About orienteering

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport in which you find your way around a course between control points marked on a specially drawn coloured map but choosing your own route.  You can walk or run at your own pace through forests, moors, sand dunes, parkland, depending on what part of the country you are in.  You may get to see places that others don’t because Orienteering events are often held on land with no public access.

South London Orienteers (SLOW) have recently released a new video aimed at informing and guiding beginners on what to expect at their first orienteering race. SLOW decided to fund this and we were delighted that Graham Gristwood (the 2017 British champion) agreed to host – his enthusiasm and expertise add a lot. Filming took place near Stirling and we were very lucky with the weather for the time of year, with sunshine complicating and permitting some of the shots.

The film covers the orienteering map, courses, controls, equipment and what to wear, and ends with Graham linking to a series of Skills Videos so that once beginners have the guide they can easily see explanations of techniques to help them improve.


Orienteering is very well-suited to families.  Small children can follow a String course through the forest with their mothers or fathers, and visit themed controls.  Children and adults can tackle an easy course in pairs or in a small group.  Staggered start times allow parents to run separately.  One can be orienteering whilst the other looks after the children, perhaps taking small ones round the String course or accompanying older ones on the easy White course.  There is time to swap duties after the first parent returns.  As they gain in confidence, children can go out on their own and progress to harder courses. In fact, Orienteering is a good way of building confidence and developing map-reading skills in all who participate.  People of all ages and physical condition are catered for by courses of different technical and physical challenge.


Orienteering is a sport for individuals too.  Although you may choose to compete with others to finish the course in the fastest possible time, only you know how well or badly you have navigated while you were in the forest.  Ultimately, you are out there on your own competing with yourself to do better than you did last time. There is invariably more time to be saved through better navigation and fewer errors than through simply running faster.


Orienteering events are usually held on Sunday mornings or summer weekday evenings. Hertfordshire Orienteering Club events are held in Hertfordshire (or South Buckinghamshire) every month. Keen orienteers, who are prepared to travel some distance to other clubs’ events, find it possible to orienteer on most Sundays.

Control points to be visited on the course are marked on the large-scale map by red circles and on the ground by red and white kites hung on stakes.  The challenge of navigating quickly and accurately, whilst on the move, makes for an extremely enjoyable sport and provides a mental challenge to add to physical exercise in often beautiful countryside.

There are three common grades of event – Local events, District events and Regional events.

  • Local events, like the HH Saturday Series are small scale events with a limited number of courses aimed at newcomers to the sport and inexperienced club members.
  • District events have a range of courses, usually from White (v easy) through to Blue or Brown (v difficult), with entry on the day. These will generally attract orienteers from neighbouring clubs.
  • Regional events are normally entered in advance.  Courses are set according to age and gender (i.e. Men between 40 and 45 run in the M40 category and have a choice between a long and a short course). However, most Regional events will also offer a limited range of colour coded courses, normally with entry on the day.

In the South East, the relatively large number of Orienteering clubs makes these events reasonably common, especially in the winter months.

Course Choice

Most events have colour-coded courses which range from about 1·5 km for children and beginners to over 10 km for experienced adults.

  • The White course is very easy and suitable for young children from the age of 6 – 10.  Parents, siblings or friends can, of course, go with them.  The distance is up to about 1·5 km, on paths only.
  • The Yellow course, using paths and other line features such as streams and fences, is slightly harder and longer (~ 2 km).
  • For more of a challenge, Orange (2·5 – 3·5 km) could be the one to start with. It’s technically more difficult with some controls short distances away from line features, although always located on a readily identifiable feature, such as an earthbank or hill.
  • The Red course is much longer (up to 7·5 km), of similar technical standard to Orange, and designed for runners.
  • Light Green, Green, Blue and Brown courses are intended for established orienteers.

Whatever course you think you would like to try there are helpers to welcome you and to get you started.


All you need to begin with at Local or District events is suitable clothing and a transparent plastic bag to protect your map. A red biro may be useful for the very few events where maps are not pre-marked with the courses. You should wear long trousers and trainers or boots as it can be brambly and very wet or muddy underfoot.  Traders selling a wide range of specialist orienteering equipment turn up at most District and Regional events.  A compass is useful but not essential, as HHOC will usually be able to lend you one at its local events.  Buy one later as you become more experienced and attempt the technically more difficult courses.

Most events use SI electronic punching which records your control visits on an electronic “dibber” so that your split times to each control point are recorded along with the total time taken. These can be hired for a small fee but are worth investing in if you orienteer regularly.

Traders selling a wide range of specialist orienteering equipment will be found at most larger events.

Why Orienteering?

The letter below was printed in the Daily Mail on the 13th May 2005.  It is from a parent who explains why she enjoys Orienteering and why she thinks that Orienteering is such a good sport for her children to be involved with.  Please take a moment to read it, then come along to an event and decide for yourself.

Dear Editor

In the face of yet more articles about overweight children and “cotton wool culture” might I offer parents my own solution to the dilemma. We all want our children to grow up healthy, happy, capable and self-reliant, but in this day and age its getting harder to find the opportunities to develop these life-enhancing qualities. I have, however, found a way which tackles all these area – and even a few more besides.

Every weekend, my three children, aged 12-15 years, my husband and I have our own private adventures. In the holidays – these could last a week. We might do it locally, we might go abroad, we might do it in the dark, the rain, the sun, by the sea, in the mountains – even in town parks on weekday evenings. We do it on our own, and yet are surrounded by friends to share the experience and enjoy the social side. We can run it, or walk it or anything in between. We might line up or cross the finish line with a world champion, a child of eight or a veteran of 80 – all of us will have solved problems and used skills to complete our course to the best of our ability.

When I tell you what we do, you may feel a little disappointed – but think again. My children are athletic, adept at problem solving and risk assessment – they know thrills and achievements that no computer game can generate – they also know disappointment and defeat and how to deal with it. They know that success is relative and not always about winning. They socialise freely with their own age group but also interact comfortably with everyone. They recognise the beauty of the changing seasons and our indigenous wildlife. They already have friends all over the country (and abroad), and are not afraid of the world.

And as for us, we get the chance to compete against people our own age (and compete we do – although that is not obligatory). We get to see some of the finest countryside in Britain and abroad – much of which is not open to the public. We get to enjoy the barbecues, the picnics, the pubs and the old fashioned socials with like-minded families all over the place, all year. And at the end of the day, even though our children maybe some of the most independent and capable young people on the planet – we still get to see them (usually from a distance). It really is the answer to every thinking parent’s prayer.

The name of this panacea is Orienteering and it’s happening somewhere near you – check it out!