Sconetlogo Orienteering Skills

These tips will help you find your way!
Updated 8/ 1 / 2010



  • O-GAMES At least seven orienteering simulation games

  • IOF Symbols (used on Clue Sheets) and how to read a control card:

        the     Official IOF Control Card pdf
        and     Control Card Quiz (interactive)


  • Reentrants or Spurs: Olive Kearney, Sconet - The Ups and Downs of contours (which is which?)

  • Map Reading: thoughts from SConeters - is THE KEY to Orienteering

  • PACING: thoughts from SConeters - How far have you gone

  • SIMPLIFY your ROUTE CHOICES - armchair orienteering from a New Zealand club

  • Skills expected and Skills taught by each color courseKaren Dennis [SDO] What level are you?

  • Joe Scarborough [BAOC] good technical site

  • orienteering tutorials from Florida O club FLO.

  • return to top
    - - - - -Map reading- - - - -

    SCONET: Map-and-compass training
    Two weeks ago, I asked:
    Dear SCONETers,
    What do you do to practice your map and compass/navigation skills between
    meets?  My thanks to Ken Pontifex and Olive Kearney for their helpful, detailed
    responses to my query.
    Thinking that their suggestions might help others like myself, the text of
    their responses appears below: Andrew Roth LAOC
    - - - - -Map Reading- - - - -
    From: Olive Kearney 
    Hi Andrew,
    You have probably heard of a lot of 'technical skills'
    So I will just give one instance for improving map reading and route-choice.
    Before leaving an event, COPY the next higher course onto your map, then
    study it at home, then once home :
    always REVIEW  how you did:
            Did you make the BEST choices?
            What errors, why
            Note your times, see how you improve,
            find out where your weak spots are (contouring, pacing etc)
    REVIEW the other course:
            how is it different?
            what extra skills are needed?
    All this from an 'armchair' and altho it sounds dubious, it is a proven
    O-skill builder. VISUALIZE and CONCENTRATE.
    - - - - -Map Reading- - - - -
    From:  Ken Pontifex 
    On SCONET you wrote;  "What suggestions do you have so that I can be more
    prepared (and confident) for my next meet?"
    Practice map reading.  This can be done on training runs (by imagining that
    you are on the map area) and also in an armchair.  Look at map segments
    briefly, memorize the route, and visualize following the route; then pick up
    the map again, relocate yourself quickly, and repeat.  This is not as good
    as running on unfamiliar terrain with a map, but in many ways it is better
    than running on a familiar map.  On a familiar map, there is a strong
    tendency to run from terrain memory, rather than to translate the map image
    of an unknown area to a terrain image which you then match to the physical
    terrain.  It is that ability to quickly and accurately translate the map
    image (and then to maintain your connection between the map and the terrain)
    which makes a difference of minutes on a leg.
    Map reading is the key to orienteering.  The compass is only an aid to use
    the map more efficiently; better orienteers tend to use the compass less
    because they are able to orient the map by terrain features most of the
    time.  Running ability usually becomes a significant factor only between
    people with roughly similar navigational skills (except in cases of huge
    fitness disparities which you won't find often in higher level competition).
    If you don't have enough maps for training purposes try:  I know the resolution
    isn't the greatest, but they are better than nothing.
    If you want more detailed training techniques and send me a mailing address,
    I have a few pages of material I can photocopy and send to you.
    Finally, if you are a good runner -- slow down.  Runners who are new to
    orienteering have a tendency to run too much and think too little.  This
    tends to turn getting a little lost (i.e., getting out of touch with the map
    for 30 seconds) into getting really lost (e.g., getting out of touch with
    the map for 30 minutes).  You will be able to make more use of your running
    ability when your navigation skills improve.
    - Ken Pontifex
    back to top:
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    (you might also want to visit  
     Joe Scarborough's (BAOC) PACING )
     Dear SCONETers:
      The following is a recap of the excellent Pacing advice I received
    a while back.   Each article provides the same basic principles with
