How do you pack for an ultramarathon event? I’m here to help you answer that question. What to bring? Let’s look at the dilemmas, the many considerations, and finally I will provide you my full packing list from a recent ultramarathon trail event.
Doing an ultramarathon event either on foot, bicycle, boat or whatever is exciting, but you will be faced with tough decisions about what kit to bring and why. With good thought, planning and preparations, those decisions are easier to reach.
Just please remember, you are there and I am here. Make sure you pack to your needs, requirements, experience, location and specifics, and not to mine.
The Dilemma of Weight and Bulk Versus Contingencies
I highly recommend you also watch my Better Preparedness YouTube channel episode about this topic. For the Mont-aux-Sources Ultramarathon Trail Challenge in South Africa, I produced an episode which showed what I packed and why. I also addressed the eternal dilemma we have when packing for self-travel sports such as running, cycling, cross-country skiing, trekking, canoe travel, touring, and you name it. We’d like to bring everything or this or that item but its weight and/or bulk means that we may take a difficult decision whether to leave that item out of our race kit.
Maybe it’s a rain jacket or a sweater as contingencies in case the weather turns bad or we get stranded for hours or the night? Maybe it was whether to take the bare bones first aid kit or the more robust first aid able to handle more medical scenarios? Maybe it’s only bringing one spare inner tube on your bike rather than 2-3 given the puncture risk?
Have you taken a decision of this type and later regretted that decision? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below.
You will have to take decisions about what you bring. Below, I’d like to touch on considerations to keep in mind as you plan out your gear and then take the final decisions before you undertake your event.
Consider your gear planning as opportunities to be prepared to enjoy the event and handle likely and potential scenarios.
1. Is this your First Ultramarathon?
Remember to be out there to have fun. You will also be learning by doing and with some good planning, you don’t have to suffer because it’s your first ultra. Start making a packing list that you will make changes to as you build your experience level.
You can also test your personal packing list when you do your training runs and shorter distance trail races. Test and improve. Test and improve.
2. Your Mandatory Gear List Requirements
If you are doing an event rather than just running an ultramarathon distance with some friends, you need to make note of the mandatory gear list. That list is usually easy to find on the event website and the organizers may email you with changes closer to race date if abnormal or unseasonal weather is expected.
Some races will require you to take out and show you have each and every item, and you may be prevented from starting if you do not have each item listed! Some races work on the honour system. Regardless of which approach, that mandatory gear list requirement is there for a reason and is to help you handle, resolve and survive many potential scenarios.
I always view the mandatory gear list as a starting point for what I will bring. Treat it like a checklist and think through what scenarios those mandatory items are supposed to resolve and how else those items can come in handy. Mylar blankets are useful for many situations. For a recent mountain race, we had to have gloves due to rope sections but those gloves also would also serve to keep my hands warm and protect my hands from gashes in the event of tripping.
3. How long in advance will you be packing your gear?
You might be packing at home the night before. You might be packing your suitcases for your flight or long drive to the race location one or two weeks prior to the race date. There is a big difference.
Remember that when you are at home, you have your widest range of existing gear and supplies, and you know the stores around you and what is available. If you are travelling to far, foreign and/or remote destinations and well ahead of your race date, you’ll need to build in more flexibility such as a wider temperature range or for the range of possible weather. A weather forecast 1 to 2 weeks away from the event date is not going to be as accurate as a weather forecast the night before for. Besides, if the weatherperson is totally wrong in their forecast, you pay the price of poor planning not them.
Also remember that many supplies may not be available in remote or foreign locations, or the products you might be able to find in those locations will be very different from what you’ve used successfully in the past.
4. Distance and Duration of the Event?
You need to factor in the distance of the event and the likely duration it will take you. Remember that trail and weather conditions can result in you being out there far, far longer than expected or compared to what you are used to.
5. The Terrain and Season Conditions
You’ll want to factor in the terrain combined with the time of year in terms of the range of weather possibilities. Ensure you factor in the terrain as that and altitude can influence the weather and conditions you will face.
