Orienteering Lingo

Although many terms that orienteers use will be familiar, there are several terms which are unique to the sport. The A to Z list below includes words used to describe orienteering terms and techniques as well as common descriptions of orienteering landforms. 



Age Group

Age groups exist so that everyone can compete against others of similar age.For adults, from age 35, age groups go in 5 year bands, and there is one each for men (M) and women (W). Thus a man aged 50 would normally run as M50, and a woman aged 39 would normally run as W35. The open age categories for adults are known as M21 and W21.Age groups for juniors are in 2 year bands from 10 to 20, though in most events juniors can choose the standard at which they wish to compete. In these events, courses have names such as JW1 or JM5, where J indicates Junior, W and M indicate men’s or women’s courses, and the number shows length and difficulty, with 1 being the shortest and easiest.

Aiming Off

To deliberately aim to one side of a control or feature so that you know which way to turn upon hitting the feature before seeing the control.

Attack Point

An obvious feature near the control point from which the control can be located by navigating carefully with map and compass.

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Most experienced orienteers use a compass to take a bearing so they know which direction to go. But you can start orienteering without being an expert with a compass.

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Catching Feature (also called collecting feature or backstop)

An obvious feature on the map and ground located beyond a control or other sought-after feature that indicates that the target feature has been overshot (passed by).


Top level competition, often for a particular set of people, e.g. Irish Orienteering Championships, Munster Championships, Leinster Championships or Connaught Championships. You don’t have to be a top-notch orienteer to take part though!


Also know as a control.

Check Station

A special box of electronics at the start, in which you check that your SI card is OK. Applies only to events using SI.

Control Circle

A circle drawn around a feature on the map to indicate the location of a  control marker. The feature should be in the exact center of the circle. When you are close to the control, you might say you are “in the circle”. But you still might not see the control immediately! 


Another name for the long distance event. 

Clear Station

A special box of electronics which clears previous data stored on your SI card. The clear station is usually placed prominently on the route to the start. Hold your SI card in it until it bleeps 2 or 3 times. Applies only to events using SI

Closed Event

An event or competition which may be entered only by particular people; e.g. an event just for club members.

Closing Date

The last date for acceptance of entries. This applies only to those events that you have to enter in advance.

Code Number

See control code.

Colour Coded

Colour coded courses use a particular colour to indicate length and difficulty, and these should be consistent from one event to another. The usual courses are:

White: easy and short; all on paths or tracks.

Yellow: slightly less easy, and a little longer.

Orange: not all on paths, and longer again.

Light green: navigation skills needed; longer again.

Green: the shortest technically difficult course.

Blue: technically difficult, medium length.

Brown: technically difficult and long.

Black: even more so (only found infrequently).


Usually just another word for an event, though sometimes a competition comprises a series of events.

Contour Interval

The distance between heights shown by contour lines – usually 5m, but check on your map.


Some events offer a special map which shows only the contours of the land (not the vegetation, paths, streams etc.). This makes navigating more difficult, but is excellent practice.


Each point marked with a circle on the map, which a competitor is required to visit. Controls are usually marked by a punch.

Control Card

Before the days of control. Now rarely used.

Control Code

The unique code that identifies a control; usually 2 or 3 numbers, sometimes 2 letters. Sometimes referred to as the number on the control, but of course this is different from the control number. The control code will be clearly visible on the control, and you should always check the code of each control to make sure it really is the one you are looking for.

Control Description

A description of the feature where the control is placed.

Control Description Sheet

The sheet that contains the control descriptions.

Control Marker

See flag.

Control Number

The sequence number of a control on a course – 1, 2, 3 etc. Not to be confused with the control code. You must visit controls in the correct number order.


The person who has ultimate responsibility for the fairness and correctness of an event.


A sequence of control points marked on the map that are to be visited by the orienteer. Courses usually share the same start point and finish point, and might share some of the controls. 

Crossing Point

To avoid damage to walls and fences, you sometimes have to cross these obstacles only at specific points. These will be shown on your map, and your control description sheet will say “use crossing point”. Your control description sheet will say if the crossing point is compulsory. If it is, you can be disqualified for crossing the obstacle anywhere else.

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An indentation in the earth, generally rounded at the bottom. Smaller depressions are mapped with a 'u' symbol; larger ones use contour (or form) lines with tag lines pointing into the depression.


Another name for SI card.


“Did not finish” – if you don’t complete your course, the results will show DNF by your name. The term has become a verb, so you might say that you DNF’d at your last event – but of course this is not to be recommended. If you decide to abandon your course (i.e. to DNF), you must report to the Download, otherwise a lot of time and effort could be spent looking for you. 


