Navigation Tips for Beginners

You might be overwhelmed the first time you pick up a map and start out on an orienteering course but reading through these navigation tips will help you set off on the right foot!

First Things

What’s the first thing you do when you start off on your course? Orient your map! This is where the term “orienteering” comes from and it’s the most important reason for having a compass with you. Yes, you may sometimes run on a compass bearing, but generally you should be trying to go on the basis of your ability to match what you see on the map with what you see around you. So, look at which direction your compass is telling you is North, then turn your map so that the North-South lines are pointing in that same direction. Now, whichever direction you happen to be facing, you should be able to see the same features just beyond the Start triangle on the map and just beyond you on the ground. Pick out the trail (or whatever) that you want to be on leaving the Start area on the map, then pick it out on the ground. As you go along, try to keep the map oriented properly, which means you’ll be turning it a lot. For instance if you’re headed West, you should be holding the map so that the North line points to your right; if you then turn South, turn the map so that the line is pointing towards you. If you need to check your compass to make sure the map is lined up properly, then do it. Once you’ve done this a few times, it should come fairly easily.

Attack Point

Once you move past the White course level, there will be controls on your courses which are not right on a handy linear feature like a trail. How will you get there? You could try taking a compass bearing from wherever you are (at the Start, or another control), but it is very hard (and slow) to keep on a precise bearing once you get beyond a few hundred meters. If the feature you’re looking for is small, you might well miss it. What you need to do is look for an Attack Point near the control, which would be something you’re sure to find easily. Say your control feature is a 1/2 meter boulder. That might be hard to find, but you see it is within 100 meters of a sharp bend in the trail. Now you know you can go as fast as you want until you reach the sharp bend, then you take a rough compass bearing to get to the boulder. Any obvious feature can be used as an Attack Point: a large pond, a hilltop, or a junction. So make it easier for yourself: get close to the control first by heading to an Attack Point, then slow down a little while you move on from there to get the flag.

Aiming Off

This is one technique which orienteering draws directly from general land navigation and common map & compass skills. It is one that comes into play once you move off the trails and are trying at least Yellow level courses. On a White course you are always able to follow a trail, so there is no need to “aim” towards the control or an attack point using your compass for much more than orienting your map. Once you’re off the trails, you might use aiming off when you are heading towards a linear feature (such as a trail, stream or stonewall), and there is a particular point (such as a boulder, cairn, or rootstock) along that feature which you want to reach. If you try to go directly towards the boulder, and you come to the stream, but still don’t see the boulder, you might not know which way to turn to be able to follow the stream to reach the boulder. But if you initially “aim off” to the right of the boulder, then when you reach the stream you know to turn left to follow it to the boulder. This is most useful when visibility isn’t great and there aren’t a lot of good ways to be sure you’re holding a good bearing; or when you feel you’ll be faster, as well as safer, by being less precise but running faster.

Pace counting

Some people find pace counting very useful and do it all the time; some find it distracting, a waste of mental energy, and never do it. So it’s clearly not a necessity to count your paces if you want to succeed at orienteering. But it definitely is a good item to have in your repertoire of skills for at least some circumstances. Simply put, pace counting is keeping track of how many (double) steps you take, in order to determine how far you have gone. For this count to be useful you have to know how far you go with a number of double steps. You can try to measure this: take a jog, walk, run (at whatever speed you orienteer) at a local school track, or anywhere you know measures 100 meters fairly accurately. At your normal pace, count how many times your right foot lands as you cover the distance. You can do it a few times to get an average, if you like more precision. That number is the count you would then use to note each hundred meters you cover when you orienteer. A good initial estimate for many people is about 40 jog/run paces for 100 meters. You adjust that number if you’re going uphill (more paces), tearing along a trail (fewer paces), getting tired (more paces), etc. A common approach is to pace count primarily when moving from an attack point in to the control. This keeps the numbers from getting too ridiculously large to keep track of, and allows time to think of other aspects of the race during longer and easier parts of a leg; but once close to the control, it then helps to slow down and question what’s happening if the control flag isn’t spotted within a certain distance. The fewer features there are to positively locate where you are on the map, the more likely it is you’ll get some help from pace counting. Unless you’re awfully good at “just knowing” the distance you’ve covered, give pace counting a try.


handrail is any linear feature you can follow to where you want to go. The most common kind of handrail is a trail, but there are many other useful types such as a stream or fence.  It is common to place controls on stream bends or stream junctions, and one good way to get to the right spot is to first get to the stream (you might use aiming off to get there, remember that one?), then follow it in to the flag. Another excellent handrail is a stone wall, with which the Northeastern US is crisscrossed. There are so many on some courses that it’s difficult to keep track of which one you’re following.  If you slip up, you can practice the next topic – re-locating.


Every orienteer blows it now and again. In fact, that’s part of what makes the sport fun, the risk of discovering you don’t know where you are because you were too busy going fast to keep good track of your location. Sure, you strive for consistency, but to really do your best you have to push your effort to the edge of your ability to navigate cleanly, and sometimes you’ll go over that edge. What do you do then? Pick the safety bearing and go home? Eventually, perhaps; but before that try to see if you can get yourself back on track. There are a few basic approaches. First, stop and look around; then look closely at your map. You’re not where you thought you were, but can you find some fairly distinct feature, or better yet a group of features, within view and on the map? This is tricky, as it can sometimes be easy to convince yourself that now you’ve figured it out, and then you proceed a bit and discover you have even less idea where you are than you did before. So if that doesn’t work pretty clearly and pretty soon, you’re left with the second and third options: go back or go forward. Going back means to get back to the last place where you were sure of your location on the map. That can be easy or hard depending on how you got to your current location, and it’s always frustrating. Still, if you’re sure you know the way back, it’s the safest method. If you’re not sure just how to retreat, or if you have reason to believe you can bail out on a compass bearing and reach a good catching feature or handrail, then do that. As you go, keep looking for other points that may allow you to place yourself even sooner, but don’t waste a lot of time that way. Once you’ve started re-locating, you want to get it done quickly so you can move forward once again.

