What orienteering is and why you should try it

ParticipACTION is helping to put orienteering on the map – more specifically, at number 71 on the 150 Play List.

Not sure what orienteering is, exactly? Essentially, it’s an outdoor adventure race where participants use a map and compass (no GPS technology allowed!) to complete a course marked by specific checkpoints.

Each checkpoint – called a “control” in orienteering lingo – is marked by an orange and white flag. Each control has a distinctive code so participants can confirm their location. Competitors carry a timing stick that they insert into an electronic tracking device at each checkpoint to prove they have reached it.

Most orienteering events are “point-to-point” races where all competitors must find the checkpoints in a specific order. There are variations such as the “Score-O” event, where the goal is to find as many controls as possible, in any order, within a specified time frame.

Orienteering can be done on foot, on mountain bikes, on cross-country skis or even by canoe. Natural areas and forests are popular settings, although short-distance races can also be held at urban parks or university campuses. Phys. Ed. classes can join the fun by setting up a simple course in the schoolyard.

People who love orienteering enjoy the challenge of using their body and brain at the same time. It is often called “the thinking sport” because you need to focus on making good route choices while moving like a cross-country runner through the unfamiliar terrain.


Since it’s a speed event, orienteering is a great fitness activity, but the benefits don’t end there. In terms of mental health, the measurable accomplishment of reaching a checkpoint helps create feelings of self-reliance and self-esteem, and the time spent in nature can have a positive and therapeutic effect. The sport also enhances decision-making skills and the ability to think under pressure, which can carry over to other areas such as the workplace. Finally, the navigational skills are useful to have for everyday travel, and can be life-saving in a wilderness survival situation.

For an overview of basic orienteering skills, check out this video series from Orienteering Australia. For beginners, the most important tip is to always hold your map in the same direction as the terrain. The International Orienteering Federation creates standards for orienteering maps so that people can orienteer anywhere in the world without having to speak the local language. They also oversee international competitions such as the World Orienteering Championships – where a Canadian, Emily Kemp, placed fourth in the middle distance event last year.

For more information about trying orienteering during National Orienteering Week, visit the Orienteering Canada website.

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The 150 Play List is the ultimate list of Canadian activities. If you haven't started checking activities off your list, now's the time to get started! Or if you've already signed up, be sure to go cross orienteering off your list.