From plotting UTMs to avoiding the ‘sleepmonsters’ after dark, adventure racing has unique nomenclature that’s important to absorb before you get out onto the course.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on USARA.com and has been modified for GearJunkie.
Think you’re ready to take on an adventure race? You’ll want to study up on the terminology of the sport first.
Here at GearJunkie, our staff has a long history of adventure racing, from the Patagonian Expedition Race to Eco-Challenge Fiji and more. And as the official media partner of the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA), we’ve teamed up to help you out.
Read on to learn some of the most common words and phrases you will encounter in the sport of AR.
Basic Adventure Racing Terms
You guessed it! Say goodbye to the comfort and ease of trails and roads. Even the shortest adventure races tend to include a bit of off-trail travel. These segments can be purely for the experience, requiring little more than a good attitude and basic navigation.
But many adventure races (especially one-day events and expeditions) ramp up the navigational challenge when they tempt or require teams to travel overland. Such sections can be daunting, and they often separate the teams with more experience from those with less. Bushwhacking can be anything from wide-open, big-sky, spiritual trekking to soul-crushing jungle bashing.
Before the race begins, teams are provided with a set of instructions and a detailed clue sheet. The clue sheet describes the precise location of each checkpoint (see below). Rookies and seasoned vets alike constantly make the classic blunder of not reading these crucial documents closely enough. It’s easy to miss important information, and when this happens, teams lose valuable time or face stiff penalties — sometimes even disqualification.
All refer to the checkpoints that must be located using map-and-compass navigation. Typically, CPs are three-dimensional orienteering flags, but they can be just about anything. Race directors (RDs; see below) usually make it clear before the event starts what you should be looking for.
Sometimes, checkpoints are permanent objects like monuments, plaques, or signs. In such cases, racers are asked to record a number, word, or phrase. Read the instructions and clue sheet carefully before the race, and make sure you listen to the race director during the pre-race meeting. If they don’t tell you what you are looking for, ask!
When a section of the course is too dangerous to undertake in the dark, RDs impose a “dark zone” and stop teams from proceeding. These sections tend to be related to water, especially paddling sections that include whitewater. Some RDs give teams time credits for the stopped time in a dark zone. Others do not, though teams stopped in a dark zone benefit from extra rest.
This term is more prevalent in expedition racing, though it can be applied to any race. Teams finishing the “full course” complete the entire race course as designed. Contemporary expedition courses tend to be very difficult to complete for most teams, and many RDs design “short-course” options so that more teams can finish officially.
Lose your passport when you are overseas, and you might never go home. Lose your passport in an adventure race, and you might be out of the event.
Passports are generally slips of paper or small booklets. Volunteers sign your passport when you arrive at a staffed CP, and racers “punch” their passports at remote CPs, generally using a small stapler with a unique pattern matched to that specific CP. Some races also rely on electronic punching (see below) and dippers in lieu of paper passports.
Passports provide proof that you found CPs and completed the course. Keep your passport safe and dry. Lost passports typically lead to disqualification or other significant penalties.
Race Director (RD)
Pretty self-explanatory! At most local events, the RD does it all. They plan logistics, design the course, handle the communication, etc. Sometimes (usually in bigger events) multiple people take on specific roles, dividing up the course design, logistics, and other tasks.
Transitions or Transition Areas (TAs)
These are staffed locations along the course where teams change disciplines. In longer races, especially, teams have access to team or personal gear bins, bags, and bike boxes with gear, food, and clothing you’ll need for the next section.
Sometimes RDs provide food, drink, and facilities at TAs, but sometimes it’s nothing more than a bike drop or an empty boat ramp with a fleet of canoes.
The Next Level
See “bushwhacking.” Add a bike to the mix. Yes, bushwhacking with a bike.
See “bushwhacking.” Now, add a boat. You read that right. This is not the most common discipline in adventure racing, but it will leave you with some of the most vivid memories of your racing career if you are … fortunate enough to do it.
When a team completes the “full course” (see above), they have “cleared” the course. While many teams seek to clear the racecourse, few teams without experience and a certain, relatively high level of endurance fitness can expect to clear the average adventure racecourse (at least one-day and expedition events).
All races have a time cutoff: the finish line. Many have additional embedded time cutoffs. Such cutoffs are typically designed in conjunction with short-course (see below) options to give all teams a better chance of completing the course.
While most RDs allow racers to continue on a modified short course if they miss a cutoff, some disqualify teams for missing these cutoffs and remove them from the event.
Deer Trail/Goat Path
While not usually a term used by an RD, it’s worth storing this one away. Such routes are created by animals and are commonly found when traveling off trail.
While you are at the whim of the animal, if these paths lead in your general direction of travel, they can make bushwhacking faster. Just be careful that you know where you are heading!
Most expedition races, and some shorter events, utilize satellite tracking during their events. In these events, teams are equipped with a satellite tracking device that is used for safety management, first and foremost.
In addition, most of the time, RDs share their tracking maps with viewers at home, allowing spectators to track their favorite teams as they progress through the course. “Dotwatchers” refers to those spectators who follow along, tracking the dots or “breadcrumbs” of teams displayed on the tracking map, showing viewers at home a given team’s route of travel.
Dotwatching gets intense, with people across the globe joining discussion forums to analyze how the race is unfolding. Many experience sleep deprivation to match the racers they are following.
Some RDs utilize more expensive technology to track teams’ progress through a course. Instead of using a traditional orienteering punch and paper passport, RDs use e-punches. An e-punch is composed of an electronic recording device that tracks a team’s arrival — down to the second.
