Orienteering FAQ

What is orienteering? Orienteering is an organized sport for people of all ages that involves navigating a course by hiking or running through forests and fields from one checkpoint to another. It can be a competitive race of navigational skills and physical speed, or simply a hike through the countryside with the added fun of finding the checkpoints, also known as control points. The basics can be learned easily, but you can spend a lifetime honing your skills.

Do I have to join the club to participate? No. Events are open to anyone. When you do join, you receive a discount on event fees.

What should I wear? Beginners should wear clothing and footwear suitable for a hike or run. For intermediate and advanced courses, you’ll want long pants and long sleeves to protect against scratches. An inexpensive nylon warm-up suit works well. Sneakers, trail-running shoes or light hiking boots are appropriate. Wear clothing and footwear you don’t mind getting dirty. Avoid wearing shorts because some routes may take you off trail into brush or briers. Orienteering-specific clothing and equipment can be ordered from stores that specialize in orienteering.

What other equipment is needed? A baseplate compass, orienteering map (supplied by the club) and watch are essential. Depending on weather, consider sunscreen and a hat. You may want to bring a change of clothing and footwear. Since you may go off trail, you could get muddy and wet.

What’s different about an orienteering map? It is a custom-made, large scale, detailed topographic map printed in five colors: green for thick brush, yellow for clearings or fields, white for normal forest, blue for water, brown for terrain features and contour lines, and black for manmade features such as roads, trails, fences and buildings.

How are distances measured on an orienteering map? Distances in orienteering are measured in meters. Map scales are expressed as a ratio, such as 1:10,000. This means one unit of distance on the map, whether it’s inches or centimeters, equals 10,000 of those units on the ground. For instance, 1 centimeter on the map would equal 10,000 centimeters on the ground, which is the same as 100 meters.

How do you orient a map? You study a road map with the writing face up, but this isn’t the case with an orienteering map. When you orient a map, you rotate it so that the features on the map always line up with the same landmarks you are looking at on the ground. This is an important basic technique for finding your way.

What compass should I buy? Start with an inexpensive base plate compass that consists of a clear plastic rectangular base plate with a rotating compass housing. These can be found in most camping and sporting goods stores. The club has a supply of compasses that can be rented or borrowed for an event.

Can I do the sport with a partner? Orienteering can be done solo or in groups of two or more, although serious competitors often race alone. Families are welcome.

Can someone teach me how to orienteer? Members are always available to provide basic instruction at events, and the club sometimes offers dedicated learning opportunities.

How much does an orienteering event cost? The club charges $5 for members and $10 for non-members. Juniors (up to and including age 20), who are part of a Buffalo Orienteering Club Family Membership, participate for free. Non-Member children, from 0-11 years of age, do not have to pay a fee but they must be registered and their waiver must be signed by a parent. Some special events may charge more, such as the Ellicottville Adventure Run.

Will I get lost? Probably not for very long. You may get disoriented and go the wrong direction at times. If you become lost, you can always relocate by looking for obvious landmarks on the map, such as roads, trails and streams. Meet officials always keep track of who is out on a course and who is taking longer than they should.

Where and when are events held? The club conducts meets year round at many locations, including Erie County Parks, State Parks and Forests, and City Parks. Most events start at 11:00 AM or noon. Times vary, so check the schedule on the website. Events are held rain or shine.

How long do events last? It depends on the length of the course, the skill of the participant and whether you run or walk. Beginners can expect to spend an hour out on a course.

Do you walk or run? Many participants walk. But the object is to complete a course in the shortest possible time, so competitive orienteers run as much as possible. Nevertheless, a fast runner can lose to a slower person who is a better map-reader. A great thing about orienteering is that it can be done at any pace.

What else can I expect at an event? When you check-in, you will receive a map and a description of the checkpoints (controls).  “Classic” events usually have multiple courses, for example: beginner, intermediate and advanced. After receiving a brief instruction session, you will be given a start time, and off you go, using the map to find the controls. Each control is located on or near a distinct feature on the map, such as a trail junction, stream or boulder. At each control, you use a digital punch to record that you have found the control. Upon your return, your total time and split times between controls are displayed.

What course should I try? Local events generally offer three difficulty levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. In general, beginner courses are on or near trails and focus on distinct map features. Intermediate courses will take you off the trail and advanced courses are intended to be as challenging as the terrain will allow. Sometimes the courses are referenced by a color. White is the beginner course; Yellow is advanced beginner; Orange is intermediate; and Brown, Green, Red, and Blue are all advanced, differing only in length.

What do the names of orienteering events mean? The major types of orienteering events include cross-country, also known as point-to-point or classic; score; sprint; and Rogaine (not the hair treatment).

What’s cross-country orienteering? This is the standard format used for most meets. Competitors find control locations in a specified order. The winner is the person with the fastest time. Route choice is important. Night-O events are conducted with flashlights and headlamps.

What’s a sprint event? A sprint event is a shorter course, with beginner to intermediate level navigation. Speed plays a bigger role.

What’s a score-O? The object of score orienteering is to visit as many controls as possible in a preset time. Participants choose which controls to visit and in which order. The controls are worth points, and the challenge is to pick the most efficient route in the allotted time. The winner amasses the most points.

What’s a Rogaine? The acronym now stands for Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance but the name was coined by three Australians: Rod, Gail, and Neil Phillips who combined the first few letters of their first names.  These are long score-orienteering events, usually with time limits of 6, 12, or 24 hours and are often held in rugged terrain.

Can I practice map-reading? Yes. Each year, the club sets up courses of 15 to 25 controls at several parks for orienteers or hikers to do at their leisure. These are called Map Hikes and can be ordered online or purchased at retail partners. Get details here.

Where else can I orienteer? Orienteering is practiced world-wide. Local clubs exist all across the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., the National Governing Body is Orienteering USA which organizes various championship events and supervises a ranking scheme. International events are coordinated by the International Orienteering Federation.