Perhaps the toughest question is just how long to try to muddle through before you decide to go into serious re-locate mode. And there is no easy answer. It’s a tough calculus involving how long it has been since you were last sure of the location, how close easy re-locating features might be, how sure you still are that the flag “must be just over there,” and your experience. In the end, that’s what you fall back on: your experience. Therefore, to re-locate well, you may have to experience getting lost a few times. Which means you’ve got to get out and orienteer. So, orienteer, get lost, and get better!

Collecting and Catching Features

There are two more types of helpers to look for when planning your route to a control. We’ve already discussed handrails, which are linear features leading you in the direction you want to go. But the features we’re talking about here are generally perpendicular to the way you want to go. A collecting feature lies between you and the control –  further from the control than a good attack point would be – and serves as an easy and obvious place to be sure you’re on track. A good example would be a large pond/small lake, about 2/3 of the way to the control. You probably can’t really pinpoint your position along it well enough to make it an attack point by itself; but you can go top speed in its general direction, circle it once you get there, and look for some other point feature around it to get precisely located as you close in on the flag.

catching feature is more or less the same sort of feature, except that it is beyond the control. The idea here is that you are looking for something that will save you if you should miss the control and go past it. If there is a good catching feature you can afford to take a somewhat riskier approach to the flag (by going faster and/or trying to “spike” the control without much of an attack point), because if you miss you can recover more easily. Here in the Northeastern US, most of our orienteering territory has a reasonable trail network, and very frequently trails or even roads end up being good catching features. Course setters will try to avoid having trails lead you to the control, at least on the more advanced courses, but there will often be trails perpendicular to your route which can serve as collecting or catching features. In fact, one of the differences between intermediate (Orange) and advanced (Green, Red) courses tends to be the distance from a collecting or catching feature to the control.

The First Leg

You’re in great shape. You’re ready to charge through this course! You get your map and take off! Ten minutes later you’re still looking for the first control, on a 500 meter leg, and you’re not even sure exactly where you are. Has this happened to you? If it has, you’re far from alone. It can happen to anyone, and probably has happened to most orienteers at least once. The solution is to start out in control, stay in close contact with the map, and increase your pace as you become more comfortable and able to relate what you see to what is shown on this particular map. It’s analogous to the situation in most other distance races, on foot or a bike or a canoe or skis or whatever, in that what you want to do is hold or improve on your time per kilometer or mile as you go along, not charge out and collapse. Since orienteering races are usually staggered rather than mass start events, you don’t have the pace of the rest of the competitors to compare yourself against. You have to be smart (remember: orienteering is “the thinking sport”), and develop the correct pace for YOU on THIS day on THIS map.

This is something which is of concern to any orienteer, but it is particularly true of someone who is just moving up to a more difficult level. You’re getting good at this, which is why you’re moving up, but don’t let new challenges make you forget what you’ve learned.

One big change from Orange to the more advanced courses is that the course setter tends to take away most of your handrails, so you can no longer just cruise down the path or stream while your mind adjusts to the map. There are a couple of ways to deal with this:

First, if you’re in a new area, wander out in the woods a ways (before the start) to get a “feel” for the area. Look at the vegetation, the ground clutter, the general lay of the land. Think what would make good navigation markers, and what should be ignored. If you’re lucky enough to have an old map of the area, then take it along to get a feel for the mapper’s style.

Second, take the first control *slow*. When you first get your map, navigate to something obvious that is away from the start, and in the general direction of your first control. Once there, calm down and determine your attack point for the first control. Then work out your route to the attack point. If there is a nice set of handrails to the attack point (even if it’s a longer route), take the handrail route — it’ll give your mind a chance to get into the groove. Whatever you do, don’t let the competitive pressure / excitement make you cut corners. Heck, it doesn’t hurt to *walk* the first leg, if it’s the only way to make yourself slow down.

Top level orienteers have been witnessed at a standstill with their maps in hand at the start for what felt like ages, just to make sure they understood what they were going to do before they started doing it. Make sure you start off your next course on the right foot!

Moving Up to Yellow

So you want to try a Yellow course. White courses are becoming a little too predictable, but you’re not sure you’re ready for controls that aren’t situated right on the trail? There are two important things to remember as you move up. You need to pay more attention to features along the trail and be more aware of how far you have gone.

A good White course will almost lead you from one control to the next. Sometimes people get so used to running on White that they run from one control to another without paying much attention to what’s around them. When you start Yellow courses, it’s a good idea to slow down a little and make note of what you’re passing. For example, “I’m passing a big boulder on my right”, or “I’ll come to the marsh before I need to look for my control” are ways of matching the map with what you are seeing. A quick look at the map can also tell you when you’ve gone too far. “If I reach the trail intersection I must have missed the control and need to turn around”. Each time you set out for a control, you should ask yourself if there is a “catching feature” that will prevent you from going too far.

The other issue is distance. Using the scale on your compass you can estimate the distance to the point you want to reach and then pace count as you move towards it.  Although the process is not exact, pace-counting can help you get a feel for how far you have gone.

Are these ideas clear? If not, then ask an experienced orienteer to explain them better at the next event you attend. Everyone has different ways of thinking about these things, and someone else’s may click better with you!