If a concise answer were possible then it probably wouldn’t be an adventure race! A traditional adventure race, in its simplest form, would be a multisport athletic race requiring navigation as opposed to a marked course. The usual sports include trekking, mountain biking and paddling. Navigation is implied for all disciplines when it comes to adventure racing, however, orienteering is often considered a discipline as well. Caving, rappelling, ascending, climbing, white water rafting, pack rafting, rollerblading and any number of other outdoor activity has either or will eventually be a part of an adventure race.
To fully appreciate the variance of experiences that adventure racers enjoy, consider trekking; trekking could be running, hiking, bushwhacking, mountaineering… crawling! When it comes to the activities you actually participate in during an adventure race, no two races are alike.
Races usually involve a series of checkpoints and transition areas. While there is no set route that is required, there are locations that have to be visited, these are checkpoints. Checkpoints may be a landmark, a scenic spot, the side of a road, anything! They may have a race volunteer there logging your time in and out, or there may be an orienteering flag if it’s a remote check point. As well, a checkpoint may have your gear so that you can transition from one discipline to the next, this type of checkpoint is also considered a transition area. Some races will have trucks or other methods of transporting your gear form one transition area to the next while some races go in and out of a central area where you can access your gear and transition as required.
The majority of adventure races require participants to race as a team, however some races offer solo categories. Virtually all races accept teams of 2, 3 or 4 and the gender make up is unimportant, though premiere divisions, i.e. the ones that get the most attention, are typically co-ed teams of four. Races with larger attendance may have varying categories based on team size and gender. Smaller races tend to lump all categories together.
The length of any particular adventure race is typically denoted by duration since there is no set route to offer a distance. Races can be anywhere from a few hours long, to several days long. Some races advertise themselves with a duration range, others stick to one figure. Typical race sizes are: 4-6 hr, 8 hr, 12 hr, 24 hr, 36 hr and expedition races, where expedition races are anything 48 hrs long or more. On 24 hr and 36 hr races, there typically isn’t opportunity to sleep. For expedition races, sleep is a strategic component for teams, and each team will take a different approach. Notable though, many teams don’t sleep even on multi-day races. Suffice to say that things can get both brutal and hilarious when sleep deprivation comes into play.
The actual details of the race course are sometimes kept a secret. Races will advertise their date, the duration, the disciplines, rules, schedule etc. in advance; however the exact registration location is often withheld until just days before the race in order to preserve the secrecy of the course; you can’t have anyone previewing the goods! Almost all races require you to sign-up well in advance, the registration actions are typically more of a check-in. There may be pre-race meetings, there may be gear-checks, maps may be distributed before the race in which case there is a lot of course plotting to do… the pre-race actions are often quite exciting, and are very much a critical part of the adventure race.
The true adventure comes from the basis that there is no set route for an adventure race. Teams will often take very different routes to get from one check point to the next, which gives opportunity for individuals to exercise their strengths. It can be quite a challenge to remain focused on racing where racers can go for hours, even days without seeing their competition!