Orienteering with Kids

This month we’ve been trying out orienteering as a family, and we’ve had a blast! It was a great way to get out and about exploring our local area, and work on our map skills, whilst having lots of fun. Read about our adventures below, with some suggestions for how to get started yourself.

What is Orienteering?

Orienteering is an adventure sport where you need to navigate from point to point using a map and compass, whilst moving at speed.

In simpler terms: Orienteering is navigating whilst running!

(Disclaimer: we had the babies with us so the adults didn’t actually run, much to our older children’s disappointment!)

Where can we go Orienteering?

In the UK, there are local orienteering clubs around the country which put on training and events. In some areas, there are special events to introduce children to orienteering, called Xplorer events. Do look out for one of these in your local park.

There are also permanent courses which you can do by yourself at any time, and at any pace (including a very leisurely one like us!). You can find permanent orienteering courses in your local area on the Go Orienteering website. There is a search facility so that you can easily find courses within a certain radius.

Permanent orienteering courses have a set of numbered checkpoints in a local wood, nature reserve or other green space. You can download a map from the Go Orienteering website and use it to make your way around the course. You can time yourself if you want to, or simply enjoy the process. Some sites have more than one course available.

Permanent Orienteering course marker in a local park

Go Orienteering also have some virtual orienteering courses available. For these courses, there are no physical markers on the ground, instead you can find your route and mark your process using GPS on your phone.

We chose to use a course with physical markers because I thought it would be more exciting for our small children. You do need to log in to the Go Orienteering website in order to download and print maps, but this was very straightforward, and all the activities that we wanted to use were free.

What equipment will I need to go orienteering with kids?

If you are just trying out orienteering using one of the permanent courses, you really don’t need very much equipment. You will need:

  • A map from the Go Orienteering website
  • A compass
  • Trainers, walking shoes or boots (depending on the terrain)

We also prepared for our adventure by watching this video about orienteering for children. This meant that all the way round our course my children were telling me “Mummy, you need to run! They were running in the video!”

How do we navigate the orienteering course?

Orienteering maps are a bit different from OS Maps, and have a high level of detail. The maps we used ranged from 1:10,000 to 1:3,000, which is zoomed in pretty close. We didn’t immediately understand all the map symbols (and still don’t!) but we could follow enough to get started.

  • The start point is shown by a triangle. The finish point is shown by a double circle. These will be on top of each other if the course starts and finishes in the same place.
  • Different types of terrain are shown in different colours: blue for water, black for manmade feature (e.g. a fence), brown for contours, and white and green for woodland.
  • The checkpoints are shown as numbered circles. The checkpoint (also known as a ‘control’) is located at the centre of the circle marked on the map. There is a ‘control description box’ at the side of the map which is a guide to what to look out for when you reach the circle.

For the permanent courses that we tried, there were a couple of different suggested orders for visiting the checkpoints. This means that you can choose a route that is the right length and difficulty for your family.

Orienteering with kids: how did we get on?

We really really enjoyed orienteering as a family! Our children did most of the navigation, with a bit of help from us. They were excited to find each new checkpoint and match the checkpoint number back to their trail on the map. This was a fantastic opportunity for them to take the lead in planning our adventure, and honing their map-reading skills.

All the courses that we tried were in places that were already familiar to us, but orienteering got us exploring new parts of these local green spaces.

Bught Park Orienteering Course

The first course we tried was in Bught Park. This course was almost entirely buggy-friendly, with one slightly tricky steep slope up to a footbridge. We did the ‘Short Urban’ course, which was actually slightly on the long side for us, and we cut it short after 8 checkpoints which was 3.3km for us (including a small amount of going wrong!). The course zigzags around all over the park, which means that you sometimes pass checkpoints several times. With hindsight, we would probably have enjoyed it even more if we had challenged ourselves just to find all the checkpoints and choose the order and route ourselves.

Bught Park permanent orienteering course

The brilliant thing about Bught Park is that when we had finished we went straight off to play in the Whin Park playground! The orienteering map also revealed that the tarmac in the playground is dinosaur shaped, something I had never noticed before.

Ord Hill Orienteering Course

We had such a good time that a few days later we decided to try the Ord Hill orienteering course. This is in a woodland environment with more difficult terrain underfoot, and we took baby carriers rather than the buggy.

Ord Hill trig point. One of the orienteering checkpoints is nearby!

There are two suggested routes, one of which sticks to paths, and one of which is more adventurous. We took the safer, shorter route, and although it did stick to the paths, there were one or two fairly boggy patches! Ord Hill is a great place to explore with lots of natural beauty, a Pictish hill fort, some lovely viewpoints over the firth, and even a trig point. The orienteering course took us to some parts of the hill that we hadn’t explored before. It was the perfect length for our small children. We had absolutely no complaints or whinging at all, so we know they were having a good time!

Ord Hill orienteering course: a view of the Beauly Firth

Nairn Links Orienteering Course

We also had a go at the Nairn Links permanent orienteering course. This is a fantastic course to do with small children, and it was very possible to complete the route with a buggy. A couple of waypoints were slightly off to the side of the path, but not far at all.

Nairn Links orienteering course

For this course we decided to choose our own route around the checkpoints and try to reach them as efficiently as possible. With entirely child-led navigation we completed the route in 2.2km, including an ice-cream deviation! There is a fun puzzle to complete as you go along, unscrambling the letters that you find on each checkpoint.

Once you are finished, continue the fun at the beach, the playground or the splash park!

Orienteering is definitely something that we want to try again. We have already been looking up the other local orienteering courses so that we can plan our next adventure!

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