The New England Orienteering Club

What is orienteering?

"punching" a controlOrienteering is a fun outdoor activity in which you run (or walk) a course in the woods, using only a map and compass to guide you. "Control" locations are marked on your map, and your goal is to find them in the woods. This can be as competitive as you want; from a nice relaxed stroll in the woods, to making your competitors eat your dust!

It is enjoyed by kids, families, groups, individuals and is good training for adventure racers.

Also known as the "Thinking Sport": it is not always the fastest runner who wins.

"Controls" (the orange-and-white flags) are set at identifiable "features" in the mapped area; such as a large boulder, path junction, cliff, stream, stone wall, etc. At a typical orienteering meet, you want to visit all the controls on your course, in order, as quickly as you can.

I've never orienteered before. How can I learn to orienteer?

Getting started in orienteering is easy. Beginner Instruction is provided at all regular local NEOC events; ask the volunteer at Registration.

Some events (National Ranking Events, night-O,...) are not suitable for beginners and therefore instruction is not provided. If in doubt, contact the meet director.

Instruction includes the basics of how to read and orient the map and follow trails, learning the features included on the map, such as boulders, walls, streams, cliffs, dark green, and swamp, and safety procedures such as safety bearings, carrying a whistle for safety and returning within the time limit (typically 3 hours) whether or not the course has been completed.

NEOC occasionally schedules events designed specifically for newcomers and beginners. Keep an eye on the schedule.

What happens at a typical, local NEOC event? Walk me through it.

If you need Beginner Instruction, ask at Registration.

Before registering, you can check out the Menu of Courses to help you decide which course to run (also, see "Which course should I do..." below). First-timers should start with a White course, then try a Yellow course.

At the Registration table, show your NEOC Member Card. If you are not a current NEOC member, sign the Liability Waiver and pay the entry fee (see "How much does it cost..." below).

Tell the volunteer worker which course you will be doing. You will be given a detailed map of the area with your course printed on it, a plastic bag for the map, and a Safety Card
You can borrow a compass and/or a finger-stick, if needed.

If you borrow a finger-stick, you'll be asked to leave car keys to ensure its return. Please use the finger-stick's wrist cord! If you lose a NEOC stick, we'll have to charge you to replace it.

Fill out the Safety Card. This provides information for the electronic timing system (and serves as a backup in case of computer failure) to keep track of who is in the woods. Please print legibly so that your name is properly spelled for posterity in the Results
The volunteer at Registration will collect your Safety Card.

Clear and Check your finger-stick, to erase any old data on it. The Registration worker will show you how.

When you are ready to go out on your course, make sure you have your map, finger-stick, compass, a watch, a whistle and anything else you want to take (e.g. water bottle; see "What clothing and equipment..." below).

The electronic controls are easy to use. See this slideshow for details. The basic steps are:

  1. Clear and Check your finger-stick.
  2. Punch the Start box.
  3. Punch the box at each control on your course.
  4. Punch the Finish box.
  5. Download the data on your finger-stick at the timing computer.

For safety reasons, you must report to the timing computer even if you don't finish the course.
We want to know that everyone is safely out of the woods! Otherwise, we have to send out a search party.

Additionally, you must not be out longer than 3 hours, and must return by the "Courses Close" time (usually 2 P.M.). The volunteers want to go home!

If you have a "loaner" finger-stick or compass, return it at the Registration table.

Have a snack and water, and discuss route choices with other orienteers.
Current results are displayed at the timing computer. Final results are usually online the evening of the event.

Which course should I do on my first time out? What do the course colors mean?

Regular Orienteering courses are color coded. As a beginner, you should start with a White course. If you complete the White easily, and you get back at least 10 min before the end of Start Times, then try the Yellow course. To do this, go to the Registrar for a new map and Safety Card. Then turn in your Safety Card at the timing computer, Clear/Check your finger-stick, and Start. Please remember to check out at the timing computer before you leave, even if you don't complete a course. It's the only way for us to know that you are safely out of the woods.


Level / Age Group Classes


White (W)

Beginner (controls located on trails)

1-3 km

Yellow (Y)

Advanced Beginner (controls located near trails)

2-4 km

Orange (O)

Intermediate (many controls away from trails)

3-5 km

Green (G)

Advanced (controls off trail)

4-6 km

Red (R)

Advanced (controls off trail)

6-8 km

Blue (B)

Advanced (controls off trail)

8-12 km


Advanced (short legs, quick decision-making)

2-3 km

Why is there a 3-Hour time limit? What should I do if I don't finish the course? Or lose my finger-stick?

