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This page has been designed to help those new to the sport participate in their first orienteering event. It describes what you need and what to expect at an event. You can read the page all the way through, or click on the swallows in the list of contents below to jump to a particular section. 

There may seem to be a lot to take in, but when you get to an event it should all be very straightforward. There are always people around to help newcomers so please make yourself known and we'll show you what you need to know.


The procedures may seem confusing, but in practice they are not

A definition of orienteering 
Types of orienteering event
Finding out about orienteering events in your area
What to bring to an orienteering event
Choosing the right course
How to take part in an event 
At the start
After completing the course
What next?
Your Feedback

If you want to learn more about orienteering terms and what they mean, why not look at the Jargon Buster


What is orienteering, anyway?

Orienteering is a sport that combines running and navigating. Most orienteering events take place in forests, though they can be run on any kind of terrain, including open moorland, local parks, sand dunes, and even city streets. 

Orienteering usually requires specially produced maps drawn at scales which show a high level of detail.

Wherever it occurs, orienteering usually involves visiting pre-designated places (we call them Controls) in a particular order. The winner of any course is the person who has visited all the Controls on their particular course in the shortest time. This means thinking carefully about your route. Sometimes it will be quickest to go round paths, sometimes the faster route is a more direct one across rougher ground.

Orienteering can be a highly competitive sport, and our elite class athletes compete at the very top level in world competition. But many people participate in the sport for fun, and there are events throughout the year catering for the very widest possible range of ages and ability levels. Many orienteers enjoy the social side of the sport - seeing regular faces around the UK (and abroad too), and making new friends from different walks of life. And speaking of 'walks' people participate at their own pace - from fast taxing runs to comfortable jogs and leisurely walks. The choice is yours. 

Mole Valley, like other orienteering clubs, welcomes members of all standards, women and men, and all ages. 

Mole Valley has a number of permanent orienteering courses in local parks. These are a great way to try orienteering out without going to a formal event. Please visit the permanent orienteering courses part of this web site for details.


Types of orienteering event

There are several different kinds of orienteering event in the UK. You can learn more about the different types of events and 'orienteering-speak' more generally at this web site's Orienteering Jargon Buster page.

The different events are organised in two ways which cut across each other.

One of these is separation by 'level'. These levels are:


Introductory Events Sometimes called Come and Try It events, these are very low key and are put on regularly by clubs. You can find out if any are scheduled in your area using the sources under the heading finding out about events in your area. This type of event tends to have just a few courses, and there are experienced orienteers on hand to give information and help
Local Events If you can't find an introductory event, then a Local event is suitable for a newcomer to try. These types of event offer a range of courses of different lengths and difficulty, identified by a colour label. See more below at choosing the right course
Regional Event The next step up from Local events, you again choose a course by its colour, but this time there are recommendations about which colour is most suitable for you depending on your age and gender. In reality if you are a newcomer you may find the colour/age/gender combination suggested does not work well for you. Helpers at the event will assist you in making an appropriate choice. 
National Events A high level event at which there are special courses for elite runners. Orienteers travel around the country to National Events, and there can be upwards of a thousand competitors at them.


The other way events are differentiated is by the kind of place they happen in or the length or style of courses. Some examples are:


Score Events These involve visiting as many controls as possible in within a stated time. Competitors decide on their own route between controls. An hour is a common time limit. They are often local events, and can be low key or more serious, and individual or team competitions.
Street Events Often run as fun summer evening or Saturday events for members of a club and often followed by social events these involve orienteering around the local streets usually armed with a pen and paper and answering questions linked to specific locations on the map (eg what is the colour of the door on the house). More sophisticated street events are becoming increasingly popular and these involve professionally produced maps, proper controls and the kind of sophisticated management you would expect from a top level event. 
Sprint Events Sometimes these take place in streets or other areas with buildings such as university campuses. Courses are short, winning times fast.
Relays There are many kinds of relays, from British Championships to regional and inter-club competitions.
Night Events Orienteering at night time. Torches and head-lights are used. Many regions, including the South East, run a league for night orienteering, and there is an annual national championship.


