Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Effort to End the Required Gear List

To be required is to be essential or absolutely necessary. It seems in today's races, that the only thing essential about an item on a required gear list is that you need it to pass inspection before or during the race. The required gear list has manifested into a mix of items that truly are needed in order to participate, that are necessary by law, that might be handy and those that promote safety. Based on these categories, it is my belief that we can do away with the required gear list and proceed to a future with more streamlined pre-race proceedings and more room in our packs for stuff we actually use.

First let's consider equipment that truly is needed in order to participate. These might be mountain bikes or boats. We don't need to list these items. When a race lists mountain biking or paddling in the disciplines it's strongly implied that you'll need a bike and boat. For specifics, the rules can indicate whether cyclocross or road bikes are permitted; likewise for kayaks versus canoes and any paddle type restrictions. There is some grey area when it comes to races with a ropes section since the bulk of participants may not be familiar with what equipment they might need for such a thing. In which case, a concise note without the formality of a required gear list will suffice.* A special note for race directors: in your rules, be sure to include something requiring teams to have their bikes / boats with them when completing the appropriate sections. Advantageous position can be achieved by leaving your bikes / boats on course and finishing on foot for example. A 'no gear drop' clause can also cover this.

Secondly we've got the gear that is necessary by law. These would be bike helmets, pfds, a bailing device and tow rope etc. These can and should be covered in the rules. "A helmet must be worn at all times while on the mountain bike" means a whole lot more than the required gear list's stipulation that you have the helmet with you. Other items required by (Nova Scotian) law are matches, compass and a knife. A gentle reminder in the rules can make sure participants will carry these items as well.

The next required gear list items to discuss are those that might come in handy. Dearest race director, I do love you for what you do, but you're not my mother. And if it makes you feel any better, I wouldn't listen to her either. Yes, spare socks might be useful for some participants, but I prefer to make that judgment myself. I also prefer to bring the bike repair tools that I deem appropriate. And if I want to catch some color during an adventure race, it should be my prerogative. Now, I will concede that since I've been racing for 10 years, that I'm a qualified participant to make these judgments. However, if the purpose of your gear list is to make sure that new participants have all they need then you'll fail at that purpose. If your race will have new racers, then you should have some kind of resource available (even a link to a website will do) that identifies typical gear used. These types of items can be suggested and advised as much as you like, but not required. The best resource for helping new racers in this department is to put them in touch with an experienced racer; as an RD you'll have enough correspondence to worry about. Give them my contact info if you like!

Lastly we have items that promote safety. Adventure racing is ridiculously dangerous. A raincoat, toque, some gauze and a triangular bandage will not change that. It's always been my theory that any injury I could treat with the meager required first aid equipment isn't worth treating in the first place. Any injury requiring treatment, in my opinion, needs a whole lot more... including first aid personnel; will they fit in my pack? Sure I know first aid, but I can barely state my name after 24 hours let alone practice sound first aid! Again there is some grey area here with a raincoat and toque whereby hypothermia is a considerable risk in any race. However, the consideration for these types of things with respect to liability is slowly changing toward less requirements equaling less liability. When requiring an item like a rain coat that has no standard for qualification, like a pfd or bike helmet, the race director actually puts themselves in a liable position by qualifying that item. Take note of that one RDs; protecting your participants may not be protecting you.

If you're brave enough to host an adventure race, it's your right to include a required gear list if that's what you need to satisfy your level of comfort. But please, if you do include one, do it because that's what you want and you believe it's necessary for your race, not because it's always been that way, or because you think people will show up without shoes because they weren't listed for them.

*For races with a ropes course I'll go against my usual advice and suggest that there should be a pre-race inspection of gear. My reasoning: the prussik, for example, is often used as a redundant safety device. Unfortunately most people don't realize that your prussik can't be 4 ft long because it will either get jammed in your figure-8 / ATC or it will be too high for you to operate if it does engage. It's a very annoying thing to be in a bottleneck at a ropes course while the rope staff have to reconfigure someone's gear on another team. The same goes for harness adjustment.


