Adventure Racing 101

Imagine biking through the woods to find a checkpoint marked on your topographic map.  Your partner is using the compass to find West while you’re busy scouting the terrain for the creek marked on the map.  100 yards ahead you spot it, a small white and orange kite propped against a tree.

rope net

Adventure racing can best be described as a competitive scavenger hunt for adults. Split into multiple disciplines, the race involves locating checkpoints marked out on the course.  You may be required to obtain some of the check points on bike, others on foot, still other by boat or better yet rappelling.  There may be certain challenges you have to complete along the way, possibly logic games, an obstacle course or even a rock wall or fireman’s carry.   Your equipment generally includes a compass, food and water.  Beyond that it’s your own wit and skill to guide you to the checkpoints.   And it’s fun.  Ridiculous, I haven’t had so much fun since I was 12 riding my bike to the lake fun.


Adventure racing as a sport is growing at an incredible rate.  More cyclists, triathletes and runners enter the sport each year, looking for a new challenge. Adventure racing takes skill and endurance.  The short sprint distance races may range anywhere from 4-6 hours while longer races may last many days and cover expansive territory.  Adventure racing camps will teach you the basic skills if you’re looking to do a longer race, but for those of us who are more of the “weekend warrior” type, here’s what you need to know.  We’ll cover choosing gear in an upcoming post.


The Teams

Teams are usually 2-4 people depending on the company that is putting on the adventure race.  They’ll likely have several divisions, mens, coed and possibly womens.  Choose your partner(s) wisely, you’ll want people that not only have skills to supplement your weaknesses, but also people you can work with and trust.  Nothing takes the fun out of something faster than having the wrong teammates.

The Events

You can almost guarantee that every adventure race is going to at least have an orienteering and mountain bike component.  Orienteering is the on-foot section of the course (here’s where you get to run around the woods with a map and compass).  Generally you should be prepared to cross terrain without a path, with only your compass and topographic map to guide you.  The mountain bike section will likely be limited to trails, but we’ve been at some races where we’ve had to hike our bikes up and over the hill, so read your map carefully.  Frequently there is also a paddling section, usually canoeing or kayaking.  This section usually isn’t that technical, but it will save you a lot of aggravation on the water if you paddle a few times with your teammates before the actual event.


The Skills

  1. Orienteering. You should be comfortable using a compass before the event and comfortable reading a topographic map.  Neither is difficult to use, but you’d be surprised how many people have difficulty with a compass once they’re lost.    Make sure everyone on your team understands how to use a topographic map and understands the legend.
  2. Mountain Biking. You should be comfortable riding a mountain bike and have the endurance to complete the biking portion.  Sprint races will often give you an estimate on the distance for the mountain bike section- make sure you can complete it.
  3. Endurance. This is probably the most important skill you need to have. And yes, endurance is a skill – you have to understand how to pace yourself and how to maintain your energy levels.  Even a four hour race requires pacing and endurance, so if you’ve never completed endurance event before, think about what you’ve used in the past to get you through a long run or ride.

We’ll get more into the endurance and gear aspects of Adventure Racing in the next few weeks. Check out the US Adventure Racing Association for more information on the sport and check out events in your area!

Guide: Hiking the “W” Trail – Torres Del Paine, Chile

Hiking the ‘W is a must do for all backpackers who manage to make it that far south. In our opinion, most do it in a way that is either more expensive or more work than necessary. Below is what we did, then some suggested changes to our path to maximize your enjoyment and minimize your time and expense. Doing this trek in 5 days, if you are a regular hiker, to me, is downright silly.  If you want to do a longer hike, with less people, do the circuit.
Access: To Puerto Natales there are daily buses from Rio Gallegos and Peritto Moreno (El Calafate)in Argentina. From Puerto Natales there is a twice daily bus, making the several hour trip from town to the park, the first leaving in the morning around 8am and the second leaving around 2pm. Both buses pick hikers up for the return trip from the park to town.

