in trouble and need to find your way back to the finish)

  • Don't stray into areas marked "out of bounds"

  • Competitors must follow marked routes when provided by the organisers

  • Don't traverse "uncrossable fences or cliffs" (besides being disallowed, may be dangerous)

  • Only compass and maps are allowed to be used (no GPS or Cellphone Apps !)

  • Respect the environment - leave only foot-prints !


What to do when finding an injured competitor ?

Always stop and assist a fellow Orienteer clearly in distress. If the person is able to move (eg. minor cut or sprain) - assist them to the finish area.

In more serious cases (eg. broken limb), call out for assistance from other competitors in the area. Once one or more competitors are on the scene, carefully mark the spot on your map and have one competitor return to the finish to alert the officials and first-aider. Apart from elementary aid (eg. keeping the injured still and shaded) do not apply first aid if not trained to do so.


Orienteers have seen them......Orienteers have scared them (or is that the other way round ?) !. And thankfully, we have never had to attend to anyone being bitten by one. But it is a reality of our sport - sharing the wild terrain with reptiles, animals and insects - and we need to take heed. Not meant to scare - but really to promote some understanding .

What to do when retiring from competition ?

Always report to the Finish and register that you are "home" - even if you are retiring off the course. This will prevent the Organisers having to mobilise a search and rescue operation !

Some Tips

Codes & symbols

You will notice that the Description sheets, while containing all the necessary information, also have a section where only symbols are shown. These are the Internationally accepted symbols for all the features found on an Orienteering map. The club has a "directory" of these codes and you need to obtain one and start learning the codes. Attach the Description Sheet to your map, or pin it to your shirt or even wrap around your wrist. Don't lose this important piece of paper with vital information.

The start

Study the map as much as possible before the start; take time to make sure you know exactly where you are especially at the start (triangle on the map); plan your route between controls by considering the alternatives (ie. Paths vs cross-country, amount of climb, easy target and attack features, catching features).

FAQ's :

Who may take part ?

Anyone !. The activity can be enjoyed by men, women and children - old and young - fit or unfit. As you set your own pace, it is ideal recreation for individuals or groups.

How long are the courses ?

The length of an Orienteering course varies from 1,5km with six to ten controls for beginners, up to about 10km for the more adventurous. The challenge is yours!.

What equipment will I need ?

You do not require expensive equipment nor special gear. Wear old clothes (shorts and t-shirt are fine) and comfortable shoes - running shoes or hiking boots. An Orienteering compass is useful for the more advanced courses. Hats and sunscreen are essentials for outdoor protection. Drinking water is normally provided along the route, however, a small water-bottle will not go unused. All the other material (map and control card) is supplied by the event organisers.

How much does it cost ?

Single-event entry fees are normally around R60~R80 for individuals and R100 for Groups (of maximum 3 people). A reasonable compass (not needed until you progress to the more challenging courses) will cost in the region of R250 - R500.

What about maps ?

All Orienteering maps are specially drawn - based on topographical surveys, retaining basic symbols for contours, buildings, streams etc, but much finer detail, such as depressions, ditches and vegetation changes are added. Maps are reproduced in scales of between 1:3000 to 1:15000, and are in colour, with a full legend explaining the various features. Maps are provided as part of your event entry fee.

What does "climb" mean ?

From each contour (brown line on a map joining equal elevation or height) a route crosses in the positive direction (ie. going up-hill), the climb is calculated. Maps normally show 5m contours, hence crossing 10 of these lines in total (only on upward slopes), will equal a total climb of 50m.

Do I need to join a club ?

Not necessarily. You may compete as an individual, however, joining RACO has the benefits of giving you cheaper entry rates and you get sent the latest information regarding events, results etc. With membership you are also eligible to take part in Championship events and also score points towards an annual Performance Log.

What must I do at my first event ?

Entry to most Orienteering events is by logging into the OriEnter portal (see below). When you arrive at the event, you will need to Register, where you will receive a MAP, EMIT and DESCRIPTION SHEET (list of control numbers, codes and feature descriptions). You will also have to select a START TIME (always give yourself about a half an hour to get organised !). Make your way to the start at least ten minutes before your official start time. Enter the first start enclosure when your start time is indicated on the gate clock (T-2). At T-1 move to the front start box. At 10 seconds to start, place the EMIT card into the receptacle provided at the front of the start box. A 5 second countdown followed by a long 'beep' alerts you to remove your card from the receptacle. Pick up your map and rotate it to face North. Locate where you are on the map (triangle), then locate the first control (#1) on the map. Choose a route to the first control and proceed. Continue to all the controls in sequence in this way until you eventually return to the finish. Hand in your EMIT card for download.