Adventure Racing and GPS: A Love / Hate Relationship

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Adventure racing has a conflicting history of interaction with Geo-Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. To the outsider it must seem like a strange love / hate relationship. On one hand, the majority of race organisers have rejected the use of any forms of GPS technology to preserve the map and compass navigation challenge of the sport. Any use of the technology is seen as unfair, like taking a horse with you on a trekking leg. Yet, these same races require a GPS as compulsory equipment for the team. It has to be safely packed away for emergency use only and securely sealed to ensure that no cheating takes place. It’s no surprise that the world’s leading GPS brands have not been big sponsors in the sport.

The navigational aspect is seen by many of the world’s top teams as being an integral part of adventure racing, challenging the team navigator(s) mentally, whilst their bodies are wearing down physically. The challenge is more demanding at night and in terrain or weather conditions with lower visibility, with some teams often getting lost and spending many hours relocating. There are pros and cons to this navigational aspect. Although felt to be an essential part of the sport, particularly over the longer distance races, it is also this aspect that dissuades potential racers from attempting the sport and discourages many novice racers from further participation after an unpleasant navigation error or two.

It’s no surprise that the world’s leading GPS brands have not been big sponsors in the sport

In the early-2000s, the sport also realised that it had superb potential as an internet spectator sport. The best way to watch your favourite teams race over a five-day course was to issue all the teams GPS tracker devices so that the rest of the world knew where you were, what you were doing, what terrain you were in and unfortunately for the team navigators, whether you were making a big navigation mistake or not. The trackers provided no output screen or audio signals, so were of no benefit to the racing teams. They were a hugely popular hit with friends, family and supporters back home who often spent many sleepless nights and unproductive work days tracking their favourite teams. They were less popular with the teams though, as the early versions weighed in excess of 2kg and had the appearance of big, yellow bricks. Not ideal for athletes who tried everything to keep their backpack weights down.

Since then, technology has improved in leaps and bounds. Tracking devices have become smaller and lighter and now weigh less than 300g. The latest technology jump has been provided by the smartphone era. People no longer go out and buy a GPS. They go out and buy a smartphone instead, which comes standard with a built-in GPS and some type of map software. This has seen the recent introduction of a handful of smartphone apps, specifically tailored to adventure racing requirements (they allow tracking on the internet, but give no navigational information to the competitors). The technology and programming of these apps is still in its infancy, but is progressing at a rate of knots. Recent races such as the Highlands Tracks 135km in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, which used the NevARest app on an Android platform, have acted as test runs for the developing technology.

Download NevARest app here

The results have been well received by racers and internet spectators alike. For the teams, it allows for a GPS and emergency cellphone to be a multifunctional compulsory kit. For the spectator, they can follow their friends, loved ones or favourite teams on a social media feed. For the race organiser, the biggest boon for safety and emergency planning: knowing where every team is or was last seen; knowing when they are expected in the next transition; knowing who needs to be rescued from straying off the map; and finally the comfort of having an SOS button built into the app for emergencies.

Technology still has some way to go. Limiting factors are cellphone signal availability (as a team’s GPS data is sent via SMS to the internet) and cellphone battery life. The good news is that both of these limitations are continually being improved on by handset manufacturers and our local mobile service providers, making smartphone tracking apps more and more feasible in the years ahead. But why limit this technology to just adventure races? Why not use it for all your sports training, other types of activities such as rogaining, surfski paddling, hiking? The market potential is significant.

written by Nicholas Mulder in the March/April 2013 issue.
Nic has been racing since 2002, with international racing experience on six continents. He’s a founding member of the Cyanosis Adventure Racing Team (2004) and still serves as the team navigator. Some say he runs like the wind.


Other articles posted in this period

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