How to plan courses for club events

By Bruce Collins. Bruce has planned courses from small club events up to planning local area Champs and a National Champs. He is a past winner of the Silva Course Setting competition and also was the Convenor of the NZOF Technical Committee.

There are two main types of Club events, town park type maps and farm maps. While this article is aimed at farm maps the same principles apply though it is harder to get the same degree of difficulty on a park map. People might think they do not have the experience to plan courses but with a little thought everyone can do it. It doesnít take an elite orienteer to plan courses for elite orienteers and it leads on that relatively inexperienced people can plan satisfactory club events. Planning can be lots of fun and it is extremely beneficial to your own orienteering.

The main aim of planning is to give the competitors a course that is correctly designed for their capabilities, is fun and challenging, and above all that it is fair. All planners have their own pet methods but I have set out the way I do things below

Contacting the landowners

In our Club this is generally done by the President about 6 months before the event to make sure that they will be happy that there is an event on their farm on the day. When you know you will be setting the event it is a good idea to get in contact again about 6 weeks out from the event date. Itís easy for things to go wrong. When you have sorted out your courses (see below) you should contact the landowners again and ASK them if its OK for you to come out on such and such a day and do a recce. Remember the landowners are most important. Without them there would be no map.

Types of course

Its up to you what courses you provide. Generally we aim to have a minimum of a red, orange, yellow and white course. With the makeup of our club its best to have a red long and a red short as well. The red long course can be the same course as the red short but with an extra loop thrown in. There are a whole heap of course types other than the standard course and some you could try are score courses, window courses, contour only courses etc. For some reason in this club no one seems particularly adventurous and if anything other than a standard course is offered it is generally ignored in favour of the standard course.

Course length

To work out your course lengths you need to decide how long you want people to run for. I would suggest that 50 minutes for the winner of a red course is long enough. If you split it up the red long could be 60 mins and the red short 40 mins. Orange should be about 40-45 mins, yellow 35-40mins and white 25 mins. Remember that people complain if the courses are too long but generally donít complain if they are too short!

Next you need to work out what speeds the different people run on a similar terrain to your map. If your map has had events run on it in the past then there are previous results to give you a guide, otherwise you will have to look at a map with similar terrain. A number of Club members have copies of numerous newsletters and this should give you the guidance you need. (My collection goes back to 1988 and I believe Bill Irvine goes back to the late 1970ís). Armed with this info you can work out that if the winner of the red course on map A did 5km in 60 mins they were running at 12mins/km. If you want them to run only 50 mins then their course needs to be 4.2km long. Thatís why itís important to put course lengths in the results, it helps the next person. On some farm maps it is very hard to get a true red course because of all the large features and these are generally red-orange standard.

Itís a bit easier for a park map, we generally have an orange course of 5km, yellow of 3km and white of 2km.


Pick your start and finish points first. It might be OK for a major event to have a 2km walk to the start but you wonít win friends doing this at a Club event. At the typical low key club event the starter and finisher can be the same person if you make the start/finish point the same. Also this needs to be near where the cars will be parked and reasonably sheltered. Itís not much fun when the starter/finisher is huddled all by themselves on some windswept plateau

Plan your white course next. To begin I get a piece of string the length of the course and put one end on where the start will be, and the other end where the finish will be. That way you can get an idea of the area of the map that you have available for the course. Then you have to make a series of legs that follow distinct linear features. Remember that they have to follow handrails and the control must be on this handrail. Its not always easy to do this and you may need to have a few taped parts to get them from one place to another. Even though you could have them following fences all the way try to get some variation in with tracks, streams and even a large hedge if its clear enough. A lot of effort goes into white course planning and unfortunately this is the least patronised course but you still need to make the effort. Remember it can never be too easy on a white course.

Next to be planned is the red course and the piece of string method is used again to get an idea of the area able to be used. Put your string away for a while now and do some planning. Just plan some good legs without worrying about where the controls are. Good legs are ones where either there is a lot of route choice, or the navigation is difficult all the way. Once you have some good legs planned look for some feature you can use as a control site at each end. Next try and join these good legs together. Its preferable to have a course with fewer good legs joined by short links than a course made up of lot of mediocre legs. In orienteering it is the navigation on the leg that is most important, not the control at the end of the leg.

There are only four reasons for the control. First is the obvious one of marking the end of a good leg. Second is the one of moving the competitor from the end of a good leg to the beginning of the next good leg, this can be a short leg with little navigation involved. The third reason is to avoid a dogleg and the last reason is that sometimes controls are used to get people around sensitive areas or to lead them to a crossing point such as a gate in a nasty electric fence.

