Orienteering - What is this?

Orienteering is the sport of skilled navigation. The goal is to find a series of checkpoints (called controls) shown on the map, choosing routes both on and off trail to find those checkpoints, and return to the finish.  

These controls are marked in the terrain with an orange and white flag and on the map by a pink circle with a control number.  They also feature a timing unit to check in with and a verification code to confirm you're at the right one (this code is also on your map).  

With only the course map and a compass to guide you, navigation is all important.  To stop participants from simply following others most events start competitors individually a few minutes apart.  Other events use other methods to spread people out.  

You might like to read this article from studies at McMaster University - "Finding a new way to train the brain: Orienteering"

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Is Orienteering for you?

As a recreational activity orienteering allows you to:

  • explore the outdoors in a safe and fun manner
  • gain confidence navigating in parks, woodlands, and urban areas
  • run or walk while stimulating the mind

As a family experience orienteering enables :

  • youngsters to discover the outdoor world with parents, grandparents and friends
  • young athletes to strive to excel and be the best they can
  • youngsters to gain confidence and independence

As a competitive sport orienteering helps you to excel in:

  • speed and agility in running off trail in varied terrain
  • the skill of map reading at speed to choose the best route
  • the ability to read the terrain and relate it to the map
  • the ability to think when exhausted

Orienteering traditionally occurs in forests and other natural areas.  Now orienteers are equally at home in urban areas with many events taking place at university and business campuses and providing a new type of navigational challenge.

Though most often a running race or walking event, orienteering can also happen on cross country skis, snowshoes or mountain bike.  Ski and mountain bike orienteering is best in areas with dense trail networks that force you to determine which is the best route from control to control. 

Orienteering Ottawa offers all of these formats at different times of the year.  Our Spring and Fall series occur in the forest and the city.  We offer ski and snowshoe orienteering in the Winter and mountain bike orienteering in our mountain bike race series

In the forest the focus is on careful map reading and precision navigation to find controls in the middle of the forest.

Urban orienteering is about choosing efficient route choices and not getting stuck in dead-ends.  

Orienteering is practiced on specially created orienteering maps that show all the details you need to complete a course.  In addition to the course itself these maps contain very fine topographic detail and include all significant boulders, cliffs, small marshes, and man-made objects - including small trails. Open areas as well as thick vegetation are depicted with colour overlays so the orienteer can choose the fastest route between controls.

How quickly can you get from the start to the finish via the three controls?

Point to Point Courses

The majority of orienteering courses are point to point, requiring competitors to visit the controls in a pre-specified order with results based on how quickly you complete the course.  These courses come in lengths from 1.5-3 km sprints with easy navigation to 12+ km long distance events that challenge competitors both physically and navigationally.  

Our ever popular Spring and Fall Series events are generally of this format and offer a range of lengths and difficulties.

The more controls you find in the allotted time, the more points you get.

Score Orienteering

In score orienteering, or score-o, competitors have a set amount of time to find as many controls as they can in whatever order they choose. Score orienteering events are often half an hour to an hour and half long.  Longer score-os, between 2 and 24 hours long are called Rogaines.

With score-os the challenge is as much about knowing your own pace and choosing a good course route as about navigation.  With a mass start and common finish time this makes them good fun and very social thus the popularity of our Summer Solstice Series.

Around the World

The start of the 2013 Jukola relay with over 1600 teams of 7 competing. 
KopterCam - Jukola 2013 from KopterCam on Vimeo.

Orienteering was originally developed in the late 19th century as a military training exercise in land navigation in Sweden.  Around the beginning of the 20th century the first public orienteering events were held in Norway and Sweden.  Since then orienteering has developed into a life-time participation sport across the world with 73 member federations under the umbrella of the International Orienteering Federation.  

Orienteering is still primarily a European sport where some races attract 12 000 to 25 000 people annually.  Check out the video at right of one of the biggest orienteering races in the world, the Jukola relay.

In Canada

Orienteering was introduced to the United States in the 1940s and its growth was influenced heavily by Bjorn Kjellström, a well known Swedish orienteer who moved to the US in 1946.  In 1967 the Canadian Orienteering Federation was founded by the Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia orienteering associations.  A year later the first Canadian Championships were held in Gatineau Park on August 10th.  Now an annual event that anyone can enter, the Canadian Orienteering Championships offer age classes from 12 and under to 85 plus and regularly attracts 3 generations of families. Even the biennial North American Orienteering Championships which are a qualification race for the World Orienteering Championships are open to, and offer something for, everyone.  (Did you know that Orienteering Ottawa is hosting the 2024 North American Orienteering Championships?  Learn more.)

More about Orienteering Ottawa!