Making a Map

Explore the information available for producing high quality Orienteering maps

Making an orienteering map

Mapping specifications and their interpretation

Orienteering maps are built to one of four mapping specifications.

  • ISOM17 – is used to represent areas of natural terrain suitable for orienteering foot races
  • ISSprOM 2019 – is used to represent urban areas used for orienteering sprint races
  • ISMTBOM 2022 – is used to create maps for mountain bike orienteering
  • ISSkiOM 2022 – is used to create maps used for ski orienteering

These specifications are living documents with regular updates. The latest version of the mapping specifications can be found here.

A history of the development of the mapping specifications can be found here.

The O-Map Wiki site provides many examples of correct and incorrect use of the orienteering mapping symbols.

Here is an Australian guide to the mapping of granite landscapes. One day a similar guide for gold mining terrain may appear. At some point a similar document for gold mining terrain may appear.

Mapping Software

Today most mappers use software to create basemaps, undertake fieldwork and do final drafting of the map. There are two main choices for the mapper:

As always there are good reasons to choose one or the other of these applications, and also good reasons choose the other. Rather than be forced into a choice, many mappers use both applications in their mapping work-flow. The choice is yours.


OCAD is the application with the longest history. Australian orienteers started using OCAD at about version 4 or 5 around the turn of the millennium. The software is now up to version 18 (having skipped 12 to 18 along the way).  The application was copy protected at version 9 and changed charging policy to an annual license fee with version 18. At the time of writing the annual fee for the orienteering mapping version of the software is around A$270. This fluctuates with exchange rates as the price is denominated in Swiss Francs. Advantages of OCAD include:

  • Regular updates that often include new functions, some very useful, some less so.
  • A Map Wizard that ensures a fool proof first step in creating a map – getting the projection right.
  • Lidar processing capacity
  • Compliance checking capability

Reasons why a mapper might choose not to use OCAD:

  • OCAD is a Windows application only
  • The cost may be difficult to justify for an occasional mapper
  • Less functionality in tablet mapping compared to OOM.

Introductory OCAD instructions.

Open Orienteering Mapper

Open Orienteering Mapper is an open-source project first released by Thomas Schöps in 2012. The project underwent a period of rapid collaborative development to quickly acquire all the basic functionality needed to make an orienteering map. Reasons to choose Open Orienteering Mapper include:

  • Cross platform functionality – Windows, Mac, Linux and Android.
  • Low cost.
  • An excellent Android version which provides an easy path into the world of GPS enable tablet mapping.

Reasons why a mapper may choose not to use Open Orienteering Mapper:

  • The development process seems to have stalled. The last update was in 2021. This becomes increasingly important as the Mapping Specifications evolve.

Lacking advanced features such as compliance testing, lidar processing.

Online manual

Other Mapping Software


LAStools is a suite of programs designed for the rapid processing of lidar data. The software is functional on Windows and Linux. It is free for non-commercial use, but with a point limit of 1,500,000. Above this point limit random noise is introduced. Orienteering mappers use this software for splitting and merging files and for reclassifying ground points. There is lots of additional functionality that most mappers have not yet explored. 

OL Laser

OL Laser is a lidar processing application developed by Jerker Boman, a Swedish orienteer. The latest version is in Swedish. You can edit the config file to see English or install an earlier version ( This application will provide contours, slope, relief, and vegetation outputs.


Kartapullautin (Map making machine) is a Windows application that processes lidar to produce a basemap including contours, vegetation and cliffs. The software has some advantages over other contour generating applications in some terrains.

The Relief Visualisation Toolkit

The Relief Visualisation Toolkit is a suite of tools favoured by archeologists. One visualization of use to orienteers is the Sky View Factor which highlights mounds, rocks, and pits – if the ground layer has been classified for orienteering purposes.

Building a base map

Creating a reference system

Every map needs to be congruent with a reference system. This will generally be a Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) projection. There are three easy methods of starting the map with this sorted.

  • Use the New Map Wizard on recent versions of OCAD. This is foolproof.
  • Find the area of interest using Open Street Map. Export an OSM file from Open Street Map. Import the OSM file into OCAD or Open Street Map and accept the coordinate system it suggests.
  • Process some lidar data to create a georeferenced image such as a slope file. Open this as a background map in OCAD or OOM and the correct coordinate system will be established.
  • Greg Wilson also describes a manual system for georeferencing an old map in Open Orienteering Mapper. 

Creating the contours and other mappable features

Every mapper would like to start the mapping task with a high-quality base map. A high-quality base map will mean less time spent in the field and a more accurate final map.

