Only two things are certain in orienteering: maps and controls. Everything else depends on what sort of race you’re doing, making orienteering one of the most flexible and varied sports in the world. There are so many races that we would be hard pressed to write them all here. Ultimately, despite the transport methods ranging from feet to boats to bikes, they all boil down into two categories.
A standard orienteering race usually has only two controls and simply requires the competitors to get from one control to another as fast as they can, using the map to find the best route through the cross-country course. Because orienteering is so much about map-reading, the most direct route in an orienteering course is often deliberately not the best option, and requires some of the emphasis to be on the route-planning part of the sport. This type of orienteering is known as classic orienteering.
These races are most likely to be seen at any competitive event and are generally split into three distance categories – long distance, where the courses can be over an hour and a half, middle/medium distance, where the races tend to be about half an hour, and sprint, where the races can be under a quarter of an hour.
Many orienteering competitions also hold a relay race, where a team completes a classic orienteering course and their score is based on their combined time. In Finland, a relay called the Jukola has been held every year since 1949, with just under 1800 competing teams making it the largest orienteering relay in the world. There is a women’s equivalent, called the Venla, which usually has about 1250 teams.
Score orienteering is where there are a large number of controls and the aim is to visit as many as possible within a set time. Some controls may be worth more than others and there may be a penalty for any missed controls. Classic orienteering races can use staggered starts, but score orienteering races rarely do, if ever.
A variant of score orienteering is called rogaining. A rogaine is a large score course where endurance is key. Developed in Australia, competitors are split into small teams and work together to try and reach as many controls as possible to get the best score overall within the time. Rogaines are long orienteering races, with the shortest ones being about three hours. The competitive standard time limit is twenty-four hours.
Some Interesting Variations
Ultrasprint orienteering is a classic course that is so small it is generally in an artificial maze. Because the course is so small, it makes it easier for spectators to watch.
Night orienteering is, as the name might suggest, an orienteering race held at night. Competitors use headlamps and the controls are usually reflective. Some courses can include stretches during the day and night. In these courses, staggered starts are not used because it could give an advantage to certain teams.