The Five Key Skills of Orienteering

via Quantico Orienteering Club

When you can use the following five techniques skillfully, you will be able to find any control on any orienteering map in the world. On some legs you may use only one technique, but for most legs you will need to combine several, or maybe all five, techniques.

Before we get to the five key skills, here is an insight into using compass bearings: Accuracy deteriorates as distance increases.

Our compasses aren’t surveyors’ tools – any bearing you measure on the map will likely be off by one or two degrees. As you follow the bearing, you are likely to unconsciously veer off another degree or two. Sometimes these errors will offset each other and you’ll end up exactly on target. But at other times they will compound each other. Over a 100 meter leg, a 3 degree error will put you 5 meters off course. You will likely still be able to see your target. But over a 500 meter leg, the same error would put you over 25 meters off course. You might very well not be able to see the control.

So use your compass wisely as you apply the Five Key Skills: Use it to orient your map, and use it to aim yourself in a general direction, but when you use it to try to pick a precise line to a specific point, keep the distance as short as possible.

The Five Key Skills

  1. Pick out a CATCHING FEATURE that will let you know if you’ve gone too far. When planning your route, look on the map a short distance beyond the control you are heading for, and pick out a big, distinct feature that you can’t fail to recognize. If you arrive at this catching feature, you will know you have overshot the control, and can turn around and go back. It will “catch” you and keep you from wandering too far past your control.
  2. Follow a HANDRAIL. Even if it were pitch dark, you would be able to easily negotiate a winding staircase if you just put your hand on the handrail and followed where it led. Handrails in orienteering are features that are you can follow just as easily. Trails and roads are the most obvious, but you can follow fences, streams, ditches, the edges of fields, and other long, narrow features just as easily. Following a “handrail” takes much less concentration than following a compass bearing. Also, since the handrail is illustrated on the map and a compass bearing isn’t, following the handrail makes it much easier to keep track of exactly where you are.
  3. When following a compass bearing to get to a distinct point near or on a handrail, try AIMING OFF. If you pick a compass bearing that aims directly at the precise point you are heading for, if you err even slightly you won’t know if the feature you want will be on your left or your right as you approach it. By deliberately aiming to one side of the feature, you can confidently predict which side it will appear on. This technique works best when the feature is on or very near a handrail – for example a boulder near a stream. If you aim right at the boulder, but don’t see it when you hit the stream, you won’t know whether to go upstream or downstream to look for it. However, if you deliberately aim a little upstream of the boulder, if you don’t see it when you hit the stream you will know to turn downstream to look for it.
  4. If the control isn’t on or near a handrail or other large, distinct, easily identifiable feature, choose an ATTACK POINT that you are confident that you can identify and take a compass bearing from there. Some controls, especially on advanced courses, are placed in the middle of large areas of bland, nebulous terrain, with no trails, streams, reentrants, or other distinct feature to help you keep track of where you are. An example would be a man-made pit in the middle of a flat flood plain, or a boulder on a smooth, even hillside. You have no choice but to follow a compass bearing to find it. But remember that when following a compass bearing:
    1. The bearing is only good if you really are where you think you are when you start following the bearing.
    2. Your accuracy in following the bearing decreases as the distance you travel increases.

    So pick the closest feature that you are sure you can find, and go in from there. Note: using an attack point is also useful in less challenging situations, where you don’t have to use a compass. In many cases you may be able to use some other directional scheme, like “straight downhill from the trail intersection” or “up the left reentrant from the reentrant junction” or “clockwise around the marshy area from where the stream comes in”.

  5. Use COLLECTING FEATURES to keep track of where you are. The most successful orienteers know exactly where they are at all times. They do this by constantly identifying features as they pass them, and locating them on the map (or “collecting” the features). Here are two types of situations where using collecting features is particularly helpful:
    1. The “I’ll just head west until I hit the trail and then turn right” situation. This can be a good strategy, but if the trail has grown indistinct, or is covered with leaves, or is hidden under a fallen tree, you could walk right over it without noticing. Or you might inadvertently veer southwest instead of west, and hit a different trail. By identifying the terrain and features as you go (“There should be a reentrant coming up on my right, and then there will be a marshy area off to my left”), you will know when you are coming close to the trail, or when you are starting to drift off your line.
    2. The “I have no choice but to follow a compass bearing a long way” situation. Break the long leg up into several shorter sections between identifiable features, even if it means following a zig-zag course. It often is faster to go a slightly longer, zig-zag distance, following several different compass bearings short distances from one distinct feature to another with great accuracy, rather than to go the shorter straight route on a single bearing with your accuracy deteriorating the closer you get to the control.