    a unique piece of advice on how to go out and hone one's pacing.  I am
    living proof that the advice is good.  So enjoy the reading, and
    pace your heart away.
      Again, I wish to express my appreciation for the authors who took
    the time out to provide the advice.  
    Debra, SDO
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    From: Rich Dekany LAOC
    My advice ... is to simply find a measured distance (local track works well) and
    go around simply counting paces.  Try it walking and jogging and, if you're 
    one of _those_ people, running near top speed. A pace is measured each time
    your same foot hits the ground (to keep the numbers in your head smaller). 
    My rule of thumb (I'm 6'2") is 50 paces per 100 meters on roads or wide
    trials.  Going uphill, it might be 60-70 per 100m, while downhill I can open
    up to less than 40.  Rough ground tends to add 10-20 paces per 100m for me. 
            Later in a course, you may find yourself taking more paces to cover
    the same ground.  I tend to use 50 most of the time, and make mental
    adjustments such as (well, I'm at 50, but this has been steep, so I'll go a
    little further).  In my mind the great utility of pace counting is that it
    keeps you from misjudging distances by factors of 2, or falling for sandbag
    controls on other courses ("Sure that control I see is much farther than I
    think #8 should be, but would the course setting really put two similar
    controls 50m apart?")
    Of course all disclaimers apply...  
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    From: Doug Magde  SDO
    ..If you are on orange, it is time to think about pace counting...
    I use it a lot. My theory is that one never knows when the
    control will turn out to be harder than expected--or perhaps misplaced
    by the setter. It is just when things seem easy, that it is most useful
    to say to oneself, "Wow, I expected 100 paces, and I am already at 200.
    I better relocate." 
    So, I try to count all the time. I spend less effort on trying to be
    real accurate than I did when I was first learning. The point
    is not so much to be real accurate as to have some idea of whether
    one has gone far enough. 
    To do it, you want to count one for each time the same foot hits the
    ground. It is not useful to count each foot. So a left-right
    counts as one. 
    Then you need a measured course and you try a few times to figure out
    how many strides equal 100 m. Ideally, you do it running through
    various kinds of undergrowth. I used to find that for me
    100 m = 40 strides running and 60 strides walking over fairly good
    terrain, with a change to as much as 80 strides up a hill or through
    If you are dedicated, you can measure a distance. I have measured the distance
    around some blocks in my neighborhood using my car. I have a 2 mile = 3 km
    loop and a 3 mile = 5 km loop. It should really be 5 mi = 8 km, or 2.5 m = 4 km.
    But it doesn't matter. These loops have the advantage that they are
    longer. If you measure 100 m, you may find that you take longer strides than
    you keep up for long distances. On the other hand, the streets are pretty
    easy running. So I have confirmed that if I count my multiples of
    40 or 60 steps, I can confirm the distance the car measured. I lose track
    of distance, so I may pick up a pebble every time I get to some distance,
    like 100 m or 500 m, or 1 km, whatever. some compasses used to have
    little wheel with numbers that could be rotated to help keep track.
    ...For long distances, I count paces to 100 four
    times. That makes a km. I pick up a pebble each km. I can keep track
    of counting to 100 4 times, using my fingers. occasionally, I miss.
    But this is never necessary while orienteering. I can, and one should
    be able to, find something on the map at least every 400 m. One should
    be going from map object to map object at least that often.
    One problem with counting too strictly is that you may decide you
    have gone far enough, when you haven't. You need to get an idea
    of how much farther to go, before turning back. But you can't even
    begin to worry about that until you count.
    Some experienced competitors claim to count all the time; others say they
    never count.
    Another way, probably the best, to get a handle on your pacing is to
    take an orienteering map, either after a meet, or taking one you have
    back to the area another day, and pick out two objects a known distance
