7 Tips for Navigating Orienteering Courses: Mastering Navigation Skills

July 03, 2024 8 min read

Orienteering courses present both a physical and mental challenge, making them a popular activity for adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you're a beginner or have some experience, understanding the fundamentals can significantly enhance your performance. You'll benefit from clear strategies and tips that help you navigate and enjoy the terrain efficiently.

Participants follow map, compass in hand, through dense forest. They navigate over rough terrain, across streams, and up steep hills to reach checkpoints

Preparation is key to success in orienteering. Ensuring you have the right tools and knowledge can drastically improve your ability to read maps and make quick decisions. This article provides essential tips to enhance your orienteering skills and make your next course a rewarding experience.

1) Study the Map

Before you step onto the orienteering course, carefully examine the map. Look for key features like elevation changes, water bodies, and vegetation types. This will help you plan your route and avoid unexpected terrain.

Pay attention to the scale of the map. Knowing the distance between points can help you estimate travel time. Familiarize yourself with the symbols and legend.

Identify potential hazards and obstacles that may slow you down. Mark these on your map or commit them to memory so you can navigate around them.

Check for man-made structures like roads or buildings. These can serve as useful reference points during your course. Look for pathways that might be easier to follow in dense areas.

2) Practice Pacing

Pacing is a crucial skill in orienteering. It helps you measure distances accurately while navigating. Learn to count your paces over a known distance. This will allow you to estimate distances more reliably in varied terrain.

To practice, set up a designated course. Measure and mark the distances beforehand. Walk the course several times, counting your steps each time. Record your results to identify any variations.

Different terrains can affect your pacing. Walk on grass, trails, and uneven ground. Notice how your pace count changes and adjust for these differences when planning your route.

Use pace beads or counters to keep track of your steps. These tools can ensure accuracy, especially over longer distances. They are small and easy to carry, making them convenient for field use.

Regular practice will help you become consistent with your pacing. Try to incorporate this practice into your routine. It becomes second nature with time and improves your navigation skills.

Combine pacing practice with map reading. This reinforces both skills. You will better understand how far you've traveled relative to your map. Practicing both skills together prepares you for real orienteering scenarios.

3) Use a Compass Efficiently

Learning how to use a compass is crucial for orienteering. Start by understanding the parts of the compass: the baseplate, the rotating bezel, the direction of travel arrow, and the needle. Familiarize yourself with these components to make navigation smoother.

Hold the compass flat in your hand and ensure that it is level. This allows the needle to move freely and point to magnetic north. Always align the north end of the needle with the marked north on the bezel.

When setting a bearing, turn the bezel until the desired degree aligns with the direction of travel arrow. Then, rotate your body until the needle aligns with the north marking on the bezel. This ensures you are heading in the correct direction.

Remember to account for declination, which is the difference between magnetic north and true north. Comparing your map’s grid lines with your compass reading can help adjust for this. Many maps include declination information specific to the area.

Practice regularly to improve your accuracy and speed. Try different terrains and conditions to become more adaptable. The more comfortable you are with your compass, the more efficiently you will navigate any orienteering course.

Always keep your compass accessible, and avoid placing it near metal objects or electronics that can interfere with the needle. Periodically check your direction to ensure you remain on the correct path.

By mastering these fundamental skills, you’ll enhance your orienteering experience and confidence in navigating through various landscapes.

4) Plan Your Route in Advance

Before you embark on your orienteering course, take the time to thoroughly plan your route. Assess the map carefully to identify checkpoints and the terrain. Note any potential obstacles such as rivers or steep hills.

Think strategically about the best paths between checkpoints. Choose routes that are efficient and match your skill level. Avoid densely forested areas if you're less experienced.

Mark your intended path on the map using a pencil. This allows you to adjust your route if necessary, without making permanent changes. Keeping a flexible plan is crucial.

Consider the time of day and weather conditions. For example, wet conditions may make certain routes slippery or impassable. Use these factors to refine your plan for safety and efficiency.

Discuss your planned route with teammates if you're participating in a group. Sharing strategies ensures everyone is on the same page and can provide additional insights.

Use a compass to double-check your planned bearings. Ensure that your map is oriented correctly. This helps avoid mistakes during the race.

Prepare for potential detours. Have backup routes in mind in case you encounter unexpected obstacles. Flexibility can be the key to completing the course successfully.

5) Look for Landmarks

A compass pointing towards a distant mountain, surrounded by trees and a winding trail. A map and orienteering markers are scattered on the ground

Spotting landmarks is crucial when navigating an orienteering course. Landmarks like rivers, hills, and buildings provide reference points that help you confirm your location on the map.

Identify large features first, as they are easier to spot. These could be a mountain range, a large lake, or a unique structure in the distance.

Smaller features, such as paths, boulders, or small ponds, can also be useful. Cross-check them with your map to ensure you are on the right track.

Use your compass to align your map with the terrain. This alignment makes it easier to match landmarks on the map with what you see around you.

Keep an eye out for changes in the landscape. For instance, a forest clearing or a sudden elevation change can serve as valuable indicators.

Constantly update your position by referring to different landmarks along your route. This practice helps you stay oriented and prevents you from getting lost.