Teams have a “dipper” that is used in conjunction with the box to record the team’s arrival time. The e-punch either replaces or is placed in conjunction with a traditional marker at each CP.
A linear course is the most traditional style of adventure race layout. Teams are required to visit all TAs and all CPs. Teams failing to visit all the checkpoints are pulled off the course or are ranked as unofficial.
During these events, teams tend to spread out significantly, and more teams do not finish. Some RDs design “short courses” that still allow teams to finish officially, though these teams are ranked behind anyone finishing the “full course.”
Portaging requires teams to travel with their boats overland during a paddling section. Various factors determine whether RDs will include portaging in an adventure race: dams, shallow water, dangerous rapids, private property, geography requiring teams to travel between water features, strategic decisions, and occasionally a sick sense of humor.
Most of the time, teams simply carry their boats, either as a team or individually. In expedition races, some RDs communicate ahead of time to let teams know that they will benefit from using a portage trolley/portage wheels. Sustained portaging is not common in shorter events.
Most adventure races, from sprints to expeditions, start with some sort of short event that is designed to spread the teams out. These stages can be anything: a relay run; an orienteering loop; a mini, multistage adventure race within a longer race.
In a short race, a separator is typically anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour in duration. In expedition races, a separator might be a few miles of running, or it could last for several hours.
Some RDs wait to provide teams with their maps and other course information until after the prologue, and others hand racers their maps and ask them to plan their route on the clock, transforming the prologue into a mental and strategic challenge. You get the point; prologues can be just about anything.
A reentrant is an orienteering term that probably most often confuses new racers. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an indentation in a landform.”
Heather Williams, of the orienteering world, defines a reentrant in the following manner:
A reentrant appears on the map as a U or V shape in the contour lines, pointing back into a hillside rather than sticking out of the hill (as would a spur). So a reentrant is a small valley, the center of which would collect water and funnel it downhill (if it were raining hard).
These “valleys,” or depressions, can be dry, or you might find a stream of some sort in a reentrant.
A rogaine is a class of event associated with orienteering. These events have a central start/finish and dozens of CPs. Racers/teams have a predetermined amount of time to find as many checkpoints as possible.
Typically, rogaine RDs set more CPs than can be found by any team, which forces teams to strategize and decide which CPs to skip. Adventure racing RDs sometimes rely on this approach to course design, making some or even all CPs optional.
Adventure races are typically designed as a “modified rogaine” (see below) or a “linear course” (see above).
Many adventure races require teams to travel from TA to TA. Sometimes, there are mandatory CPs along the way. When there are also optional CPs, the course is described as a “modified rogaine” and hence combines elements of rogaines with linear course design.
The benefit to these courses is that they are more accessible to all levels of racers. More-experienced, faster, and more skilled teams typically try to “clear” the course. Less-experienced racers can still participate and finish officially, focusing on the mandatory points and adding optional points depending on their strengths and weaknesses.
Modified rogaines and rogaine-style courses are designed to keep all racers out for the duration of the event — or close to it.
RDs tend to design “short-course” options at most expedition races — and many one-day events — to accommodate teams unable to complete the full course. Different than “rogaine”-style or “modified rogaine”-style events, teams are still required to find all the CPs they are tasked to find.
Typically, teams are given time cutoffs. If they fail to make a time cutoff, they will be re-routed, bypassing part of the course and its corresponding CPs. Once back on the official course, teams then must find all the remaining CPs to be ranked as official finishers (unless they are short-coursed more than once, which is possible). They will be ranked behind all “full-course” teams, however, regardless of whether they finish ahead of or behind such teams according to time.
These design decisions make adventure racing more accessible and allow more teams to compete and finish events officially.
Sleepmonsters come out at night, usually 2-3 nights into an expedition race. Because adventure racing is a nonstop event that welcomes and often necessitates significant sleep deprivation, the human brain starts to play games with exhausted racers.
In short, hallucinations are not uncommon, though most racers only experience this phenomenon in multiday racing. Ask any seasoned expedition racer, and you will be regaled with stories of castles in the woods, buffets of mouth-watering meals on a lonely moor, or terrifying encounters with animals that certainly don’t exist.
Sleepmonsters are not necessarily monsters, but they never are real, even when two teammates see them at the same time. This does happen!
Supported vs. Unsupported
Typically, expedition races are described as “supported” or “unsupported.” Decades ago, many expedition races were supported events, but most multiday races today are typically unsupported.
Supported events require teams to provide their own support crew. These support crews are responsible for moving a team’s gear and may assist their teams in TAs. Supported events add additional elements of strategy, as the support crew can influence how the team performs and makes TAs “easier” for the racers.
In an unsupported event, teams are not allowed this outside assistance. The RDs transport teams’ equipment for them. Unsupported events require teams to be more self-sufficient as well as considerably decrease expenses, as teams do not need to rent vehicles or support their crews financially.
Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM)
It’s a bit of a mouthful, so everyone calls them UTMs. In short, the UTM system is a coordinate grid system found on some topographic maps; it’s an alternative to longitude and latitude.
Occasionally, an RD will ask racers to plot CPs by providing them with numerical UTM coordinates. Teams must use a small mapping tool with UTM measurements to plot the points. This adds a different sort of navigational mapping skill.
Being adept at UTM plotting also allows teams to provide an RD with coordinates in case of an emergency. This skill is becoming less common, and most RDs now pre-plot their maps for racers.
For now, this should give you a good reference point for the common language used to explain adventure racing. Of course, there’s plenty more to learn. Endurance athletes have their own slang and lingo, and you’ll slowly pick it up.