IOrienteering is a fun, energetic sport, in which competitors have to run around a course with the aid of a map and compass. A number of control points are marked on the map; at each of these there is a marker flag, and a electronic punching unit. The runner carries a chip/dibber/electronic card with them and uses this to 'punch' at the unit to prove that they have visited the control.
Traditionally orienteering takes place in forest and woodland areas, although races also take place on fell and moorland areas, or even on sand dunes. Small local races can be found on commons and parkland. Some areas, particularly around here, are quite flat, but in other parts of the country you'll find yourself having to run up and down steep slopes. Recently urban races have become very popular. CUOC organises the Cambridge City Race every two years.
There is a large range of course lengths available, which depend both on the type of race and the terrain on which it is run. A beginner might start with an orange or red Colour Coded course between 3 and 6km long, while a long Regional race course might be 9-12km for men, and 7-9km for women. These lengths may sound short if you are used to road or cross-country running, but they are measured in a straight line between controls, which is often not the fastest route, and do not allow for getting lost!
These are the most common types of race. Colour Coded (Level C) races are smaller, and have a series of six or seven courses, classified by colours. These range from white (extremely short and trivially easy) through yellow, orange, red, light green, and green to blue or brown (long and hard). Runners of any age can enter whatever course they like on the day.
Regional (Level B) races are larger, and attract competitors from further away. They must usually be entered at least two weeks in advance, online or by post. Courses are again classified by colour, but there is a wider range (normally 12 courses). Each course also has allocated age classes, so that you can compete directly against your peers. The relevant age classes for students are M/W [men/women] 18 (aged 16 or 17 on 1st January), M/W20 (aged 18 or 19) and M/W21 (aged 20 to 33 on 1st January) - this is the longest and hardest class). Maps are printed on waterproof paper.
Below Colour Coded races are local races, which take place on small areas such as Coe Fen. For such races, there are often different extra rules to make small areas more challenging, such as having to remember your route and complete the course without a map.
At the top level, there are several National races a year, which attract competitors from all over the country, and have separate longer and harder "elite" courses for the very best orienteers. At Easter, there is the 'Jan Kjellstrom Festival of Orienteering', a four days of races, and the British Championships are sometime in late spring. Over the summer there is a multiday race in either Scotland, Wales or the Lake District, and there are many similar summer races all around Europe if you're feeling adventurous.
There are also variations on the usual simple course, such as mass-start relays, night races (in case you think navigation is too easy when you can see), score races (at which you have to visit as many controls as you can in a fixed time), and of course the legendary Sprint-O, which CUOC organise.
You don't need special clothes to start with, but you will need trousers rather than shorts, and often a long-sleeved top. Unless the weather is cold, you will want thin clothes so you don't get too hot. Trainers are fine for shoes, but don't wear anything too nice as they will probably suffer from undergrowth in the forest, as well as getting wet and muddy - this applies to clothes as well. Once you become a regular, you might want to buy some special CUOC orienteering kit, and some hard-wearing O-shoes.
The only fairly expensive equipment you need is a compass, but you can borrow one from the club stock if you don't have one. A whistle is advisable in steep or exposed areas to call for help if you fall over and injure yourself. Safety pins are useful for all sorts of things. If you come to larger races you'll soon get used to seeing the Ultrasport and Compass Point vans, both sell a large range of orienteering kit and equipment.
You'll probably start with a Colour Coded race, where you will need to register for your chosen course, usually at a car window or in a pop up tent. You will also need to hire a SI card (dibber). As well as the map, you'll have your dibber and some control descriptions, which tell you what feature each control is on. You need to remember to clear your SI-card (using the clear box) before you start. Having changed and got your compass ready, make your way to the start, leaving plenty of time to watch what everyone else does.
You will be called up a couple of minutes before your start time, and kept waiting in a taped box. A minute before your start time, you will move into the final box, and you will be told where to find your map. With ten seconds to go, you are allowed to step over the front line, and you are started by an electronic bleep. Pick up a map with your course marked on it straight away. At smaller races, you will have to punch a start control, but at bigger races, your time will be started automatically.
On the way round the course, each control is marked on the ground by an orange and white marker, and has an electronic unit (for electronic punching) at it with which you have to touch with your SI card. Each control is identified by a two or three figure code (given in the control descriptions) so you can't (shouldn't) punch the wrong one by mistake. Once you've visited all of the controls in order there's just the short (usually) sprint to the finish, giving you a chance to show just how fast you really are...