Permanent Course Orienteering

If you prefer videos to words, the films on our How-To Videos page give you an alternative version of the information below.

A Permanent Orienteering Course (POC) is a bunch of wooden posts and plaques (typically 20-30 of them), spread around a park, together with a map showing where they all are. They are ideal for beginners or the more experienced. More about skills and kit later.

Each post or plaque is called a control, which has a code (usually letters) and a symbol. The control code is shown next to the circle on the map; writing down the symbol is proof you’ve been there.


Example Post – code B, symbol upside-down T


Example Plaque – code A, symbol l

On the back of every map are Suggested Courses – lists of controls to go to, in what order, and how far and difficult each course would be.  There’s a colour coding system for difficulties – see the Course Colours page. For Random Park, the suggested courses might be:ExampleCourses

You will see that every control also has a description, which tells you where to look – including the Start/Finish S/F.  The only strange word you may find in the control descriptions is “re-entrant” – this is the orienteering word for a small valley, sometimes little more than a wrinkle in the contours.

So, having got the map for Random Park, decided how to get there and when you want to go, you simply find the Start, pick one of the courses, and off you go.

Another way of using the map is to do a Score course. You can either:

  • See how long it takes to visit every control
  • See how many controls you can visit in a chosen time

And another way of using the map is to do Stars and Loops exercises, which are intended for getting groups of young beginners started.  Some parks are particularly good for this – see the SL column in the Summary Sheet, and, as an example, Moss Bank Park. The leader picks a base with reasonably good visibility and walks the group to it (for Random Park, this might be somewhere around the South side of the lake). Group members are then sent off to get a single control and come back (Stars); or go out for two or three controls and come back (Loops). The good visibility and frequent interactions mean that progress can be easily monitored.

Stuff happens

Controls come and go. Building works, mowers, old age, falling trees, Acts of God, vandalism, etc, may mean that a control is no longer where it was originally installed. If you can’t find a control, then either you’re in the wrong place, or the control is gone. If you’re sure you’re in the right place, please let us know so we can fix it.

Maps change all the time. Building works, felling, planting, natural growth, balsam, brambles, new paths, unused paths, etc, mean that maps are effectively out of date the day after they are drawn. If something really needs updating, please let us know so we can fix it. And of course, there’s only one map, but vegetation can be very different at different times of year, so you need to make appropriate allowances.

Essentials of Orienteering Maps

The Random Park map again

First, the stuff under the title – Contour interval, Magnetic North and Scale.

  • Scale – the larger the scale, the more paper is taken up for each square metre and the more detail can be shown. Competitive orienteering uses world-standard scales (1:15000 and 1:10000); for our POCs we tend to use the biggest scale that will fit the area onto an A4 sheet – so our scales range from 1:2000 to 1:10000. You will see that Random Park is a medium size park and 1:4000 is an appropriate scale.
  • Magnetic North – in some parts of the world, Magnetic North changes quite rapidly over time, but for us, change is small and slow. All our maps have North lines vertically up the page, and a date when that was exactly aligned with North on your compass. Even at 10-15 years, you would be hard pressed to notice any deviation.
  • Contour interval – contours show major ground shapes, and 5m is the usual interval between contours. At larger scales like ours, mappers typically use form lines to show local shapes rather than have a smaller contour interval all over the map.

Next, the stuff at the top right – Key to Map Symbols. Again there are international standards, but there aren’t any standards for large-scale maps, and the way our POC mappers have chosen to map the extra detail they can show is specific to each map. However, the basic colouring rules apply to all orienteering maps:

  • Black symbols are tracks, paths, man-made objects and rocky things – buildings, fences, walls, boulders, crags, seats, sculptures.
  • Dark brown symbols are ground shapes – contours, knolls, depressions; light browns are hard standing, roads, car parks.
  • Blue symbols are water features – lakes, streams, ditches, marshes.
  • Yellow means open ground – parkland, fields, moors. Think of this as the sun getting through.
  • White means woodland that can be run through, which is probably the only non-intuitive use of colours, and needs a bit of getting used to.
  • Different shades of green show not-so-runnable woodland – the deeper the green, the tougher you will find it; dark green is sometimes called “fight”.

So what exactly is Orienteering ?

