CHOOSING THE RIGHT GEAR AND CLOTHING FOR THE RED BULL X-ALPS #REDBULLXALPS
The Red Bull X-Alps is arguably the toughest adventure race in the world. The athletes cover over 1,0000 kilometres from Salzburg, in Austria all the way to Monaco, following the main arc of the Alps, on foot and by paraglider only. Taking them across the snowy peaks of mountains like the Eiger, Mont Blanc and Zugspitze towards the finish on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the extreme hike & fly race pushes competitors’ endurance hiking, trail running, mountaineering and paragliding skills to the very limit. Racers also require excellent strategic skills and mental resilience to make it through the race.
Some of the competitors will end up covering over 100 kilometres in a day on foot, carrying a paraglider on their backs and climbing thousands of vertical metres. Each year, only a handful of the 30 or so competitors make it to the finish, some even racing through the night. And each year, the route changes with new turnpoints (or checkpoints) being added to make it as interesting and challenging as possible. In 2019, for example, the race featured 13 turnpoints, almost double the number in 2018, and included 6 different countries – Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and the Principality of Monaco, and crossing the Alps five times in the process.
The first athlete to touch down in Monaco, ideally on the landing float set out in the water, wins. The race then officially ends 24 hours later. Athletes who have not finished before that time are then ranked according to the distance they have left to the finish.
The fastest time in which the race was finished, and which is held by 6-time X-Alps champion Chrigel Maurer of Switzerland, stands at just 6 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes and was during the 2013 race. Finishing times vary widely however, as they depend on the weather. Good flying conditions result in quicker overall times and bad flying conditions mean more ground has to be covered on foot, so the race can take up to 12 days or more for the winning pilot to complete.
Salewa has been a main sponsor of the Red Bull X-Alps event since 2015. Aside from Chrigel Maurer, SALEWA also sponsors professional speed hiking athletes Paul Guschlbauer (3rd in 2011, 2015, 2017 & 2019), Simon Oberrauner (6th in 2019, 5th in 2017), Aaron Durogati (6th in 2015, 9th in 2019) and new this year, Thomas Friedrich. For the young Austrian rookie who supported Simon Oberrauner in the 2019 race, 2021 will be his first attempt at the X-Alps race. At just 20 years old, Tom will be the youngest person to ever compete in the international event. He’s been flying since he was 11 years old however and feels confident that he is ready to take on the challenge.
Carrying a paragliding wing, safety equipment and all your kit for the day – for on the ground and in the air – is quite an undertaking, never mind when you’re racing against the clock, and covering some 500 km on foot! The key to choosing the right backpack is keeping it as light as possible and trimmed down to the absolute essentials.
Your pack should fit the equipment perfectly and shouldn’t be too big. Some race participants even cut off any straps or tabs that are not needed, to shave off that extra bit of weight. The back system and shoulder straps need to be light, streamlined and airy, rather than with more padding to be able to carry heavy contents over long distances, as you’d find on a regular trekking backpack.
Pockets or stuff pouches on the outside are useful to stow equipment that needs to be easily accessed, like extra layers or your energy bars. On average, the backpack a competitor will carry for the X-Alps race will weigh 10 kilograms.
Speed hiking up to the next take-off point is hot work and temperatures can vary from below zero at the top of the mountains to over 30°C in the valley. Running shorts/ leggings that are highly breathable are probably the right choice for the hike element, with a breathable base layer / official Red Bull X-Alps race shirt.
The race shirts have different coloured sleeves according to your status: Red is for veterans; blue is for rookies; and yellow is for the reigning champion. As with all journeys into the mountains, it’s essential to have emergency clothing with you, like a windproof, waterproof shell and overtrousers, plus an additional insulation layer for your torso.
A lightweight, warm beanie that fits under your helmet is important, balaclavas work well too. Headbands and necktubes are an easy way to provide more comfort. Lightweight, windproof gloves are important for your hands. And a rescue blanket is essential too – in an emergency you can wear it under your outer shell for additional warmth.
You need to come prepared for all conditions and all terrain. When it comes to footwear, doubling up on your favourite pair is not a bad idea. The race is long and arduous, and can take its toll not just on you, but also on your shoes. Again, lightweight is the way to go.
Fast ascent shoes are great for trails and less technical sections of the race, but some of the days may require more stability for rough terrain, or even snow and glacier travel. Spikes or crampons are allowed, but no other means of travel across the snow, like skis.
Blisters, and more importantly blister prevention are a big issue.
Not all athletes use hiking poles, but they can really help distribute the weight more evenly across your whole body, especially when moving uphill, at speed.
They can be foldable or telescopic, and made from lightweight materials like carbon fibre or aluminium alloy. We recommend carrying off-cut wraps of tape on them, for repairs in the field. Think: light, light, light.
- Sunglasses are essential and must be sturdy enough to take a battering. Bringing spares is not a bad idea (or at least your support person should) as they can easily go missing.
- Sun cream, foot cream and first aid kit are also essential.
- A mobile phone, of course, for communicating with your support person(s) and for navigation, weather etc.
- A smartwatch will help keep track of height gain, speed etc. too.
Last but certainly not least, food and water. Given that weight is always an issue, taking food with you that packs a punch in terms of calories and protein, is the way to go. Unlike other high-profile races of this calibre, competitors do not sleep in hotels at the end of the day and have carefully calibrated food cooked for them.
At the end of an X-Alps day, you’re lucky if you get a big bowl of pasta cooked on a camping stove by your support buddy, and get to sleep in a tent or van. So, make sure you try to get it right on the trail.
Your body is burning through all the resources it has and getting your nutrition wrong will definitely have a detrimental effect your performance. For water, take just what you need and no more, one litre might be enough. You can always add electrolytes to it for an added boost. It’s also important to carry emergency food.
For the Red Bull X-Alps race, the wing you use must be competition certified and certified according to EU safety regulations, without any modifications. Prototypes or custom builds are not allowed. Speed wings (with a span of less than 16 m²) are also not permitted. In terms of performance, the wing you choose must be good against a headwind, since the direction of travel is from east to west, and the prevailing wind is from the west.
It’s a good idea to fly the wing you are going to use for the race in a multitude of conditions, so that you are fully confident with it, including wet conditions. Along with the wing, there is the harness (EN 1651 with certified protection or LTF 91/09) and all competitors are required to carry an emergency parachute (lightweight rescue system: EN 12491 or LTF 91/09) with them.
All pilots must, of course, wear a helmet, and this too must be certified according to EU Norms. Race organisers provide each competitor with a GoPro camera (or similar), which can be mounted on your helmet.
For the flight stretches of the race, at altitude, conditions will be colder and so insulation is something to think about – like down overtrousers and a down pullover with it. Gloves are also important to keep your hands working in the cold wind up high.
See above but these will be the same as for hiking.
Recco location devices (x2) are mandatory requirements for the Red Bull X-Alps race, as is a Flymaster Live tracking device, plus a secondary backup one, which sends real-time data on your whereabouts to race officials and the www.redbullxalps.com site. Consider taking a power bank to charge your phone and other devices too. One with a solar panel is even better.
The athletes are required to carry the following other mandatory equipment with them during the race: distress flare with two shots.
- For climbing/ via ferrata sections: climbing harness with via ferrata set.
- For areas with snow and avalanche risk: an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, and mountaineering boots.