Adventure racing

From Academic Kids

Adventure racing is a combination of two or more disciplines, including orienteering and navigation, cross-country running, mountain biking, paddling and climbing and related rope skills. An expedition event can span ten days or more while sprints can be completed in a matter of hours. Typically there is no “dark period” during races, regardless of their length – the choice when (and if) to rest is left to the competitors.

Adventure racing is classically a co-ed team sport. Nonetheless, many races now permit "teams" of 1 to 4 persons, single-sex or co-ed, and sometimes include age-based categories.



The roots of adventure racing are deep and people debate the origin of the modern adventure race. Some point to the two-day Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, first held in 1968 as the birth of modern adventure racing. The Karrimor Marathon required two-person teams traverse mountainous terrain while carrying all the supplies required to support themselves through the double-length marathon run.

In 1980, the Alpine Ironman was held in New Zealand. Individual competitors ran, paddled and skied to a distant finish line. Later that year, the Alpine Ironman's creator, Robin Judkins launched the better-known Coast to Coast race, which also involved all the elements of modern adventure racing: trail running, mountain biking and paddling. A similar race, the Alaska Marathon Wilderness Classic debuted in 1982 and involved six days of unsupported wilderness racing.

In 1989, the modern era of adventure racing had clearly arrived with Gerald Fusil's launch of the Raid Gauloises in New Zealand. Inspired by the Paris-Dakar Rally, Fusil envisioned an expanded expedition-style race in which competitors would rely on their own strength and abilities to traverse great and challenging terrain. The race included all the modern elements of adventure racing, including mixed-gender teams competing in a multi-day 400+ mile race. Building on Fusil's concept, the inaugural Southern Traverse was held in 1991.

In the early-90's, Mark Burnett read an L.A. Times article about the Raid and was inspired to not only bring the race to America, but to promote the race as a major televised sporting event.

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After purchasing the rights from Gerald Fusil, Burnett launched the first "Eco-Challenge" race in 1995. Burnett promoted his event with Emmy-award winning films (tapping the talent of Mike Sears to produce the films for the first two events). The Eco-Challenge was last held in 2002. With the Eco-Challenge also came the name "adventure race", a phrase coined by journalist and author Martin Dugard, to describe the class of races embodied by the Raid and Eco-Challenge.

In 2002, the first major expedition length race to be held excluively in the United States was launched. Primal Quest has become the premier U.S. expedition race, being held each year since its launch. In 2004, the death of veteran racer Nigel Aylott over-shadowed the race, and raised debates about the nature of Primal Quest and adventure racing.

Race types


  • Sprint: typically a two to four hour race, featuring minimal navigation and occasionally involving games or special tests of agility or cunning.
  • Endurance: a four- to twelve-hour race, featuring limited navigation and orienteering.
  • 24-Hour: a race lasting between 12-36+ hours, typically involving UTM-based navigation. Often basic rope work is involved (e.g., traverses or rappels). 24-hour and longer races often require competitors employ a support crew to transport gear from place to place. Other races, including the 5 to 11 day Eco-Challenge, do not permit support crews, with race organizers transporting gear bins to designated checkpoints for racers.
  • Mutli-day: a 36 hour to 4 day race, involving advanced navigation and route choice; sleep deprivation become a significant factor.
  • Expedition: 4 to 11 day race (or longer), involving all the challenges of a multi-day race, but often with additional disciplines (e.g., horse-back riding, unusual paddling events; scooter or roller-blade legs; extensive mountaineering and rope work.


The vast majority of adventure races include trail running, mountain biking and (ideally) a paddling event. Navigation and rope work are also featured in all but the shortest races, but this is only the beginning. Part of the appeal of adventure racing is expecting the unexpected. Race directors pride themselves at challenging racers with unexpected or unusual tasks. Past races have also featured:



The rules of adventure racing vary by race. However, virtually all races include the three cardinal rules of racing:

  • no motorized travel;
  • no outside assistance except at designated transition areas (assistance from competing teams is generally permitted at all times); and
  • teams must carry all mandatory gear.

In addition, each race will have their own special rules. For example, Primal Quest includes penalties for un-sportsmanlike conduct, public protest or "displays of disgust" with race rules; failing to travel as a team; traveling within a Wilderness Boundary, destruction of property; damage to race equipment; testing positive for banned substance; missing race bib; administration of IV fluids other than by race medical staff.

