Our local orienteering club is Suffolk Orienteering Club, and many IMC members regularly take part in their events.

Orienteering – A Short Guide for Hill Walkers

These days orienteering events come in a variety of guises, but the most common type of event takes place in areas of forest or heathland and involves navigating around a course between “controls” marked with orange and white flags.

Courses vary in length and difficulty, usually from “White” to “Brown”, The White course is less than 2km long, keeps to well defined paths, and is intended for young beginners. The Brown course is as difficult as the terrain will allow, and up to 10km long. There’s normally between 10 and 25 controls on each course.

So, if you’re a keen hill walker, and a dab hand with the map and compass – what’s stopping you? What could be difficult about a short walk in the forest?

Well, the first thing you’ll notice when you pick up your map at the start is that it looks very different. There’s lot’s of colours you’re not use to on OS maps. The scale is larger (1:10000), and there are unfamiliar symbols for features like ditches, earthbanks, and small depressions. You’ll also notice that the map is aligned to magnetic north, so there’s no magnetic variation, and it’s likely to have been updated very recently.

The next thing you’ll notice is lots of “real” orienteers dashing about the forest in brightly coloured nylon. You needn’t worry too much about these. They probably will finish the course faster than you, but quite often they’ll just be running very fast in the wrong direction! It’s quite acceptable to walk if running is not your scene.

Soon you’ll discover that the map is very accurate and really quite easy to read. If you take care and don’t try to go too fast you should find the controls, and all in all it’s a highly enjoyable way to spend a morning in the forest.

One decision you will have to make is which course to attempt. If it’s a family outing you may want to choose one of the easier courses – White or Yellow, but most hill walkers will find these too easy. The Orange course is a bit longer and more challenging, but can still be completed using paths and other “line features”. The Light Green course is more difficult and will take you off the paths, and the Green course will be as difficult as the terrain permits, and about 4 – 5 km long. If you are comfortable following bearings and pacing distances, and you fancy a challenge, then by all means try the Green course. If in doubt, then Orange or Light Green would be better bets for a first attempt. Don’t jump straight onto the Blue or Brown course at your first event – you could be out in the forest a long time!

A few other things to remember:

You will need to hire a “dibber” when you register for your course. This is a small electronic device a bit like a memory stick but weather-proofed in red plastic. At each control, and at the start and finish, there’s a clever black box that records your time when you insert the dibber. Usually they are 50p to hire, on top of the entry fee, but they cost £20 if you loose one – so be careful!

Don’t be misled by the advertised lengths of the courses. They are measured as the crow flies, which won’t be the way you go! Add up to 50% to get a better idea of how far you will travel.

Don’t expect to follow others around the course. People on the same course start at intervals to prevent this. But you can go round together as a pair or small group if you choose.

Do visit the controls on your course in the right order. The electronic system is very clever and will disqualify you if you break this rule (which you may or may not be worried about of course).

If you do find you’ve taken on more than you should have, do note what time the courses close. The control flags will be removed after that time.

When you have finished, or even if you retire without finishing, you must report to the “download” tent. Here you download the information from your dibber and get a print out of your time. If you don’t report to download the organisers may be searching for you in the forest while you are already back at home – which is not popular!

Hope you decide to give it a go – and good luck!