Getting started in adventure racing can be challenging, both physically and mentally. But with some careful planning and preparation, you’ll get to the finish line feeling proud and ready to crush the next one.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on USARA.com and has been modified for GearJunkie.
Adventure racing (AR) is a multisport, primarily off-road, navigation-based discipline. The premier events require racers to form mixed-gender teams of three or four. But races around the world vary in their regulations, so events allowing single-gender teams or teams of one to four racers are common.
Here at GearJunkie, we have a long history of adventure racing. For example, Team Bend Racing came out on top in the Patagonian Expedition Race. The team, including GearJunkie founder Stephen Regenold, has competed in other adventure races before and since.
Read on for a breakdown of AR’s core disciplines, in partnership with the USARA, as well as expert resources on training, gear-sourcing, and team-building.
Adventure Racing Core Disciplines
A core feature of AR is the combination of multiple disciplines into one event. Classic AR formats involve trekking, biking, and paddling legs. But other disciplines can include wintersports, team challenges, mountaineering, horseback riding, swim-run, rollerblading, or anything else the race director can dream up.
The Adventure Racing Cooperative (ARC) offers a range of resources to help racers prepare for the core disciplines of AR. Most races require participants to switch between disciplines multiple times.
As noted above, AR is a navigation-based sport. This means that teams navigate by compass (GPS is not allowed in most races) using a map that indicates the location of checkpoints. Some races are “point-to-point,” meaning that teams must obtain all checkpoints to be considered a finishing team.
Other races are “rogaine,” indicating that there are optional checkpoints within a section and that checkpoints in that section can be obtained in any order. “Modified rogaine” events include a combination of point-to-point and rogaine sections.
Traditional point-to-point courses tend to be more common in multiday, expedition-length races, though race directors often offer short-course modifications for teams unable to complete the whole race.
Shorter, local races tend to be rogaine or modified rogaine events. Teams able to “clear” (successfully locate) all checkpoints tend to be the most competitive and experienced teams.
No matter the format, all adventure races share a very important feature: the time cutoff. Courses are open for a specified amount of time, and teams must cross the finish line with the required number of checkpoints to finish the race.
Adventure races can range in length from a couple hours to multiday “expedition races,” taking up to 2 weeks.
For more, many other online sources explain AR in detail. But some favorites of the USARA are SleepMonsters — an international media organization that covers the sport — and the video introduction to AR from the Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS).
Training for Your Goals
Training for your first adventure race will vary depending on the kind of race (including the disciplines involved), its length, and your team’s goals. Many teams enter the sport with the goal of “finishing as friends,” while others also seek to compete at a high level.
Accordingly, training can range from increasing your time spent outdoors with fun day trips, to a near part-time job with a focused training plan.
To get a feel for the kind of training adventure athletes are doing daily, check out Attackpoint AR. It’s an online training and race log where many experienced racers post their fitness regimens. This website also hosts an active web forum for AR-focused discussion including selecting gear, talking about races, and supporting training.
Some athletes prefer the structure and care of working with an AR-focused endurance coach. The USARA recommends Jen Segger, Sarah Goldman, and Travis Macy as experienced endurance athletes themselves with years of coaching knowledge. Some race organizations, like Bend Racing, offer AR-focused training camps. Training plans can range from fixed to highly individualized and interactive programs.
Because adventure races require skill in navigating with a map and compass, it’s important that at least one team member be proficient in this domain. Joining your local orienteering club is a great way to develop this skill in shorter events.
You can also familiarize yourself with map reading by bringing topographical maps with you on hiking, biking, and paddling trips. TanZ Navigation is an excellent resource for AR-focused navigation training, offering “Squiggly Lines” (a book on AR navigation) and virtual orienteering events.
Training is also an excellent way to find your preferred gear for AR. All adventure races publish a required gear list before the race with mandatory equipment to facilitate safety and efficiency. Be sure to review this list well in advance to ensure that you and your team can source the required gear.
Sourcing Gear for an Adventure Race
Gear lists for adventure racing can be daunting, especially when considering signing up for a 24-hour event or an expedition race. If you’re starting from scratch, it can cost thousands of dollars to outfit yourself in quality gear for a race like Eco-Challenge. Even for a short sprint race, you may need to make some initial investments.
To get started, try out some local races to make sure investing in a new mountain bike is worth it. Chances are, you know someone with the gear you need. Most races provide boating gear, but can you borrow a bike from a friend if you don’t have one? How about a headlamp?
Even for a short sprint race, you will likely need some new gear to fulfill the requirements. And there are always high-end, super lightweight models of … well, everything.
Many seasoned adventure racers will tell you, however, that the gear with the largest price tag or lightest advertised weight is not necessarily the right choice for AR, as it can be rough on your equipment. Why invest in a $200 pair of sunglasses when a $5 pair will work just fine? There’s no need to invest in a fancy bailer from REI when a sawed-off milk jug will do the trick. Get creative.
As you get more experienced, you will figure out what gear is worth spending on. Talking to more experienced racers and seeing what the more competitive teams are racing with will also help. This is especially true because some of the most favored companies are not household names.
Finding a Team
Adventure racing developed originally as a team-based sport that is mixed-gender at the premier level, though most races (excluding some of the premier expedition races) now include divisions for single-gender teams.
As noted above, some races offer solo racer divisions, as some racers prefer to race alone. However, many racers seek to race as a team for at least some portion of their career. They can check out resources like the Adventure Race Teammate Finder group on Facebook or contact their local race director and learn about other racers seeking teammates.
It may take some time to find a team you race well with. Successful teams, whether those who have known each other for years or those just meeting, communicate effectively well before race day.
All teammates should agree on the goals for the race. Are you aiming for a podium finish or just hoping to enjoy a day outside together? How hard will the team push? What kind of training effort are racers putting in before the race? Who is bringing what gear, and do you have the mandatory gear list covered? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each racer, and how can you support each other at low moments?
Answering these questions can be helpful directly before a race, particularly for teammates who haven’t raced with each other before. Teams should also discuss who will fulfill key roles on the team such as lead navigator (or sharing navigation roles) and the responsibilities of the captain. These can range based on team preferences from the teammate responsible for organizing pre-race logistics to the primary decision-maker in the event of disagreements.
Expedition race teams may also discuss their sleep strategy for multiday racing.
Joining the Community
The AR community is welcoming, inclusive, helpful, and humble. Many longtime racers note that the community keeps them coming back to this sport at least as much as the races themselves. New racers will find many willing mentors in this community, whether through talking at the post-race party or engaging in online discussion with racers around the world. (Groups like the Adventure Racing Discussion Group on Facebook or the Attackpoint AR discussion forums are options for this.)
The USARA and its events’ primary aim is to support a community of people who live to adventure in the outdoors. The Legendary Randy Ericksen, a photographer and AR-media rep, also offers a series of interviews with racers on his “TA 1” podcast, an excellent addition to any long workout.
Time to Race
Like anything new, you will eventually need to dive in. And we promise: After your first race, all you’ll think about is getting out there for the next one.
The USARA is a great resource for all things racing. Check out the organization’s calendar for USARA-affiliated races occurring throughout the U.S. You can also reference the ARC calendar for a comprehensive listing of adventure races and AR-adjacent races in the U.S. and internationally. SleepMonsters also maintains a calendar for the international racing scene, and the ARWS updates its calendar of sanctioned events.
In choosing and preparing for your race, review reports from racers who have completed past editions to get a sense of what you’re signing up for.
Sure, everyone wants to do Eco-Challenge, but there are a lot of other incredible races out there. Check out what’s available in your area — and get out there!