Orienteering, known as the “thinking sport”, combines hiking or running with map reading and is enjoyed by persons of all ages and fitness levels.   Although orienteering on foot is the most common type, there are several variations including ski, trail, mountain bike and even canoe orienteering. 
Many orienteers belong to clubs, and most clubs organize a series of meets throughout the year.  EMPO organizes club meets during the spring and fall in parks in and around Albany, NY.  Some of these meets offer mountain bike courses along with regular courses on foot.  During the winter months the club organizes several ski orienteering events a little further afield. 
Orienteers who wish to participate in additional events often travel to other clubs’ events and even abroad.  Orienteering is a popular sport in many countries and since it requires knowledge of maps and certain symbols rather than any particular language, it’s easy to find meets to attend nearly anywhere in the world.

What Happens at a Meet?

At a typical orienteering meet, the objective is to find your way around a course using a map.  A course consists of a series of numbered checkpoints, known as controls. The object is to choose routes that will enable you find all the controls in order.  An orange and white flag, along with an electronic box used for timing, marks each control location. You can walk leisurely around the course or run a competitive navigational race.
Although orienteers use only map and compass to navigate, compass knowledge is not needed to get started. In fact, the primary skill in orienteering is reading the map and relating it to the terrain. The compass aids in orienting the map in the proper direction and for locating controls that are located away from trails and other distinctive features. Orienteering events are timed. For experienced athletes, working against the clock is a familiar experience, but orienteering provides the additional challenge of making choices and deciding your route while on the run. 

How Difficult are the Courses?

Beginner courses are shorter in length and generally stay on trails. As the level of difficulty increases the courses are longer, often steeper, and the controls are located further from trails and major features. Courses are usually color coded, starting with white (easiest) and advancing through yellow, orange, brown, green, red and blue (most difficult).  Course lengths are measured in kilometers as the crow flies. Your actual distance covered will be longer and will depend on your route choices.
When you arrive at an EMPO meet there will be a registration desk where you can sign in and get more details about the event.   Instructions in map and compass reading and other basic elements of the sport will also be available.  EMPO generally offers a selection of 3-4 courses at its club meets and they are coded depending on the length and degree of difficulty. 

How Does the Timing System Work?

Maps & Control Descriptions

Orienteering maps are drawn using magnetic north rather than ‘grid’ or ‘true’ north, and are drawn to a larger scale than most topographic maps, usually using a 1:10000 or 1:7500 scale.  They also feature an international set of symbols to denote features like rocks, trails and marshes.  Most orienteering maps provide a detailed legend to help you understand the map.
Along with your map, you will often be provided with control descriptions. Control descriptions provide the number of each specific control and describe its exact location. If you have found a control that doesn’t match the number indicated on your description sheet, it isn’t your control!


A compass is a very useful orienteering tool, but secondary to map reading skills. Beginner courses can often be completed without the use of a compass. More advanced courses usually require some degree of compass skill to complete successfully in a reasonable amount of time. Special orienteering compasses are available to borrow at EMPO meets.

Clothing and Equipment

It is advisable to wear long pants and long sleeves to reduce exposure to insects and thorns. Be sure to check carefully for ticks after being in the woods.
Hiking shoes are suitable for orienteering, but many people prefer trail running shoes. As your orienteering skills progress you may want shoes with studs or metal spikes specifically designed for orienteering. Participants are advised to carry a whistle for use in an emergency situation.

Types of Events

The most common types of courses offered at EMPO meets are Standard and Score-O.  At a Standard meet, competitors must complete a course by finding the controls in a specific order.  An interval start is used with each competitor starting at a different time. There are multiple courses available, each with a different length and degree of difficulty. The winner for a course is the person with the fastest time on that course.
At a Score-O event, participants visit as many controls as they can, in any order, within a specified time limit.  EMPO usually specifies a 2 hour limit.  Control point values are often weighted based on difficulty and there is a penalty for exceeding the course time limit. The winner is the person with the most points; scoring ties are broken by the faster time. 
A Rogaine is a long score-o course, usually from 3 – 24 hours and using a smaller scale map.   Events over 2-3 hours usually require team rather than individual participation.
Relay and night orienteering are other types of orienteering events.

Permanent Courses

Many clubs maintain “permanent” courses, which are not associated with a particular event and which can be used at any time by obtaining a course map online.  Control flags and timing units are not used on these courses.  Control markers may be numbers on posts or signs on trees.  Permanent courses are good for practicing your map reading skills, comparing the efficiency of different routes and for introducing others to the sport. 
EMPO has two permanent courses set up at Grafton Lakes State Park – contact the Park Office for a map!

More navigation tips here

If you want to see some of this information in action here’s a great video from British Orienteering!