The orange and yellow courses follow on from the above. The orange course must have good strong attack points or large catching features behind. The yellow course is slightly similar to white in that there are strong linear features or controls very close to them, but there must be lots of opportunity for cutting across corners and the option of navigating rather than just following tracks.

Remember not to use the same control site for a red and orange course unless the orange course has fences and the red does not, or unless they are approaching from slightly different directions which give a strong attack point for the orange course. If a control position is of red quality then it is probably too hard for an orange course.

Out on the map

Once you have your courses roughed out its time to get out on the map. Before you go you should have made up a master map with all the controls marked on and the different courses marked on as well. Use different coloured pens or dashes etc to distinguish between the courses. Wander around and make sure that your proposed control positions are OK. Too often they are indistinct, too visible or just not there. If you canít really find the position then donít try and use it for a control location. Also look at the direction that people will be coming from or going to, are they too visible? Are there any objects on the horizon that may make the leg too easy? At a recent event we had a leg of 500metres in intricate terrain that would have been very hard. Unfortunately about 60m to one side of the control was this great tall poplar tree without another tree in sight. All we had to do was run flat out to the poplar and then start orienteering from there. This was at National Champs level, which proves everyone makes mistakes.

Take a note of any map corrections while you are wandering around and donít be disappointed if the control site that looked so good at home canít be used. Look for others and if necessary replan parts of your course. If you are not confident of finding your way back to the site of your control when you have to put them out mark it with a piece of string, or a splash of paint.

Novice planners will find it much harder finding the location of the control site without the control actually being there! Even experienced planner can walk around for quite a while making sure they are in the right place. While you are doing this make sure that the terrain around the control is accurate. It is important that people who have overshot the control and are coming back to it also have a correct map representation. Donít ever use a map correction as a control site and try and avoid having a control too close to a map correction.

Back home

Your courses are now set and you are happy with where the controls have to go. What now? Make up your master maps, generally two per course unless you are going to have at least a 4 minute start interval (Circle size is 5-6mm) Write up the control descriptions. Everything is ready. Not quite, you now need to do some checking. Check that both master maps for course 1 are identical, then do the next course etc until all master maps are accurate. Then get a clean map, and using the master maps and control descriptions make up a new master map for all the controls with the control number written down next to the control circle. This might seem a waste of time but its amazing how many times you find that the control number for the same control is different on the control descriptions for different courses. Use this overall master map when you are putting out the controls.

Before the event

Naturally you have to put the controls out. Two of Murphyís laws come into effect here. The first is "It always takes longer to put out controls than you think". Even now it still takes me an hour to put out 10 controls and thatís at a jog and knowing where the controls are going. Murphyís second law is "It is usually raining or bitterly cold when you put the controls out. If it is sunny and warm you can be confident that it will rain either during the event or when you are collecting the controls" Most importantly make sure the control is in the right place!

Make sure that you have enough people to help on the day. Who is bringing the caravan? Who will man the start? Finish etc? Ask people to do certain jobs before the day. Its no good just expecting people to do certain things on the day because they may not turn up, or may have to leave early. Control collecting is an especially hard one. Some days there will be lots of people offering to help and on other days none at all. If someone knows that they have to collect controls then they wont go out and do a second course and then say sorry they are too tired. Organise in advance.

On the Day

Donít forget anything! Obvious, but lots of people have had to go home to get the maps! They usually only do it once though! Be prepared early. Another of Murphyís laws applies here "If you are ready early everyone turns up late: If you are running late everyone turns up early" Donít expect lots of praise. Apart from the odd exception, people do not say anything much about good courses but they do say a lot about bad courses or mistakes. Some experienced competitors can be quite rude about certain aspects of courses without realising they are giving offence. Have a thick skin and treat every compliment as gem. Savour it

Some doís and doníts

General Stuff

The art of really good course planning is a lot more complicated than above and the experienced planner thinks of all sorts of ways to lead the competitor into making mistakes such as trying to tempt them into making parallel errors, contour height errors etc. There are a number of good books available and I have a few if anyone is interested.

Most importantly course planning can be fun as well as being a great learning experience. If you think you might be interested get in contact with someone on the committee and we can organise an event for you. If you have never done it before it is sometimes nice to have a more experienced buddy to give a hand and this can be arranged too.