  • Lidar data with a reasonable point density will provide a highly accurate and detailed base map showing detailed contours, vegetation density, cliffs, water courses and point features such as pits. 
  • Analog photogrammetry was once the base map standard. Today the analog photogrammetry machines have gone to the scrap heap. The last of the Chris Wilmott photogrammetry has been used. However anyone updating an old map will be using photogrammetry derived contours. In a landscape with meaningful elevation differences, these will contain some geographic distortions. 
  • The base map of last resort is based upon coarse Digital Elevation Model (DEM) data. This data set may contain a data point every 10 metres. Clearly this will produce very simplified contours. However, when coupled with the use of an accurate GPS, a mapper can still produce a quality map. The best evidence of this is the Rowdy Flat map produced by Alex Tarr using 10 metre DEM contours and a GPS created basemap showing line and point features. 
  • Modern digital photogrammetry is a potential tool for areas with limited tree cover. This may provide a solution for small sprint map areas, but these are likely to be in urban locations where lidar data is available.

What is Lidar data and where to get it

A short explanation of lidar technology is here.

Lidar data was first used for orienteering mapping in Australia as part of the 2012 Easter carnival in Bendigo (The maps La Trobe Bendigo, Yorkshire Hill, and Crusoe).

ELVIS: The ELVIS (ELeVation Information System) web site hosted by GeoScience Australia is a portal that is increasingly being used by various jurisdictions to store lidar data. The site seems to have complete coverage of NSW, near full coverage of Tasmania, sparse patchy coverage of Victoria and Queensland and coastal and river coverage for South Australia. West Australia misses out. The lidar quality is variable, ranging from high density in more recent uploads to low density (1 point per metre) in parts of Tasmania. If there is no lidar on the site for your area, there may be some DEM data, though this is often very coarse.

Grey lidar data:  Not all publicly held lidar data has been loaded onto the ELVIS site. The extent of grey data varies between states and access will vary according to the state. Approach your state Mapping Coordinator for further details.

Commissioning lidar: Failing these sources, your organization may decide to commission a lidar flight.

A guide to commissioning lidar by Noel Schoknecht. 

Other useful data sets

Each state has a cadastral boundary web site.

Some of these sites also provide aerial photography. There are commercial providers of high resolution imagery. Basic georeferenced imagery can be downloaded from Google Maps using OCAD.

Processing lidar data

Lidar data is generally used to produce contours, slope and terrain images and a vegetation map.

Today there are two main and one uncommon approach to the creation of a base map using lidar data.

  • Using free software packages to process lidar (OL Laser, Kartapullautin and the Relief Visualisation Toolkit)
  • Using the lidar processing capabilities of OCAD18 or OCAD22
  • Less commonly, using command line programming of the extensive LasTools suite.

It’s not uncommon to mix and match the three options. Below are some links to useful instructional resources.

  • Greg Wilson of Canberra has written a comprehensive description of his workflow to create base maps using free software tools. 
  • Hamish Mackie instructions on making a base map with Open Orienteering Mapper. 
  • OCAD provides a Wiki that explains use of OCAD to process lidar and DEMs. You can use XML code with OCAD to process large amounts of data. This is explained in a blog post.
  • Greg Wilson’s blog provides a useful primer on the use of Kartapullautin 
  • David George’s guide to producing base maps from lidar data. 
  • Terj Matheson (from Norway) has developed a command pipeline to generate base maps from lidar using LasTools. Here is his guide
  • Manu Jurado introduces Sky View Factor and the Relief Visualisation toolkit. 
  • Off the shelf lidar will normally be processed to remove buildings from the ground layer. This also removes many rock outcrops and mounds. On some terrains (granite and mining) it may pay to reprocess the ground layer using the LasTools routine Lasground new. This is discussed here with before and after examples

Clearly there are multiple approaches to base map generation using lidar data. The nature of the terrain will influence the choice of tools. Here are some examples reported by Australian mappers:

Analog Photogrammetry Base Maps

Analog photogrammetry such as this was once the gold standard for orienteering base maps.

The analog photogrammetry machines are now museum pieces. The transparency film used to create the photographs required for these machines has not been manufactured for some years. It is highly unlikely any orienteer will be using base maps such as these today. However, some mappers may find themselves updating older maps without supporting lidar data. In this case, they are still working with photogrammetric contours that have been field worked without GPS assistance.

