BMX Bandits are back and they’re focusing on racing the Inaugural Australian Adventure Racing Championship series, so far they have competed in 3/4 of the series. They recently raced in early August for 24 hours non-stop, next up is the final of the series where they’ll go for five days in early October. They need to pack a lot for these races but they also don’t want their bag to be too heavy or too full. So we asked “What do you pack?”
Adventure racing comes in many different flavours, and every event is unique. Navigating over an unmarked wilderness course by bike, foot and kayak, for anywhere between two hours and two weeks, requires some serious preparation. When you’re dealing with the full spectrum of weather conditions in some seriously rugged spots, having the best equipment for the job is paramount. Let us talk you through what we pack for each type of race, from ‘sprint’ to expedition…
Only in the sport of adventure racing would a 2-6 hour race through the harsh Australian bush be called a ‘sprint’. The shortest format of AR, these races are the perfect introduction to the sport.
They’re a great format for training, racing your mates, and still getting to sleep in your own bed at the end of the day. Teams of 2 are most common, and the navigation is generally a bit easier than the longer races. But you still need to have your wits about you as no modern luxuries like GPS’s are allowed.
In sprint races, you generally carry everything with you (except bikes and kayaks) from start to finish, so fast and light is the name of the game. With no time for changing clothes or even shoes, versatile layers are key. In our opinion there is nothing more suitable than ioMerino for staying comfortable in changing conditions, from cold to hot and in and out of the water.
Up top the Altitude Tee fits the bill perfectly. We have literally worn this top for days on end without being uncomfortable or stinky, so after a couple of hours you could pretty much fold it up and put it back in the drawer (My wife says ‘No, you’re not’). Down low, we opt for lycra in the form of tri-shorts. These have a light chamois for bike legs, but are still comfortable to run and paddle in, without holding water like a sponge
Wet feet are part of the territory, but with some good waterproof foot lubricant and merino socks, I can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten a blister. Around-the-ankle gaiters are another essential to keep irritating debris out of your shoes. The hardest decision shoes-wise for short races is whether or not to swap to MTB shoes for the bike legs, or just put flat pedals on your bike. MTB shoes and pedals are more efficient while riding, but you do lose precious minutes changing shoes for each leg.
The other essentials we carry are a basic first aid kit with plasters for blisters, a compression snake bandage, triangular bandage, strapping tape and a survival blanket, sealed up in at least 2 good quality dry bags.
We’ll also carry a phone for emergencies (turned off and sealed up by race organisers). It’s a good idea to save the race organisers number in case of disaster, turn your passcode off, and, know how to get your coordinates from the GPS with a mapping program like Motion X.
With such a minimalist kit, we can get away with a lightweight vest style pack, like the Salomon S-lab run vest.
Stepping up to 1 or 2 days non-stop is where endurance levels – and how well you function without sleep – really start to get tested. Even though we are out racing for at least one full night, there is no time for sleeping.
As we all go through our highs and lows, this is where teamwork really comes into play. We’ll take turns towing anyone in the team who is having a rough patch, by foot, bike or kayak, to make sure we all keep moving together as efficiently as we can. Teams of 4 are most common for these events.
The longer duration means restocking food and gear at transitions between legs. For ‘supported’ events this is with the help of a support crew (to who we are ever indebted) and in ‘unsupported’ events, by meeting up with pre-packed gear boxes, shuffled around the course by the race organising team. Packing the right gear into the right box is a crucial skill in itself, because there’s nothing worse than trying to run 40km in your bike shoes!
Mandatory event gear lists specify a set of gear that you must carry for safety reasons, either individually or as a team. Check these lists carefully as there are often spot checks, with big penalties for not having what you need.
For this length race we still try and minimise clothing changes, unless conditions are abysmal. Added to our outfits from the sprint race are the long sleeve Altitude zip top, full length Altitude leggings, and a Altitude neck tube (doubling as a beanie), keeping us comfy in head to toe merino. A high quality waterproof breathable shell jacket is another essential, and Gore-tex is our top pick for this job.
Our first aid kit is bigger and better, to cope with a wider range of danger given more remote locations, more rugged terrain, and more sleep-deprivation related accidents. (It’s also partly why we put up with Rohan on the team, his paramedic skills trumping his atrocious singing). A plastic ‘poo trowel’ is also mandatory for when nature calls, and while toilet paper isn’t, we always pack it too.
