How to read an orienteering map

30 September, 2022

winter activities

If you grew up enjoying treasure hunts and cross country running, you would love orienteering! It is a fast-growing sport nowadays, with its own international governing organisation and with many international tournaments annually. The cool thing for orienteering novices is that you can actually show up for some events with just an intermediate understanding of the mechanics or the maps. So if you are looking for fun things to do in Adelaide, this is your sign!

Compared to many sports, all orienteering events have a starter/beginner and an intermediate course or at least have an event that caters to beginners. It is said that if you locate a certain animal just by interpreting a zoo map, then you are good to join orienteering.

Read on to know more about how to read an orienteering map.

First of all, it is important to know about the scale of a map. The scale is of course very useful since a lot of detail and accuracy can be squeezed into a single document. So note that while some bush walking maps can reduce a square kilometre to a centimetre on paper, an orienteering map is more “zoomed in.”

Contours: Another way that orienteering maps provide helpful details is through gradual contour changes. Contour lines sometimes appear brown and squiggly, some forming wavy patterns that suggest the gradient, slope, or topography of the land. This is critical detail as the distance between a contour line to the next can sometimes be a 5-meter inclined (or downhill) walk. Keep this in mind as you and your group decide on how to tackle obstacles en route to control points.

Here is a helpful list of colour codes and their corresponding features:
Brown: topography-related features. Contours, knolls, depressions, pits
Blue: water forms
Black: Rocky features or man-made structures such as tracks, buildings, fences, roads, powerlines
White: forested area that allows running
Yellow/Orange: open, grassland
Green: forested area with a cover too difficult to run across
Olive Green: permanently off-limits, such as private property
Purple Stripes: temporarily off-limits

Knowledge of the above colours will be critical as the orienteer can then plan the optimal route choice, or make changes to the plan.

Symbols: One of the key elements in an orienteering map is the symbols representing real-world structures and features. You do not have to learn all the symbols in one go. You learn more as you join different courses in the future and get to see more maps.

For example:
The Man-Made structures (the X or O) can actually represent many things. An orienteer needs to prepare that it may turn out to be a park bench, wastebasket, or an important sign.

Courses: See how this orienteering course is shown on a map in magenta lines. The start is marked by an X inside the triangle, the controls are right in the centre of each circle (which are numbered), and lastly, the finishing point is within the two double circles.

The order in which you complete an Orienteering course can vary. In the case of the Line event, participants need to accomplish the course in a designated order by “checking in on” the first control (which is 1), then on to 2, then to 3, etc. Control circles here are linked by guiding lines but you may opt not to run along the lines and instead you may pick your own route choice.

As for a Score event, participants tackle controls in any order they want, provided they check in on the controls as soon as possible.

A Scatter course is roughly similar, with participants needing to pass through as many controls as the time limit allows.

Control Descriptions: Control descriptions may seem as if they were invented yesterday, but they’re all serious business, and in fact follow international standards.

Control descriptions try to provide helpful details, so they not only have 1 or 2 but have eight columns variably packed with information for each. The first two columns happen to contain the most important data and are the quickest to absorb. These first two have numbers. The first column may show what order to follow in finding the controls (if required to do so). The second column indicates the number-marking printed on the real-world control. So in case, the marking for the second column is not the same as the control you ought to look up, then you need to run double-time to the correct control!

The seventh column also has important information. This column informs you on which area of a certain geographic feature the control is located. Fortunately, the symbols for this column are intuitive to learn, as well as helpful.

Expect some challenges in the case of the rest of the columns. But mastering control description markings and symbols and committing them to memory is part and parcel of orienteering. For now, focus on finishing an orienteering course with the help of the first two columns. You would eventually learn about the other columns over time.

Orienteering is an excellent activity for young and old, completed in teams or solo. Add orienteering to your list of what to do in Adelaide with the family!

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