Recap / Boston Run Training 14MAY2016


Today’s event was a chance to work on skills that can help us improve as orienteers. Bob Boltz set a course targeted at two skills.

First, continuity. Most intermediate orienteers treat each leg as a separate problem to be solved. Then, after punching the control, we turn our attention to the next control, stand still, spread out the map, and consider our options. Bob set out the first portion of the course today with an eye towards improving flow through the course as a whole. During this ‘control picking’ portion there were a series of 16 short legs with frequent changes of direction. The goal was to never stop moving. That meant that we had to, at the least, pay attention to what direction to head out to the next control after this one. This was mildly complicated by the fact that today’s maps were printed without any of the trails.

Second, attention to local features. The next 5 controls were not marked on the map. Instead, a wiggly corridor about 30m wide was indicated. Bob set the controls so that if we stayed within the corridor, we would encounter the controls. This was further complicated by the fact that the map outside the corridor was blank, so the only navigational cues available were within the corridor (see the map here!, or below in photos)

An intrepid crew of ~25 experienced orienteers took up this challenge, and I heard a lot of praise for how much this helped them. The weather was cool and drizzly, and it was pretty sloppy and slippery. Lots of good stories emerged, and I think our club’s average navigational skill ticked up just a little after today.

Many thanks to all our volunteers, including:

  • Director: Randy Mitchell
  • Designer: Bob Boltz
  • Registrar: Kim King
  • Control Pickup: Neil Dollinger

RESULTS (unofficial)

There was no ePunch available, so timing is all self reported, and using the honor system. If you have a time, and course feedback, send it our way.

RouteGadget now available at: Boston Run Training

Download your GPS or draw your route from memory using the program.


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PS – one Blue Jacket was left behind! We will have it at next week’s Event at Sippo – just ask!

MAZE-O / Practice Your Skills

Practice your O-skills even when you’re not out in the woods! The Maze-O will challenge your brain, and sense of direction while finding the shortest, or the fastest routes through the mazes. Each turn slows you down, so try for a straighter line through, with the least amount of turns. And who knows, maybe you’ll see something like this in the near future…

If you want to generate your own mazes, go to for all the mazes you could ever want!

Here’s an idea…

Boston Run TRAINING / Saturday May 14, 11:30AM – 1PM


This training is for orienteers that would like to improve their map reading skills and practice a smoother style as you traverse a course. Two different types of practice will be employed.

controls   tunnel

The map at top left is an example of control picking. There are many close controls with lots of direction change. The idea is to keep your feet moving, especially when you approach a flag, punch and immediately start in the direction of the next control. The thought process might go like this if you were leaving control 20: You would say to yourself, “21 left.” Now you have it in mind to immediately turn left and start walking/running when you punch 21. The seconds you save if you do this at every flag really add up!

The map at top right is an example of corridor orienteering. Only a narrow ribbon of map is left uncovered. Your goal is to use compass and all the clues given on the corridor to stay within it. If you stay withing the corridor, you will encounter control flags. Punching them will prove you stayed on course! This really teaches you to stay in touch with land and map.

You will really get your money’s worth at this event. Everyone will encounter 30 flags in a compact area!

There will also be two 100 meter pace count practice areas set up. One in the field and one in the woods.


Boston Run Trailhead, Peninsula (across from Happy Days Visitor’s Center) Meet in parking lot.


  • Registration by 11:30AM, with last starts at 1PM!
  • Members – $5 ($3 for extra maps)
  • Non-Members – $10 ($3 for extra maps)
  • NEOOC Annual Individual Membership – $15


  • Event Directors: Randy Mitchell
  • Course Designer: Bob Boltz
  • Registrar: Kim King

How to Select an Orienteering Course

by Karen Dennis via OUSA

This article first appeared in the “Beginners’ Clinic” feature in the June, 1995 issue of Orienteering/North America, the magazine of the sport in the United States and Canada. O/NA frequently publishes helpful features such as this one. O/NA is available by subscription, but the best way to receive it is with a membership in the Orienteering USA (United States Orienteering Federation). Karen Dennis is an experienced orienteer, course setter, and mapper.

