Crossing unknown territory using only a map and a compass isn’t something most us do. Even if you end up in some unknown place, all you have to do is to pull out your mobile device and make your way through using some navigation or map app with the help of GPS. With GPS, all our worries about getting lost in some city or in the forest while camping or hiking disappeared. Instead of relying on maps and compass we can just look at one small screen and find our way, wherever we are. There are specialized outdoor navigation apps that offer hundreds of trails and hiking tracks all over the world. And even if your local trails aren’t supported with Google Maps you can discover your location in seconds. Of course, some areas can only be traversed with the help of GPS receiver and a map, but most adventurers can successfully traverse unknown territories carrying nothing more than a smartphone. Offline maps give us a way to use navigation when we are in areas not covered by mobile network signal, making compass obsolete. Fortunately, there’s orienteering, a competitive sport that reminds us of the old days when we had only a map and a compass while traversing unknown ground.

History of Orienteering

Orienteering didn’t begin as a sport. At first, orienteering was a part of military training, preparing soldiers for times when they end up deep inside the unknown enemy territory, and in order to improve their survival skills. The orienteering training was used in Sweden, during the late 19th century. The term “orientering” from which the word orienteering was derived is created by Ernst Killander, an officer of the Swedish army.
The first orienteering competition was held in 1893, in Sweden. The competition was organized for Swedish military officers, while the first civilian competition took place in Norway on 31 October 1897, with the date being considered as the birth of orienteering. From then on, the sport slowly gained popularity in the Nordic countries, and by 1930 the sport was well known in Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Although orienteering competitions had been held for decades, there wasn’t an international competition until 1932, when teams Norway and Sweden clashed in Norway. Soon after, Scandinavian orienteering competition was founded, with the Sweden, Norway, and Finland being the three competing countries. Soon after, Denmark also joined, and in 1946 a Nordic body for co-operation (NORD) was founded.

alt a judge makes time or other records in competitors card at a control point Image Source:

After World War II, orienteering began to spread outside of Scandinavia, first across Europe and then across other continents. The United States Orienteering Federation was founded in 1971, giving the sport an official recognition in the US. Before that, in 1961, the International Orienteering Federation (IOF)got founded by 10 countries, among which were Sweden, Norway, and Finland. As of 1969 IOF represented 16 countries in total. Most of them were European countries, with the first two non-European members being Japan and Canada.
IOF is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1977 and at the moment the organization has 70 member countries in total. From 1961 to 2003 the World Championships were held biannually, and from 2004 they are held every year.

alt Orienteering map from 1964 Image Source:

Now that we covered orienteering history, let’s talk a bit about the sport itself.

Orienteering Basics

Orienteering is a sport where you don’t need expensive equipment to be successful; all you need is your brains, experience, a compass, a map, a safety whistle, and some sturdy footwear and outdoor clothes. There are four main orienteering sports. These are foot orienteering, mountain bike orienteering, ski orienteering, and trail orienteering. These are officially supported by the International Orienteering Federation. There’s also car orienteering, canoe orienteering, mountain orienteering, radio orienteering, but these are not officially supported by the IOF.

Maps used at orienteering events are topographic maps showing the area in which the event takes place, and they are filled with symbols unique to orienteering. And since you use a compass as the only guide, orienteering maps are aligned with magnetic north, not true north. This way the map can be read faster and you can navigate more quickly. Also, orienteering maps are filled with details, allowing competitors to get to know the area and the control description sheet showing detailed description of features found on the map. All symbols are in accordance with the IOF allowing orienteers around the world to use the same symbols.

alt Orienteering Map

An orienteering map is filled with control markers, and they are the most important part of any orienteering event. The sole purpose is to locate all control markers and check in, in the shortest time possible. You must visit control points in a predetermined order, and only help you have is the map and a compass. GPS devices are forbidden. The contestant who manages to find and record their visit at all control points is declared the winner. So, basically, in orienteering, the speed is as important as reading the compass. If you are capable of quickly finding the next checkpoint but are slow at getting there, you won’t have a chance to win.

The second important part of every orienteering event is the compass. All you need is a basic baseplate or a thumb compass, and you can participate in all orienteering events. By combining the compass with the orienteering map, you can find your way and locate every control marker, and once you find one you must check in with a simple paper punch, or with a modern e-punch.

alt Protractor Compass and Thumb Compass Used for Orienteering

You can learn how to use compass online, or you can find your local orienteering club and learn the basics there. Most clubs organize newcomer classes, where all those who want to learn about Orienteering can learn about it from professionals. Since the sport is very popular, particularly for younger audiences, you should find a local club in your town, at least if you live in Europe. Also, most Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts organizations offer orienteering courses, which are more than enough to teach you the basics. We can’t say whether the sport is as popular outside of Europe, so if you fail to locate a local orienteering club, there are lots of online guides able to teach you the basics.

Events can have lots of control markers, depending on the event. There are single-day events that last for a couple of hours, but there are also orienteering marathons that can last for a couple of days. Those combine orienteering with survival, bringing out orienteering roots when the sport was a military training during which soldiers had to find their way through the wilderness and manage to survive in the unknown territory at the same time.

Where To Start


If you are interested in the sport, you should visit your local orienteering club, or find an orienteering course offered by Scouts. There you can know more about the sport, and even partake in events after you learn how to use a compass and the map. If you follow this link you will be able to find contact information of every national orienteering federation.

Every orienteering club welcomes new members since the sport is all about having a good time outside and meeting new people. If you get good at it, maybe you can even partake in some international events, a great way to visit new countries and meet new people who share the same interests.


As you can see, orienteering is an interesting sport which can be practiced by anyone. No matter if you are experienced with using the compass, and if you love to traverse through the wilderness, or just are a newbie who wants to learn how to use a compass and a map, orienteering can be lots of fun. The sport combines physical and mental effort and is a great way of meeting new people. If you are interested, visit your local club and become a member today.