An orienteering course consists of a start, a series of control points identified by circles on the map, and a finish.
At the start, each orienteer receives a map overlayed with a set of symbols in purple:
- A triangle that corresponds to the point where the orienteering begins and materialized on the ground by a control flag (orange and white prism), without code or control system;
- Circles that correspond to control points, materialized on the ground by control flags, with a code defined for each one and which are accompanied by an electronic station and/or a puncher. The orienteer, by inserting his electronic chip on the station, or by punching his control card, proves that he has passed through each point;
- Two concentric circles that correspond to the arrival, normally materialized on the ground by a control flag, and also accompanied by an electronic station (and/or a puncher).
On a traditional orienteering course, all control points must be visited in the order indicated on the map.
The route to follow between the control points is not defined and is decided by each participant. This element of choosing a route and being able to find your way through the forest is the essence of orienteering.
Most orienteering events use the time trial system with interval starts so that the orienteer has the possibility of individually making their own choices. But there are many other formats, including relays and mass start events.