Our time in Torres del Paine:

IMGP3275Day 1: We arrived on the morning Puerto Natales bus and made it to the start of the trail around the middle of the day. We set out immediately hiking all the way up the first leg of the ‘W’ to the Torres themselves and then back down again and almost to the second leg of the ‘W’. We slept that first night in Refugio Los Cuernos.  Many would do this portion over two days but traveling with minimal gear we were able to make it with relative ease. Camping there and using the hut’s supplies rather than our own cost a couple of dollars extra but given that we didn’t need to rent equipment in town, this balanced out. It is important, even during low season to have a reservation if your planning to rent equipment.  We made a reservation and they still didn’t have enough sleeping bags to go around! Plan ahead!

IMGP3247Day 2: We had planned to get up early and hike either the second or the third leg of the ‘W’ and get to the ferry to return to the bus to return to town in the early afternoon. As I’d started the trek with a cold we decided to just walk to the ferry at Lodge Paine Grande, but this was only because of my failing health, not lack of time. Had I started the trek healthy and we gotten up and began our walking at first light we would have been fine to do at least another leg of the W.

Other options:

IMGP3230One Day Hike: Not as hard as it seems. Take the afternoon bus from Puerto Natales and overnight at the first camp, staying comfortably in their lodge or huts. Begin walking before first light and you’ll have more than enough time to do the whole trek and make it to the Lodge Paine Grande camp at Laguna Azul before dark, spending a second night there and either taking the ferry the next day or walking to park headquarters to catch the bus back in the morning. This could be done in reverse as well.  This is for seasoned hikers only who know what they’re doing.  If there is a sudden change in weather you will likely need to alter your plans dramatically and you need to be prepared for that.

Two nights on the Trail: This is probably the best option for doing the entire trek with minimal time, expense, and discomfort. If you do your first day as we did above, then you can make an easy second day viewing the second leg of the ‘W’. Get up early the third day to visit the final leg or make a longer second day and do both legs there. Whichever way you divide the final two legs, plan to spend the second night at camp.  Had I been healthy we would have gone with this option

You can pay to stay in the huts or in the hut campsites. Equipment is available for rent within the park for camping, more expensive than in town but you don’t have to carry it, or just stay in the dormitory or the refugios. Full board can be purchased at each hut as well so if you don’t want to carry your food either, you don’t have to. When we were there everything for purchase was cheaper if paying with U$D rather than Chillean Pesos so ask in town before departing. All itineraries above can be done in reverse.

Be sure to take care of yourself while there, use the long days to pack in extra miles but don’t forget to go to sleep. Here’s a picture of the Torres del Paine National Park Topo hiking map:


Photo Tuesday: Torres del freezing!

Hiking to the famous Torres del Paine was an uphill battle, literally.  The last section of the hike was extremely steep and it felt like for every one step up we slid two back.  Eventually we made it, and after only a few minutes the clouds parted and we had a magnificent view.  Before heading back down we witnessed a mini-avalanche on an ajoining slope, which needless to say helped encourage us back to the refugio in no time!

Ever been charged by a mountain gorilla?

Transportation from the capital to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – $130

Permits to go gorilla tracking in Bwindi – $500

Seeing your wife’s face as a 400 pound angry silverback mountain gorilla charges your group and knocks down one of the guides……..priceless

The walk hadn’t been too bad, at least not in comparison to everything else that had come before it. We were hiking at an altitude above that of Denver, yet it was humid as though we were in a rainforest. We were sweaty, and breathing heavily, trekking over wet muddy terrain but it really wasn’t that bad…at least not until we got our first glimpse of the super rare mountain gorilla.

To get to Bwindi was a trick in and of itself. First there was ordering the permits in advance. A lot of money had to be wired from the USA to Uganda, all while we were trekking somewhere between Malawi and Mt. Kilimanjaro (thanks to our parents for handling that one!) Then there was getting to the forest itself, which isn’t called impenetrable for nothing. A 20 hour overnight bus ride north through three African countries got us to the Ugandan capital of Kampala…then it was another day’s drive south, in private expensive transport as that was the only real option available to us, to reach the forest. So really, after all that time, effort, and money….a couple hours walk through the equatorial mountain rain forest was nothing.

