What is “No-Touch” Smartphone Orienteering?

Orienteering, as a sport, has permanently changed. The two drivers of this change are the widespread availability of GPS receivers and magnetic compasses in smart phones and smart watches, and social norms regarding personal interaction and contact. Several Orienteering clubs are attempting to maintain schedules with “no-touch” events, but these events have no mechanism to safely make money, and require the use of a compass, which many people do not own.

One very important issue that must be addressed is that controls (or waypoints) need to change to reflect the way people interact with their environment. People don’t use compasses and maps anymore, they use smartphones. Newer and younger users are not able to interact with this recreational opportunity because they don’t own the older equipment; many don’t own a traditional compass, although they do own a smartphone. 

A search of orienteering apps on Google Play shows approximately 20 apps that are available for download. None of these apps include a revenue model that benefits clubs or organizations. Some apps are free and some cost as much as $4.99.

Our app is finished and is on Google Play and the iTunes store. There have been many suggestions about how an “orienteering” app should work. While traditional orienteering clubs spend hours and dollars to develop courses and maps, we’ve never seen maps more accessible to us than we do today. Sometimes its ok just to find a nice outdoor location to visit a course and run (or walk fast) with your virtual neighbors.

Our app does this and more:

The features of the NTO app:

  1. FREE for all users.
  2. Internet is NOT required to run a course. It is required only to sign up or download new courses. WiFi is fine for this, so you never need a SIM card (provisioned) phone.
  3. All courses require a waiver to run. No waiver? No course.
  4. No mixed controls. This is a GPS only app. There are no QR codes. You can’t mix QR codes and GPS to “complete” a control. Putting a control in a “difficult’ location is really not part of the goal, but if it is done (on a difficult course) it should be fair for everyone.
  5. The courses must be safe and accessible by anyone. Courses accessible to the handicapped should be marked as such.
  6. Teams, families, scrambles, age categories, nicknames, ok!
  7. There are clues to every control, in plain language. No symbols to learn.
  8. Costs should be fair and payable by cell phone.
  9. Smartphones (or tablets) are required but a compass or specialized clothing is not except on the toughest courses.
  10. A new classification system allows for a wider range of course difficulty.
  11. City and walking courses are ok too, they don’t have to be in the wilderness.
  12. Results and splits (time between controls) are instantly available.
  13. Club information, including contact information is available before you sign up. The name of the map maker is given with every course.
  14. Courses can be rated on the app, or discussed on the website bulletin board.
  15. Need to quit? GPS guides you back to the start.

Look for us on Google Play or the Apple iTunes store.

There are some advantages for Clubs too:

  1. Courses are easy to set up. Labor is reduced and maps from parks departments or even Google terrain maps can be used.
  2. Course collaboration between club volunteers is easy and can be done without physical interaction.
  3. Courses are automatically cleaned, making the experience better for users (IMPORTANT: if a storm or other physical event ruins a course, it is not visible to the user!) and reducing the liability inherent in leaving courses on the Internet forever.

Some history:

Orienteering originated in Sweden in the latter part of the 19th century. From its origins in Sweden its implementation has been largely unchanged in 150 years.[1]

[1] Wikipedia “History of Orienteering,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_orienteering, accessed 4/2/2020.

Orienteering continues and is a popular recreation activity for several reasons. It is[2]:

  • A lovely stroll, with children and pets,
  • A fitness hike,
  • A way to learn how to read a map and use a compass
  • Or a competitive race.

There are just three items allowed in most Orienteering meets:.

  • The skill and athletic ability of the participant(s),
  • A map,
  • A compass

Specifically GPS is generally not allowed, although many participants use GPS enabled devices to help track performance.

[2] Gold Country Orienteers, http://www.goldcountryorienteers.org/, accessed 4/2/2020

Orienteering has been around for over a century. As a sport you use a map and compass to find controls.

Here is a picture of what an old control looks control looks like next to a “no-touch” control:


There’s no picture! It’s virtual.

 old style

new style

Traditional control flags look like box kites. They are placed on a stick and have a “control number” on them. The control number corresponds to the map, and allows controls to be used on different courses. Inside the flag are two things, the “control number” which differentiates the control from others in the area, and the control validation device, either a paper punch or electronic reader called an e-punch. Both methods of validation require that you approach the control. With a manual punch, you have to touch a tool that has been touched by everybody else. The electronic punch works by proximity: There is a small hole, about 1/2 inch in diameter where you insert an inductively coupled identification stick. Your time is recorded. It is possible to log the control without the stick touching the control. However this is highly unlikely and, with 10 or more controls on a course, totally impossible.

A detailed description of the control and punching can be found here:


The map

This is an actual map from an orienteering event in 2014. Pretty good map, huh? Orienteering maps are, in general, great. Look at the detail. The features and contour interval is better than any other topographic maps. Orienteering clubs spend a lot of time and money developing their maps. On this map you can see the the locations of each of the controls. The legend shows the number at each control. Although the course is “Orange” or intermediate, some of the controls could be used for other courses. You are supposed to run the controls in order, and in this case that makes sense…except for #11. For some courses, particularly in small venues or parks, the course may cross itself several times. Since this is a timed event, taking the controls out of order might give you a time advantage. E-punches (the inductively coupled electronic kind) prevent this, but manual punches do not.

Course colors

The course shown above on the map is Orange. Course difficulty is designated by color. White is the easiest, Yellow is also a beginner level course and Orange is intermediate. Brown, Red and Blue are advanced and short, medium and long respectively.

One of the best websites for an explanation of color codes comes from the Quantico Orienteering Club. Here is a link: https://www.qocweb.org/content/discover-orienteering-discover-yourself-your-first-event

The app

This app works on your smartphone. Instead of touching the control either by using a manual punch or a inductive keypunch, your smartphone tracks your progress for you. You receive a map just like you normally would. You must sign a waiver just like you normally would. But you can go anytime you want within the limits set by the club. For example a club might have a window of two weeks for you to run a course.

The club might place limits on when you can run the course, for example the course could only be run during daylight hours.

How it tracks your progress

Your smartphone has two things required for monitoring your progress, a GPS receiver, and memory. Once you have signed a waiver with the club and paid your fees you can download a detailed map. The app on the smartphone will track your progress. When you start, a timer within your phone starts. It monitors the time it takes you between each of the controls. When you download the map, all of the control points are downloaded as well into your phone as well as the GPS coordinates. Although you cannot see those GPS coordinates, the phone can compare your location with the stored values and once you are close enough it will log that the control has been found.

For beginner courses, you need to get within 50 feet of the control, but for advanced courses you need to be within 25 feet. 25 feet is pretty close, it’s about 8 paces, or close enough that under many circumstances you could see a traditional control.

Once you are finished

There are two things you can do once the course is finished:

  • First you can review your splits and view your map reviewing your progress on the course. You can see your splits on Google maps.
  • You can do is upload your splits to the website and review your current standings. It’s instantaneous and you don’t have to wait for results, you can instantly see where you stand with respect to other competitors. Of course someone might run the course later and run it faster, so even if you are in a high finish position, your position may drop before the course closes.

Can you run the course outside of the competition time? For most courses you can. Your splits and total time will still be recorded and stored on the club website, but the standings will not be compared to other competitors.

“No touch” Orienteering is a new activity designed with no contact of any kind. The course is set up with detailed GPS coordinates for control points. It’s run on your cell phone. Most courses don’t require anything other than a smartphone to run. The results are instantly available, so you can see how you did compared to the other participants. 

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