Longer races may also involve skill tests. For example, Primal Quest 2004 required that each team member swim 50 meters in 3 minutes; tread water for 5 minutes in 50 degree water; perform a Double T Rescue in less than 5 minutes; pass a single boat rescue; and ascend a vertical 8-10 meter cliff with 3 knot transfers in 10 minutes.

Organizational meeting

Typically races will feature an organizational meeting either the night before or the morning of the race. At this meeting the course will be revealed for the first time. For sprints races may follow a marked course. For longer races, racers may be given maps marked to show checkpoints ("CPs") or racers may be simply given coordinates (usually UTM coordinates) that indicate where the CPs will be found. Special rules, last minute changes and other information may also be provided at the meeting.


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Racers are required to locate a series of checkpoints or passport controls, usually in a defined order. At each CP, racers are required to have their passports stamped, either by a volunteer or by using a specialized punch left at the CP. The primary function of the checkpoints is to ensure that racers are completing the indicated course. Checkpoints also serve several important safety functions. CPs may be manned by medical personnel who can determine whether racers are fit to continue their race. Moreover, if teams become lost during the race, having numerous strategically placed CPs allow search parties to substantially reduce the search area.

Transition areas

Most races include one or more transition areas that teams can visit to replenish supplies. Shorter races often feature a single transition area that teams may visit numerous times during the event. Teams will leave food, water, paddling and biking gear, fresh clothing and any other items they may need during the course of the race.

Longer races feature multiple transition areas. Team gear is transported either by a support crew (provided by the team) or by the racing staff.

Gear check

Virtually all adventure races feature mandatory gear that must be carried during part or all of the race. Races will often include mandatory gear checks by race personnel and harsh penalties or disqualification may result if a team lacks requisite equipment.

Short course

Adventure races attract individuals of greatly divergent abilities. To make the sport more inclusive, many race directors will "short course" racers; allow racers who miss mandatory time cut-offs to continue racing on a reduced-length course. These racers will often earn an official finish time but be "unranked" and not eligible for prizes. Some races provide the option for teams to skip certain CPs but incur a time penalty (which often must be "served" during the race).

Why We Race

Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body -- G. Fusil


Most adventure races are team events, with expedition length races typically requiring a set number of teammates (usually four or five) and requiring the teams to be co-ed. Many racers find the team aspect of adventure racing to be among the most enticing and demanding aspects.
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Teams typically elect a team captain and designate a team navigator. Teams have different views as to the functions of each of these positions, with some teams having very little structure, while others assigned specifics rights and responsibilities to each of these persons. For example, a team that stresses a democratic philosophy may limit the captain’s role to be the keeper of the racing passport and rules, and limit the navigator’s role to carrying the map and having primarily responsible for determining the team’s position at any given time. A more regimented team may give the captain ultimate responsibility for making all decisions regarding rest schedules, rule interpretations and the like, while the navigator has full responsibility for not only tracking the team’s location, but determining route choice as well.

Although teams have been successful with differing organizational philosophies, few teams are able to complete expedition length races with poor team dynamics. Determining roles, goals and team philosophy before the start of the race is critical.


Adventure racing allows us to find our limits and push through them. Racing takes us out of our comfort zone by taking us to unfamiliar surroundings, often while sleep deprived and physically exhausted.

I used to...

Numerous adventure racers were former tri-athletes and marathon (and ultra-marathon) competitors looking to add some more spice to their chosen fields. Some found themselves suffering recurring injuries, and enjoy the cross-training adventure racing demands. Aging athletes discovered that while they can no longer keep up with 20-somethings in a foot race, in a 24+ hour races, they have some competitive advantages.

Preparing for an Adventure Race

“You train for adventure racing by doing adventure races” -– Bob, Team Firebolt

Because adventure racing is a multi-discipline event, training for adventure racing combines pure strength and endurance training with skill training. The three disciplines that should be trained are 1) trekking or running 2) cycling 3) and paddling. It is worth noting though, that to simply compete and have an enjoyable race, you do not need to be an expert in all these events. Often times a basic working knowledge will suffice! Navigation is another aspect to consider, so basic map and compass knowledge is a prerequisite for at least one teammate usually.