The 3-hour time limit is for your safety. You must return to the finish within 3 hours of your start time, or before course closing time, whichever comes first. If you lose your finger-stick in the woods, simply punch your map using the pin-punch attached to every control stand. Even if you don't finish your course or you lose your finger-stick, you must check in at the timing computer to let us know you are out of the woods safely. If you do not check in, or are out longer than 3 hours, we will assume you are lost or injured and we will send out a search party. Some Parks even require us to contact the Police, so please be aware of the time. Wear a watch or carry your phone.

I understand that NEOC is run by volunteers. How can I help?

All NEOC jobs, from Event Worker, Event Director and Course Setter to Meet Coordinator, Webmaster, President, and Treasurer are performed by volunteers. So we need your help. Jobs vary widely, so there is something for everyone.

Event Workers are always needed, but it can be tough for the Event Directors to recruit enough volunteers, so please let them know if you are available.

Getting the Schedule out every season is another big challenge. It is very helpful to have volunteers step forward and offer to be Event Director or Course Setter. Want to be a Course Setter, but have no experience? No problem! An advisor can be assigned to help you.

If you are willing to help (thank you!), talk to an NEOC Officer, meet director, or even the person currently doing a job you might be interested in.

Do I have to orienteer alone? Can we go as a group?

At regular local NEOC events, you can compete on all courses as an individual or as a group. For groups, we recommend a maximum of 3 people (so that everyone can help with navigation). Everyone in the group should have a map and a compass.

If you are the leader of a group of minors (e.g. Scouts or JROTC), please bring a signed waiver for each member of the group.

Are you bringing a large group? Give the Meet Director some advance notice so we can be sure to have enough maps printed.

How do I become an NEOC member? What are the benefits of membership?

You can submit a membership form online and pay by credit card or check, or join at any NEOC event.

Membership options, fees, and benefits are explained here.

What clothing and equipment should I bring? How about a compass?

  • If doing a White or Yellow course, wear whatever clothing you would normally for a trail hike or run (this is very weather dependent, so wear layers which you can remove if it gets too warm). And comfortable walking shoes or lightweight hiking boots. When you move up to Orange and above, you will be off-trail, so wear clothing that doesn't snag (and that you don't mind if it tears), shin guards/gaiters, and lightweight hiking or trail running shoes.
  • Wear a watch. You must return to the start table within 3 hours or by the time courses close, whichever is earlier.
  • We recommend that you carry a whistle for emergencies (3 quick blows).
  • A water bottle. (Longer courses will have a water stop, indicated on the map.)
  • A small number of compasses are available for loan at registration. If you want to buy a compass, you can get perfectly good ones for about $10-15 at camping and sporting goods stores. A simple baseplate compass works very well for orienteering.

What is the purpose of the control descriptions? What do all of those symbols mean?

On the map, a circle is drawn around the feature where the control is located. However, this circle covers a large area, so the control description is used to give you details (clues) about the feature and the exact location of the control. For example, if the control is on a boulder, but in the circle you can see two boulders, then the control description would specify which boulder, the size of the boulder and which side of the boulder you will find the control. The control description will also list an ID number (code) for each control; this corresponds to the number you will find attached to each control in the woods.

On White and Yellow courses, these descriptions are spelled out in English. On control descriptions for Orange and above, you will find symbols (which are used all over the world - so no language barrier).
The International Orienteering Federation publishes the specifications for control description symbols.

How do I interpret an orienteering map? What do the colors and symbols mean?

Each map includes a legend. The symbols and colors in the legend are the same on all orienteering maps. The most common map symbols are summarized here
The International Orienteering Federation publishes the specifications for orienteering maps.

Orienteering maps are aligned to Magnetic North. There is no need to compensate for declination (the difference between magnetic north and geographic north).

What's a Score-O? What are the different types of orienteering?

There can be variations on all of the following event types. Our Fun-O events are usually a Score-O with a theme (e.g. instead of being assigned point values, each control might have a playing card assigned to it, and your goal is to make up a high scoring poker hand).