This is a description of the standard orienteering course levels and the skills required to do each one — ordered from easiest to hardest. This list is to help you decide which orienteering course and/or which training session to select. Above all, remember that orienteering is intended to be fun. Choose the course which challenges your current skill level but is still easy enough to be fun for you.

Course List

  White for the beginner
  Yellow for the experienced beginner
  Orange for the intermediate level orienteer
  Brown shorter course for the advanced orienteer
  Green short course for the advanced orienteer
  Red longer course for the advanced orienteer
  Blue longest course for the advanced orienteer

White Course—for the beginner

Choose this novice course if you are just beginning to orienteer and have had little or no experience. Before starting you should know:

  • how to interpret map symbols and colors (legend).
  • how to orient the map to North using a compass and/or land features.
  • what are the basic objectives (rules) of orienteering competition.
  • what to do when hopelessly lost (how to user a “safety bearing”).

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • following land features (“handrails” such as trails, roads and streams)
  • learning to relate the map to features on the ground
  • judging the distance between control locations
  • gaining self-confidence in map reading

Yellow Course—for the experienced beginner

Choose this beginner course if you have had some experience with orienteering and are quite comfortable with the beginner course, or have done a lot of hiking using topographical maps. Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the white course above
  • how to read contour lines
  • how to select and follow a “handrail”
  • how to select and use an “attack point”
  • how to interpret a scale and judge rough distance
  • how to take a rough compass bearing
  • how to select a route choice (safer vs. shorter)
  • how to “recover” from an error by backtracking to last known point

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • following handrails to an attack point (rather than to the control)
  • taking a bearing from the attack point to the control
  • judging fine distance between the attack point and the control
  • selecting between simple route choices
  • recognizing “collecting features” and “catching features”
  • reading and interpreting contours
  • recovering using attack points and maps features

Orange Course—for the intermediate level orienteer

Choose this intermediate course if you are moderately experienced with orienteering, you have mastered the white course and done a few yellow courses and been very comfortable with them. Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the white and yellow courses
  • how to navigate with or without a “handrail”
  • how to select and use “collecting features” and “catching features”
  • how to “aim off”
  • how to “simplify” a map
  • how to follow a compass bearing
  • how to recognize and avoid “parallel errors”
  • how to read IOF control descriptions

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • how to navigate cross-country with confidence
  • make route choices (according to your personal strengths and weaknesses)
  • recovering from “parallel errors” and other mistakes
  • fine map reading while traveling
  • visualization of contours
  • judging physical challenges and pacing yourself

Green Course—short course for the advanced orienteer

Choose this competitive level course if you are an experienced orienteer and have done several orange courses with confidence. Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the other courses
  • how to “pace count”
  • advanced techniques such as attacking from above, contouring, thumbing your map, red light, yellow light, green light
  • how to evaluate your own physical and orienteering skills
  • extensive recovery techniques

This course is designed to give you experience in:

  • pacing yourself (physically)
  • recognizing the challenges presented to you by the course setter
  • perfecting your orienteering skills
  • discrimination of mapping details
  • Brown Course—shorter course for the advanced orienteer
    Red Course—longer course for the advanced orienteer
    Blue Course—longest course for the advanced orienteer

These courses have the same difficulty as green, and vary only in the length of the course and in the physical challenge. Brown is shorter and less physically demanding, red is longer, and Blue is the longest and toughest advanced course.

Orienteering for Beginners @ North Chagrin / Sunday April 17, 11:30AM – 1PM


Join the Orienteering for Beginners event to learn about the sport of orienteering, how to work the map and compass, and ultimately, how to be successful on a beginner course. We’ll have plenty of instructors, and activities for you to try your skill at finding controls, use a few orienteering techniques, and venture out on a short, but easy course to build your skill.

If you’re looking for a new adventure, a lifetime sport that will take you, literally, off the beaten path, constantly challenge you, and let you discover new things about yourself and what you can do, orienteering may be the sport for you.

