Over the past few years, I have competed in multi-day adventure races from Patagonia to the deserts of Utah. The checkpoint-dotted courses, which I traversed by bike, boat, and on foot, pushed the limits of my body and my gear further than anything I’ve experienced before. Sleepless nights, long days, tough navigation, and on-the-spot gear creativity—see my team's deployment of Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pads to float a whitewater stream in southern Chile earlier this year—have allowed me to crown the sport the ultimate gear proving ground.
Finding an adventure in the United States is not hard—there are now more than 200 organized annually, including the national championship events that take place this October in Kentucky. For an adventure race near you, check out the event calendars on Checkpoint Tracker and USARA. Then start training. Adventure racing requires strength, endurance, and a can-do fortitude verging on derangement, all balanced with a stout kit of outdoor gear. Here are the 10 top products I won't race without.
The Original Buff
Never mind the quizzical looks, this indefinable accessory can do it all
The Original Buff
The Original Buff
These seamless polyester head-wraps have long been ubiquitous uniform pieces for racers. Despite a questionable do-rag aesthetic, Buffs are irreplaceable on a race for soaking up sweat from your brow, protecting your neck from sun, and insulating your noggin at night. I bring at least two Buffs on every race, and switch out a sweaty or rain-soaked Buff for the dry replacement I always keep inside my pack.
The perfect lube to keep your feet blister free
Friction in your footwear can lead to blisters, and later, infections. In adventure racing, you're on your feet for hours, if not days. A product like Hydropel, a greasy salve made by Genesis Pharmaceutical Inc., is 100 percent requisite for many racers. Before you leave the starting line, slather the translucent goo between each toe and on your heals. Now pull your sock on. The lube keeps blisters at bay by making your skin slippery and friction-adverse. Available on Amazon for a hefty $19 for a two-ounce bottle.
Merino Wool Clothing
Natural baselayers will keep the odor to a minimum during an adventure race
Hot, wet, or cold, you will rarely find me racing without merino wool on my back (and butt, legs, and feet). The super-fine wool is a magic material that regulates like a second skin—it keeps you warm when the air is cold, and it's breathable and anti-odor for long treks on hot days. Bonus: Merino stays warm when wet, and because it's naturally anti-stink, T-shirts and base-layers can be worn for days. Merino tops from Ibex and Icebreaker have been lifesavers for me in the wilds on long races where I don the same clothing for up to a week straight. Start your merino wardrobe with a short-sleeve like Ibex's Balance T, a tight-fitting top that has proven indispensible for me on a dozen events.
Price: Ibex Balance T, $75
A specialty backpack fit for adventure racing, packed with pockets
Accessible pockets on hip belts and shoulder straps to store energy food and other on-the-go items are requisite for any backpack I take on a race. This year, Out There USA, a company founded by adventure-racing champion Mike Kloser, released the AS-1, a multi-sport wonder pack with hip pockets, yoke pouches, and elasticized mesh holsters for water bottles. All these small storage areas are reachable without taking the pack off (key in a race). I wore the AS-1 for a week of racing in Patagonia this year and it did not let me down—rarely did I need to remove my pack during the day. My sleeping bag and big items were in the pack body. Sunscreen, salt pills, a small knife, lip balm, and copious amounts of gels and energy bars were kept accessible at all times up front in the pack's self-serve pocket and pouch array.
Geriatric-oriented nutrition shakes are a secret adventure race fuel
Liquid "food" products from the unlikely sources of Abbott Laboratories and Nestlé S.A. offer quick calories in the heat of a race. The food giants respectively make Ensure Shakes and Boost Drink, which are bottled shakes often sold in a grocery store's pharmacy section and marketed toward the elderly and the infirm. But racers can poach grandma's chocolate remedies. Both drinks taste surprisingly good in the outback and provide easy-to-down energy at about 250 calories a pop. With some bonus protein and fat, these eight-ounce drinks have found a place in my pack.
Price: sold in six-packs for $8 to $10
Suunto Vector HR
A bomber watch with the right functions is mandatory gear for an adventure race
Sturdy, highly accurate, and extra long-lasting on the battery front, I have employed the $329 Vector HR from Suunto on a dozen events. It offers time, altitude, compass, and an alarm—all you need on a race. (I use the watch's heart-rate function for training.) On the battery side, the watch is guaranteed reliable: It took more than 20 months of heavy use for my Suunto to run its first battery dry.
Minimalist shoes allow you to cut time during an adventure race
La Sportiva X Country
La Sportiva X Country
Moving fast on the feet is required in sprint and day-long races. For me, on races up to 24 hours, minimalist fell-running shoes are my footwear of choice. These flat, lightweight shoes promote a natural running gait. Aggressive tread grips mud and rocks in the woods. My favorite fell runners come from Inov-8 Ltd. (the Roclite 285 model) and La Sportiva (X Country). Caveat: While nimble and fast, ankle and toe protection is limited with these minimal shoes—look to a beefier trail-running shoe if you prefer to upgrade on the protection front.
Price: Inov-8 Roclite ($110); Sportiva X Country ($90)
Giant Anthem X1
A do-all XC steed should be your bike of choice for variable adventure race terrain
Bike sections can vary greatly from race to race, ranging from technical singletrack to fast gravel roads. In short, you need a mountain bike that can tackle a wide swath of terrain types. For two seasons, Giant Bicycles' Athem X1 has been my solid and speedy companion. The dual-suspension bike is fast and light—pared down and stocked with new wheels my size-large bike is just 23 pounds. It climbs efficiently, cruises on flats, and it has yet to find downhill terrain on a race too tough for its mountain goat build.
A packable, mid-puffy jacket is crucial for cold weather in an adventure race
Light, semi-puffy, and extra warm, the Xenon is a packable mid-layer piece absolutely critical for cool-weather racing. Its Primaloft One insulation is toasty on the core, and it stays warm (unlike down) even when wet. The jacket's hood ensconces like a heated hat. The Xenon's outer face, a thin Pertex fabric, feels fragile to the touch but has proven to be tougher than imaginable in the mountains and thick brush. Best part: The Xenon weighs just 11 ounces and stuffs into its own chest pocket to the size of a grapefruit to save space inside your pack.
A helmet that works for all adventure race activities
Certified to be safe for cycling, climbing, and kayaking, the Kong Scarab helmet is an all-in-one favorite for racers around the world. The helmet is not the lightest or best fitting on the market, but its multiuse nature sets it apart—no longer do I need two or even three helmet types for the multisport game of adventure racing. This single skullcap has me covered—even if it lacks the venting of a true bike helmet and other sport-specific touches—across a big range of AR events.