Orienteering is working your way around an orienteering map as efficiently as possible, using your skills at reading the map and making sense of what you can see around you. It can be anything you want, from a gentle recreation to an eyeballs-out international sport.

Orienteering as a recreation

 As a recreation, it’s a great activity for children, families and friends.  You can enjoy exploring your local parks, getting well off the beaten track if you want to – and doing so in your own time, at your own chosen speed. You will learn how to read a map, use a compass, understand contours. Children derive great self-confidence from navigating successfully for themselves, and local parks are a perfect safe place to start.

Permanent Orienteering Courses provide essential support for this activity by being available all the time the park is open, all year round, and all you need is a map.  On each map, purple circles show exactly where our posts and/or plaques are located, while on the back we provide a number of ways to combine these circles into courses of different lengths and difficulties.   Here’s a great little video showing how it works.

Orienteering as an international sport

Once you are confident you can navigate around a course, the question becomes … how fast can you do so ?

 British Orienteering is our national governing body, North-West Orienteering Association is our regional body, and MDOC and SELOC are the two local clubs – check out their Beginner resources and Event programmes. Races take place in a wide variety of locations from city centres and local parks to forests and mountains -if you’re keen, you can compete 2 or 3 times a week within reasonable drives from Manchester. About 90 countries make up the International Orienteering Federation which is the world governing body – there are global standards for mapping and competitions, so the fundamentals are the same wherever you are in the world. Here’s a two-minute Austrian film which gives a bit of a flavour of it.

Orienteering Skills

The first skill to acquire is called “orienting (or setting) the map“. This means turning the map round until what is ahead of you on the ground is also ahead of you on the map. You can confirm your map is correctly set by checking that the North lines on the map are pointing the same way as your compass needle.

You will find it helpful to keep turning your map so that where you want to go is always ahead of you, as you go round your course. “Thumbing the map” makes this easier to do – you simply keep your thumb close by your last known position, so that every time you glance at the map you know exactly where to look (and some of us also fold our maps so that only a small amount is showing).

Some further skills to consider:

Aiming Off – when you cut across country, using your compass, aim a bit to one side of your target, so that when you hit the target path/stream/wall/fence, you know for sure which way to turn.

Attack Points – for tricky controls such as a boulder in the middle of a wood, look for a place on the map as close as possible to the control, which you can get to easily, and where you will be completely certain of your position. Path junctions, fence corners are good attack points. The idea is to minimise the risk of missing the target feature.

Catching Features – again, for tricky controls, you can look for a line feature (wall, fence, stream, path, vegetation boundary) behind the control, which will catch you if you try to go straight and miss. Looking behind the control is not a particularly intuitive thing to do.

Distance judgement, and pace counting.  How far have you travelled since your last known point ?  Experience will improve your instinctive judgement, but many orienteers count their paces, and use pre-measured knowledge of how long their strides are to get a decent approximation to how far they’ve gone. Typically, 40 double paces might be 100m at a comfortable speed along a good level path.

Making a Plan, and sticking to it. Making a good plan, which is appropriate for your fitness and skill level, is the first part. Sticking to it in the face of distractions, is the next part. If there are 37 map features between you and your target control, you don’t need to tick them all off – choose 2 or 3 big or unique features and just look for them. This bit is called “Simplification“.

Reading the map while moving. For the confident, and easiest done on paths or steep climbs.

Traffic Lights. Let’s say your plan has some easy stages leading to a good attack point, but the feature is small and may be tricky. You go at Green (fast) to your attack point, slow down to Amber as you take careful aim, and slow down to Red as you reach the vicinity of the control.

Planning ahead (aka Control Flow). Know what you’re doing now, and what you want to do next, so you never have to stop. Planning the next leg while you’re executing the current one can be very tricky.

The sport is a unique balance of mental skills and physical strength.

Orienteering Kit

The Resources page gives two orienteering equipment suppliers, but you don’t need anything special to go round a POC:

  • the map and chosen course. nb. our maps are printed on waterproof paper
  • a way of recording your controls
  • whatever clothing and footwear you think is appropriate – going off-path may involve brambles, nettles, etc, so decent leg protection may be a good idea
  • you may feel much more confident if you carry, and use, a compass
  • time-limit Score courses need a watch
  • a GPS tracking device will help you learn, by showing where you’ve been and where you’ve wasted time