A Beginner's Guide to Orienteering

The art of orienteering begins with a map. Cody Wellons/Flickr

Most people tend to avoid wandering into the woods or unfamiliar terrain, but that's part of the fun of orienteering. Orienteering is a collection of sports that requires navigational skills and tools, such as a map and compass, to navigate from point to point.

Sometimes orienteering is done quickly as part of large competitions, but it can also be done at a more leisurely pace to explore a new area and hone one's navigational skills.

On a recent trip to Georgia's Sweetwater Creek State Park, Jason Henline, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, showed us how to navigate to several unidentified man-made objects on our orienteering map, where we discovered everything from crumbling cabins to rusty old trucks.

Whether you want to improve your map-reading and navigation skills for sport or survival, here are some tips, tricks and explainers to get you started.

Safety first

Always let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back.

"This is 'Outdoorsy 101' stuff obviously, but it's less of an issue when you are sticking to established paths," Henline said. "The whole idea of orienteering is to travel overland, so informing someone that you are going to go walk around in the woods for a while and might get lost is a good idea."

This video above does a nice job of summing up the basics of using a map and compass to navigate in the woods.

Understand your map

compass and map for orienteering
Your map should be a detailed version of where you are going. Paya Mona/Shutterstock

Orienteering maps are created on smaller scales than traditional maps, increasing the amount of detail and allowing for more precise navigation. They're topographic maps that include not only the land's natural features, but also detailed rock and water features and objects like fences, power lines and picnic tables.

Such maps also have unique elements like portraying vegetation boundaries with yellow or marking man-made objects in black. Before heading into the woods, familiarize yourself with the basics of reading such a map.

Your map should mimic your environment exactly

Your compass will naturally always point north, but make sure your map does as well. For example, if you're in the woods looking north, hold your map so it too faces north. If you turn around and face south, flip your map around so that north on the map still points north.

This method ensures that the landscape you're looking at is mirrored on the map.

One simple way to keep track of where you are on the map is to keep your thumb on your current location. As you move through terrain, move your thumb as well so that you can always pinpoint precisely where you are.

Know your pace count

couple looking at map in the woods
Be prepared by knowing your pace count before you start hiking. Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

One way to measure distance is pace count. A pace is equal to your natural step, and to use this method, you need to know how many paces it takes you to walk 100 meters.

To determine your pace count, walk a measured 100-meter course and count every other step you take. Then turn around and rewalk the distance, counting again. Take the average of those numbers and you have your pace count.

Make sure the terrain you use to count your steps is similar to the terrain you'll be hiking, and try to mimic the conditions and gear as much as possible.

"Don't go out with an empty backpack and tennis shoes if you're planning a major overnight hike in boots later because the two pace counts will vary quite a bit," Henline said.

Once you have your count, you can use it to gauge distance in the woods, and there are many ways to keep track of your count as you trek.

"Distances in the woods are really tricky," Henline said. "You may feel like you've been walking a long time but only covered a short distance, on account of difficult terrain, a heavy pack, or losing track of time as you contemplate your existence in nature ... not that I've done that."

Attack points

An attack point is an obvious land feature, such as a large boulder or a riverbend, that can be used to help you navigate.

For example, if your destination is in the middle of similar-looking terrain, it can be difficult to locate. Instead of wandering, identify a unique marker as your attack point and navigate to it. From there, measure the distance to your destination and map out how many meters you have to go.

Always have a backup plan

Before you set out, establish a panic azimuth, which is simply a direction in which to walk if you start to panic and need to get out of there.

"The idea is that you are hard-pressed to find a section of woods without a nearby road in today's America," Henline said. "Sure, you can find vast expanses in various national parks and the Alaskan tundra, but at your local state park, you're probably going to be bordered by a road or natural boundary in some direction."

"Use it to your advantage. Find a road that goes in a relatively straight line that borders the area you're planning to navigate within. Figure out which direction it will be from your planned orienteering course, and use that direction as your panic azimuth."