Finding out about events in your area

If you are in the South East of England, then one of the best sources of information about upcoming events is our own O Events Calendar.

Another useful source is the events listing page at the British Orienteering Federation which you will find here. This points to events all around the UK, and has links to information about these events provided by the organising clubs.

If you would like to try orienteering without going to a formal event, and you live in the South East, then consider one of Mole Valley's permanent orienteering courses. You can visit these at any time.


What to bring to an orienteering event

What to bring Why to bring it
Clothing Full leg cover is usually required at orienteering events, so shorts are not suitable. Tracksuit bottoms will do, the lighter the better, or any old clothes. Jeans are not a good idea, as if it is wet they hold the water and take a long time to dry out. A T-shirt is fine for your upper body, though you may want to consider long sleeves. For footwear, running shoes are best, but any shoes with a good grip will do. Wear old clothes if possible - they will probably get dirty. You might also want to bring some clean clothes to change into after you have finished your course - don't forget spare shoes and fresh dry socks.  Extras you might like to consider are waterproofs, a woolly hat and gloves if you think you might get cold. Keen orienteers tend to wear special clothing made of nylon, often in their club colours.
Compass A compass will help you navigate and keen orienteers always carry one. If you can bring one to your first event it would be useful. You may be able to borrow one from the organising club.
Whistle They are not expensive but are essential. Whistles are used if you get into difficulty to call other orienteers to your assistance. At some events you won't be able to start without one and it is always a good idea to carry one even if it is not required.
Map bag Orienteering maps are usually made of water resistant paper but a bag could be useful if the weather is wet or you want to protect your map. Any clear plastic bag will do - the kind you use for the freezer, for example, or a sandwich bag. Make sure it is clear on both sides so you can see through it to the map. Orienteering maps vary in size, but an A4 sized bag should be fine. 
Red pen Maps are usually provided with your course pre-marked, but you may need to mark it on yourself or make some sort of note. Red is the colour people generally use for this.
Payment Payment varies considerably. Introductory events should be very low cost. At larger events there are discounts if you are a member of the British Orienteering Federation. You may also be requested to pay a car parking fee per vehicle - not per person. Publicity for each event will list all the payment details.


Choosing the right course

Orienteering courses vary in both their length and their technical difficulty. The lengths quoted below are a rough guide only and may differ at the event you choose to go to.

Don't overestimate your ability. Courses may look relatively short, but the more technically difficult ones are likely to involve going across country rather than along paths. This could mean you have to go through undergrowth, cross streams and so on. There will almost always be hills to climb. Climb is measured for each course, and is presented in metres. Generally longer courses have more climb. Courses are measured in a straight line from Control to Control. You will almost certainly travel further than the course length suggests, because you are unlikely to be able to go in a direct line from one Control to the next.

With all that in mind, it is best to start with an easier course and move up to a harder one. There is nothing to stop you doing two courses at the same event, using the first one as a 'taster'.

It is OK to retire at an event without completing the course. But it is not OK to do so without reporting that you've done this. Even if you retire you must go through the 'download' procedure covered later on under the heading 'After you've completed the course'. Why? The course officials will have a record that you have started. If they don't also get a record of you having been through the 'download' area you will be counted as 'missing in the forest'. The safety systems orienteers use mean a search party will have to be sent out for you in case you are hurt and needing assistance.

Orienteering courses are always measured in kilometres. 1km is 0.6 miles. 

Within the colours below you may see short, medium and long variants designed to offer a set level of difficulty but different distances.

  Course Approx length Difficulty and age

0.5-1.5 km

Easy. Ideal for children ages about 8 - 12. Courses do not leave paths.

1 -3 km

Easy but slightly harder than White. A good course for beginners, mostly on paths. Suitable for ages 10 and up, a good first course for anyone to try, and great for families to go around together.

3 - 6 km

More of a challenge and the courses are a bit longer. Some controls are off paths. Again a good course for families to tackle together. Longer orange courses are ideal for runners trying orienteering for the first time.
  Light Green

3.5 - 4.5 km

Moderately hard but not too long. Suitable for runners moving up from an Orange course, and for improvers.