  1. I think the logic of your "advantageous position" point above calls for a bit of required gear. People tend to want to travel as light as possible, and with no guidelines, they're tempted to be unrealistically optimistic about what gear they'll need. For example, surprisingly often I've seen a summer rain - hardly unusual - cause all kinds of experienced racers to DNF with hypothermia. If I were a RD, I'd probably require a decent rain jacket, spare base layer, and hat, just to avoid the logistical headache of having to pick up half the field.

  2. You're absolutely right that racers should have decent rain gear and base layers for unexpected conditions. But what's a decent rain jacket? How thick should the base layer be? What material should the base layer be made of? How much of the head should the hat cover? Is the garbage bag I usually use for a required rain coat sufficient? What about the buff I use for a hat? And the base layer that I can see through it's so thin?

    By having a requirement for such a thing it says "You'll be okay if you have this" and further, if someone actually checks that you have it it says "You'll be okay if you have this and I've confirmed that it's going to keep you okay." Meanwhile I'm suffering from hypothermia in my garbage bag buff and fishnet base layer.

  3. I should add... it's not that racers don't NEED this gear, it's that RDs should remove themselves from taking a responsibility to ensure that they have it AND that it's sufficient.

  4. Really, you don't think it's possible to set some sort of minimum requirement - e.g. taped seams on rain gear, wool or synthetic hat - without providing a guarantee of its sufficiency? I do.

  5. An RD can specify a taped seam, but then since they are making the specification they are putting even more responsibility on themselves.

    Currently the governing body in Canada, the Canadian Adventure Racing Association, doesn't provide any gear specifications (save, I believe, some with respect to helmets, pfds and the like), nor is their involvement even required in your race. (Sno-Racin'! will be the first race I've hosted in six years with a CARA sanction.)

    I'm in neither the legal nor insurance business in anyway other than a consumer. I'm regurgitating what I've been supplied from those providing the legal and insurance advice to adventure racing (and cycling among others.)

    Apparently this new philosophy was generated after a successful lawsuit from a skier who crashed into a tree. There were padded trees on the hill, but the one they hit was not. It seems that the ski hill demonstrated that trees were a liability by padding some, but since they didn't pad them all they showed negligence by not addressing the entire risk. I tried desperately to find a reference to the case to include it in my article, but I was unsuccessful. I suppose I can safely mention it in the comments!

    This ski hill thing has led to other things like the CCA no longer practicing or enforcing bike checks for DH races.

    Showing recognition but not a complete address of a liability that participants have already assumed the risk of is turning into a bad move for RDs. While the practice of this theory is still new, it's my belief that eliminating a required gear list is buying into it, and given the ever evolving precedent of our new sport I believe it's the right move. It's not just about a raincoat... it's about what raincoat, and what else might save your life but isn't on the gear list.

  6. Obviously I'm not in the legal/insurance advice biz either, but I know a bit about what you're talking about from cycling. Opting not to e.g. safety check bikes when you're not qualified is one thing. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea that a RD should cover his/her ass by neglecting the gear issue altogether. It seems weasely. Were something to go wrong, I'd rather say "we made sure they had a sat phone, first aid kit, cold weather gear, and lighting" than "the prize was $4000, the race 48 hours, and we cheered them on as they ran into the wilderness in short-sleeved lycra, each carrying a water bottle and a gel."

  7. Establishing communication protocol, that I'm 100% in favor of... if it's done properly of course. If something like a satellite phone is the best to do such a thing then like climbing gear it should be identified.

    I don't dispute that the approach is a dodge, but RDs should absolutely be covering their own ass. Adventure racing is ridiculously dangerous, and no gear list will change that. Remember, it might not be the items on the list that create liability and show negligence, it might be the equipment that isn't on the list.

    In five minutes any lawyer can make the most cautious adventure race director look like an insane sadist who's trying to hurt people. In some cases, they don't even need to try! But exhaustion, pain, suffering... all of that is assumed. No reasonable person would participate in an adventure race without expecting some / all of these. And virtually every race we do has a waiver that participants sign in accordance with this assumption.

    That will hold. There is ass covering there. But there are assumptions associated with a required gear list as well... assumptions for the racer to think that everything will be fine if they have what's on that list, and that's fodder for the lawyer.