We hadn’t been trekking too long, maybe an hour or so, when the lead guide stopped us and told us the trackers had already found the gorillas. It would be another hour at most, he told us, but we got our first glimpse a mere 10 minutes later…then everything went to shit.

The guides had taken us up the hill with the plan to have us descend to where the larger group of gorillas were peacefully eating and resting. We saw that first gorilla, and then we began our decent which was not so easy on account of the steepness of the hill and the water-saturated ground. Carefully we went, step by step, falling every few paces when suddenly we heard noise from above. One of the males was there, clearly upset that we were between him and his family. I could see its teeth.

I’m not entirely sure what happened after that but here is what I can piece together. I hit the deck and averted my eyes as I was told. Jill freaked out and didn’t remember to get down and avert her fact her eyes were huge…exactly the opposite of what we were told to do. Bad job Jill. The gorilla, a blackback (a non-elder adult male) named Bahatu charged down the path we had made for ourselves. One of the guards standing a few feet away from me, the one with the big gun, was knocked down by the gorilla. Lotta good that gun did. The gorilla literally ran past this guard, yanked up his foot, and put him on his back….all while the gorilla himself was running. After that charge (I’m not done yet) all the guides were laughing. It seems this is something that “happens” but not every day. When it does happen though, it isn’t usually just one charge.

The next one up was the silverback (elder male) named Safari. I was still at the back of the group, lucky me, I had a front row seat. He appeared above us, much as the first one did, showing his teeth and hooting and hollering and acting like any of us do when we’re at a sporting event. Jill was just ahead of me and taken down more or less whereas I was taken aside the path. Safari began to charge, I got down and averted my eyes again, and then I looked up when I thought it was over. This time the guard was “fighting back” as he was trained to do. The guard was on all fours, “barking” at this silverback gorilla and swinging his hook on a stick (kinda like a machete, only not as cool) at the grass in between the two…making himself as big as he could against the mean looking vegetarian. It worked. Safari stopped advancing and turned into the forest to his left to go around us. I wonder what my mother would say if I told her that I decided to stop the next gorilla myself?

Eventually we made it down to where the rest of the gorillas were feasting. More on that tomorrow.


Mt. Kilimanjaro- Day 6

Waking up at Horombo hut we were sore and although feeling much better than the day before, still physically exhausted. After summiting at 6:30 a.m. We hiked for another 7 hours back down to Kibo hut and finally to Horombo to spend the night. We ate breakfast and headed out ready to get off the mountain and down to lower altitude. Jubilant that we had all made it to the top, we headed down with whatever spring was left in our step covering the distance to Mandara huts in less than 3 hours. Leaving our friends to their lunch at the huts, we continued down the path for another hour to a little lunch spot along the trail. Emerging from the woods to what we thought was a secluded picnic site, we were surprised to see several groups of porters waiting in the shade. Tucking into our lunch, we ate quickly, ready for the journey to be over. Rejoining our friends for the final hour and a half, we finally walked through the park gates, overjoyed that the walking was over. Our feet were tired, our legs worn out, but we were happy and looking up at the summit I could hardly believe that just a day ago we had been up there!

Drinking a delicious ice cold soda, we relaxed a bit while our guide signed us off the trail and obtained our official summit certificates. Piling into our pick up truck, we headed down to the companies office to unload, unpack and wash up a bit. Again, it was hectic at the office, and by the time we sat down with our crew in the bar nearly an hour had passed since our arrival. Thanking them for their assistance and hard work, we shared a few drinks as our guides presented us with our certificates and we presented them with some tokens of appreciation. To congratulate us, our guide sang a song about Kilimanjaro in his local language, complete with dancing and clapping, which needless to say took us by surprise. The man who had been mostly silent the last week was suddenly full of life, jumping around and singing.

Heading to Moshi in a combi that night, we were the talk of the bus with one man moving to the back of the bus just to sit next to me and practice his English. An hour later we were in town ready for a hot shower and a big comfortable bed. We had summited Kilimanjaro!