So you’re ready to dive into the exciting world of Adventure Racing. Maybe you watched Eco-Challenge on Amazon Prime and got hooked. Maybe you’ve seen a friend share pictures of a race they did on social media and thought “I really want to do that!” Maybe, your spouse, like mine, hounded you for over 8 years, so you finally caved and you’re ready to give it adventure racing a try.
Whatever the reason, you want to race, and you’re probably wondering where to start. And more importantly, probably wondering what sort of gear you and/or your team will need. In this post, I’ll be sharing a comprehensive adventure race gear list specifically for beginners and sharing our team’s thoughts on what you should buy, what you can absolutely borrow or rent for your first race, and what you probably have kicking around at home already.
Adventure Race Gear List for Beginners
Adventure racing is a gear intensive sport. More so when we’re talking about expedition distance races, like the Eco-Challenge, which cover multiple days and half a dozen or more disciplines. But even in the shortest, entry level races, you’re more than likely going to encounter some sort of paddling, mountain biking, trekking, and orienteering.
And that all requires, you guessed it: gear.
But, some of the gear required for adventure racing is no doubt pricey. It’s definitely a risk to buy some of these things before your first race, especially if you’re not even sure you’re going to actually continue with the sport. No one wants a $1,000 tandem kayak collecting dust in their garage when it turns out, you absolutely cannot get along with your spouse while both trying to paddle the same boat.
(Ask me about the tandem mountain bike collecting dust in my garage…)
For this post, I’m going to assume you are starting with a shorter event, from 3-6 hours. Though some of this advice will apply to longer, 10-12 hour events, as well. This adventure race gear list includes basics that are required for the majority of entry level adventure races. However, always check the mandatory gear list from the race director of your particular race, to make sure you show up to the starting line with everything you need!
What to Buy
If you’re already an endurance athlete or an adventurous spirit, chances are you’ve got many of these things already. But, we’ll cover all of the basics anyway.
Properly fitting running shoes
Coming from a running background, it’s no surprise that this is one of my number one recommendations for gear you should have in your adventure racing arsenal. Uncomfortable feet will ruin your race faster than you can say “check point”. So, make sure you have a pair of shoes that:
- are properly fitted to your foot (size, pronation/supination status, etc.)
- are appropriate for the terrain (likely, you’re going to want trail shoes)
- are appropriate for all of the disciplines, if you choose to use them for the entire race (biking, paddling, etc)
- you’ve run/hiked/trekked in before, to ensure there are no hotspots (nothing new on race day!)
Related post: 5 Running Shoe Mistakes You Could Be Making Right Now
For an adventure race, you’re going to want to wear clothing similar to what you would wear for any running or cycling race. A few things to keep in mind while determining clothing choices:
- technical, quick drying fabric (no cotton)
- tight or close fitting clothing (lose fabric can get caught on branches, thorns, etc. while bushwacking, a common practice in adventure racing)
- speaking of bushwacking, if the weather permits, consider wearing pants or tall socks to protect your legs.
As far as WHAT to wear, it will absolutely vary based on your location, and the time of year you are racing. But here are some general suggestions:
- cycling specific shorts or pants (padding in the saddle! I personally enjoy triathlon shorts as they provide protection, but aren’t too bulky for the run or paddle sections. Also, they dry quickly, which is a bonus if your “seat” gets wet during the paddle.)
- tank top, tee-shirt, or bike jersey
- long sleeve layer
- wind and water resistant, packable jacket (this may be part of your mandatory gear)
- socks that you can spend many hours in, and that wick away moisture (I highly recommend sport specific wool socks like Darn Tough or Smartwool, but this is definitely a personal preference!)
A pack that fits you
You’re going to want some sort of pack to carry all of your mandatory gear and water. While it may be tempting to grab the old ruck you have tucked away in the attic, you might want to really consider how the pack you use will fit you while in race mode. Much like shoes, different athletes have different preferences on what sort of packs they enjoy. And of course, different packs are going to fit different body types and torso shapes differently.
For example: everyone in the universe (well at least in the ultra running world) seems to enjoy the Ultimate Direction vest/vestas. Except for me. It’s not that I don’t think they make a quality product – they certainly do. But in my experience so far, no matter what adjustments I make to the various straps, I cannot get any of the UD packs to sit squarely on my shoulders, and thus, not bounce. Had I borrowed a UD Vesta before my first adventure race, I likely would have spent 3+ hours cursing at the pack while I constantly tried to adjust it to avoid discomfort.
For what it’s worth, I love my Nathan VaporHowe 12L. (That’s an affiliate link, you’ve been disclosed.)
For an entry level adventure race, you aren’t going to need a massive pack. Rather a hydration pack or daypack, something large enough to carry your water, food, and any other mandatory gear that the race requires you to have on your person, will be sufficient.
Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a pack:
- How do you intend to carry water? In bottles, or a bladder?
- Do you want pockets that you can reach mid trek/bike?
- Does it fit YOUR body?
- Is it big enough to hold all of your mandatory gear?
- Material: something ripstop/technical is going to be lighter/dry faster than say, canvas?
Related post – Running Hydration Vest: How to Choose the Right One for You
Properly fitting helmet
Are you noticing a trend here? There’s a handful of adventure racing gear that you’re going to want to ensure fits properly. Not just for comfort, but in this case, for safety.
“But wait! I have a helmet kicking around in my garage!” you might be saying. Before you check this item off your list, ask yourself how hold the helmet is. According to Consumer Reports, bike helmets should be replaced every five years. This is because the materials inside of the helmet breakdown over time (and especially in heat, like being stored in a non climate controlled garage or shed). The breakdown of the materials can greatly decrease the protective qualities of the helmet.
