Do you love the thrill of long distance endurance racing, but find you get bored with the endless, mindless miles? Do you wish there was a way to add some strategy, thinking, and problem solving to the sport? Do you love pushing your physical and emotional limits, but wish there was more of an element of surprise?
If so, then adventure racing might the answer you've been looking for.
Adventure racing is a multidisciplinary sport geared towards endurance athletes who love the great outdoors. You may have heard of other endurance events like an obstacle course race or mud runs mistakenly referred to as adventure races before.
But in reality, adventure racing is a specific sport of its own, with a very hardcore following of athletes who cannot get enough of type 2 fun.
What is Adventure Racing?
Adventure racing is a multi-disciplinary individual or team sport involving navigation over an unmarked wilderness course, while trekking, mountain biking, or kayaking, on a hunt for pre-laid check points (CP’s). The goal is that the adventure racer or racing team use a combination of strategy, navigational skills, and athleticism to find and collect as many checkpoints as possible in the least amount of time.
Basically, adventure racing is like a great big scavenger hunt in nature, using a number of different sport disciplines to get you from one checkpoint to the next.
Is Adventure Racing a Sport?
Adventure racing is not a catch-all phrase for things like mud runs, obstacle course races, or other off road, multi sport endurance events, but rather, is a very specific sport in and of itself, with an official governing body (the United States Adventure Racing Association, USARA) and established sport rules.
How Does Adventure Racing Work?
Think of adventure racing as a giant scavenger hunt. Teams must find pre-hidden checkpoints spread out over the race course area, using only a map and a compass. They must get to these check points using various disciplines pre-determined by the race director. And they must collect as many check points as possible within the established time limit.
Adventure Racing Explained in Detail:
Let's break it down in even more detail:
At the start of an adventure race, you or your team will be given an topography map that covers the area where the race will take place. Some events will provide you with pre-plotted checkpoints prior to the race start.
In other events, you will be given Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates for the check points that you need to plot on a map yourself. Often, these check points are given to you the morning of the race, leaving you little time to come up with a race strategy.
The goal of the race is to follow a map to find as many checkpoints was you can in the racing area, within the allotted amount of time given for that specific race. If you aren't back to the finish line by the designated time limit, you will face penalties affecting your team's score.
The catch, however, is that the teams (usually two to four competitors, comprised of single gender or co-ed teams) must remain together throughout the race: you cannot split up to try and collect CP’s. Because the course is unmarked, the route teams choose to take from checkpoint to checkpoint is almost entirely up to them, which adds a massive element of strategy.
At the start of the race you’ll also be given a passport that you have to manually punch when you find check points to prove that you’ve been there, or an electronic “e-punch” that digitally checks you in at each checkpoint. Check points are marked with a bright orange and white “O-flag”, making it somewhat easy to spot among the forest (or desert, or swamp, or…you get the idea).
At certain points during the race, you will encounter transition areas (TA’s), where you will switch from one discipline to the next.
How Do You Win an Adventure Race?
To win an adventure race, you or your team finds the MOST amount of checkpoints in the LEAST amount of time, with the LEAST amount of penalties (if any).
What Disciplines Make Up an Adventure Race?
The main disciplines that are found in adventure racing are:
- Trekking (running / hiking/ bushwhacking)
- Mountain Biking (and sometimes hike-a-bike)
- Paddling (usually some sort of kayak)
Though these sports are the crux of adventure racing, numerous other disciplines, such as rope climbing or swimming, may be involved. Part of the appeal of adventure racing is that you really don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing until you get there.
Unlike a triathlon, where the disciplines are completed in a specific order, adventure racing has no set "order". Rather, disciplines may be presented in any order, may often be repeated, and sometimes, are even determined by the adventure racers themselves.
For example, at the 2021 The BEAR 12 hour adventure race, our 12 hour race discipline order went like this: run, paddle, run, paddle, bike, run, bike...while navigating the entire time.