Positioning of a control which favors approaching and leaving a control by the same route, thereby leading other competitors to the control. Course design which results in a dog-leg should be avoided.


After you finish an event that uses electronic punching, you must go to Download to register the fact that you are back safely and find out how long you’ve taken.

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Electronic Punching

An electronic means of gaining evidence that you have been at a control.

Electronic Unit

See control.


Anyone who intends taking part in a National Event or other major competition is not allowed to go onto that specific mapped area for 6 months before the competition. We say the area is embargoed.


One of the types of electronic punching. Full technical details are on www.emituk.com


Entry on Day – turn up at the event and enter there and then. Most events allow this, though there might be a surcharge for EOD at an event with pre-entry.


A competition, at which there will be a number of courses, is usually referred to as an event. This stresses the fact that you can enjoy participating in orienteering without actually competing.

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A distinct topographical object marked on the map, e.g. a stream, boulder or hill. 


Vegetation that is difficult to run through or impassable (shown on the map with the darkest shade of green).

Fine Orienteering

Precision navigation in detailed terrain usually demanding careful use of map, compass and pace counting, and usually involving short course legs.


The point marked on your map with a double circle. Events using electronic punching often don’t have officials at the finish, just the electronic unit at which you should punch. Remember then to go to it.


Another term for an event.

Fixture List

The list of all events or fixtures currently registered and in the calendar.


A white-and-orange fabric marker that is hung at each control. Also referred to as a kite.

Folding The Map

Orienteers fold their maps along the line of travel to aid concentration on the leg being run, and to facilitate thumbing their position.

Form Line

A land shape might not be quite high enough to merit being shown with a contour line, but it is noticeable on the ground. It will probably be shown by a dashed contour line, known as a form line.

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On maps, various shades of green indicate different density of vegetation.

See also colour coded.


A steep-sided valley on a hillside, mapped as a solid line crossing one or more contour lines.

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A linear feature that closely parallels your route and acts as a handrail to the next control.

Home International

Competitions (comprising individual and relay events) between teams from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. They are held annually at Veterans levels.

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International Orienteering Federation – the worldwide governing body for the sport. See www.orienteering.org

IOF Descriptions

Standard pictorial descriptions approved by the IOF and used throughout the world for events are many levels.

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See flag


A small hill, mapped as a small circle or oval. Larger knolls are shown using contour lines; smaller ones are solid brown shapes.

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Apart from one of the limbs that propel you round the course, a leg is the section of a course from one control to the next. 


A list of the symbols represented on the map.

Line Feature

Something like a path, track or stream, which you can follow easily. When you are new to the sport you should use these rather than heading just hopefully into the forest.

Linear Feature

A feature that extends in one direction for some distance; e.g., paths, fences, stonewalls, and streams. Used as handrails.

Long Race

The Long distance race requires athletes to pace themselves carefully to ensure that they can navigate competently up until the finish line. The winning time for the elite is usually around 90 minutes.

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Magnetic North Line

Shown on every map, it can be aligned with the north arrow of a compass to orient the map to the terrain. The spacing between north lines varies depending on the scale of the map. All words and symbols used are also aligned to the magnetic north lines.


Orienteering maps are very detailed and are produced by specialist map-makers. They are usually at a scale of 1:15,000 or 1:10,000 and cover an irregularly-shaped area of between 1 and 10 sq km. Colours carry different meanings from Ordnance Survey maps – particularly it is worth remembering that white on an orienteering map indicates trees. Most maps have a legend showing the meanings of symbols and colours, but sometimes this is available separately.

Map Bag

A tough, clear plastic bag to put your map in. You can usually buy, borrow or scrounge one at the events where you need one.

Map Corrections

If things have changed in the area, for instance trees have grown or been felled, or new tracks created, since the maps were printed, there will be a map showing these changes or corrections. You should copy these onto your own map.

Mass Start

At most events, competitors start at intervals of usually 2 or 4 minutes. Sometimes all or some of the competitors start at the same time. This is called a mass start, and it is only used at events that are in some other way out of the ordinary.

Master Map

At these events there will be master maps (usually 2 or 3 for each course) and you will be given a map without any course shown. You then have to copy the course from the master map to your map. DO THIS VERY CAREFULLY! Remember to mark any map corrections as well.

Middle Distance

The Middle Distance requires precise navigation skills. The winning time for the elite will be around 35 minutes.

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Night Orienteering

Yes, this is simply orienteering in the dark. A good headtorch is essential. This form of orienteering is widely considered one of the most technically challenging.

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The person who sorts out all the administrative bits to make an event happen.

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Pace Counting/Pacing

A system of counting double-paces (every time the left or right foot hits the ground) to measure distance covered. An orienteer would measure the distance between two points using the scale on the compass and then count his/her paces until the distance was covered. Pacing allows orienteers to know when they have gone too far and missed the feature they were looking for.

