Hike and fly races take the sport and make it competitive. Generally, a route is set from a start to a finish through a series of turn points. Travel is only permitted by foot carrying your equipment or by flying. The pilot is responsible for everything we have discussed in the concept section from weather assessment, route planning, site assessment etc. We have our own race in the Black Mountains every year called the Dragon Hike and Fly, a superb entry for anyone interested in racing.
The main hurdle that prevents people from racing is the confidence to sign up. Doubts about equipment, experience, fitness etc all make us hold off from entering which is a great shame. None of these reasons should stop you from entering – you just need to get to the start line.
The aim of this guide is to explain how to approach a race and what to think about during it. It is also focused more on races of a maximum of three days – longer races such as the X-Alps and X-Pyr (Cross Pyranees) are a different kind of endurance.
Below is a video produced by club pilot Greg Hamerton, documenting the Dragon Hike and Fly race 2021. This video is fantastic to watch and will give you several pilots views and approaches to the race.
Greg Hamerton also produces a huge amount of content for our sport and has a whole section on his website dedicated to Hike and Fly racing. Take a look and learn from one of the UK’s top Hike and Fly racers.
A supporter isn’t always a requirement to enter a race and short races are perfectly achievable without one. However, a supporter does offer a big advantage to a racer. The role also gives the supporter a good insight into racing if they are interested in entering themselves one day.
Unfortunately, the role of supporter is not always met with much enthusiasm. As a team, the supporter is just as important as the pilot, and just as involved. They are pushing their pilot through the race, looking ahead of them and making decisions based on weather and flying sites. They can be looking at the navigation, identifying routes to walk or places to stop. They provide food, water, information and moral support. They can also walk with the pilot and carry nonessential equipment to take the weight off them.
As a supporter, you become heavily invested in your pilot and will find you are just as immersed by the race, looking around you and planning the next move. This allows the pilot to focus on moving efficiently. It’s like having a radio-controlled paraglider.
If there is a local race being run and you are interested but not racing, please offer yourself as a supporter. It is a fantastic role, and you will learn a lot.
A lot of how you approach Hike and Fly has been covered in the Concept section. Now in the race, you will use these tools to work your way around the task efficiently and safely.
Approach a race with your own targets in mind. Races are not set so that everyone will get to goal, keep this in mind and set a goal that is realistic for you. It might be a waypoint along the route that you would like to reach or maybe getting to the finish line. Anyone who participates in a hike and fly race enjoys the experience. As soon as you cross the start line, your paragliding sixth sense will kick in and you will be looking around you for flying opportunities while enjoying your locations and the people you walk with.
You won’t spend two days running. A race might start with the enthusiastic pilots running the first 50 meters but after that it is generally a hike. It is not feasible for anyone to run a whole race with a paraglider on their back so don’t think you have to. Plan to walk at a comfortable pace that you can sustain for the day. A gentle jog downhill might sometimes feel appropriate.
Have a good meal the night before the race, ideally with lots of carbohydrates such as a pasta dish. During the race keep eating and drinking regularly. If you are lucky, you will have a supporter to keep you replenished but, if you don’t, plan the food that you carry carefully. Bags containing chocolate, nuts, Haribo etc are great to graze on as you move and will give you lots of energy. Plan to eat something a bit more substantial for your lunch. It doesn’t take long before you are sick of the same food so take a variety. If you are in a multi-day race, have a good meal planned for the evening. As mentioned in the concept section, if you are low on energy, stop and eat something.
Water is heavy but, if you are drinking often enough, your bag will get lighter. Again, a supporter can allow you to carry the minimum amount required, or even ditch water after a flight knowing there will be an opportunity to refill with them. Carrying some form of water purification is a good alternative if you haven’t got a supporter or are unlikely to see them for a while.
What goes on in your head during a race is interesting. Before setting off, the thought of covering 50kms on foot seems daunting to anyone but, once racing, the distraction of the event can spur you on for hours on foot. Your paragliding mind will be churning away, analysing the conditions and your surroundings so much that it will distract you from what your body is doing. The day will be broken down and you will naturally set targets about where you want to get to and when. You will be motivated to get up the next hill because it will allow you to get into the air.
It is easy to push your boundaries once you get underway. Risk management becomes a very important aspect. You might feel pressure to fly because it’s a race, because others are or because, if you don’t, someone else might and could fly over your head. You need to know what you are comfortable and capable of. More than likely those around you will be thinking the same thing so talk to the other pilots around you.
Hike and fly races will force you to follow a route that might mean you find yourself on a hill that isn’t ideal – it doesn’t mean you have to fly. You will also be tired and maybe desperate to get into the air but be aware of how this affects your decision making. If in doubt, stay on the ground.
Ideally you’ll get to cloud base and fly the whole route, but hike and fly races generally aren’t planned with that as an option. There are usually crux points that will force a landing, or at least make it complicated.
Unlike conventional paragliding races to a goal which are about speed, in hike and fly once in the air don’t rush. You have probably worked quite hard to get to this stage so now slow it down, look around you and make sensible decisions. It’s a race so hopefully there are other gliders in the air around you. Watch where they go and how they get on. If you spend 10 minutes soaring a ridge while you make this decision, that’s fine.
We don’t have to fly top end wings – confidence in your wing is far more important than performance. You might find yourself on some undesirable take-offs so it’s important that you are proficient at launching your wing. Sometimes you might find yourself in tricky flying conditions so feeling comfortable under your glider will mean you fly better.
If you are flying and it seems like progress is slow, consider how much slower it would be on foot. Even pushing into a headwind at 6kph is faster than being on foot, especially if that is crossing tricky terrain. Turning in zeros gives you time to think about your next move.
Being in the air allows us to rest our bodies and is where we like to be, so enjoy it. Even a top to bottom can boost morale.
The concept is romantic but avoid it if you can. The burden you will put on yourself to carry camping equipment, plus all the added food and water will make your pack so heavy it will spoil your race. You want to enjoy this race, to feel light and mobile enough to climb the hills you wish to get up. Unless the race is all about the sunset for you, leave the tent behind.
Ideally you will have a supporter who can sort your accommodation. You might have a van or find a B&B or campsite. In smaller races it is normally possible to arrange a lift with other pilots back to the accommodation and then car share the next morning, retrieving the car after the race. The value of a shower, good meal and a sound night’s sleep is enormous.
If you can fly in an area before a race that will help. Local knowledge is a huge advantage because it takes a lot of the thinking and planning process out of it. If you don’t have local knowledge, ask around and watch those who do.
You will quickly begin to recognise the faces who attend these races. Everyone is very open and honest and has a passion for the sport. There are chat groups to help with questions and planning and these groups also generally stay on topic. If you join a race you won’t be left to fend for yourself, especially if you communicate with the community in advance.