Rich Wendling's Orienteering Page
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Orienteering Skills and Strategies

Orient Your Map

There are a number of strategies to use in order to compete successfully in orienteering. First, it is important to orient your map. This means that north on the map is kept physically turned toward north in the real world. Orienteering maps have lines that show magnetic north (not exactly the same as true north). Using your compass, rotate the map so north on the map is turned toward north on your compass. Yes, this means that you will often be looking at your map sideways or upside-down, but that's OK. By keeping your map oriented, you will reduce the tendency to become disoriented yourself.

Stay In Contact

Always keep in contact with the map. This means that you should know at all times exactly where you are on the map, and what direction you are heading. In order to accomplish this, keep your map oriented. Constantly glance from the map to the terrain and back again. Note features on the map, and make sure you can identify them in the landscape around you, and vice-versa. If something doesn't look right - maybe there is a feature on the map that you don't see around you - stop immediately and reorient yourself. Don't just keep going - you'll have a worse time figuring out where you are.

Reorient Yourself

If you do become disoriented, use your compass to orient yourself and your map. Try to identify features in the terrain around you that you can positively identify on the map. Look for things like trails, power lines, buildings, streams, and such that are reasonably easy to identify. If this doesn't work, another strategy is to go back the direction you came from until you start seeing familiar features. Reorient yourself, plan a new route, and go.


Use linear features as "handrails". A handrail is any Map showing handrails linear feature - like a trail, power line, stream, fence, or vegetation boundary - that you can "hang on to" or follow. As you plan your route, look for things you can follow. On your first course or two, these will probably be trails or roads that are very easy to follow. As you begin doing intermediate level courses, start looking for streams, ridges, or vegetation boundaries. Following a handrail may make your route slightly longer, but the advantage is that you are much less likely to become disoriented or lost.

Break It Up

Often, on advanced courses, there are no true linear features to follow. In these instances, look for a series of features that more or less make a line in the direction you wish to travel. Break the route into several smaller ones.

For instance, you might: Map showing navigation

  • Start at a dry stream.
  • Pass a clearing.
  • Follow the trail until it bends left.
  • Pass a clearing.
  • Pass a cluster of boulders.
  • Pass another clearing.
  • Follow a ridge past another boulder.
  • Go downhill to the stream, and
  • Follow it until you find the control marker.