Foot orienteers race with a map, a compass and a clipcard or an electronic key (ECARD or “dibber”) to record when they visited the controls (checkpoints). At an event, competitors are provided with a map, which they can only look at once their race begins. The map is marked with the “course” the orienteer is to follow for that race, but not the route they must take – that is up to the orienteer and that is where the skill and strategy comes in. The course marked on the map for an event will be particular to that event, even if the map of the area has been used before, so every competition is unique and provides new challenges.
Competitive orienteers practice a wide range of techniques to increase their ability to read and process the information on their map while running at speed. It is this challenge to be faster, more efficient and to navigate over rough or ever-changing terrain that keeps competitors coming back for decades.
Orienteering maps are more detailed than topographical or street maps and use precise colouring and symbols that conform to international standards.
Foot orienteering has traditionally been a rural sport – forest and farmland, with an emphasis on endurance and long distance navigation. It is now increasingly also an urban sport, using parks, streets and cityscapes in fast-paced, spectator friendly sprint orienteering. Sprint orienteering favours fast-thinking, agile runners who can make split second route choices, and interpret complex urban environments such as school and university campuses and city centres.
Orienteering is usually an individual sport, with competitors starting at intervals. However there are also team relay events and mass start events.