A comparison of photogrammetrically derived contours and quality lidar contours is shown below. The purple lines are 2.5 metre lidar contours. The brown are the old 5 metre contours derived from analog photogrammetry. The two highlighted areas demonstrate geographic misplacement and what may be errors in the old data. Elsewhere a discerning eye can detect areas where the old contour lines exaggerate the features, and areas where they diminish the features shown on lidar.

Improving these contours, even with GPS assistance, will often be labour intensive and require an approach described in the section on use of coarse DEM data. If you can access lidar data, it will be easier to map again from the lidar base rather than adjust the old map. If you cannot access lidar data, and attempt to update the map using GPS assistance, there will be areas where contours will need to be significantly reworked.

Coarse DEM Base Maps

In Victoria there is full state coverage with a 10 metre DEM. The OCAD DEM Import wizard can create contours based upon this data. The resulting contours are very broad with no fine detail. That detail needs to be created by the mapper. A GPS enabled tablet is invaluable in this task. In some landscapes the contours will only need adjusting by eye. In more complex contour landscapes, the mapper may need to walk the line of selected levels and use the GPS trace on the table to create a more accurate draft contour. Finally, this draft will need to be adjusted by eye to represent what the orienteer will perceive whilst running.

The comparison of DEM and final contours is shown in two examples below. In the first example, there is significant difference between the two, indicating the extent of extra work dictated using a poor base map. In the second example there is less variation, indicating either the terrain is of poor quality, or it has many point features not shown in this base map.

High variance between DEM and final contours

Low variance between DEM and final contours

Field work

Field work is the systematic traversing of the terrain to identify and locate every feature which must be mapped and to ignore those features which should not be mapped. These choices are constrained by the mapping specification.

Field work is a time-consuming experience. An example of the time to field work and draft different terrains by one mapper is shown in the table below.


Terrain example

Hours per kilometer

Distance walked per square kilometer

Granite terrain 1 poor base



Granite terrain 2 poor base



Granite terrain 3 poor base



Reef and gully spur 1 with good base



Gully Spur with good base



Mixed gully-spur, mining and granite with poor base



Mining and gully spur good base



Reef and gully spur good base



Gully and reef good base




Time required is dependent upon terrain complexity, the technology used and the quality of the base map. A good base map reduces the distance walked. A GPS reduces the distance walked.

Technology for field work

There are currently a number of technological approaches to field work:

  • Use of drafting film and mechanical colour pencils. This technology served Australia until the last decade. It has rapidly been replaced by tablet mapping over the past six or seven years. Film is hard to get. Mechanical pencils are harder to find. Once you are used to them, tablets are just better.
  • Drafting on an Android tablet using the Open Orienteering Mapper android app  This is probably the most popular option at the moment. Tablets with active stylus capability (eg the Samsung Tab) and inbuilt GPS have revolutionized field work. One of the major advantages is that the mapper sees the legibility implications whilst mapping in the field. All point and line symbols will be seen at their correct size for the scale, rather than being drawn by the mapper. Here is a detailed description of a mapping workflow using a tablet and the OOM Android app
  • Drafting on a Windows Surface or similar using the OCAD desktop app. The Windows Surface does not have an inbuilt GPS and not everyone who has tried this setup has succeeded with an external GPS unit. Maurice Anker is one who succeeded. Here is his story.
  • Drafting on an Android tablet using the OCAD Sketch App.  The Sketch App can be seen as an implementation of film drawing on tablet technology, with every symbol being drawn by the mapper. Whilst it provides the advantage of locational accuracy available from GPS technology, it seems strange that it does not take advantage of the potential to draw all point symbols at their correct size to the scale.
  • Raw GPS location accuracy can be greatly improved by the use of NTRIP technology to correct the GPS signal to accuracy within a metre. Here is a set of instructions for NTRIP with an android device based upon notes supplied by Geoff Hudson. 

Drafting the final version of the map and compliance testing

Mappers follow different workflows. Some try and produce their final map on tablet in the field. Most will redraft a final version at the desktop.

Whichever method is used, it is advisable to undertake some form of compliance testing to gauge the extent of compliance with the ISOM17 specification.  ISOM17 and ISSprOM19 define not only the symbol definitions which should not be changed without very good reason, but also define minimum size of line and area features and minimum gaps between symbols. Every mapper should make an attempt to draft at least one fully compliant map. Choose a small map. This will be a very good learning experience and may change the way you map your terrain.

Notes on updating old maps to the ISOM17 specification

Sprint specification mapping 

The following guides were written before the introduction of the latest specification for sprint mapping and the widespread adoption of tablet technology.

mapping page - Alex