4 - 5 km

Technically difficult, but relatively short. Not suitable for first timers.

5 - 7 km

Technically difficult, medium length. Not suitable for first timers.

7km +

Technically difficult and long. Not suitable for first timers. 

10km +

Technically difficult and very long. Only for the very fit and experienced orienteer.


How to take part in an event

The following assumes you have chosen a come and try it event or a Local event as your first experience of orienteering. 

When you go to an orienteering event you will see a central point, maybe a group of cars or a tent, at which you can get information about the courses available and book yourself in. This area is known as Registration, and it is the place where you formally enter the event. It is also a good place to look for someone to help you understand what to do and give general advice.  

When you register you'll be asked for your name and age (orienteers are grouped within age bands). When asked what your club is just say you don't have one. You'll be recorded as 'IND', or 'independent'. Officially you are allowed to compete in three events before you need to join a club. This web site has information about joining Mole Valley

In return for the information you give you will get the following things

What you get Points to note
Map You may get the map before you start or you may pick it up after you start. The course will probably be pre-marked on it, though you may have to draw it on yourself. The first thing to do when you get the map look for the scale. The two scales normally used are: 1:10,000 and 1:15,000. The scale refers to how distance is recorded on the map. At 1:10,000 one centimetre on the map represents one hundred metres on the ground, whilst at 1:15,000 one centimetre on the map represents 150 metres on the ground.
Dibber Your dibber is very important. It is what proves you have been to each control on your course.

Dibbers are part of an electronic system that is used to record your progress round courses and produce personalised results for you on the day and results for everyone to see after the event has finished.

As a beginner you will hire a Dibber. It is a small plastic wedge which loops over your finger. You can learn more about electronic punching at the Mole Valley Jargon Buster page. Go there and look up SportIdent. to see a picture. 

Using this system, when you have completed your course, you will 'download' the contents of your electronic control card into a computer. It will be cumulated with the others from your course, and results produced electronically. You should get a printout of your 'split times' - the time you took between each control - immediately. The full results include split times for every competitor at every control. Take a look at the these results from a Mole Valley orienteering event to see how these look. 

Control descriptions A sheet of paper listing all the controls on your course with a description of the kind of feature they are on. These may be 'pictoral' using symbols, or plain English. If they are pictoral, feel free to ask a helper at the event to explain them to you.
Start time At many local events you can choose your own start time. Often you can just turn up and start when you are ready. If you have to select a time ask how far it is to the start, and how long it will take to walk there. The officials should be able to suggest how long you should leave before your start time.


At The Start 

When you get to the start you will see a clock. 'Call up' is usually three minutes before your actual start time. You progress through several boxes at one minute intervals till you get to the actual start line. 

At many events where there are pre-marked maps those on the shorter, easier courses can collect their at the start before 'call up' time. This is so that they can check on their courses before starting to be timed, and get any help from officials they may want with understanding the map, or planning routes. For White, Yellow and Orange courses this is very often the case. Ask the officials if you are not sure whether you can see your course in advance.

Remember, you can ask the officials to explain anything you don't understand.  


After completing the course

Your last control is the Finish. When you have finished go to the download area which is likely to be in the car park. You MUST remember to go here in order that the officials know you have finished the event. You will hand back your hired Dibber here and collect a printout of your own individual results. There is usually a drink available - orange squash and/or water. Help yourself. People often gather around the drinks area to discuss their courses. 



Results are usually placed on the Web within a couple of days of the event and often on the same day.


What next? 

If you enjoy your first orienteering event, you might want to take part in some more. Look around in the car park for leaflets advertising forthcoming events and take any that look interesting. Also, talk to the club officials and ask them about forthcoming events. Use the links at this web site to find out about other clubs in your area, and other orienteering events. You might even decide you want to become a club member. Refer back to the section on finding out about events in your area for more information. 


Your Feedback

Mole Valley Orienteering Club has written this page to help you make the most of your first orienteering event.

It would be helpful us if you could let us know how useful you found it. Is there anything we have not explained properly? Would you have liked more help on some aspects? Have you any other comments? Email the webmistress with your thoughts. 


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