for those who love the outdoors

25 February, 2024


Orienteering – Out of the shadows and on the rise

Orienteering – the sport you may have done at school or on an OAA trip - a cold winters day, fumbling the compass with numb fingers, map the right way round? Who knows? Pin punches, mud, going round in circles. Yeah I know orienteering..

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That’s the usual response when people ask what you are doing as they see you taking a shortcut through somewhere people don’t normally take a shortcut through, furrowed brow, holding a map and something strange looking on their finger. But orienteering is much more than something done once years back or in most cases, not at all, and orienteering is finally being found.

Forget the pin punches, these have been replaced by a ‘dibber’ or by it’s proper name, an S.I Card, a small USB looking thing which goes on your finger. Why? Because in a typical event, there’s no pin-punching anymore, the sport has moved on to small electronic boxes sitting on top of the orange and white kites which participants must visit to complete their course. Put your dibber in the box and it records you’ve been there, ‘download’ at the end and instantly you see your time, position and more importantly if you visited them all (no more translating soggy control cards – or pretending that you’d been to them all if the teacher asked).

By the very nature of the sport, where different courses of length and difficulty preside in the same area, orienteering is a life-long sport. A 6-year-old can be venturing around a beginner’s course 200 m away from a 45-year-old trail runner who’s course takes them longer and further off the beaten track, who in turn is 100m away from a veteran 70 year old currently leaving a thicket having just ‘punched’ a control on a shorter but more technical of courses. 

In short - there is something for everyone, families, youths, trail runners, fell runners-polishing up their ‘nav’, club runners, walking groups, veterans and everyone who falls in between. All hooked on the dopamine fix of finding the next control (checkpoint), got it, next, which way, how far, what to look for – distraction exercise we call it, too busy figuring out the best way to the next control to realise the milage you’ve done or the hill you’ve just climbed – why, because it was the shortest way-or so you thought!

The navigation levels the playing field somewhat– no good being fast if you’re running in the wrong direction – as I know! And the logical thinking element of the sport is proven scientifically to slow the mental aging process – constantly puzzle solving and juggling plates as you plot your next plan of action whilst moving over the terrain you’re on. Let alone all the other benefits like being outdoors in nature brings and the decision making, quick thinking, and more likely resilience! 

Results are age/sex graded – so you can compare yourself other people in your relevant category and see where you came in relation to these, as well as on the course as a whole. Yes – you may be competing against elites (what other sport allows you to compete directly against international athletes?) but the column I look out for is the W40 – where am I against my peers? 

And talking of elites – orienteering has some incredible athletes. Athletes that are running 5/6 minute per mile pace over terrain/through city streets, planning ahead, avoiding pedestrians/felled trees, hurdling barriers, fascinating to watch as they pass you on a route choice which never even crossed your mind – or even would have done 20 years younger!

‘I’m no good with a map’ is the usual reply when you say you’re an orienteer – well come and get involved. Courses are staged to convey your experience – a bit like Karate and the colour belts – orienteering has colour coded courses, White being the easiest and Black being the hardest – work with what you have. New to the sport - try a White, Yellow or an Orange and go from there. 

Yes, you might lose your way a little, we all do – the learning comes from why, and then getting yourself back from there. Plus, there’s a hundred other people all out on different courses, meaning a hundred other friendly faces ready to point you back to where you need to be. And we will, because we’ve all been there at some point, and will be again at some point in the future!

So, to surmise– nope you don’t need to know how to use a compass or have a head for direction – both will help – but can be learned ‘on the job’. Yes - you can bring the family along (or leave them behind!) and there will be a course for each generation, including the grandparents! No – you don’t need to be a local orienteering club member to take part, I’d recommend it for the training and social benefits, but anybody is welcome at orienteering events. 

And no – you don’t need one of them dibber things or specialist kit, dibbers can be hired for a minimal fee (usually £1) at events, and throw on anything you’re comfortable moving in (and sometimes – don’t mind getting muddy) – but as ever – that’s down to the route choice you make!

Orienteering is now venturing out of the shadows of far-flung forests or a mountainside in the depths of the Lake District and onto your doorstep. You will find events most weeks in a local park or nature reserve, town centre or woodland, an opportunity to get outdoors and challenge yourself physically and mentally. Orienteering makes you visit areas you would never have thought of, both at home and abroad. 

It gets you hooked, it’s the sport you never quite conquer, there’s always a route choice you could have done better or a control you could have found quicker and a place you haven’t yet been to. It’s the sport you might have thought you knew – but when you actually do – wished you found it earlier. Orienteering is here and it’s on the rise.

To find an event across the UK:

To orienteer at any time through Permanent and GPS based orienteering courses:

Follow us:

Instagram @britishorienteering / X @GBROrienteering / Facebook - britishorienteering

British Orienteering

We believe orienteering is the most rewarding adventure sport. It is a physical and mental challenge that takes us into beautiful landscapes and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities.

With over 50 years of rich history, orienteering in the UK is a grassroots sport run by volunteers, with a strong club network and vibrant event calendar. We have also found success on the world stage most recently with multiple medals at the last Junior World championships.


Thriving Clubs for a New Generation


Clubs are the heart and soul of our sport. We will ensure they have the support to maintain, develop and grow. We will welcome a new generation of orienteers to an inclusive adventure sport in remarkable venues.

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