  • Foot-O: Regular course found at most local events. Controls must be visited in a specific order.
  • Score-O: Controls are assigned a point value and can be visited in any order. Highest score within time-limit wins (usually 90 min). Points deducted if overtime.
  • Trail-O: Designed for the disabled, but a challenge to all. The mental portion of the sport: from a designated location on the trail, competitors must determine which of the several controls they can see, is the one circled on their map. Not as easy as it sounds.
  • Night-O: Foot-O course after sunset.  Flashlights a must.
  • Relay: Teams of orienteers run consecutive courses.
  • Motala: A one person relay; you run the first course, get a new map, run second course, etc...
  • Bike-O: Compete on mountain bike.
  • Canoe-O, Kayak-O: Courses on water.
  • Tri-O: a mini adventure race. A combination of 3 events (e.g. foot, bike and canoe).
  • Ski-O, Snowshoe-O: When Mother Nature is nice enough to give us snow.
  • String-O: For young children. Controls over a small area are linked with string or ribbon.
  • Photo-O: Done in the comfort of your home. You try to figure out where on a map, the photos were taken. There is also a version that can be done in the woods.
  • Extreme-O, Command-O: a Foot-O course with obstacles.
  • Long Distance Events: For experienced orienteers. Goat an extra long Foot-O course; Blue Hills Traverse NEOC’s annual Goat event; Hudson Highlander HVO's annual 26.2 km Goat event; Rogaine (not related to the hair product, though you might need it if your hair falls out from frustration during the event) a large Score-O course, covering lots of territory, usually on a USGS map, with a choice of time-limits, usually 6, 12 and 24 hours, done in teams of at least 2 people.
  • Training Exercises: Line-O the course is drawn as a line on your map. If you follow correctly, you will come across controls, which you then must mark on your map; Memory-O you don't carry the course drawn on a map. You have to memorize it, then do it.

What's a BYOM?

See the separate BYOM FAQ.

What's an NRE? What are the different types of events?

  • Local Events (also termed B or C) are organized by a club and attended mostly by local residents.
  • National Ranking Events (a.k.a. NREs, formerly "A-Events") are also organized by a club, but the event and courses are sanctioned by the Orienteering USA (specific rules must be followed). These are attended by US and international orienteers, and may include a championship event. Pre-registration is required. These are often 2 day events. NREs are open to all. Beginner Instruction might not be offered.

How much does it cost to orienteer?

  Non-Member NEOC Member
Age 6 and younger Free Free
Age 7—21 $5
Age 22 and over $10
Family Maximum $25
Group Rate $20 + $2/participant
Group leader must notify the Meet Director at least 2 days prior to the meet.
Additional Courses Free
SI timing card
("finger stick")
$10 rental


  • Your entry fee is for the event, not for a single course. Beginners are encouraged to complete the White course, then try the Yellow course.
  • These fees are for "recreational" meets, excluding special events like the Traverse or National Ranking Events.

Volunteer to help — Meet workers orienteer for free.

Friendly reminder: If you attend more than a few NEOC meets a year, it's cheaper to be a member! Check out the membership fees. Join at a meet and orienteer for free that day (and the rest of of the year!).

I've forgotten the metric system. What are the conversion factors for km and m?

1 km = 0.62 mi or 1,094 yards

1 m = 3.3 ft or 1.1 yards

Will the event be canceled because of bad weather?

Spring, summer, and fall events will be held rain or shine. Ski-O events may be canceled if snow conditions or road conditions (e.g., state of emergency in effect due to weather conditions) are poor.

What is a staggered start or interval start?

Participants start at assigned times, usually at 2-minute intervals. Individuals or teams running different courses usually are allowed to use the same start time.

How can I purchase one of your maps?

NEOC only sells permanent course maps (a great way to try orienteering other than at a scheduled event). See the the list of Permanent Courses.

Where can I purchase a finger-stick? (a.k.a. 'dibber' or 'e-punch card')

finger stickIn the Resources menu there is an entry for Orienteering Vendors. Many of these vendors sell finger-sticks through their websites. The capabilities of the various SPORTident "cards" (finger-sticks) are detailed at

How can I purchase a NEOC uniform top?

Our uniform vendor requires a sizable order. As such, we will collect orders for NEOC-branded gear maybe once a year. Any order period will be announced on the NEOC homepage and in the NEOC Update emails.

Do you offer classes or training?

Beginner instruction is available at NEOC meets from 10:00-11:00 AM. If you plan to bring a group for instruction, please give the meet director advance notice.

NEOC members sometimes offer classes and training to schools and other youth groups, on a volunteer and paid basis.

Do you have a Lost-and-Found?

Any "lost" items that are left behind after an event will be listed on that event's Results page. You could also contact the Event/Meet Director. Their contact link will usually be on the Results page.

What's the story behind the hedgehog drawing on your website and maps?

troll colorThat's the NEOC Troll! It came to us from Sweden via Lena Bengtsson, artist and wife of our first club President. Read Lena's story of the NEOC Troll.

Want more information? Send e-mail to NEOC.

Thanks to Hudson Valley Orienteering (HVO) for giving NEOC permission to use some of the FAQ from their website.