Orienteering maps are drawn to a large scale, often 1:10000 (1cm on the map represents 100m on the ground) or 1:5000 (1cm = 50m). The map shows a lot of detail, much more than, for example, an Ordnance Survey map, including small features such as individual boulders, fences, and distinctive trees. It also shows the type of landscape around you, such as fields or woodland, and even how thick the woodland is; this is indicated by the colouring on the map. Using this information you can then decide whether it’s best to stay on paths, or take a more direct route. Map-reading and route choice are skills which, competitors refine with experience.

There may be a key on the map. The colour of a symbol can often help you to work out what it means.

Black – rock features e.g. cliffs, crags and boulders, and can also be used for man-made features.

Brown – land shape, including contour lines, gullies, pits and knolls (small hills).

Blue – water features, e.g. streams, lakes and ponds.

Green – density of woodland and undergrowth. The shade of green indicates how much the woodland or undergrowth is likely to impede your progress. Progressively darker shades of green mean increasing density and slower pace. Note however that open (runnable) woodland is shown in white.

Yellow – areas without trees. Solid, strong yellow is used for closely-cropped grassy areas, such as playing fields or mown areas. Paler yellow is used for rougher terrain, such as tussocky grass and heather. There can be quite a big variation in the actual runnability on light yellow areas.