Pictorial Descriptions

Descriptions of the controls, using symbols to describe the feature on which the control is placed. Standard international symbols are agreed by the IOF and can be found on their website, or a simplified version on the Control Descriptions page. Pictorial descriptions are used only for the more difficult courses, technical difficulty 3 and above.


A sharp-sided depression, depicted with a small 'v' symbol.


The person who designs the Controller.

Point Feature

A feature in the terrain that only occupies a small area. Frequently mapped examples are boulders, pits and mounds, stumps, and root mounds. Point features are not suitable as control sites for novice courses unless they are on a handrail.


The bigger fixtures list will show the name of the person to whom you should send your entry.


At some events, the course is already printed onto the map.


After you finish, go do splits.


Once upon a time you proved you had been at a control by marking a card with a punch (or clipper) which had pins in a particular pattern.


This refers to the process by which you gain evidence that you have been to a control. Although the process is now usually electronic, the term has stuck.

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A land shape somewhat like a small valley. On the map it usually shows as an indented contour line (or several).


An event in which a team (usually 3 people, but sometimes up to 11) run separate courses, one handing over to the other. The team’s total time is what counts.


Interim results are usually displayed at the event, with final results being available on the internet soon after the event. Printed copies of results can usually be posted to you if you leave an envelope and cash to cover printing and postage costs. Ask event officials.


An extended score event, with time limits of 3, 6, 8, 12 or 24 hours, generally using large-area maps (at 1:24,000 to 1:50,000 scale, versus the 1:5,000 to 1:15,000 scale of a typical orienteering map), and often a team rather than solo event. The acronym "ROGAINE" was invented in Australia in the 1970s from a combination of the inventors' names (ROd, GAIl, and NEil).


How you went from control to control. On all but the simplest courses there is usually a choice of routes. A particular pleasure and learning experience comes from discussing your routes with others on your course after the event.

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Safety Bearing

A compass bearing that will bring a lost orienteer to a road or other major, recognizable feature. It may be added to the control description list as a safety measure.

Safety Whistle

A whistle that can be used if a participant is injured or lost. The International Distress Signal is six short blasts repeated at one-minute intervals. Whistles are required at many orienteering events and are often available from event organizers for a small fee.


The scale of most orienteering maps is 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. Always check this when you get your map.A scale of 1:10,000 means that 1cm (about the length of the nail on your little finger) on your map shows 100m on the ground, i.e. the length of a football pitch.

Score Event

A less common type of event, in which you have to find as many controls as possible in a fixed time. The number of points scored for each control varies according to its distance and technical difficulty, you can choose which controls to go to, and there will be a penalty if you take longer than the time allowed.


One of the types of electronic punching.

SI Card

The electronic device carried by participants in an event using SI.


The time you take to go from one control to the next. If you’re serious about improving, you will soon want to compare splits with other participants on your course. At an event using electronic punching, your printout will show your splits. Results on the internet usually show them too.


The full name for SI.


Short distance orienteering event, usually held in a town or park. Good spectator value. 


A small ridge. On a map, the contour lines point downhill for a spur.

Start Control

Where the start triangle is shown on the map, a control punch the start control. 

Start Time

In some events, you are given a specific time at which you start. The time you take to complete the course will be calculated from this time, so make sure you aren’t late!

Start Unit

The electronics box at the start – if you are required to punch at the start. 

String Course

A short course for very young children, in which the route is marked by a continuous line of string, or by easily seen lengths of tape.


Tear-off part of control card that was/is kept by start officials while the participant does the course, and was/is later used for temporary display of results.

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Taped Route

There is usually a taped route to the start for everyone. Also, some courses, particularly those for younger children, might have a section where it might be difficult for them to find the right way on the map, so they have to follow bits of plastic tape hung from trees etc. A taped route on adults’ courses must be followed closely – it usually guides you through an area that is otherwise out of bounds or dangerous.

Technical Difficulty (TD)

Courses are graded from TD 1 (easiest) to TD 5 (hardest). Green, Blue and Brown courses should all be TD 5. Orange and Red courses should be TD 3, and offer a good starting level for adult beginners. See colour coded.


An area away from paths, tracks and roads.


A technique for holding the map, using your thumb to indicate your present location. To do this properly, it is often necessary to fold the map, preferably along the line of travel.

Trail O

Also known as Precision-O, this form of orienteering does not rely on speed and mobility, but challenges your ability to read the map accurately. Usually suitable for everyone, including people in wheelchairs.

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As in control.

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All participants aged 35 and above.

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World Orienteering Championships

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