To become a competitive adventure racer, one must be an accomplished runner, mountain biker, paddler and navigator. Moreover, adventure race training goes beyond physical preparation; navigation skills, rope knowledge and basic wilderness medicine skills are also vital when competing in the longer events. Proper nutrition, foot care, and mental preparation are essential during these longer races.


I used to go to REI to stock up, now REI comes to my house to stock up -- adventure racer

Basic equipment (Sprint races)

  • Mountain bike, including a basic tool kit and biking specific helmet;
  • Backpack with water bladder (e.g., a CamelBak); and
  • Equipment specified by race directors.

Note, typically paddling gear will be provided by race directors for sprint level races, although on occasion racers will be required to provide their own pfd.

Equipment for an endurance-length event

  • Endurance-Length adventure races will require all of the equipment of a sprint race, plus basic "survival gear", such as a compass and first aid kit.

Click for Gear List from the BigBlue Adventure Race Series:

Equipment for multi-day events.

  • Multi-day races will have extensive gear lists that vary depending upon the length and conditions of the race.

Well Known Expedition-length Events


Between the weather and the terrain and the situations you'll be in, no bones about it, you can die out there. - D. Barger, Race Director, Primal Quest, September 18, 2004.

The danger of participating in an adventure race depend on the race and the racers participating. People have died while adventure racing, but deaths are very rare, and occur less often in adventure races than in other popular sports including triathlon and marathon. Although several deaths have been reported in multi-sport events, three recent deaths have intensified the debate over the safety of the sport. In June 2003, Dominique Robert was killed when she was pinned underwater during a canoe section of the Raid Gauloises. On September 21, 2004, Nigel Aylott was killed by a falling boulder during an orienteering section of Primal Quest. Eduardo Delgado Rosas died on February 24, 2005 while completing a 1 km swimming leg of the Extreme Adventure Hidalgo.

The Canadian Adventure Racing Association (registered amateur athletic Association) has been designing comprehensive safety guidelines for use in Canada. These will be ready in early summer, 2005. The safety guidelines have revised several times by industry experts and government agencies, and will serve as the benchmark for safety across Canada.

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The death of these athletes has fueled a debate regarding the safety of adventure racing, with some participants calling for international regulation of the sport. In the shadow of the death of Nigel Aylott enhanced scrutiny and heated debate has surrounded the relative responsibilities for ensuring the safety of racers.

Nigel was killed during an orienteering section of the Primal Quest race. Nigel and his team elected to descend a talus runout when alternative routes would have involved substantial delay. Some, including Nigel’s teammates, have argued that the race course was irresponsibly designed, putting racers at unnecessary peril. Other have suggested that the dangers Nigel and his team encountered were obvious and part of the sport of adventure racing.

Although this debate may never be resolved, it is critical for each racer to understand his or her abilities and limits. Adventure racing by its nature will always involve risk.


Books and Videos about Adventure Races

Runner's World Guide to Adventure Racing: How to Become a Successful Racer and Adventure Athlete (Runners World) by Ian Adamson. ISBN 1579548369

Adventure Racing: The Ultimate Guide by Liz Caldwell and Barry Siff. ISBN 1884737900

The Complete Guide to Adventure Racing: An Insider’s Guide to the Greatest Sport on Earth by Don Mann and Kara Schaad. ISBN 1578260647

Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth by Martin Dugard. ISBN 0071358218

The Eco-Challenge video series. Australia (ASIN 1575237091), Morocco (ASIN 1575237911), British Columbia (ASIN B00000GOB5) and Borneo can still be found on VHS without much difficulty. Videos exist for the other races, but are long out of print.

Books about Navigation and Orienteering

Be Expert with Map and Compass by Bjön Kjellström. ISBN 0-68414-270-8

U.S. Army Map Reading and Land Navigation Handbook by the U.S. Department of Defense. ISBN 1592283829

Orienteering by Steve Boga. ISBN 0811728706

Books about Mountain Biking

Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Repair by Lennard Zinn. ISBN 188473799

Mountain Bike Like a Champion by Ned Overend. ISBN 1579540813

Books about Kayaking

The Complete Guide to Sea Kayak Touring by Jonathan Hanson. ISBN 0070262047

Sea Kayaker's Savvy Paddler: More than 500 Tips for Better Kayaking by Doug Alderson. ISBN 0071362037

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