Adventure Racing 101

Adventure Racing

The Roots of Adventure Racing are deeper than many think. Similar races occurred as early as 1968. Off-road triathlons helped fuel the sport of adventure racing with its multiple disciplines on wilderness courses. Most Americans never heard of AR until Eco-Challenge aired on TV from 1995-2002, the catalyst that spawned a grassroots movement throughout the United States.

Unlike most other sports, no two Adventure Races are the same. Even a race with the same name, in the same location, run by the same organization, will be quite different year to year!

The core disciplines are hiking, mountain biking and paddling, but a race might include kayaks, canoes, rafts, coasteering, caving, swimming, riverboarding, canyoneering, ascending ropes, rappelling, or anything else you can do in the outdoors!

There is no actual course in an Adventure Race. Instead, racers navigate to a series of CheckPoints (CPs) using maps and a compass to devise a route of their own choice. Roads, trails or straight through the bush, it’s up to each team to decide!

Adventure Races can vary from a few hours to a few weeks and the race clock typically does not stop. Competitors must choose if or when to rest.

Teams can be a single gender or coed and typically range from two to five racers (with some races also allowing soloists). In most races, the premier format is a mixed gender team of three or four racers.

Races will often include “Transition Areas” where competitors switch from one discipline to another. In some races additional gear can be staged at these locations while others make teams carry everything from start to finish!

Rules vary by race, but typically allow no motorized travel or GPS, require team members to stay within shouting distance at all times, and prohibit outside assistance. Teams are also required to carry all mandatory gear at all times.

Navigation

A core skill of Adventure Racing is the ability to navigate with a topographical map and compass. There are a number of great videos, articles, and tutorials online so new racers can easily find resources that suit their individual learning style!

A quality compass is essential in an Adventure Race! A good compass will align to north faster, be more accurate, and will be more forgiving when held at angles (critical when you’re trying to navigate quickly!)

New racers should remember to practice navigating! People often spend countless hours training for the physical diciplines but ignore navigation! Navigational errors and poor route choice can cost huge amounts of valuable time!

“Mastering the Maps” is a skill that takes time to acquire but new racers should at least be able to understand the basics before entering a race.

Another important aspect of navigation is understanding the difference between true north and magnetic north (declination). Knowing the difference and how to account for it is critical and often overlooked by those new to navigation!

Gear

Adventure Racing is a gear intensive sport! In short time, new racers find they’ve gathered a large pile of racing “stuff”, with an equally large list of things they’d still like to get!

Mandatory Gear

Virtually all Adventure Races have a list of mandatory gear that must be carried at all times during the race. Some items must be carried by each racer, while others only need to be carried by at least one member of each team.

Examples of Mandatory Individual Gear
  • Emergency Whistle & Space Blanket
  • Appropriate Pack
  • Headlamp & Batteries (if race includes night)
  • Suitable Clothing for the Conditions
  • Enough Food (plan on 200-250 calories/hr)
  • Hydration System
  • Mountain Bike & Helmet
  • Front & Rear Bike Lights
  • PFD & Paddle
Examples of Mandatory Team Gear
  • Race Rules, Maps & Passports (provided by the race org)
  • Fully Charged Cell Phone (for emergency use only)
  • Compass
  • First Aid Kit
  • Bike Repair Kit & Extra Tire Tubes

Mandatory bike and paddle gear typically only needs to be carried on bike and paddle legs, but this can depend on the race! In most races the boats are supplied and in many races, paddles and life jackets are available too. Again though, this can depend on the race!

Races often include mandatory pre-race or on-course gear checks and harsh penalties may result if an item is missing so having everything on a mandatory gear list is a must!

Recommended Gear

Every extra item a racer carries means more comfort and security but also more weight in the pack. It’s up to each individual team member and team to find the right balance!

Examples of Recommended Gear

  • Map Case
  • Passport Case
  • Trail Running Shoes (or Light Boots)
  • Extra Socks
  • Extra Clothing Layers
  • Trekking Poles
  • Orienteering Shin Guards
  • Foot & Body Lubricant
  • Watch
  • Altimeter
  • Dry bag(s)
  • Bike Computer (typically allowed)
  • Bike Map Board
  • Thumb Compass

Nutrition

During a race, competitors can burn over 600 calories per hour, hour after hour! New racers are often surprised at how difficult it is to keep up with what their body needs, but not doing so is a recipe for a terrible race!

Some swear by the latest gels, chews and bars. Some mix powders with their water. Others insist that “normal” foods like sandwiches, peanut butter, pretzels and chips are the way to go. Still others like freeze dried meals, especially on longer races.