Shoes for the run and trek legs are very personal choice, and a few of us Bandits sit at extreme ends of the minimalist running debate. I opt for Inov8s with little or no drop and a good tread, while ’Action Man’ Dave prefers the maximum cushioning and running on marshmallows feeling of Hoka One Ones. On the bike, MTB shoes that are comfortable to walk in are recommended, as we’ll inevitably find ourselves pushing our bikes through dense scrub up a massive hill at 2am in the morning.
While travelling non-stop through the night, we need to see and be seen. The offroad riding and running can be pretty technical, so handle bar and head mounted lights are the go. And we’re not talking tiny LEDs – lights need an industrial strength beam to figure out the lay of the land while navigating. Everyone in the team runs the same system so we can share batteries during long legs.
Out on the still water at night there is something magical about paddling by moonlight, but we still need to be seen so we rely on our Orbiloc Safety Lights for visibility.
Photographer’s note: you won’t see multiple cameras on the mandatory gear list, but for me they are essential kit to document our journey. They have to be rugged, waterproof and lightweight, and I’ve gotten some great shots with my Nikon AW1 and GoPro Hero5.
To fit all this in, a bigger backpack is needed. Around 20 litres normally does the job, unless you are the designated ‘packhorse’ of the team, in which case bigger is better. Whatever pack we have, lots of pockets that are accessible while on the move are essential for things like food, sunscreen, our trademark fluoro zinc, water treatment tablets, hand sanitiser gel, sunscreen, bug spray…and chocolate.
Expedition (5-10 day) Races
Expedition racing is where things get serious. In these races we have literally relied on the gear we’ve been carrying to save our lives. With our homes in our backpacks, we might not be comfortable, but chances are we can get out of most sticky situations.
This is what we carried non-stop for 121 hours and 21 minutes in the 2016 Adventure Racing World Championships.
Expedition races are ‘unsupported’ events (i.e. no support crew) so it takes some epic pre-race logistics and problem solving to pack five plastic trunks full of food and supplies for organisers to move around the course as our life support. Once out on course there is always a bit of nervousness as we finish each leg and check if the right gear awaits us. For extra fun after every bike leg we need to take our bikes apart and pack them neatly into boxes to be transported to the next location. There’s nothing like a game of ‘who can build their bike fastest’ (without forgetting any essential bolts) when you’re neck and neck with another team in transition.
Each leg can range anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days (especially if you get lost!), so a 30-40L pack is needed to get us through. To cope with even more variety in weather conditions (like sidewise rain in New Zealand’s Southern Alps) we add the Elemental Zip as a mid-weight insulating layer, warm gloves and waterproof breathable pants. Top to bottom merino layered under a shell outer, and we are ready for anything.
After a couple of days on the move sleeping becomes essential, even for the most hardcore (as entertaining as the ‘sleep monsters’, aka hallucinations, can be). Organisers specify a tent with at least 2.5 meters squared floor area that all four team members can fit in. In the interests of weight saving, we usually pack the minimum required…and usually regret it at 2am on day 4 while lost on a freezing mountain range.
We also take a durable emergency bivvy (survival bag) like the SOL Escape, as chances are it will be used quite a few times. And if things really turn pear shaped, we have a strobe to catch the attention of rescue craft.
After multiple days of non-stop trekking, our feet swell a size or two, so those too-big running shoes accidentally ordered online are a blessing. Lightweight gaiters get replaced by thick heavy duty canvas ones to save our shins from the harsh scrub.
And if you haven’t tried them before, get some trekking poles – they aren’t just for 80 year olds with a knee replacement. Ours are carbon fibre, foldable (so they tuck away when you don’t need them), and make all the difference when you’re hauling 10kg of gear up a mountain face for 12 hours.
A week moving non-stop means a constant battle against chafing, so as well as feet we’re lubing nipples, crotches and armpits – oh, the glamour.
We go through a lot of strapping tape too, preventing or covering blisters and adding ankle support over rough terrain.
Meanwhile the first aid kit beefs up with spare dressings and bandages in our boxes, sexy additions like diarrhoea meds and anti-histamines, and a shedload of Panadol and Neurofen.
Rounding out the gear list, for a bit of luxury, I pack a toothbrush, with the handle cut short for weight saving of course. The feeling of clean teeth after consuming innumerable gels is probably second only to crossing the finish line.
Despite this being all about the gear, at the end of the day, it’s not about the gear…its about what it lets you do, and the experiences you have that you’ll never forget. From kayaking with dolphins as the sun rises, to cresting a mountain by moonlight.
We hope you are inspired to get out there and make your own adventures.