And your brain is nothing to take chances on.
(A helmet should also be replaced after a crash, or if it’s sustained any significant impact, even if it cosmetically “looks” OK.)
Head on down to your local bike shop and find a helmet that fits your head properly!
While you could borrow them, a decent pair of well fitting cycling gloves are inexpensive enough that I’m putting them on the “to buy” list. In an adventure race, you may find that you end up keeping your gloves on during the entire race . Not only do they serve their purpose on the cycling portions, but they can help protect your hands from friction and blisters during the paddle, and against cuts from thorns, rocks, falls etc. while bushwacking.
Plus if we’re being honest, their going to get sweaty and kind of funky. Best to have your own pair instead of giving those back to a friend.
A Compass (and maybe a UTM grid tool)
I contemplated putting this in the “borrow” list, because technically, you could definitely borrow these things, especially if you are unsure if you’ll ever do an adventure race again.
But, if you are new to navigating, I highly recommend practicing using a compass BEFORE race day.
Further, if your adventure race requires plotting check points using UTM coordinates, you’re also going to want to know how to do that before the race.
Both of these items are small and relatively inexpensive, and won’t take up a lot of room in your gear closet!
Here in the Hart house, we are big fans of Silva products. You can start with something like their beginner #1-2-3 Compass. Personally, we are fans of the Explorer Pro model for numerous reasons, including – but not limited to – the built in magnifying glass for my nearly blind with age husband.
Food/Nutrition/water for race day
Unlike traditional running races, you’re mostly not going to find “aid stations” covered in food during an adventure race. Participants are typically responsible for providing their own nutrition and hydration (yes, including water) during races. So unless the race director says otherwise, plan for this, when outlining what gear you need for race day!
What to Borrow (or Rent)
As mentioned already, adventure racing can be a gear intensive – and thus expensive (at least up front)- sport. If you already have some of these items, great! But if you do not, please don’t stress – chances are you can borrow from a friend or rent them from an outfitter.
Boat (kayak, canoe, etc.)
The kind of boat required for an adventure race may vary from race to race. Sometimes it’s kayaks, other times canoes. Stand up paddle boarding or floating down rapids on pack rafts are also possibilities. In some longer races, you may have a combination of some of the above!
Some races provide boats for all participants. This can be can be a great thing, as it levels the playing field (for example, you aren’t paddling a clunky sit on top kayak while another team in racing kayaks blows by you). Further, you no longer have to worry about the logistics of how you’re team is going to get their boats to the race.
But if you need to provide your own boat for your first adventure race, I highly consider either renting a boat or borrowing one from a friend. Boats are expensive – good boats, even more so. And it may take some time to decide why type of boat you want (Kayak? Canoe? Sit on top? Sit inside? Single? Tandem). Plus, if you don’t have regular time or access to a body of water to paddle, there’s really no sense in buying a boat just for your first adventure race.
PFD & Paddles
If a race provides boats, they most likely will provide PFD’s and paddles. If you rent a boat, these items typically are included in your rental. If you are borrowing a boat from a friend, hopefully they also have PFD’s (which are mandatory) and paddles (which I suppose are also mandatory, it’d be pretty hard to get anywhere without them) for you to use. Nevertheless, I wanted to include these items on the list, because you’re going to need them in your adventure race.
Bicycles are another huge financial investment -especially if you want to get a quality bike.
If you’re doing a shorter, 3 -6 hour or less race, I’d opt to borrow or rent a mountain bike, if you don’t have one already. Just make sure you can acquire the bike far enough in advance that you can make any adjustments necessary (seat post height, etc.) and make sure you are comfortable using the bike.
Note – it can be difficult to rent a mountain bike, depending on where you live, due to liability and insurance issues. Reach out to your local bike shop for more information.
If you’re doing a longer, 10-12 hour event for your first adventure race, you’ll clearly want to spend time training on a bike first, as you may find yourself in the saddle for multiple hours at a time (during my first 10 hour race, we logged well over 40 miles / 64 km.) In this case, you may want to try to source a bike to borrow for an extended amount of time.
It’s also helpful to know how to make the most basic bike repairs, such as fixing a flat tire, replacing a dropped chain, etc. Carrying a spare tube and/or CO2
Map cases are incredibly useful in adventure racing – they help keep your map dry, and can also carry pens/highlighters/UTM grids, etc. But a map case is another investment you don’t need to make until you’re sure you are going to stick with the sport. If you don’t have a map case owning friend to lend you theirs, a large Ziploc bag will absolutely suffice for your first race.
Keep in mind that typically, only one map is provided for each adventure racing team. So if you are racing with a team, only one of you will need a map case.
Other Things You Probably Already Have:
Lastly, here’s a handful of items you may already have at home, that will come in handy during an adventure race:
- Fine tipped Sharpie-type pen (great for plotting CP’s )
- Highlighters (pre-mark your planned route!)
- A small first aid kit (nothing terribly heavy, but enough to close up any bushwhacking gashes or gravel scrapes, etc. Consider adding a space blanket)
- Whistle (likely a part of your mandatory gear)
- Sunscreen & bug spray
- Headlamp (depending on the length of your race / time of day it takes place)
- Blinking red light for your bike or pack if you are riding or running on roads with car traffic.
Whew, what a list! As you can see, adventure racing can be a gear intensive sport, even on the beginner level. However, if you are just getting started in the sport, please do not stress about making huge purchases, or worrying that what you already have isn’t “good enough”. If you stick with the sport (and I hope you do!) you can make upgrades over time once you learn what you like, and what you don’t like, when it comes to personal gear preferences.
But in the meantime, the most important part is that you get out there and have fun!