Obviously the first and arguably most important discipline of an adventure race is navigation. If you (or one of your teammates) don’t know how to read and follow a map, you’re going to have a hard time in the sport of adventure racing.
Have I mentioned that GPS is not allowed in adventure racing? It’s not. Map and compass navigation only.
This is where more experienced racers tend to excel, as their navigating skills and overall race strategy can give them an upper hand. Overall physical fitness and strength are meaningless if you can't figure out where you are going.
Some of the unmarked course of an adventure race will be covered on foot. This may mean running, but if running isn’t your thing, walking is acceptable. But, “trekking” also covers hiking, bushwacking, crawling under obstacles, climbing over obstacles…it basically means you are on foot, and not on a bicycle or in a boat.
Other portions of the adventure race will be covered on mountain bikes. The terrain races bike across can certainly vary, from pavement, to dirt road, to single track trail.
Typically for shorter distances races, advanced mountain biking technique is not expected. Having basic skills and feeling comfortable riding a bike for an hour or two is sufficient.
Some sort of paddling discipline is almost always included in an adventure race. While kayaking tends to be the most popular option, canoeing, rafting, or even stand up paddle boarding are not unheard of, especially in longer distance races.
Other Adventure Racing Disciplines
As you can see, the trekking, cycling, and paddling elements make adventure racing an easy sport to cross over to from the running, cycling, or triathlon world. That said, adventure racing is absolutely not limited to those disciplines.
Things like rock climbing or belaying, spelunking, white water rafting or river boarding, swimming, roller-blading, and even horse riding may happen during an adventure race.
But wait, there’s more! Actually getting to a check point can involve all sorts of crazy feats. For example, you may ride your bike to a check point, but then have to climb across a tyrolean traverse. to get to the CP on an island in the middle of a pond. Or take a zipline from one peak to another to claim your CP. Or simply climb a tree. The possibilities are endless.
And that’s part of what makes it an adventure.
Adventure Racing Team Roles:
While many events offer a "solo" category for individual competitors who prefer to race alone, traditionally adventure racing is a team event.
- Team Captain: the role of the team captain is to essentially oversee everything the team is doing, and make final calls on racing strategy. While teamwork obviously matters in this sport, having one person in charge of decision making can be incredibly helpful. Further, knowing someone else is "in charge" can allow other teammates to focus on their individual roles.
- Lead Navigator: the role of the lead navigator is to navigate the team from check point to check point during the race. The navigator is usually the teammate who is most proficient in map reading and orienteering, using a compass, and reading the terrain.
- Pack Mule: the label "pack mule" is usually affectionately given to that one super strong teammate who seemingly isn't slowed down by much. They are the person who will pick up the slack when the rest of the team is struggling. The mule will carry another teammates pack if they are moving too slowly, will physically drag other teammates along via a tow line, or can carry the brunt of a given load when necessary so other teammates can conserve energy.
Types of Adventure Racing Courses:
When someone asks, "how many miles is an adventure race?" the answer is: it depends. Just like other popular multi-sports, Adventure Racing offers a multitude of different distance courses. But, combine that with the fact that there is no set course, and the actual distance will not only vary by each event, by what route each team decides to take!
A sprint distance course is typically a two- six hour race, featuring minimal navigation, and typically only the most common disciplines. Sprint races are the perfect opportunity to dip your toes into the world of Adventure Racing, making them an ideal first race distance. This was my first foray into the Adventure Race world, with the 2019 Independent Republic 3 hour race.
The next step up in adventure racing features a six- to twelve-hour race. Obviously you’re going to cover more distance, and be required to find more checkpoints. My second Adventure Race, the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race (10 hour) fell into this category.
A race lasting between 18-30+ hours. Kind of like in a 100 miler (hello, my ultra running friends!) sleep deprivation and the ability to race overnight become a major factor in these longer races..