Orienteering is often called the thinking sport because it involves map reading and decision-making in addition to a great workout. It’s a sport that everyone can enjoy, regardless of age or experience. The competitive athlete can experience the exhilaration of running through the woods at top speed, while the non-competitive orienteer can enjoy the forest at a more leisurely pace. Most events provide courses for all levels, from beginner to advanced, and the sport has been adapted for small children and people in wheelchairs.

If you love maps, exploring, and the great outdoors, try orienteering. You’ll be hooked for life!


Strawberry Picnic Area on Buttermilk Falls Pkwy


  • Registration starts at 11:30AM.
  • General Fee – $15 ($3 for extra maps)
  • Boy & Girl Scouts – $5 ($3 for extra maps)
  • NEOOC Annual Individual Membership – $15
  • Basic Instruction – FREE!


  • Event Director: Howard Montgomery
  • Course Designer: Howard Montgomery
  • Setter: Andreas Johansson
  • Registrar: Jeff Perry
  • Instructors: Howard Montgomery, Andreas Johansson
  • Starter: N/A
  • Timer: N/A
  • Greeter: N/A

Quick Route – How To Overlay Your GPS Route on a Map

Andreas Johansson from NEOOC describes how to overlay your GPS track (from a Garmin device) on a map, and how to adjust the track.

Event Recap & Results / Merit Badge Workshop – Orienteering / 12MAR2016


We were just getting started with 30 pre-registered scouts, when 12 more showed up to learn about orienteering! A few more tables and chairs later, and we were all learning about the basics of orienteering. Some of the requirements for the Boy Scout Merit Badge for orienteering were covered, and scouts practiced taking compass bearings, recording their pace count, learned about land forms, orienteering map features, and some of the basic techniques an orienteer uses while on a course.

After lunch, we headed outside for actual practice around campus, and scouts navigated one of two courses at the yellow level, with a few controls in the woods, off path. All scouts returned from the first endeavor wanting more, so we sent them back out on the alternative course. Much fun was had, and lots of learning took place, with sessions afterwards discussing the finer details of orienteering and map reading with merit badge counselors and NEOOC club members.

Thank you to all the volunteers who made this event happen (see below) and thank you to KCE (Kenston Community Education office) for helping us organize the event on the Kenston campus.


Thank you to all the volunteers, club members, and KCE!

  • Event Director, Course Designer, and Lead Instructor – Andreas Johansson
  • Merit Badge Counselor, Scout Guru, and Pizza Champion – Ivan Redinger
  • Scout Wranglers – Sanae Rogers, Dave Dysle
  • Registrar & Greeter – Richard Toth
  • e-Punch Guru & Data Wizard – Fred Mailey
  • All the Troop Leaders that helped manage a fine day of learning for your scouts.
  • All the parents that stayed with your kids, and helped us make it a great day!


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*Results reflect only 9 controls, as one (#55) had an issue with data retention, and we removed it from the results below.

Scout A Course: 9 controls 1.7 km 50 m
  1 Team Storm                     16:57
  2 Andreas Johansson              17:41
  3 Jimmy and Co - T122            17:54
  4 Austin and Co                  17:59
  5 Donald Trump                   21:09
  6 T402                           25:56
  7 David and Co - T236            29:12
  8 Scorepions                     32:11
  9 Scorepions                     32:14
 10 Jimmy and Co - T122            36:20
 11 Jack Wendy Logan               37:28
 12 Mckenzie and Co                45:09
 13 Team Storm                     48:04

Scout B Course: 9 controls 1.7 km 50 m
  1 Phillips and Co                11:46
  2 T402                           15:18
  3 Phillips and Co                18:22
  4 William Liam Robt              20:14
  5 David and Co - T236            22:39
  5 Mckenzie and Co                22:39
  7 Austin and Co                  23:18
  8 Alison and Co                  27:01
  9 Donald Trump                   33:14
 10 Claus and Co                   38:46
 11 Lander Burk John               54:09

O-Skills: Using Handrails

Using handrails is an easy way to get from one control to the next. A handrail is a feature you can easily follow out in the woods, like a trail, water feature, distinct contour line (like running along a ridge line), or something similar. In the example below, the trail acts as the handrail from control 1 to control 2.

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