Sprint Orienteering Tips

Here are a few basic techniques and tips to get you started. These techniques apply to all navigation, wherever it is on the continuum: street maps, highly detailed orienteering maps, contour-and-track rogaining maps, or vague and out-of-date adventure racing maps.

Here's a sample NavDash map to get you familar with sprint map standards.

Don’t worry if you can’t remember it all – you will find that every mistake you make will teach you a new lesson, so there is no substitute for practice. The advantage of NavDash is that your mistakes will only cost you a few minutes, but will teach you navigation techniques that will save you time in a longer race. These events are relatively simple to walk around, even for the complete beginner, but are surprisingly complex when raced at speed.

1) Orientate the map. Orienteers, rogainers and car rally navigators have their map orientated 100% of the time while competing. Unless you habitually hold the map so that it matches what is in front of you, you WILL make mistakes when you are tired. Either orient the map with north facing north (simple, isn’t it?) or match it to the features around you. In NavDash events you will probably not be carrying a compass, so it is usually easier to pick a couple of distinctive buildings or flowerbeds, and use them to orientate yourself.


Imagine you are standing on the dirty thumbnail and facing the way it is pointing. The blue rectangle is the pond on your left, with a chair at the end (the ‘H’=shaped thing). The tower is part of the grey building across the pond. The yellow areas are grass (open ground), the brown lines show a bank (not the money sort but the small grass hill) and the staircases are the dark grey bits. The purple lines are the course you are trying to follow.

2) Thumb the map. Fold and refold your map as you run so that you only have useful bits showing and you are not distracted by the rest of it. Hold your map in your hand with your thumbnail on the last spot where you knew where you were, and pointing the way you want to go. As you reach your next known point simply move your thumb up a bit.

For example, as you run past the left side of the high fences of the tennis courts, move your thumb up the left side of the tennis courts. navdash-mapThis technique is as simple as it sounds, and will stop you losing your place on the map, which is very easy to do on a detailed map when you are moving along. If you thumb the map your eyes move straight to the relevant point, saving you from staring at the map for so long that you trip over something, or run into a tree (this is something that happens with alarming regularity and is very hard to live down if you are spotted).

3) Read ahead! It is better to be moving confidently to a recognisable feature than reacting to surprises. The better navigators will pick an obvious feature on the map, identify it on the ground and then run to it. Less-experienced people (or experienced orienteers who become flustered) will be identifying features as they pass them, which leaves them one step behind and unable to run with any speed. You will find that spending a few seconds making sure you are confident where you are headed will save you time in the end, hare-and-tortoise style. You will thank us the first time you find yourself passed repeatedly in the same race by a faster runner who is having to backtrack and correct at every control!

4) Simplify the map. Maps can carry an awful lot of information and not all of it is relevant at a given time. If you are running into an area with lots of buildings and alleyways it is difficult to make sense of it all. Make life easier for yourself by ignoring most of it. Choose your line and run to a recognisable garden bed or other distinctive feature. Pick something obvious (an “attackpoint”) near the control and, when you reach it, zoom in on the detail in the map to get you to the control.

5) Use handrails. Exactly as their name suggests, these will guide you along your course and give you direction without you having to slow down to navigate. In the NavDash events handrails will be linear features such as paths, fences and roads. Generally it is better to run a bit further and faster but know exactly where you are, rather than walk through a complex area and risk making errors.

In the picture on the left, the building with all the arches or the path alongside it are both great handrails – better than using features like the tree or the chair which, may be fiddly to keep track of.

6) Use catching features. Choose a feature that will alert you if you overshoot your attackpoint or your control. It is not always easy to judge distance and a classic mistake is to keep on far past what you were aiming for, thinking “it must be around the next corner… or the next…” It sounds simple, but make sure you have a safety net.

For example: “I’ll follow this fence past four buildings to the square flowerbed, and if I cross a paved footpath I’ve gone too far.”

7) Read your control descriptions. On your map is a description of the feature you are looking for (for example, “north-west corner of building”) and the code which is printed on the control (for example, “HC”). It only takes a second to check them and not only will it help you run with purpose straight to the control, but it allows you to know for certain you are at the right one. This sounds really obvious but even elite orienteers, feeling confident, will sometimes decide not to ‘waste time’ with them, and sometimes kick themselves later. Nothing is more frustrating than being disqualified for punching the wrong control! The descriptions will also tell you if there any marked routes which must be followed, and you may be disqualified if you don’t follow them.

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