Adventure racing, a multidisciplinary sport involving long wilderness courses and hours (or days) of non-stop action, I believe to be one of the best venues in which to test gear. If a pair shoes can handle 40 miles of off-trail bushwhacking, for example, then they can handle pretty much anything.
Last weekend I competed in the END-AR, a 12-hour adventure race in North Dakota. My team, Covert Loons, took first place, pushing hard for 75 miles and 10+ hours straight on the bikes, feet, and in a canoe. (See my Race Report here: http://thegearjunkie.com/12-hour-ar-262-miles.) I tested a couple new items but mostly went with old standby products I love and trust. Here's a head-to-toe hash out of what worked, and what did not. . .
Feet: Inov-8 Roclite 285
These "elite trail and adventure racing shoes," as Inov-8 calls them, have been around the block with me. This is probably the tenth race I've ran in them, so that says something about my affinity for the brand. The shoe is lightweight (285 grams, thus the name) and nimble, with very little midsole support. It mimics a barefoot running style, with a sole that can twist and grip on the terrain. The outsole is knobby and made of floor-marring, rock-grabbing sticky rubber, which helped me on this race during a dicey rock-hop river crossing segment. I like these shoes for their fit and speed. You can sprint on trail, road or through the backcountry. Their support, however, is minimal. You should be strong on your feet to start with before stepping into Inov-8s. One battle wound: While coming off a river, I stepped on a sharp piece of steel rebar, tearing a gash through the heel area of the shoe and skimming my skin. Almost put me out of the race. And I think it killed the shoe off for use in future events. (www.inov-8.com)
Legs: Rail Riders Weatherpants
These amazingly tough nylon trousers have put up with me for three years of racing. Now they are just about dead, with the fabric getting stiff and sun-worn, and several tears littering the face. But still I wear the darn things. Nothing I've ever put on my legs has been this tough, eschewing thick thorns and brush as I run in the backwoods. On the bike segments they are annoying, tough, as the fabric flaps in the wind. I scrunch the ankles in with Velcro straps before stepping on to pedal. (www.railriders.com)
Backpack: Inov-8 Race Pro 12
The company calls this an "elite lightweight hydration pack." It's made for trail running, cycling, adventure racing, and other off-trail excursions where speed is goal No. 1. On the North Dakota race, it was a perfect companion, with just enough capacity and a fit the acquiesced with all the paces we were put through during the day. The pack weighs less than a pound when empty (15.5 ounces), and has a nice harness system that hugs when you run. Its minimal feature set includes: A main compartment with about 12 liters of capacity; a large stretch mesh pocket on back; BIG hip-belt pockets (I love these for food storage!); and reflective piping for nighttime visibility. The pack has a "horizontal hydration bladder," but for this race I needed more capacity, so I used a CamelBak 100-ouncer instead. To keep all my gear 100% waterproof, I employed a beefy roll-top dry bag from Sealine during the event, stuffing it inside the Inov-8 pack and rolling all my crucial gear inside for safe keeping. (www.inov-8.com)
Shirt: Ibex Woolies Zip T-Neck
This top was a strange choice for an adventure race. But the weather the morning of the race -- raining and about 50 degrees -- convinced me that wool was the way to go. The Ibex Zip T-Neck is a thin wool base layer that feels like a second skin, insulating, regulating your temp, and wicking. It's made of a super fine wool that does not itch. The chest zipper provides further ventilation. For this day, it was a perfect top. Though one complaint: Burrs and thorns leap and stick to the top with a seemingly magnetic attraction. (www.ibexwear.com)
Shell: REI Icon Jacket
Too bad this jacket has been discontinued. The REI Icon Jacket is a lightweight (10 ounces), waterproof, breathable shell made of ripstop nylon with a proprietary laminate for wicking/breathability. It has held up well for me, with no tears despite much abuse. Can't say that for other shells I've tried. It remains fairly waterproof, too. (www.rei.com)
Glasses: Smith Optics Reactor Max
The rubber pad on the nosepiece wore through, causing a small pokey metal piece to stick out and interact with my skin. This is no good. Need to fix or replace. These glasses, otherwise, I've loved: They've held up to almost two years of abuse, and the lenses remain basically un-scratched. I bring two sets of lenses to accompany the Reactor glasses (you can switch them out in 20 seconds), including an amber-tone sunglass as well as clear lenses for low-light and after-dark scenarios. For the North Dakota race -- a dreary, cold and cloudy event -- I stuck with the clear lenses all day long. (www.smithoptics.com)