Safety Issues in Adventure Racing

Article by planetFear
Monday 15th June 2009

For a sport encompassing so many potentially hazardous activities, mixed with a cocktail of sleep deprivation and extreme physical fatigue, adventure racing has a pretty good safety record. However, the dangers are real and this is certainly no reason to be complacent. This article outlines the key areas of AR safety consideration. All of the issues discussed here are also major factors in performance: a safe team usually equals a fast team.

Crossing the plains of Tierra del Fuego in the 2007 Patagonia Expedition Race. Photo: Nathan Ward (

Safety in adventure racing may be broken down into three categories:

1) Preparation

2) Organisational Competence

3) Looking after yourself



Research the races and organisations you are thinking of dealing with (word of mouth and web based discussion groups are good places to start, also check out the organisers’ qualifications and track record).

Try to choose a race that is suitable for your skill and experience levels. There are plenty of races for which a bit of trail running or hill walking and basic mountain bike experience are all you need. For others you may need specialist skills including ropework, boat control and self rescue.

Try to prepare as best you can for the activities you will be participating in during the race. If possible, talk to responsible people with relevant experience in particular events, as well as those with general adventure racing experience. Run and ride on rough ground (not just on the road). Train with the same kind of boats you will be using in the race, and idealy in similar conditions.

An equally important factor in good AR preparation is working out what equipment will be adequate for all the activities in the race, and making sure that you are familiar with it. Make sure your mountain bike is in good and safe working order, and that you know how to make emergency repairs when you are miles from nowhere. Wear a helmet that fits, and is in good condition. Use a buoyancy aid of the correct size, adjusted to fit snugly around your torso and suitable for the water conditions you will encounter. You should also ensure that you have adequate clothing for the worst conditions you might experience during the race. It is of the utmost importance that you study the most detailed local weather forecasts you can find in the days (and even hours) leading up to the start of the race. Weather forecasts should inform your choice of clothing and equipment, but equally they should never be relied upon completely, particularly if racing in remote or mountainous areas where the consequences of taking inadequate clothing could be serious. 

Skilled bike maintenance is an important and valuable team skill. Photo: Pasi Ikonen

As a team member (and especially when you are team captain) you have a responsibility to the others around you. Try to ensure they are at least aware of the potential hazards and have prepared accordingly.

Desirable skills to acquire (particularly for longer more adventurous races) are: first aid, fast-water rescue, good helming ability, sea kayaking experience, technical biking and running. More than one person needs to be competent in each of the key skills since sods law will dictate that it is the most experienced person who will get injured or need help. Attend appropriate training courses and share books on mountain navigation, rope techniques, white water safety and expedition medicine. Make sure others are in a position to rescue you, if things go wrong!

Organisational Competence

Look for the following attributes in the organisation putting on your race:

  • A sensible number of motivated and happy volunteers.
  • Suitably qualified staff managing rope sections and supervising water sections,(ideally using safety boats), as well as any other potentially hazardous activity.
  • Good equipment: check especially that ropes you are being asked to use / abseil down are in good condition with no fraying. We have experienced fraying and sliced ropes during some races, so you basically have to be responsible for your own safety no matter how high profile the race. Check also that the water craft you are being provided with is in good condition.
  • Driving: no pressure should be put on support crews to speed or drive without sleep – in some ways they have the most dangerous job of all.


Looking after yourself

Don't try to make extreme weight-saving cuts in your first major races. Instead, take what you think will be enough of everything. Insufficient clothing and food can cost you more time than taking a bit too much.

Taking care of yourself and the rest of your team is your number one safety line in adventure racing. Be aware of your team mates and alert to signs of exhaustion or hypothermia. It is vital to ensure that all of you know the warning signs of hypothermia in particular, since this the primary cause of teams having to abandon courses. Racers tend to travel with barely adequate amounts of clothing and equipment. Clearly, successful racers are masters at taking just the right amount of equipment and no more. However, the other side of this equation is taking enough kit to stay warm, dry, and energised. If in doubt, carry a bit more and be safe. You should also ensure that you are all getting enough food and water to at least survive the distance. Every time you are eating and drinking, remind others to do the same.

Don’t look to outside sources to keep you safe - take individual and team responsibility for staying safe. Be prepared to say “no” if you think you are about to do something too dangerous, or too far beyond your safe limits. You may incur a time penalty, but equally you may stop a serious accident from taking place.

Remember that lack of sleep can severely impair your skills and ability to make safe decisions. For short (two day) races, twenty minute cat naps in the grass can work wonders. In longer races you will have to work out a more organised sleep management strategy. You will be amazed at how easy it becomes to sleep literally anywhere.

















Iiro Kakko shows signs of the onset of tiredness. Photo by Pasi Ikonen

If it has all gone pear shaped and you've been forced to take an unplanned rest stop, don’t just throw in the towel. Try to get somewhere comfortable (ideally a transition area, especially if you have support crew) eat, drink and sleep if necessary. The chances are you’ll feel better and be fine to carry on after a rest period.


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