How to Start Orienteering and Learn to Love It

Female orienteer running from control

I’ve written before on why I believe orienteering is the best sport ever. But I will admit that it’s not necessarily the easiest sport to get into, particularly as an adult. It takes a bit of perseverance and a willingness to get lost (a lot). But as someone who has spent a good hundred or so hours of her life wandering lost around forests, moorlands and country parks, let me tell you this: it is worth it. So for those of you who are keen to try this awesome sport (and who wouldn’t be?), here are some practical tips on how to start orienteering and learn to love it.

Ditch Your Ego and Start Small

If you start orienteering as an adult, you’re likely to already be a runner. (You don’t have to be a runner, but most orienteers are.) Which means that orienteering can be frustrating because the best thing you can do to improve when you’re starting out is NOT RUN.

I know, it’s counter-intuitive, right? Orienteering is a race, which means you want to get around as fast as possible. My (now) husband made this mistake on one of his first events and ran 1 km past his control before he realized his error.

Think of it as an apprenticeship. If you take it slowly and learn some basic skills, your running ability will help you quickly improve. If you’re determined to run every step of the way, you’ll quickly get frustrated and probably quit.

Orienteering courses are typically colour-coded. If you’re a total beginner, I’d recommend starting with an orange course. Yes, you may be the only adult surrounded by kids, but swallow your pride, this is just your first small step into the world of orienteering. If you’re already confident with a map and compass then you may be fine starting with a light green course, particularly if it’s an ‘easy’ area (such as parkland or urban woods).

Try Urban Orienteering

Urban, or street, orienteering events are a great way to start orienteering. In fact, they’re becoming so popular that many orienteers are choosing to run at urban orienteering events instead of ‘proper’ events. Personally, one of the things I love about orienteering is the opportunity to get out of towns and cities and run on different terrains, but each to their own!

For newbies to orienteering, urban events are ideal because the navigation is straightforward and the map is usually simpler to understand. Although there won’t be any road names, roads and buildings are clearly marked, along with other distinctive features such as trees, hedges and walls. Street orienteering events used to be purely local training events run during winter evenings, but they’ve become so popular that there are urban events every weekend around the country. You can find a list of upcoming UK events on the British Orienteering Federation (BOF) website. (If you don’t live in the UK, check your own orienteering federation’s website.)

Get Free Training

I’ll let you in on a secret. Orienteers LOVE introducing other people to the sport. Which means there are tons of opportunities to get help with the basics, learn new skills and get tips from more experienced competitors.

One of the best ways to start is to go to a local event. Sometimes a club will put on an event specifically for people who are new to the sport and there will usually be someone around to show you the ropes. If you’re not sure whether an event is suitable for you, contact your local club in advance. You can also search for events near to you that are suitable for beginners using the BOF events search. (Tip: click the smiley-face icon to filter for events that are suitable for newcomers.)

If you join your local club, you may have access to more free training opportunities. Many clubs offer local coaching sessions or an annual club weekend away to test out your navigation on technical terrain.

Make Some Orienteering Friends

Orienteering is a deceptively social sport. Although you run around your course on your own, there is nothing a bunch of orienteers love more than analysing and comparing their experiences on the course, whether they were good or bad.

Joining your local club is the best way to make orienteering friends. Many clubs hold post-training socials (usually in a pub) where you can rehydrate (ahem) and get five different views on the optimum route choice to number eight. At the big events, each club has its own club tent where you can gather before or after your run, cheer on your fellow competitors and moan about the bramble patch you got caught in.

Another great way to make friends is to volunteer to help out. Orienteering events are all run by volunteers – you don’t need to be an experienced orienteer to help. Some jobs are more menial than others (I’ve done my fair share of marshalling in the rain and pushing cars out of muddy fields), but all are vital to delivering a successful event. It will also earn you a lot of brownie points (which you can trade in by asking for tips to improve your navigation) and often free entry to events.

Go to some of the bigger events

Once you’ve honed your skills and are reasonably confident about navigating in different types of terrain, it’s time to hit the big time. Unlike many sports, anyone of any ability can compete at regional and national events, including the British Championships. (Although for some of them you will need to join BOF – it costs a bargainous £10 a year and you can normally sign up when you join your local club.)

At larger competitions, courses are based on age classes. If you’re an adult, you’ll be competing at the highest technical difficulty possible in the terrain. If you’re not that confident about your abilities, then you may want to enter a colour-coded course instead. If your orienteering experience to date has been urban and local parks, then I’d suggest you may want to go for the light green rather than the green course as these events will be more technical than what you’re used to. You want to enjoy the experience after all!

There are two reasons why I love big orienteering events: the areas and the atmosphere. You get to run on some of the best orienteering areas in the country – places that you’d never normally be able to go. And the atmosphere of a big event, particularly where the finish is located in the main assembly area, is brilliant. Even when it rains.

Are you convinced? If you’re in the UK and are keen to find out more, the British Orienteering website has everything you need to know including a list of local clubs and events. If you live elsewhere, it’s likely your country will have its own orienteering federation with information on how you can get involved. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share it with your friends and check out my article on 10 Reasons Why Orienteering is the Best Sport Ever.

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