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  • Sophie Ruffles

Give orienteering a go!

My previous experience of orienteering was running around the school playing fields with a basic map finding numbers attached to trees. I remember thinking that it was more fun than cross country running in knicker shorts. But only just.

As it turns out, there is a lot more to it. And it’s a lot more fun than I remember.

I have been running for over a decade now and as with any sport, no matter how loved, it’s good to spice things up. I switched from road to trail running a few years ago to start exploring more. However, I stick to well-worn paths in case I get lost. I know there is more out there to explore and experience but in order to be able to do that safely and confidently, I decided that I needed to learn to navigate. This led me to do a one day navigation course where the magic and mystery of map reading and compass use was (sort of) unlocked. During that course someone suggested giving orienteering a try as a way to practice my navigation skills.

As luck would have it, soon after I finished the navigation course and before I could forget how to use a compass, I heard that Bristol Orienteering Klub (BOK) was running a 4 week introductory course for the princely sum of £10 (which you got back if you then joined the club for £18 – bargain!).

What is orienteering?

For the uninitiated, orienteering is a sport where participants navigate to specific features, called controls, as quickly as possible. Participants are given a map with the controls marked, which they need to navigate to, by choosing the most efficient route and using only a compass.

If you want to find out more about orienteering or to find your local club, is a great place to start. Like BOK, your local club might run introductory sessions that can help you get into the sport.

During my 4 week course, which took place in the lovely Ashton Court and Leigh Woods in Bristol, both places I run through regularly, I was taught a number of key skills. The main ones are how to orientate a map, use a compass, take a bearing, pacing (how many paces you take in 100 metres) and how to choose the most efficient way to move between controls (not always the most direct route when moving over difficult terrain). All of these skills are great to have if you like to run or walk off road anyway so an orienteering course might be a good thing to do even if you only want to brush up on your navigation skills. It’s also potentially much cheaper than a navigation course.

The last session of the course was a mock event. It was really fun to put into practice my map reading skills and to understand how an event works without the pressure of lots of other competitors. I finished the course feeling reassured that I could enter an orienteering event and know what to do.

Who is it for?

Orienteering really is an inclusive sport. It was great to see that the BOK course leaders were mainly older women who have been competing for years and who demonstrated that this is a sport for all ages and abilities. There were also more men than women on the introductory course.

The events themselves have different courses that are open to all ages and abilities. You can run or walk between controls depending on your level of fitness. Basic courses can be undertaken with children and the faster and more confident navigators can opt for a more complex and longer course. The events themselves also might appeal to different types of runners as some are urban and others are in forests or cross country.


If you are already a runner then chances are you have almost everything you need to take part. If the event is in a wooded area it is a good idea to wear tights and in some events, they will be compulsory. Trail shoes are also likely to come in handy for off road events. You might also be required to carry a whistle in order to call for help in case you get lost on the course.

Save for that, a compass is a must. Which one you get depends on you. I bought a Silva Field Compass for £18 for my navigation course which worked fine. The longer base plate was useful for following a bearing and the ruler helped with measuring distances between controls in order to judge pacing.

When you attend an event you will need to hire a dibber at a small cost, which is a small device you wear on your finger to check yourself in electronically at each control.

Give it a try!

I started orienteering as a way to get better at navigation but the excitement of trying to navigate and run at the same time and to decide on the best route is really fun and challenging. If the course leaders at BOK are anything to go by, it is a friendly and welcoming sport so I am keen to enter more events just for the fun of it.

Orienteering and navigation skills have also opened up the possibility of entering other events that require navigation such as the OMM - Original Mountain Marathon, which I would not have even considered before!

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