    apart, over various kinds of terrain and count your strides in between.
    This is the short answer to your original question.
    Happy O'ing.
    Doug Magde
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    From: Ron Grayson SDO
         Get thee to SDSU's track and pace off 100 or 400 meters (look where 
         the track markings are located) at various speeds.  Comfortable jog 
         should be slightly under 40 (typically 36-39) left foot strikes per 
         100 m.  A bit faster would be about 33/100m.  Walking, as if in the 
         woods or meadows, under 60.  Calibrate your stride, then practice 
         every time you jog or walk.  Then time yourself, for foot strikes/min 
         (normal jog about 82).  Then by counting paces or timing, you can 
         always keep track of how far you've traveled, thus locating yourself 
         fairly accurately.  For O-meets, use compass scale to measure control 
         distance to an obvious feature (large boulder, trail junction, etc).  
         Navigate to this feature fairly quickly.  Then take a bearing, note 
         the distance to the control, and start pace counting.  
    I pace count every time I run, so now its second nature. Usually do it at 10 minute stretches (or about 822 left foot strikes). So when I'm orienteering, I usually know how far I've travelled from the last known point or feature. Making corrections for uphill, vegetation, downed trees, contouring, etc is tougher -- that's when reading the terrain comes into play. Ron Grayson SDO -----------------------
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    From: Cory Peterson LAOC
    I'll tell how I pace:
         Go to a track and jog 1/4 of it (100 meters).
         Count the number of times your left foot hits the ground.  From then on, 
         you'll know how many paces it takes you to travel 100 meters.
         Make sure you jog at the same rate you will in the woods.
         Do the count walking also.
         My running count is 37 paces for 100 meters, 60 paces walking.
         When I'm running in the woods and counting paces, every time I reach 37, I 
         start over counting "one o one, one o two, etc.  The "one o" representing 
         one hundred meters. When I reach one thirty seven, I start again with "two o".
    Hope this is what you wanted.
    Cory Peterson LAOC
    - - - - -PACING- - - - -
    From: Tony Pinkham BAOC
    The best way to learn about pacing is to do it yourself. There are all sorts of 
    ways to do this.
    What I recommend is measuring out 50 meters in a flat area. Walk that distance 
    numerous  times and count the number of times your left OR right foot hit the 
    ground. Average that number and multiply it by 2. That gives you the number of 
    paces you need for 100m. You can  divide or multiply that number as needed to 
    determine very rough distances at all your  orienteering meets.
    Next, try the same thing for uphills and downhills. If you take twice the number 
    of paces on an  uphill just remember to double the pace count for steep uphills. 
    Most important of all, when you begin pacing, look at a distant object in the 
    direction you are  heading and then go directly for that object. If something is in 
    your way, take some side  steps and then continue pacing in parallel to your 
    original direction. Once you are past the  object, side step back to the original 
    path and continue pacing.
    Pacing is only a rough measure so never expect it to be exact. Very often I need
    to go say  300m N to find something on the map. When I reach 300m I quickly 
    scan for the object to  confirm my location. I then go to the object and pace in 
    another direction say 400m to the  control. I always pace to a general area and 
    when there I look for something to place myself  exactly on a mapped feature (a 
    reentrant, a huge rock, a creek bend, etc.). For each paced  route, there is a 
    percentage error. If you don't find something there to place yourself on the  map, 
    then the next paced route will add to the error. After two or three pacings 
    without  locating on a feature, you could find yourself way out of the area you 
    need to be in. 
    Another thing to do while pacing is to confirm features you pass with features
    on the map. That keeps you on course and means you don't have to locate 
    yourself at the end of pacing.  
    Hope this helps.
    Tony Pinkham, BAOC
    back to top:
    The Ups and Downs of Orienteering
    - a clinic on CONTOURS, REENTRANTs and SPURs.
    by Olive Kearney (© 1997)

