Off the beaten track with a compass and a map

“Mountain Bike Orienteering is the next big thing to hit the constantly growing sport of Mountain Biking in South Africa!” or so says environmental scientist Brian Gardner. Here at Full Sus we’re always keen on getting lost on our bikes, so we got Brian to map out MTBO for us.

Mountain Bike Orienteering – more commonly referred to as MTBO –is gaining more and more momentum with every event. Competition is hot amongst the top riders, and success is more often determined by cunning navigation rather than speed and technical ability. The sport of MTBO is a discipline of orienteering; and instead of running around on foot (which is the traditional form of orienteering), competitors use mountain bikes and a detailed map to navigate along paths and tracks from point-to-point. MTBO is different to your usual mountain bike race; in it participants start at intervals of 1 or 2 minutes, similar to a time-trail.


Worldwide, MTBO is a relatively new sport with the first World Championships taking place in 2002. Since then, the sport has grown tremendously, especially in central and western Europe. MTBO has been around in SA for about 6 years, but has only recently started gaining popularity and is an officially recognised and regulated sport now too, governed by the South African Orienteering Federation.

Which way is North?

The one thing that most people are afraid of when trying out a sport that requires navigation is getting lost. Maybe true, but MTBO maps are super detailed, with all paths and tracks marked, as well as various colours on the map showing different vegetation. If you can read a simple street map, you will have absolutely no problem reading an MTBO map! Events can also be done in pairs or threes, where navigation is shared, or where one person in the group does the navigation. This is a great way to start out, and there is only one way to learn – give it a try!

So what do you need?

As with any mountain bike event, it would be good to start with having a mountain bike, helmet (compulsory!), shoes, water bottles and the usual spares. A map holder or map board is recommended, but certainly not essential. A map board is usually attached to the bike handlebars, which makes it possible to view the map while riding. Map holders are actually very easy to make, a simple old clip-board and cable ties is a great start. You could look at upgrading to something more professional for your next race.

Maps of the specific race area are provided by the event organiser at the start line. Participants receive their maps with pre-marked “control points” on them 1 minute before they start. This is done so that participants have no idea where any of the control points are located before they start. It makes the racing and quick decision making very interesting!

How long is an event?

MTBO events are much shorter than your normal mountain bike race. There are usually three different length courses on offer at any event with distances ranging between 12 and 28kms. It always takes longer to do an MTBO event than the same distance on a marked route – because navigating using the map and thinking of which route to take between points takes time.

Permanent MTBO courses in Gauteng

There are many opportunities to practice your navigation by heading out to Groenkloof or Northern Farms to try the permanent MTBO courses there. Short (about 8km), Medium (about 13km) and Long (about 18km) distance courses are available at each venue. These permanent courses can be ridden at any time, and the maps can be downloaded and printed before you go. Maps and instructions of all the course options at both Groenkloof and Northern Farms are available online. Just choose which course you want to, download the map, colour print it on an A4 page and take it along with you the next time you head out.

IMG_1771So what’s next for MTBO in South Africa?

South Africa has a very progressive mountain biking community and we boast some of the World’s best trails and stages races. Riders are always looking for a new challenge, and we are hoping that many more mountain bikers will give the sport a crack and find their next level in mountain biking. We’re planning to make maps of many new and exciting mountain biking areas, to increase the number of MTBO events available on the calendar.


Join the MTBO fun at the Groenkloof Nature Reserve, Pretoria on 15 November 2014. All the information is up on

Quick links…


Facebook: MountainBikeOrienteeringSouthAfrica

Bio:New profile photo of Brian

Brian Gardner is an environmental scientist who was bitten by the MTB bug 14 years ago. He took up mountain bike orienteering four years ago and recently participated in the second round of the 2014 MTBO World Cup series in Kristianstad, Sweden.

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