Cunning Running

article021Orienteering is an outdoor adventure sport that originated in the forests of Scandinavia in the late 1800’s from military navigation training exercises. The objective of orienteering is to find your way from one point, termed “control”, to the next using only a compass and a specially prepared orienteering map of the area.

The challenge is in reading the terrain, moving swiftly off-road, selecting optimal routes and locating the controls. Orienteering is cunning running, a sport of off-road speed and strategy. It is also a discipline in which a slower runner is able to beat a faster competitor through good route choice and accurate navigation.

Areas used for orienteering events – urban parks, forests, nature reserves, botanical gardens and private lands – are specially mapped to depict the topography of the land. Most maps are drawn at 1:2500 to 1:10 000 in scale, such that 1cm on the map represents 25m and 100m on the ground respectively. This resolution allows features, like significant trees, boulders, footpaths, ditches and cliffs, to be clearly indicated.
O-maps also include contour lines, which represent elevation. Vegetation patterns like forest, open veld and dense bush are colour-coded so that the orienteerer can easily distinguish runnable land from dense, impenetrable growth through which they would not be able to pass – an important consideration when selecting routes.

Moving from A to B
The locations of the controls in the field are indicated on the O-maps by numbered circles. Out in the field, orange and white orienteering flags mark the position of the control. Navigating a route from one control to the next is possible by using your compass to give you direction, by reading the features indicated on your map and by recognising these features on the ground.
Interpreting the contour lines, shading colours and map symbols, which represent real physical features, is an acquired skill – one that does improve with practice.
Once you have successfully located a control, all you have to do is punch your control card in the correct block. Each punch attached to the control has a unique pattern. This proves to the controller at the finish that you have indeed visited all the controls.
There is also an electronic timing system, EMIT, which is often used. In this case, all you have to do is swipe your EMIT card, which you can hire at registration, over the EMIT device.

Choosing event types
No matter what your experience level, there are many event-types to choose from. And, you can enter events on your own, or in a group with one or two friends. 

  • School League (JHB only) – currently run over 4 Monday afternoons in January and February, these events are held in parks and serve to introduce school children to orienteering. If you would like to get your children or their school involved, contact Eugene Botha at
  • Park – Spectator friendly event held in a park. Often two course distances, short (~2km) and long (~4km). Suitable for all abilities and perfect for beginners.
  • Colour-coded – A variety of courses of increasing distance and difficulty (physical and navigational) are presented. Suitable for all abilities.
  • Score/Rogaine – Numerous controls are placed in the designated orienteering area. Each control is assigned a points value. Competitors have a limited time to “score” as many points at possible, returning to the finish before the cut-off. In a score event the time may be as little as one hour. In a rogaine event, the time is extended to as much as 24hrs.
  • Relay – Three or more competitors form a team and like an athletics relay, they each run a course.
  • Night – An extremely tricky variation. Headlamps are essential.
  • Championships (Provincial and National) – Open to orienteering club members who compete in their age categories. Competitors from each Province have to qualify to take part in National Championships.
  • Other – Mountain bike and paddle orienteering are two other variations – often on the score/rogaine format.

Orienteering is that it is a great way to get fit and stay fit. Because you’re so pre-occupied with navigating a route from one control to the next, you hardly notice that you’re huffing and puffing. And, you don’t have to run. Many orienteerers walk the courses, frequently punching-in before the runners who make more mistakes!
As your fitness increases, your navigation improves and your confidence on uneven terrain grows, you’ll progress through the course faster.

This is one sport that caters to the very young, very old and all those in between. Small children often accompany their parents until they’re able to go out on their own. It is a great introduction to outdoor activities and a healthy lifestyle. There are numerous orienteerers over 60 – some are even over 70!

Orienteering events are generally held on Sunday morning and are open to everyone. Simply contact your nearest orienteering club ( and ask when the next event is to be held. Experienced orienteerers will be on hand to teach you the basics.

Event entries cost R10-R50, depending on the type of event and entry category – junior, senior or group (max. 3 people in a group). If EMIT, the electronic timing system is used at the event, you will need to hire an EMIT card for an additional R5 – R10.

Finally, although the scale and topographical representation of O-maps differs from 1:50 000 topographical maps commonly used in adventure racing, the navigational principles are identical. With each event you refine your navigational techniques – route selection, compass use, map interpretation – and benefit from an on-foot off-road training session.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in MultiSport Magazine, June 2004