In low-visibility conditions, prioritize audible or tactile landmarks. Sounds like a flowing river or the feel of a distinctive tree bark can guide you when sight is limited.

6) Stay Calm Under Pressure

When navigating an orienteering course, it's crucial to stay calm under pressure. Adrenaline can surge as you race against the clock, but keeping a cool head helps you make better decisions.

Take deep breaths if you start to feel overwhelmed. A few moments of composed breathing can clear your mind.

Break the course into manageable sections. Focus on one checkpoint at a time rather than the entire course.

If you find yourself lost, don't panic. Stop, reassess, and carefully check your map and compass.

Remember, mistakes happen. Learning to quickly readjust and move forward is key.

Having confidence in your skills can help you remain calm. Trust your training and the preparation you’ve done.

7) Attend Orienteering Events

Participating in orienteering events is a great way to sharpen your skills and test your knowledge in real-world scenarios. Local clubs often host events that cater to various skill levels, from beginners to experienced navigators.

At these events, you'll have the opportunity to meet other enthusiasts and gain valuable tips from seasoned orienteers. Exchanging experiences with fellow participants can provide new insights and improve your techniques.

Additionally, these events usually offer varied and challenging courses that can help build your confidence and adaptability. Practicing in different environments enhances your ability to make quick and accurate decisions in unfamiliar terrain.

Moreover, many events include a competitive element, which can add excitement and motivation to your training. It’s an excellent way to measure your progress and identify areas where you can improve.

Regular participation in orienteering events also keeps you up-to-date with the latest techniques and technologies used in the sport. Staying current can give you an edge and make your navigation more precise and efficient.

Finally, attending these events contributes to the orienteering community. Your participation helps support local clubs and ensures that more activities and resources are available for everyone interested in orienteering.

Understanding Orienteering Maps

Orienteering maps are crucial tools that provide comprehensive details about terrain and features. Familiarize yourself with the symbols used and the terrain's layout to navigate effectively.

Map Symbols and Significance

Orienteering maps utilize a variety of symbols to represent different features. Black indicates man-made objects like buildings and roads. Blue signifies water features such as lakes and rivers. Green depicts vegetation, with varying shades indicating density. Brown represents landforms including contours, cliffs, and earth banks.

Learning these symbols is essential because they help you quickly identify key elements in the environment, making navigation more efficient. Refer to the legend often to ensure you understand each symbol's meaning.

Reading Terrain Features

Terrain features on orienteering maps provide a detailed picture of the landscape. Contour lines display elevation changes and help you understand the terrain's shape. Close contour lines indicate steep areas, while spaced lines suggest gentle slopes.

Identifying terrain features like hills, valleys, and depressions can assist in planning your route. Look for distinct landmarks, such as large boulders or clearings, which can serve as navigation aids. Recognize how these features correspond to the map to maintain your orientation.

Using a Compass Effectively

A compass is an essential tool for successful orienteering. Mastering how to take accurate bearings and understanding declination can significantly improve your navigation skills.

Taking Accurate Bearings

To take an accurate bearing, begin by holding the compass flat in your hand. Ensure the direction of travel arrow points directly ahead.


  1. Turn your body until the red end of the needle aligns with the orienting arrow.
  2. Read the bearing at the index line.


  • Always keep the compass level to avoid false readings.
  • Avoid metallic objects which may distort the compass needle.
  • Double-check your bearing periodically, especially after covering significant distance or encountering obstacles.

Working with Declination

Declination is the angle difference between true north and magnetic north. This varies based on location and can affect navigation accuracy.

Steps to Adjust:

  1. Identify your current area's declination value (often marked on maps).
  2. Adjust the compass's declination setting accordingly.


  • East declination requires adding the value to your bearing.
  • West declination means subtracting the value.

Keeping your compass up to date with current declination values ensures you navigate accurately, avoiding potential drift off course.

Speed and Efficiency Strategies

A runner swiftly maneuvers through checkpoints in a dense forest, using a map and compass to navigate efficiently. Trees and rugged terrain surround the course, adding to the challenge

Increasing your speed while maintaining efficiency on orienteering courses requires deliberate focus on balancing accuracy and making strategic route choices.

Balancing Speed and Accuracy

Rushing can lead to costly mistakes. To balance speed and accuracy, avoid running at full speed unless you're confident. Instead, use map reading breaks to plan ahead, taking short pauses to ensure you’re on the right track.

Techniques to consider:

  • Use catching features to identify major landmarks that confirm your location.
  • Implement a thumb compass to keep track of your progress without constantly stopping.

Maintaining a steady pace combined with brief, frequent checks on your map minimizes errors and avoids unnecessary detours.

Route Choice Analysis

Route choice can impact both the time taken and your physical exertion. Evaluate each potential route considering factors like terrain, distance, and ease of navigation.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the route mostly downhill or involves easier terrain?
  • How complex will the navigation be through this route?

Frequently, a slightly longer but simpler route may save time and energy. Compare the risk versus reward by analyzing how difficult the terrain is compared to a more straightforward path.

Incorporate lessons from past experiences and practice efficient decision-making to improve your route choices over time.