    Hillsides just smooth gentle slopes? Dream on! They have valleys and ridges and knolls, and other landforms which orienteers call REENTRANTS and SPURS. These last two are very useful for navigating, if we can tell them apart on the map! So pull out an O-map and we'll see if we can master them.

    What on Earth is a Reentrant?
    When describing the places that water would collect in and run down when it rains, orienteers use the term 'reentrant'. These reentrants can have steep sides or just be gentle dips, they can be long, running from top to bottom of a hill, or short, spanning just one or two contours (the smaller ones are usually tricky ADVANCED control locations). They may never see rain! As long as water _would_ flow down it, be it a bucket-full or a torrent, it is a reentrant. Little reentrants usually run into each other (at a 'reentrant- junction') and then a bigger reentrant goes further down the hillside, and so on out to sea. Look at the map and locate some of these.

    Why call them Reentrants?
    Believe me, there is a reason for such a strange word. Try to find a large hill on your map, or better yet, a long hillside with parallel contours. You will notice at some places the contour lines jog a little, that is 'go back into ' or 're-enter' the hillside! Simple explanation for an intimidating word. Another, perhaps easier to remember explanation - a reentrant is where water 're-enters' the water table! Maybe we should go with that. Some water- courses are not reentrants! A short, very steep-sided erosion feature is called a gully, and a Ditch is Dug! I'm glad you are no longer confused so let us go on and study spurs.

    Spur Onwards!
    Look at the map again. See if you can find contours 'going out' of the hillside. These are SPURS, areas where the land juts out a bit. Spurs are more evident around a hill or mountain, rather than on a long hillside. But like reentrants, they too can be any size, anywhere, as long as the land falls away on three sides. There are even spurs more correctly called RIBS; these are very narrow and often long . A wide round spur may have a flat area, (a wider space between the contours) called a TERRACE. But we will stick to spurs and reentrants for now and find how to tell which is which on the map while you are tired, bruised and far from home and the mosquitoes are biting.

    Which way is UP?
    Does your map sometimes confuse you? On a USGS topographic map the contours are labeled with their elevation. You can see the number 4000 then 4100 and it is obvious which way is up. But orienteering maps don't help us this way and we must be very careful to work out which way is UP. Search for a hilltop. That closed circle will be the high point, contours spreading out from it are going downhill. Be careful again, if the contour circle has hash (or 'tic') marks in it, it is a depression, which may or may not be at the top of a hill!
    Recognizing reentrants and spurs on the map is an Orienteering skill we all want to master, because:
    "REENTRANTs point UP-hill and SPURs point DOWN-hill" Which is Which? Shape up!
    Large reentrants will span several contour lines, forming a distinct series of V's or U's. Unfortunately, so do spurs! Yes, so which set of pointing contours is a spur, a reentrant? Sometimes it can be done with the shapes, V for reentrant and U for spurs, but this doesn't always apply. More often than not, the 'V'eentrant with its steep banks will be like a V and the rounded gentle spUr more like a U. Just remember there are exceptions and be careful when they look alike.

    It is easier to tell them apart if water is present. A blue stream will be marked in the reentrant. But what if it's too small to hold water, or in a dry region? Look for the dry stream markings (dotted lines). Look for the watershed, that pattern of reentrants joining up to go down to the stream, the river, the sea. Identify a large reentrant close by, and work back from that.

    Another hint about reentrants. They do bend, and they tend to taper out at the top, so draw an imaginary or pencil line up them to better define and continue the direction.

    Which to use? You probably heard of reentrants from your first day on an Orienteering course. They are used more often than spurs for control placement, so you hear about them more, but that doesn't mean spurs are less important for navigation. Both reentrants and spurs offer good handrails (lines to follow), and specific points where they intersect a trail, fence or another reentrant (junctions). You may be tempted to run in a reentrant, it looks so strong and definite on the map. Beware! Besides water rolling downhill in the reentrants, so do pine cones, stones and rocks, broken tree limbs and trash. And the water increases the vegetation and insects. So use the spurs, they are much better for your feet, and the view is clearer. They may be slightly harder than reentrants to identify on your map but only slightly and you will soon get to recognize that spurs indeed do have a direction and can be an excellent hand-rail.

    Final Exam

    Here's a tricky one. Once you find a reentrant on the map, sometimes, right next to it, will probably be more contours pointing in the opposite direction. Both sets are V-shaped. Is it a spur or another reentrant just going the other way ? Think about it. NOW! Visualize! Get that concept, and you have it all!

    As you gain experience you will love the information SPURs and REENTRANTs can give you. Just be careful out there.

    back to top:

    Questions regarding this web-site to: Web-master: O. K