Orienteering is complicated. There's lots of steps to it, and the best way to learn is just dive into it. But it really does get easier pretty fast. In my opinion, there are 2 parts to orienteering. First, preparation and following the intended route. Second, finding your location on the map when you're lost. Luckily I've never been lost. For me, the process of preparing the route on a map insures I won't get lost.
Here's how I prepare at home. If you follow this process, at the end you should be very comfortable with map compass, even if it's your first time. Being comfortable with map and compass is the most important thing to learn, if you ask me. In general the process has 2 steps with lots of little details in between.
Step 1 = Generating the topo map.
Step 2 = Plotting a route.
My advice if you're learning is to go ahead and plan a trip, get real topos, and spend an hour or two at the "kitchen table" reading map and compass and plotting the route. For an easier exercise, go to google maps. Search for your home address, switch it to satalite, then zoom in close enough so you can see your home and a few of your neighbor's homes. Print out that page, and use it plot a route from your house to your neighbor's house. Google Maps does has a scale, but it doesn't have north-south lines. You'll have to draw those in with a ruler to record the bearing.
Hint: I use gimp to do the cropping, stitching, cutting and pasting of the topo.
Now here's how I plot a route at home.
1) Generate topo for your hike.
1a) You need a good high quality topo map. Here's the link I always use to find USForestry service topos: http://fsgeodata.fs.fed.us/rastergateway/states-regions/regions.php
1b) If plotting a long course: Crop and stitch together the various adjacent maps so that your start point and end points are on the same map.
1c) Be sure to include the scale and the declination angle on your map, crop, cut and paste as needed.
1d) Be sure you are not changing the resolution ( aka the size ) of the topo(s).
1e) Bring the finished image file ( generally a jpg will work but I beleive a png will potentially give better results ) to a kinkos and have them print it 11x17 laminated.
2) Plot a route
Tools needed: Orienteering Compass, ruler, geometry compass, straight edge, multiple colors of wet-erase markers
** Confirm that declination angle on orienteering compass is set to 0 deg **
2a) Place the map in front of you so that the north on the map is pointing "up" on the map.
2b) Using the ruler and using the wet erase marker ( I use green for the arrows showing the route) draw arrows along the intended route on the map so that your intended route is made up of a series of end-to-end arrows. I like to but dots at the beginning of the arrow, but that's not required.
2c) Using the meridian lines on the orienteering compass line extend a north south line through the beginning of the first arrow.
2d) Spin direction of travel arrow on orienteering compass to North ( 0 deg ). Move the orienteering compass on the map so that the center of the compass is on the beginning of the first arrow and is lined up along withe the north-south line from previous step.
2e) Press the orienteering compass firmly on map and spin the direction of travel so that it is directly on top of the direction of travel arrow that was drawn on the map.
2f) Read the bearing indicated at the top of the orienteering compass.
2g) Write this bearing on the side of the map: "Section 1: 172 deg, "
2h) Remove the orienteering compass from the map. Using the geometry compass, measure the distance of the first segment.
2i) Without changing the distance on the geometry compass, line up the two points of the geometry compass with the scale on the map.
2j) Read the distance on the scale and write it on the side of the map: "Section 1: 172 deg, .75 miles"
2k) Locate the closest elevation line on the topo map of the beginning of the segment on the map.
2l) Read the altitude indicated by the elevation line and write it next to the beginning of the arrow on the map.
2m) repeat steps 2a - 2l until entire intended route is represented as a bearing, a distance, and an altitude.
Optional: Locate a few natural land marks on the map and take a bearing to these land marks from the intended route on the map. I draw dotted orange lines and write in orange the bearing to the land mark from the intended route.
Once you have done this, it's pretty intuitive ( in my opinion ) to follow the route as a test. The most important thing to remember when following a route you prepare at home is this: you MUST set the declination angle on your compass as listed on the US Forestry Topo you are using. If you forget to do this all the bearings measured at home will be off by this declination angle. Also regarding declination angles.. the can change dramatically in as short as two - three years. If using a map printed more than 2 years ago, check it out on the US Forestry website before your trip to make sure that the declination angle has not been updated.
If there's interest I can write up a detailed how-to for following the route in the field...