Imagine you're on a mountain. It's evening. You're under the stars, admiring the picture-perfect night sky above you, feeling accomplished and refreshingly exhausted after putting in a challenging 10- or 15-mile hike. Suddenly the silence is welcomingly interrupted by another crew of hikers. You exchange pleasantries and small talk — your names, where you're from, what you do — before recapping what you just achieved on the mountain. You are hiking on the same trail, but having a completely different experience.
A bond is quickly formed, and you decide to make a fire together, and then cook together, and then eat together. This is what HIGHLANDER is all about.
What Is HIGHLANDER?
HIGHLANDER, a long-distance hiking series, was founded in Croatia in 2017 by Igor Mlinarevic, a veteran event organizer with stops at Ironman 70.3, the Tour of Croatia, and the Pannonian Challenge, among others. Burned out from organizing mega events, with anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 participants, the "hiking evangelist" decided to combine his two passions — putting on events and hiking — into his next venture, what he calls the Adventure of a Lifetime. As far as Mlinarevic could tell, there were no other events like this in the world. He saw a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of him and seized it.
Just like that, HIGHLANDER was born.
Expanding Throughout Europe and Beyond
The first-ever HIGHLANDER event was held on Velebit, the largest mountain range in Croatia, along the Adriatic coast. From there, HIGHLANDER went global quickly, rapidly expanding into other parts of Europe and the Middle East. Events were held in Egypt, Morocco, Slovenia, Austria, France, North Macedonia, the United Arab Emirates, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Portugal, Montenegro, and Serbia.
In the summer of 2020, when Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena first heard about the series, he was instantly intrigued. He asked, as he often does when his interest is peaked, "What's your vision? What do you want to do?"
HIGHLANDER CEO Jurica Barac explained that their mission is to improve people's lives — make them one with nature, push them to their limit, and transform them into healthier, better humans. And, perhaps most importantly, they told De Sena, they want to save the planet.
De Sena absolutely loved it. They were speaking his language, and in 2021 Spartan invested in HIGHLANDER, and the two entities formed a strategic partnership. A few months later, HIGHLANDER officially expanded into the United States, announcing that its maiden U.S. event would be in Big Bear Lake, California — one of Spartan's signature locations — from Sept. 27-Oct. 2.
It's Not a Race. It's an Adventure.
Unlike Spartan, HIGHLANDER is not a race. There are no professional athletes. No rankings. No leaderboards. It can be described in a number of ways — event, hike, adventure experience. Even festival, as Mlinarevic points out. HIGHLANDER events take place in some of the most spectacular locations on Earth, and participants can choose from three different event formats: a 60-mile, five-day journey; a 30-mile, three day-journey; and a 15-mile, two-day journey. (The exact mileage is dependent on the venue, but those are the approximate lengths.)
You are not trying to beat anyone, as is typical in a race. The goal is simply to finish before the maximum number of hours. (Sixty miles must be completed in 120 hours, 30 miles in 60 hours, and 15 miles in 36 hours.) Though it's unquestionably challenging, there is a familial vibe on the trails, which are carefully designed by local mountaineers. Dogs are allowed, as are children.
Mlinarevic explains that, similar to a Spartan race, anybody who is determined can finish the event. It's not only for expert hikers. You do need to prepare, however — make sure to check out the rules and required gear beforehand — and Mlinarevic recommends going into the woods and camping a few times prior to the event.
The HIGHLANDER Experience: Personal Growth and Sustainability
It's remarkably difficult, not to mention downright dangerous, to do a long-distance hike without ensuring, beforehand, that all of the logistics are buttoned up and foolproof. One of the benefits of hiking with HIGHLANDER is that the logistics are handled for you, setting you up for a smooth and safe journey. Hikers receive a detailed itinerary, detailed maps of the route, and three meals per day. (Cooked and dehydrated food is provided, as well as pre-made meals, spreads, cheese, cold cuts, and bread.) Search-and-rescue services are also on duty, in case of an emergency.
And it truly is an experience, in every sense of the word. Throughout the journey, at the various checkpoints, hikers can partake in yoga sessions, educational and historical lessons from experts, social events, meditation and mindfulness exercises, and more.
HIGHLANDER's ultimate goal, beyond changing individual lives, is saving the planet. Barac and Mlinarevic are extraordinarily passionate about promoting sustainability and bringing awareness to climate change, and they have seen how these events can be an avenue for change. When you hike 60 miles on a mountain, it completely reshapes your thought process. It alters how you perceive yourself, and also how you perceive the world around you.
What's really important? How much do you really need to have a full, productive life? These are the questions that you begin to ask yourself when you're on a mountain, admiring the natural beauty, without technology serving as a constant distraction.
“You realize you need two pairs of shoes, not 50," Barac says. "You need a little bit of water, a small blanket, just one bed. You don’t need five cars. You don’t need huge vans. You don’t need houses with 50 rooms. This is all a waste of money, a waste of energy, and it’s destroying the planet."
This isn't just cheap talk. HIGHLANDER has strict rules about preservation on the trail, and they're strictly enforced. If you are caught littering, you are immediately disqualified from the event.
With HIGHLANDER's first United States event now officially on the books, Barac and Mlinarevic are focused on expanding the series' reach from coast to coast. With so many incredible mountains scattered across the country, the possibilities seem endless. Barac's vision is to have an event on every iconic mountain in America. That could mean as many as 50 U.S. events someday. Maybe even 100.
That will take time, of course. They're focused on Big Bear Lake right now, and ensuring that every hiker there has a transformative experience in the San Bernardino National Forest. We often say that when you compete in a Spartan race, "you'll know at the finish line." The same is true with HIGHLANDER.
"When you finish a Spartan race, you become a Spartan," Barac says."You're somebody who is dedicated, somebody who pushed the limit, somebody who is jumping over the obstacles in life.
"It’s the same with HIGHLANDER. You become a HIGHLANDER, and this is very important: not only to finish a HIGHLANDER, but to become a HIGHLANDER. To be a better person, live better, save the planet, think about sustainability, and think about personal growth.”