Multi day courses last…you guessed it…for a “few” days. Typically a 36-48+ hour race, involving advanced navigation and route choice. Teams will typically have to determine when (and if) they will stop to rest, unless the race director has set pre-determined blackout hours. Either way, the race clock does not stop.
Three to ten (or longer) day race, involving all the challenges of a multi-day race, but often with additional disciplines (climbing, horseback riding, etc.) I’ve noticed that most expedition courses are held in very epic locations across the world. Like the Raid in France, held on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
Expedition length races have historically been a major televised sporting event, dating back to the original Eco Challenge Expedition races of the early 1990s, Primal Quest of the early 2000's, and more recently, Amazon's Eco Challenge, touted as the world's toughest race.
What Equipment Do You Need for an Adventure Race?
Having trekking equipment (running shoes, hydration pack – there are typically NO aid stations, so you must carry your own hydration/nutrition/etc.) and biking equipment (bike, helmet, etc.) are necessary to compete in an adventure race. You’ll also need a compass, UTM plotting tool, and some sort of waterproof case to keep your map and passport dry throughout the duration of the race.
Adventure Racing can absolutely be a very gear intensive sport, once you get into the longer distance courses. But for beginners? You can definitely get away with the bare minimum.
For our first two Adventure Races, we rented a tandem kayak for the paddle portion of the event. In races that require that you bring your own boat, race directors will often point you to a local boat rental service that they partner with for the race. Other races may provide the boat, and not even give you the option of providing your own.
For a more detailed explanation of what gear you need as a first time adventure racer, and what you can skip for now, visit the post Adventure Racing Gear List for Beginners.
How Do You Train for an Adventure Race?
It might be obvious that training for an adventure race should include mountain biking, running, and paddling. But it should also include
As an endurance athlete, I felt pretty confident in all of these areas (minus paddling, but I had hoped that my five day a week gym splits with upper body strength training would help me out).
Personally, what I had to focus on before my first adventure race was the navigating/orienteering skills. As a long time runner, I’m used to having a course clearly marked for me. Now, I have to figure out how to get to where I need to go with nothing but a map and compass on an unmarked course.
I’ve learned how to:
- read and plot UTM coordinates
- read a bearing on a compass
- adjust for declination (and what declination even means in the first place)
- recognize what all of those squiggly lines and symbols on a topographic map are.
And once you’re comfortable with those, you have to learn how to do them on the fly, in the field.
The other thing I’ve been learning is basic bike maintenance. During our last race, Geoff’s bike broke no short of 28 times (seriously, I was counting). Unlike triathlon, there is no sag / mechanics out there to help you. You’re on your own, so it’s helpful to know how to fix an issue when it arises.
How to Get Into Adventure Racing
The best way to get into adventure racing is to find a race, find a team, and go for it. While training absolutely matters, adventure racing is also a sport of experience, meaning you learn, and improve, through actually doing the sport.
What I Love About Adventure Racing:
After well over a decade of endurance racing, the most appealing part of adventure racing, for me, is the strategy involved.
You see, in running, and even obstacle course racing or triathlon, what matters most is your endurance and strength. How well have you physically trained to reach that finish line? Sure, there was some strategy involved – namely, knowing when to conserve energy and when to push. Or, keeping your race nutrition in check. But getting from the start line to the finish line was pretty mindless.
With adventure racing, you have to really think about what comes next. How are you going to find the next check point? What sort of things are you going to look for? Which order makes most sense? Which check points simply aren’t worth going for, if you’re running out of time? Being the fastest or the strongest doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win.
And of course, you get to do all of this while still exerting yourself physically over many, many miles, and getting dirty and muddy.
Two of my most favorite things.
Plus, there’s the team aspect. For an official placing / official finish, your team has to finish together. And that can be a very rewarding, bonding experience with your teammates.
So, there you have it, adventure racing according to Heather. I am still such a “newbie” in this sport, but I’m absolutely loving this new and exciting endurance challenge. If you’re looking for something “different” to add to your endurance racing resume, I highly recommend giving adventure racing a try!