What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is an outdoor sport enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. The usual type of event is to navigate on foot around a forest or fell using a specially drawn orienteering map to visit a series of controls that have been placed on a course. In East Anglia, we are short of fells, and events might use either wooded areas, open parkland, or increasingly nowadays, urban areas (such as so called "City Races"). The time taken to complete the course is recorded, and the quickest time wins. However, not everyone regards it as a race, and you are advised to go at your own pace. Finding the controls in the correct order is much more important than the time taken. At each event, there are usually several courses of varying length and difficulty. The courses are normally distinguished by colour codes. Start times are usually staggered over a two-hour period, so you won't start at the same time as another competitor on the same course. This means that when you are out in the forest, parkland, or whereever, no-one knows how well, or badly, you are doing. At most events you can, if you want, compete in pairs, small groups, or families.

What to do before the event

Nothing really. Beginners are advised to first try orienteering at a local colour-coded event such as the "Try-O" events we hold in the Autumn or one of our summer SMILE events. But introductory courses are almost always available even at big regional events. Local events rarely have pre-entry (it'll be clearly stated in the event adverts if they do): Just turn up on the day. And introductory courses at the bigger events are normally entry-on-the-day (EOD) as well.

However, if you intend to bring a large group (ie. 8 or more) to a WAOC event, we'd be very grateful if you'd let us know in advance, as we have to estimate the number of maps we need to pre-print for each course, and can be taken by surprise if a large group turns up unannounced. A contact name and email address will be shown on the next event details which can be found from the events web-page.

What to do when you arrive at the event

Exactly how an event is organised, especially with respect to registration (see below), varies from event to event, and is dependent on whether electronic punching and pre-printed maps are being used (which is almost always these days). However, this page gives general guidelines. There are usually sufficient notices posted up at each event to describe the procedure on the day.

Most WAOC colour-coded events use electronic punching and maps with the course pre-printed on waterproof paper.


Registration is the process of paying your entry fee, choosing your course and If nec4essary) being allocated a start time.

Choosing your course

At most local events there will be a number of courses, each identified by a colour-code, suitable for all ages and abilities, from the very young, through fit young (and not so young, or not so fit!) adults to the active retired, and from complete novice to experienced orienteer. In general, the courses can be categorised as follows:

     Course          Standard        Distance

     String          very,very easy  1.0 km
     White           very easy       1.0 to 1.5 km
     Yellow          easy            1.0 to 2.5 km
     Orange          fairly easy     2.0 to 3.5 km
     Long Orange     fairly easy     4.5 to 6.0 km
     Light Green     fairly hard     2.5 to 3.5 km
     Green           hard            3.5 to 4.5 km
     Blue            hard            4.5 to 6.5 km
     Brown           hard            6.5 plus km
     Black           hard		 9+ km

The only difference between Green, Blue, Brown, and Black is the course length, 
and there can be intermediate lengths such as "Short Blue" and "Very Short Green".
The exact selection can vary according to the event, but Local events ususally include 
the courses in the table above from White up to Blue or Brown.

The distances given are the straight line distances between controls, rarely the best route. As a guide to runners if you can orienteer in minutes per km as fast as you can run in minutes per mile you will be doing very well. Beginners should start with the easier courses. eg. Novice juniors should start with White or Yellow, novice adults should start with Orange or Long Orange (which until recently was called Red).

(The string course is literally a 500m - 1 km piece of string, laid out on the ground, which competitors as young as two or three can follow to the control kites. The string course is usually free and doesn't require registration, just go to the string course start (which will be separate from the main start).)

These distances should be considered as only a rough guide. In particularly flat terrain, such as in East Anglia, courses may in general be somewhat longer.


The organisers will be taking registrations and (possibly) issuing maps, usually from cars in the event car park, or from a tent.

If electronic punching is being used (this should be obvious from the event adverts, and from notices at the event) you will need an electronic control card (ecard) better known as a "dibber" to compete. If you're a regular orienteer, you'll probably have bought one, but if not you can hire one at the event before going to register for your course. Most East Anglian clubs charge a 50p hire charge per dibber, and some may charge a returnable deposit (the dibbers, although small, are relatively expensive).

Next, fill in an entry slip for each person and take this to registration. The entry slip will record your name, age class and club (if you belong to one), the number of your dibber, and some safety details. To register, simply hand over your completed slip with the entry fee. start time. Unlike road races, orienteering events have staggered start times with no two competitors on the same course starting at the same time. At local events you can just go to the start when you are ready, but at larger events you may be given a specific start time or a time slot. If you have a predetermined start time, remember to give yourself enough time to get ready and get to the start area.

