Orienteering Course Levels

How do I choose a course? What do all the course colors mean?

Short Answer:

White: Beginner Course 1.5-3km Easy
Yellow: Beginner Course, Longer than White 2.5-4km Easy
Orange: Intermediate Course, Medium length 4-7km Moderate
Green: Advanced course, Medium length 4-7km Hard
Red: Advanced course, Long length 6-10km Hard

Keep in mind that we offer Beginner Instruction at most of our meets. Even if you don’t have any map and compass experience whatsoever, we can teach you the basics to get you started on one of the beginner courses.


Long Answer:

This information first appeared as an article by Karen Dennis in the “Beginners’ Clinic” section in the June 1995 issue of “Orienteering North America”. ONA is available by subscription and is also available as a free benefit of membership in with Orienteering USA. Karen Dennis is an experienced orienteer, course setter, and mapper.

This is a description of the orienteering course levels and the skills required to do each one — ordered from easiest to hardest. This list is to help you decide which orienteering course to select. Above all, remember that orienteering is intended to be fun. Choose the course which challenges your current skill level but is still easy enough to be fun for you.


White Course — for the beginner

Choose this novice course if you are just beginning to orienteer and have had little or no experience. The White course is usually suitable for kids.

Before starting you should know:

  • how to interpret map symbols and colors (legend).
  • how to orient the map to North using a compass and/or land features.
  • what the basic objectives and rules of orienteering competition are.
  • what to do when hopelessly lost (i.e., how to use a “safety bearing”).

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • following land features (“handrails” such as trails, roads and streams).
  • learning to relate the map to features on the ground.
  • judging the distance between control locations.
  • gaining self-confidence in map reading.


Yellow Course — for the experienced beginner

Choose this beginner course if you have had some experience with orienteering and are quite comfortable with the White beginner course, or you have done some hiking using topographical maps.

The Yellow course is usually suitable for kids and adult beginners.

Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the white course above.
  • how to read contour lines.
  • how to select and follow a “handrail”.
  • how to select and use an “attack point”.
  • how to interpret a scale and judge rough distance.
  • how to take a rough compass bearing.
  • how to select a route choice (safer vs. shorter).
  • how to “recover” from an error by backtracking to your last known point.

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • following handrails to an attack point (rather than to the control).
  • taking a bearing from the attack point to the control.
  • judging fine distance between the attack point and the control.
  • selecting between simple route choices.
  • recognizing “collecting features” and “catching features”.
  • reading and interpreting contours.
  • recovering using attack points and maps features.


Orange Course — for the intermediate orienteer

Choose this intermediate course if you are moderately experienced with orienteering, you have mastered the White course, and have done a few Yellow courses very comfortably.

Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the White and Yellow courses.
  • how to navigate with or without a “handrail”.
  • how to select and use “collecting features” and “catching features”.
  • how to “aim off”.
  • how to “simplify” a map.
  • how to follow a compass bearing.
  • how to recognize and avoid “parallel errors”.
  • how to read IOF control descriptions.

This course is designed to introduce you to, and give you experience in:

  • how to navigate cross-country with confidence.
  • how to make route choices (according to your personal strengths and weaknesses).
  • recovering from “parallel errors” and other mistakes.
  • fine map reading while traveling.
  • visualization of contours.
  • judging physical challenges and pacing yourself.


Green Course — medium-distance course for the advanced orienteer

Choose this competitive-level course if you are an experienced orienteer and have done several Orange courses with confidence.

Before starting you should know:

  • everything listed for the other courses.
  • how to “pace count”.
  • advanced techniques such as attacking from above, contouring, thumbing your map, red light, yellow light, green light.
  • how to evaluate your own physical and orienteering skills.
  • extensive recovery techniques.

This course is designed to give you experience in:

  • pacing yourself (physically).
  • recognizing the challenges presented to you by the course setter.
  • perfecting your orienteering skills.
  • discrimination of mapping details.


Red Course — longer course for the advanced orienteer

The Red course has the same degree of technical difficulty as Green; but varies only in the length of the course and in the physical challenge.