Route choice

by Margaret Jones, Uringa Training Officer

Good course planners will be trying to offer you legs which have multiple possible routes between the controls. In theory the route choices will be roughly equal but this is not always the case.

What makes a good route choice will depend on the orienteer himself, his age, fitness, and experience and even how he is feeling on the day. Fundamentally route choice is about choosing that route between the controls which will get the individual orienteer to the target in the shortest possible time.

This must of course be seen in the context of the overall race; there is no point having one great leg which then leaves you exhausted for the rest of the race, with neither leg or brain power to tackle the course competently. And of course, sometimes it is better to take the longer route on a path, to give you time to plan for later in the course, or to give your legs a work out whilst your brain has a rest!

Looking at the individual leg between controls the orienteer needs to rummage around in his bag of tools and see which one are going to ensure that he gets to the control securely as the highest speed possible in the terrain. The key techniques to consider:


  • Reading contour to optimise distance vs climb vs speed
  • Availability of handrails – for novices this will include paths, streams, fences and for the moreadvanced vegetation boundaries, and lines of rock features contours
  • Aiming off

Approaching the control

  • Attack points
  • Catching features

Key tips about route choice:

  • Choose and plan the whole route between legs before you set out from the control
  • Once you have made your choice do not second guess – it just wastes time!
  • Experienced orienteers should follow the red line unless there is a very good reason why not
  • Experienced orienteers should be able to route plan several legs in advance

Here are some other techniques we talked about on the recent beginners course. I hope you find it a useful refresher!

Map simplification – long and short map duration review

Map simplification is about understanding the general layout of the map considering:

  •  Contour features (see Wk3)
  • Major man made features – roads, tracks, buildings
  • Major natural features – lakes, streams, rock features

Long map duration review refers to the time that an orienteer takes to understand the map when he starts his race. He takes a long time (relatively) to read and memorise the map features so that he can then concentrate on the finer details between controls.

Having assessed the map he then looks at his course and decides what are the major features of the routes he will have to take – i.e. is the course set around a ridge?, are there spur/gully features to consider?, will he be using rock features to guide him generally?

He might also decide which techniques will be important – featureless eucalypt might require compass bearing work, and pace counting, whereas rock and boulder fields may require feature picking and very specific attack points.

Short map duration review takes places during the race and allows the orienteer to check that he is going in the right direction, finding the right features along the way and making the right sort of distance judgements.

The map is folded to the right part of the map (see ‘Thumbing the map’ Wk1) and held at chest level so that the orienteer can flick his eyes at the map at the right place without interrupting his run.

Rough vs fine orienteering

Rough orienteering refers to orienteering at high speeds with only a general reference to map detail. It is generally used on longer route legs and when the orienteer is comfortable he knows where he is going and what major feature he looking for before he starts to look for his control.

It is used where there isn’t major risk of going astray, but where it doesn’t matter if you know precisely where you are at any point until you hit your major feature/ attack point/ aiming off attack point. Understanding the shape of the land is important when rough orienteering.

Fine orienteering is used towards the end of legs where the orienteer wants to know precisely where he is as he approaches the control. Smaller features are used to pinpoint position.

Traffic light orienteering

This is a version of rough vs fine orienteering and just lets the orienteer break down the leg into manageable pieces related to:

  • Speed of run
  • Distance to the control
  • Features on the map

The route is broken down backwards, looking at the control site and working out the attack point and approach to the control.

  • Green – rough orienteering, highest speed, wide focus on the map
  • Amber – finer orienteering, slower speed, narrowing focus on the map and approach to attackpoint
  • Red – fine orienteering, slow approach into the control, precise focus

Russell Blatchford wrote in the Australian Orienteer 2011 about the need to break long legs down into smaller parts and treat each part as a separate control, in order to make navigation more secure. This is the same technique really as traffic light orienteering but gives you security on the longer legs by chopping the distance up into manageable sections.

Planning in the deadzone

Not all legs on a course require the same amount of planning. Where the terrain is flat, the route choice obvious and the attack point clear orienteers refer to these areas as ‘deadzones’. Significant time can be made up on subsequent legs by planning later legs for route choice, attack points and fine orienteering requirements whilst running through the ‘deadzone’. Just make sure you are working in the ‘deadzone’ and haven’t just turned your legs on and your brain off – pretty much a recipe for disaster!