Intermediate Orienteering Skills

Lesson 10: Improving Your Contour Navigation

By Anthony Scott, 2020
Exercise 1: By looking at the contours, give a brief description of the shapes and slopes of the landscape (the profile) that you would be traversing if you navigated straight to each control on this course. For instance, start to control 1; “short downhill to the broad gully then a steady climb up a moderate sized hill. The control is located about halfway up the hill, at the top of a a shallow gully.”

The advantage of contours (representing the slope and shape of the land) is that they are always around you. At any stage in an event, you can stop and cross-check the contours. ‘Point’ features such as rocky ground or termite mounds can be easily missed, while other point features such as small boulders can be hard to distinguish from other nearby rocks. Another advantage of contours is that they never change over time. Tracks, clearings and termite mounds might disappear, but contours remain the same.

The contours on an orienteering map are very accurate and every little curve or bend will be indicating a small gully or spur. The contours indicate the size of the gully or spur (by the number of contours) and its shape (by how sharp or rounded the contours are).

The contours also provide an accurate indication of any changes in steepness. If the contours come closer together, this indicates that the hillside is getting steeper. If they are spreading out, it indicates that the hillside is getting flatter.

Always think contours. Even on complex rock maps, contours are the number one navigational aid. Combine this with accurate compass direction and you’ve got a winner!

Read the contour detail to maintain exact location

As you execute each leg, you should always be aware of the general shape of the land around you (big hills, gullies, ridges, saddles etc). Also look carefully at the map and tell yourself whether you should be climbing, dropping or contouring, then make certain you do! To maintain exact location, cross-check the smaller contour features (shallow gullies, small knolls, small spurs, changes in slope) as well as any other significant point features (eg. large rocks or cliffs).

As you progress towards the next control, keep looking ahead at the hills, valleys and slopes, and also scan to the left and right. Cross-check these shapes and slopes with the contours on the map. If it doesn’t make sense, STOP, and take a more careful look at the map and at the forest around you.

Use Your Compass

Keep checking your compass to ensure you have your map orientated and you are going in the correct direction. Check your map orientation whenever you look at the map.

Avoiding parallel errors

A parallel error is where you accidently end up on a similar, but wrong. adjacent linear feature. As you cross any gullies or ridge lines (or any other linear features), stop and check that they line up with your map. If they don’t align with the map, stop and check that you haven’t made a parallel error.

Estimating distance

In some instances, it might be useful to have an idea of the approximate distance to the next major feature (or the control), especially in areas where there is very little other detail. For instance, is it 20, 50, or 100 metres to the next control?

A useful technique is to visualise distances that you are already familiar with. For instance, a cricket pitch is about 20m long, an Olympic swimming pool is 50m long and a soccer field is about 100m long. This can help avoid simple errors where you stop well short of a control (stopping after 20m when it is actually 100m away) or alternatively over-running a control. Distance estimation does not need to be exact, it is just another tool that complements your main navigational technique of keeping in contact with the map by cross-checking the contours and other detail on the map.

(Note: Some orienteers try to estimate distance more accurately by pace counting. This is not recommended because it will distract you from the more important navigational task of reading the map. It is also quite unreliable, especially in thick forest or steep and rocky terrain.


There will be occasions when you want to contour across a hillside, neither gaining nor losing height. In most instances this can be achieved through careful map reading and cross checking of mapped features on the hillside.

However, on vague hillsides with very little mapped detail, this becomes more difficult, and it is fairly easy to accidently deviate downhill or uphill without realising. A simple method to rectify this problem is to sight a distinct tree (or any other distinct feature) that is at the same height as you, and then run to it. Repeat this process as you traverse the hillside.

Estimating height

It is useful to have some idea of heights. This helps distinguish between different sized knolls and ridges, as well as how deep a gully might be. An understanding of

height also helps when assessing different route choice options that might include going around or over a hill.

A simple technique is to compare the height with a high rise apartment block, assuming each floor is about 5 metres high (or equivalent to one contour). So a 2 contour hill is a similar height to a two storey apartment block and doesn’t take too much effort to climb. A 10 contour hill, however, is equivalent to a 10 storey apartment block and will take considerable time and effort to climb. Height estimation does not need to be exact, it is just another tool that complements your main navigational technique of keeping in exact contact with the map.

In Summary

For all ‘bush’ events, the primary navigational technique should be accurate reading of the contours and constantly checking your compass direction. Contours and compass!