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Orienteering 101

If you have never heard of orienteering, or if you've never had a chance to try it yourself, fret not! Despite being a wildly popular sport in many parts of the world, orienteering is relatively unknown in the United States. It's not part of our public education system, and we rarely see orienteering events with more than a few dozen competitors in attendance.

So there's no need to worry if compass bearings, attack points, and aiming-off are foreign terms. Orienteering, at its core, is about deciding how to get from one place to another. We do this everyday, whether it's going to work, walking to school, or trying to avoid traffic. 

Got a question? We're here to answer it. If you can't find the answer to your question below, contact us!

What is orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport where competitors use a map and a compass to find a series of checkpoints. There is no marked path, so participants must choose their own routes from one checkpoint to the next. This is often done in the forest, although it can also be done in parks, school campuses, city streets, etc. There are several different formats for orienteering races which are explained in more depth in the orange box. While orienteering is done competitively, many people take part simply for the joy of being outside and exercising their mind and body. It’s a fun, healthy, and educational activity for all ages and experience levels!

Do I have to run?

Nope! For many participants running is part of the thrill of the sport, and we love seeing kids run from checkpoint to checkpoint as fast as they can. However, walking is just fine, too. There are many orienteers, young and old, who prefer moving at a slower pace. There are also specific courses that are less physically demanding.

What should I wear?

You should wear something that's comfortable for athletic activity. If it's rainy or wet then you may also wish to bring a change of clothes for afterwards. If the activity is in a city park, regular running shoes or sneakers will work great. If the activity is in a forested park then shoes with more tread are appropriate such as trail running shoes. Intermediate and advanced courses in forested parks will take you off-trail, so long pants are recommended.

Do I need a compass?

You do not need a compass, but it is strongly recommended that you use one. While many events put on by Navigation Games are not technically challenging, a compass remains the most accurate and reliable way to keep your map oriented. It is also a very important safety tool if you ever get lost. Compasses can almost always be borrowed at our events, but you are not required to have one to participate.

What's an e-punch?

E-punch is timing system used for most orienteering events. Participants are given an e-punch (also known as a "finger stick" or "SI card") when they sign up for the event. At each control there is a small, electronic box with a hole in it. When you arrive at a control, simply place your e-punch into the hole and the box will flash and beep. This records what time you were at that specific control. When you arrive at the finish, we will collect the information off or your e-punch at the "download" station so that we can check to make sure you went to all the locations in the correct order (for a point-to-point course), and record your overall time. 


The primary activity we do at Navigation Games is a sport called orienteering, where individuals or groups use a map and compass to find a series of checkpoints (aka controls) in various environments.

There are many different formats of orienteer events. The most common format is to visit a series of checkpoints in sequential order as quickly as possible. Other formats include score-orienteering, relay races, and even vampire orienteering. Below are some examples of orienteering events we run at Navigation Games.


In this most common orienteering format, individuals or groups visit a series of checkpoints in sequential order going point-to-point. Beginning at the start triangle, participants navigate around the entire course as quickly as possible. The number of controls on a course can vary greatly. Sometimes there are as few as 3 or 4 points, other times as many as 25 or more!


In contrast to point-to-point orienteering, checkpoints may be visited in any order in score-orienteering. It is up to participants to plan how many controls they will visit and in what order within a set time limit.


String-orienteering is very simple, and is typically for children who are too young to complete a classic course, or for beginners who are going out into the forest for the very first time.

In string-orienteering, participants follow a string or series of streamers from one point to the next in a very small area. The string often takes a convoluted and exciting path, but as long as participants stick to the route they will visit all of the controls in the correct order. 


Vampire-orienteering is a fun and festive type of orienteering. The format is almost identical to score-orienteering, but with a few distinct differences: it is done at night in the dark and there are "vampires".

The goal for each participants is to visit as many control points as they can within a time limit and record each visited point on their punch card. At the beginning of the event, a few teams will be randomly selected to be vampires and are given a red flashlight. They have the ability to "vamp" a normal team by shining their red flashlight at them. When a vampire "vamps" another team, they steal that team's punch card and therefore all of their points and become normal participants. The vamped team gets the red flashlight and becomes vampires.


Orienteering 101

Orienteering 101

Orienteering 101
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Orienteering Part 1 - The Map

Orienteering Part 1 - The Map

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Orienteering Part 2 - Planning your route

Orienteering Part 2 - Planning your route

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Orienteering Part 3 - Finding your way

Orienteering Part 3 - Finding your way

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Additional Resources


Coaching and Youth Development:

Fundamental Skills:

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