The Map, and Control Descriptions

Orienteering Maps and Control Descriptions are used in orienteering to help us find our way around a course and to check that we have found the right location (called a control).

The Map

Warmley Forest Park

We need a map to find our way round the course. All orienteering maps in the world are drawn to the same specification, so it’s easy to orienteer in Poland and Japan! The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) is responsible for producing the specification.  

Orienteering maps are very detailed and at scales much larger than OS maps; they are commonly at 1:10,000 - which is five times the scale of a typical OS map.  The colours used on map need to be learned, so the runner knows what terrain they are looking for. For example: for newcomers to the sport, one of the potentially confusing mappings is the use of white space to represent runnable forest.  

On an orienteering map the following colours are typically used:

  • Black is used for manmade features such as buildings and paths.
  • Brown shows landforms such as contours and ditches.
  • Blue shows water features such as ponds and streams.
  • White and Green show the density of woodland and the extent to which it is runnable. Open runnable woodland is shown as white, with darker shades of green showing more wooded areas.
  • Yellow is used for open areas.

Maps will have a legend and the symbols are easy to recognise after a few events.

Sprint Orienteering (also Urban and City Orienteering) use different map specifications.

There is a handy to download and print guide to map symbols available at

Map Symbols

Full details of map specifications are at this link on the IOF site.


Control Descriptions

On most maps there is also a control description box. The purpose of the box is to tell you what you will find when you get to the right location (a control). The box tells you what order you must visit the controls; the number of the control you are visiting on your course; and what feature you would expect to see there. It could be a path junction, a tree, a fence etc. The pictorial version is the same the world over; drawn up by the IOF.  Beginners usually have written descriptions.  

On our Permanent and Virtual orienteering courses the control description boxes are on the map.

There is a handy to download and print guide to control descriptions available at

Control Descriptions

When you are at an organised event and waiting in the start lane, you will also see separate control description sheets. It can be useful when running to have these separate from your map. Most orienteers have a holder on their forearm for them, otherwise just bring a safety pin and pin it on your front. They are waterproof!

Setting the map and using a compass

The videos below provide instruction on how to set your map and also using a compass.

< Previous
Types of course and difficulty levels
Next >
Starting on your first permanent or virtual course