Beginners can compete in pairs or groups. One entry fee (usually) covers the whole group, unless they want a map each.

At registration, you may receive a control description list on a slip of paper for your course (sometimes these are picked up at the start). The same details are often, but not always, printed on the map. Anyone entering White or Yellow courses, usually run by juniors, is given their map at registration, so that the course can be discussed with parents before starting. Everyone else gets their maps at the start. If electronic punching is not being used you will also be given a control card with numbered boxes which you "punch" at each control as you complete your course. If the registration marshall hasn't filled in the details such as your name, age class, etc. in all the relevant areas on the card, do this now.


You don't need any special kit to begin with. However, legs should be covered to protect from scratches, stings and bites (ticks in forests). Track suit bottoms are fine. Similarly a long-sleeved top is also a good idea. If you intend to run then wear lightweight things so that you don't get too hot. For your feet, trainers or running shoes are OK.


A compass is not required for the easy courses, but bring one if you have one. You could trip in the woods and injure yourself, so a whistle is advised, as a safety measure to attract attention. If it is raining, you will need protection for your map. For most events nowadays, maps are usually waterproof or are already sealed in plastic bags. But for lower key events the maps may be printed on ordinary paper, so may want to protect it - an A4 size clear plastic bag will do. Safety pins are also useful.

Getting ready for the start

After registering, get changed and then check that you have everything you need. There are a variety of ways of making sure you can read your control descriptions out on the course and do not lose them, such as putting them in a little plastic bag and safety pinning them to your sleeve.

Make your way to the start

Get there in good time. Final check: Dibber, control descriptions, whistle and compass (if you have them), and plastic bag to protect the map, if needed.

at the start you will need to clear your dibber before going into the start box (otherwise your dibber will not record the controls).

You will be asked to step into the box marked with tape on the ground. At this time the start official should check you have cleared the dibber using a "check" box. Ten seconds before your start time, the starter will tell you to step over the line and be ready to go at the signal, which is either a whistle blast or an electronic buzzer operated by the master clock. If electronic punching is being used you'll be timed from the moment that you punch at the start control, just beyond the start line. You will now simply pick up the map with your course on it, unless you are running White or Yellow, in which case you will have been given your map at registration. Check that you have the correct map for your course. They will be clearly labelled. The start kite will be marked as a triangle on the map, all controls as single circles with numbers and the finish as a double circle, joined up by straight lines.

Doing your course

You must visit the controls in the correct order, as listed in the descriptions. Each control will consist of a red and white marker kite with a label carrying the appropriate control code and either a pin clipper if traditional punching is being used, or an electronic "punch box" if electronic punching is being used. If traditional punching is being used, clip the correct box on your control card after checking the code. If electronic punching is being used, insert your dibber into the hole in the electronic punch box and wait for a beep and the LED to flash (it'll take less than a second). Continue round the course, choosing your own route, but visiting the controls in the correct sequence for your course. Keep out of any areas marked out of bounds.


When you are at the finish, punch at the finish control, which records your finishing time. If old fashioned pin punching is being used, you may be given a numbered finish slip. Hand over your control card (with the slip if given one) to the person collecting them. If electronic punching is being used, not much happens at the finish once you've punched the finish control. Instead you'll be directed to the "download tent" where the computer team will read your dibber into the computer and confirm immediately whether you made any mistakes and also give you a printout showing your overall time, and how long it took you to get to each control. If you hired an dibber, they will take it back here. We will check that everyone who registers reports at download so that there is no risk of us leaving anyone out in the forest. We take this very seriously and may send out search parties if antyone fails to report back, so it is essential that you report to the download even if you retire, or if you decide not to run at all. This is why we ask for registation numbers on your entry slip - we can usually call off the search if we know your car has gone!

That's it. Well done. Go and have a drink and cool down.

How did you do?

Provisional result printouts are often displayed during the event. After the event, the results will be posted on the club website.

More Information

A good introductory book is Carol McNeil, Orienteering, the skills of the game, The Crowood Press, ISBN 1-85223-558-6

For information about Regional Events, the next level up from the local colour-coded events described here, try our newsletter article Going for Gold - An introduction to Badge events.

For general information about Orienteering in the UK, including full fixture lists and links to other clubs, try the The British Orienteering home page.

The notes in this section were originally prepared by Fred Northrop (WAOC) with significant amendments by Dave Wotton, and later by Peter Woods.

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