New racers should aim to consume 200-250 calories per hour. This may seem easy, but it’s not uncommon for a racer to suddenly realize they haven’t eaten a thing for hours!

New racers should also remember to train with what they plan to race with! Hours into a race is a terrible time to realize an option is a poor choice!

Variety is also a good idea. Having options that are both sweet and salty, hearty and light, chewy and soft means a better chance that something is appealing throughout the race.

Electrolytes are important too. There are various options from pills to powders to salty snacks but replacing them as you lose them is critical!

Lastly, although most don’t associate it with nutrition, hydration is essential! Competitors should plan on at least 20oz of water per hour to stay hydrated!

Training

With so many different disciplines, training for an Adventure Race can be overwhelming. New racers don’t need to master all diciplines or even any one discipline, a solid base in each is all that’s required.

There are no rules, but around 12-weeks is a sensible amount of time to allow a new racer to prepare for an event. Most can learn the necessary skills simply by doing the various activities, but local biking/hiking/paddling/orienteering clubs can help too!

Even the shortest Adventure Race is longer than most other events people train for! The majority of training can be done at a steady state, favoring distance over speed.

Time in the outdoors is essential. Roads and gyms can serve a purpose, but hiking/biking in the woods involves different skills and muscles that can only be developed by getting out there!

Competitors need to also remember to train at navigating!

Training with race-day gear is crucial too. A pack that’s comfortable in a store may be terrible a few hours in. Shoes that are great for a road run may cause blisters on the trails. Favorite foods may become regretted decisions when eaten on the go!

What to Expect

So you’ve taken the plunge and have signed up for a race. Excellent! Read on to find out what you can typically expect before, during, and after the race.

Leading Up To The Race

Some events will have “racer communications” with information to help teams prepare. Others may post information on an event website. If all that fails, teams can contact the race organization with questions, they’re always happy to help!

Please don’t wait until the morning of the race to organize your gear! A lot will be going on that morning and you’ll want every second of that time to handle other things!

Race Day – Before the Race

Expect a check-in location where you collect your race materials. This registration will open a set time before the start (often one hour before in shorter races). Do your best to check-in as early as allowed. Every minute with the maps will help!

The three most important things you’ll receive at check-in are the race rules, maps, and passport.

Read the race rules first. They will include important information such as the order of disciplines, transition areas, any mandatory cut-off times, if checkpoints are required or optional, or even sometimes changes to the maps.

Bring highlighters, permanent markers and pens to mark up the maps with. You’ll develop this art over time but in your first race, focus on the CheckPoints you’ll be targeting, the route you’ll take and any cut-off times you have to make.

Your race passport is the most important item you’ll receive. At each CheckPoint you “punch” it to prove you where there. PUT THIS IN A SAFE PLACE AND MAKE SURE IT MAKES IT OUT ONTO THE COURSE WITH YOU!

Shortly before the start, there will typically be a race briefing. The race director may explain parts of the course, safety information, and will ensure everyone knows what’s expected. This is also when you’ll have a chance to ask any last minute questions.

Double check you have all of the required gear, your race rules/maps/passport, and head to the starting location!

Race Day – During the Race

Remember, there is no course so different teams may choose different routes right from the start. Relax, ignore what’s happening around you, and follow your own plan.

Also remember that a comfortable pace early is better than regretting a faster pace later on, communication and willingness to help each other are essential, and every step in the wrong direction means two steps just to get back!

Lastly, be mindful of any cut-off times! On longer races there may be a “short course” option for racers who miss a mandatory cut-off time but this typically means finishing unranked.

Race Day – After the Race

Results are based on how many CheckPoints a team gets, with finish time breaking ties. So in a six hour race, if one team gets 30 CPs in 4:00 and another gets 31 CPs in 5:59, the team with 31 wins. If both teams got 30 CPs, the team that finished in 4:00 would win.

Adventure Racing is a tight-knit community. Regardless of how the race went, you’ll be greeted at the finish by fellow racers eager to swap stories about the course and the craziness you just endured. There may be some food. Maybe even some music. There’ll usually be some sort of awards ceremony. Enjoy the experience and the camaraderie!

You’ll be covered in mud. There will be countless scrapes, cuts and bruises. You’ll most likely be more exhausted than you can ever recall being, and will probably smell worse too. The woods may have stolen a piece of gear or two from you. Another piece or two may have broken somewhere along the way.

But don’t be surprised if you find yourself already planning your next race as you pack up your car to head home!

Additional Resources

US Adventure Racing Organizations Navigation