LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
Race Bibs: A Buyer's Guide
Whether it's a basic 5k race bib or a durable multi-sport bib you're looking for, here's everything you need to consider before buying.
Looking to buy race bibs for a new or existing event? We've got everything you need to make an informed decision.
Whether it's a basic 5k race bib or a highly durable multi-sport bib that can take anything your race can throw at it, you'll find the right materials and type of race bib for the job below.
Race bib materials
Tyvek is by far the most popular material used for race bibs. It's waterproof, tear-proof and can take a ton of punishment, making Tyvek race bibs the perfect choice for most races, from road and trail races of any distance to OCR/mud runs and multi-sport events.
Although Tyvek is considerably hardier than normal paper, it can still be printed on (on one or both sides) and even written on using regular pen and marker inks. Which is convenient as the back of Tyvek race bibs is often used for participant emergency contact info (see our Anatomy of a race bib section below).
Cost: $0.15 - $0.50 per bib
Pretex is another synthetic paper similar to Tyvek but less strong. Pretex race bibs are fairly popular in the UK and Europe as a slightly cheaper alternative to Tyvek. A Pretex bib will probably comfortably survive a 5k road race, but will struggle to hold together beyond that.
One notable advantage of Pretex, being finer that Tyvek, is that it is quite good for printing hi-definition images, making it a popular choice for custom orienteering maps. Well, that's your trivia of the day!
Cost: 10% - 20% cheaper that the equivalent Tyvek race bib
It's not difficult to imagine the kinds of trouble paper or card race numbers may run into during an endurance race. Still the cost is often appealing to make card bibs a viable choice for kids runs, small fun runs and other events where the race number may not necessarily be worn on the body.
Cost: $0.05 - $0.15 per bib
Self-adhesive race numbers are suitable for high-speed events or occasions where using a loosely pinned race bib may be an issue. Adhesive numbers are quite popular in skiing and cycling events, such as road races, sportives, time trials and cyclocross. They can be as hardy as Tyvek, but also much more expensive depending on size and quality.
Cost: $0.20 - $1.00 per bib or race number
If you get excited by synthetic materials ending in "-ex" there's a whole zoo of exotic printable papers out there that are occasionally used for race numbers. Most are proprietary designs exclusive to particular race bib manufacturers, usually providing either slightly cheaper or considerably stronger variations on Tyvek.
If your race number supplier offers to print your race numbers on a material you are not familiar with, make sure you understand where it falls on the materials spectrum and whether you wouldn't be just fine using Tyvek.
Types of race bibs
Plain race bibs
As the name suggests, a plain bib is a basic race bib you can use to put a race number on people.
Pretty much all plain race bibs out there come in Tyvek, so going plain doesn't have to mean compromising on durability. But you are giving up on customization: no fancy graphics, sponsor branding or anything remotely exciting happening on a plain race bib.
Most times you'll be able to buy plain bibs off the shelf in sequences of 100 - in fact, you can even buy them on Amazon, saving you the trouble of shopping around for suppliers. But, if you need double-sided bibs where people can print their emergency contact info etc, it may still make sense to turn to a specialist race bib supplier.
Cost: Depending on size, expect to pay between $0.15 - $0.25 for single-sided plain race bibs.
Custom race bibs
If you want to add your own colors, race logo, sponsor branding or any other image on your race bib, or use different colors to designate different age groups, categories or start waves, you need to go custom.
Tyvek is a fairly good material to print on and you can get away with printing just about anything anything on a custom race bib. And you can use the whole area to print on, so the designs can only be limited by your imagination (and practicality - make sure the participant number remains visible!)
Custom race bibs can not only be customized in color but also personalized with individual participant names ("Hi, Steve!") and even a short message. This is a very popular choice with larger events and a great investment for the extra 5c that pays for itself in a much more enjoyable race experience for your participants.
Cost: Like with custom T-shirts, the cost of a custom race bib will depend on the number of colors you use and, of course, the size of the bib itself.
