Why you should care

It’s every bit as mental as it sounds.

People, as a rule, are big fans of combining sports to create something new and wonderful — think trampoline dodgeball, chess boxing and artistic cycling. But the latest fitness mash-up pushes ingenuity to new levels. Archery tag is a cross between laser tag, dodgeball and paintball, and combines hand-eye coordination with the thrill of hunting — but in this scenario, you are both the prey and the hunter, which involves running and shooting people with bows and arrows. You don’t get more awesome than that, right?

Indiana-based John Jackson developed archery tag in 2011 after being inspired by foam pieces at a product meeting. He wondered, Wouldn’t it be fun to “put these on an arrow and shoot [each other] with it”? Then he went home and 3D-printed prototypes. And afterward he discovered that it was really, really fun. He posted a YouTube video demonstrating the game, and received so much interest that he trademarked the name and started licensing out his equipment.

Players are constantly moving and collecting ammunition — and groaning at a hit.

The rules of archery tag vary by location, but the basic tenets involve two teams of five people facing off across a tennis-size court, a 20-foot safety zone between them. When the whistle blows, the goal is to hit your opponents and knock out their targets. Each player is equipped with a custom recurve bow, arrows and a face mask (for safety). It’s exhilarating to watch, although a bit wince-worthy to see arrows thumping into people.

“When you get hit, you feel it,” Jackson says, emphasizing the importance of playing safely — using other bows with the special arrows might cause serious bruising. Jackson’s heard the “laser tag for Katniss” analogy, but thinks archery tag offers a more physically interactive experience, as you’re constantly moving and collecting ammunition — and groaning at a hit. He estimates players pay around $15-$25 an hour, with shorter games at $3-$5 per game, and says it’s a non-intimidating introduction to archery, as no experience is necessary. After a short tutorial on how to lock and load, you’re good to go. And it’s taking off. Currently archery tag has more than 500 licensees in 59 countries, including Colombia, Mongolia, India and New Zealand.

The sport of archery is also seeing a surge in popularity. Sarah Bernstein from USA Archery says membership has increased 374.7 percent from 2011 to 2016, with a 473 percent increase in youth membership. She credits Hollywood movies like Brave and The Avengers (both have archers). And The Hunger Games, obviously. But USA Archery doesn’t endorse archery tag or mention it on its website, and it wouldn’t comment on its potential. Teresa Johnson from the Archery Trade Association says that 21.6 million people participated in archery in 2014 (that’s 9.2 percent of Americans!) — and that archery tag’s a great way to get people excited about the sport.

If you’re planning on trying it out, be warned: Players need to be in reasonable shape — including good upper-body strength — and have a decent pain threshold, of course. Not everyone’s capable of the exertion archery tag requires, and while foam-tipped arrows aren’t deadly, getting shot isn’t a comfortable experience. But for those itching (but unable) to visit the just-opened Hunger Games exhibition in Kentucky, this could be a healthy way of burning off that pent-up excitement. And if you’re feeling extreme, there’s always the option of concocting new ways to play — such as 3D FlyBoard style … or not.

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