Expect to pay between $0.20-$0.40 for a single-sided bib, and around $0.10 on top for the double-sided alternative. Then add another $0.05 or so for the personalization service.
Get 10% OFF all race bibs from Marathon Printing
Race bibs with tear tags and/or wristbands
One common headache that race organizers used to face when putting together race packets was sorting multiple items (race bibs, drop bag tags, personalized coupons etc) by race number.
Tear tags and wristbands that can be built into the race bib design help solve all that. By printing the tags you need on the race bib and then creating perforations to allow people to tear off different bits, you can give people their race number, drop bag tag, meal voucher and anything else you need all in one bib - all printed with the same participant number.
Tear tags and wristbands can be used for a number of things, including:
- Drop bag tags
- Meal vouchers
- Discount or promo coupons
- VIP access bands
Cost: Expect to pay between nothing and a few cents for adding tags onto a custom bib.
Anatomy of a race bib template
Besides the obvious - the race number - there's a number of other bits and pieces that often find themselves on the front and at the back of race bibs. Things like:
- Chip timing tags. You don't have to attach your RFID timing tag on the bib, but doing so has many advantages, including the fact that you can rely on people bringing their bibs along for the race! The tag itself is fixed onto a protective foam layer that keeps it dry and prevents body contact, and the whole thing is then attached either horizontally or vertically, depending on the timing system, on the back of the race bib.
- Barcodes or QR codes for check-in. These can easily be scanned by phones or barcode readers to verify a runner's identity.
- Participant name and/or personal message. Personalized race bibs are very common these days and are bound to win you some brownie points, as well as create a nice buzz as spectators shout out participant names as they go around the course. First names usually work best for this and, if there's some space left on the bib, you can also offer participants the choice of adding a short personal message ("This girl runs for Epilepsy", that kind of thing).
- Participant T-shirt size and start wave, as well as other infothat can help sort participants at the start and finish areas.
- Emergency contact information. Having each participant's emergency contact info at hand in an emergency can truly make a big difference should one of your participants run into trouble. And putting it at the back of the bib is the obvious choice.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can race bibs be recycled?
Tyvek is made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) - that's the same material as shampoo and detergent bottles are made of. Therefore Tyvek bibs can be recycled as HDPE 2 class waste into a variety of different products, provided that they have no additional materials attached to them, e.g. foam from timing tags etc.
If you want to recycle your Tyvek bibs, get in touch with your local authority to confirm that they do accept HDPE 2 class recycling waste or contact your race bib provider, who might be able to help. Additionally, you can get in touch directly with DuPont's Tyvek recycling program.
Does any vendor offer free race bibs?
Back in the day, ROAD iD used to offer event sponsorship deals where they would give out free race bibs as a way of promoting their paid ROAD iD safety wristbands (they added a coupon on each bib that gave racers a discount they could redeem when purchasing a wristband).
Unfortunately, the ROAD iD program has been discontinued and, to the best of our knowledge, there is no other vendor currently offering free race bibs. Some vendors may still offer free bibs, if you commit to buy medals or finisher T-shirts from them. But no one offers free race bibs with no strings attached, as far as we know.
Where can I buy quality race bibs?
There's a number of places you can buy your race numbers from - and we've got reviews for most of them on our business directory.
Our recommended race bib vendor is Marathon Printing, a third-generation dedicated race number printer based in Portland, Oregon. All their bibs are manufactured and printed domestically in the US, and you can get a 10% discount if you send a no-obligation quote request from our website.
Can I print my own race bibs?
Yes. Question is, do you really want to?
Printing your own bibs, if you decide to do that, is not going to be easy. You'll have to design your own race bib template (this is not the hard part), then print a bunch of bibs in sequential numbers (this is not a piece of cake if you have to do it manually) and then, to top it all off, you'll have to laminate your paper bibs (don't even ask...).
Unless you're thinking of printing on Tyvek. Which is a whole different ballgame: you'll need commercial printers, specialist inks etc...Really not worth saving a few dollars over this.