6. Will you need a Drop Bag?
A drop bag is a bag of gear (or bags of gear if multiple drop bag locations) that the organizers will drop off at a certain race locations (like a checkpoint or at finish) for you.
Do you need to plan for a Drop Bag? The answer to that question should be found on the event website. Shorter races or bare bones events don’t usually have a drop bag. If there is no drop bag, you don’t need to plan for it. It would be a pity to miss out on there being a drop bag if you overlooked it…
If there is a drop bag, develop your ultramarathon drop bag checklist to ensure you pack everything you’ll want to have in it. What goes into that list will be determined by when and where into the race it is planned for and the anticipated conditions. Think through what those drop bags items are supposed to achieve. Perhaps it’s fresh socks or a fresh layer or gear for a night portion of the event. Perhaps it’s your secret mix of food to help cure cramping.
Do give a bit of consideration for what would happen if you didn’t receive your drop bag and how you would manage that situation. Many years ago, in a long-distance event, the organizers offered a drop location for extra bottles so I gave them two bottles for myself. I had counted on those extra bottles and arrived at the planned location with my race bottles nearly empty. Unfortunately, the organizers had failed to deliver the racer-provided materials to the drop location. I had to complete the remaining two hours with no more fluids and suffered tremendous cramping in the final hour and a loss of key placings in the top-10 of the event. The organizer apologized for this mess-up, but I should have planned better. Keeping a bit of reserve in my race bottles until I knew the drop bottles were there would have been a better approach.
7. What clothes will you need for before and after the race?
If it will be cold and/or wet for the hours before the start, think through how you will handle that without getting fatigued and hypothermic even before the race starts. Perhaps you have a friend that you could give your pre-race clothing to before the start? Maybe some of your mandatory items can be used to keep you warm and dry before your race, and you can stash them in your race pack before the start.
Feeling caked in grime and sweat after a race is something nice to resolve. Bring a towel and some shower items like soap and sandals if there will be a shower opportunity. Maybe you’ll just have to settle for using a wet washcloth to wipe yourself down. Hey, that’s still a huge improvement. I’ve solo biked toured across two continents and frequently didn’t have access to showers. I can assure you that a washcloth wipe-down still makes one feel a whole lot better than nothing.
In terms of post-race clothing, I like to have a full dry and clean set, and dry shoes are a bonus!
Clean body and dry clothes make for a happy person and especially for a less stinky person for a long drive home!
Given that I am often quite dehydrated after marathon and ultramarathon events and as a result feel chilled, I like to have warmer than expected clothing like a sweater and something full length for the legs.
As with the other areas of planning, nutrition can be critical. Think through your pre-race, race, and post-race needs. What have the organizers committed to providing such as water, sport drink, gels, bananas, …, before, during and after the event? Does that meet your needs (or any allergy issues)? Would you prefer bringing most of your own food since you’ve tested it in training.
Pre-Race: Plan for how long you have to provide for yourself before the race. If you have a long drive to get to the event, you may be eating your pre-race meal in the car. Perhaps you’re camping at the race site and you’ll have access to all the food and in the timings you like. Just think through it.
During the race: Have the organizers told you that it’s a barebones event where you are responsible for all your liquids and food? If they provide feed stations, have they identified the locations and intervals? Remember that in terms of sport drink from a powder that is then prepared by the race workers, I find most organizers mix their sport drinks pretty weak. Given that cramping has been a huge problem for me in the past, I sometimes bring a little baggy of sport drink powder to either make a drink stronger or mix my own if they only serve water. Know what works for you.
Post-Race: Again, think through your needs and how much you will need to provide for yourself. After some cross-country skiing ultramarathons, it can be a couple of hours until I have access to any restaurants or my vehicle. In urban marathons, you might have some restaurants and stores right there and then you can buy a ginormous calorie-replenishing burrito or bag of chips! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed a mega burrito after the Washington DC Marine Corps Marathon a few years back. I doubt mega burritos travel well and will survive waiting in your gear for you for hours and hours while you are out racing.
9. Safety and Emergencies
In your planning, consider what would be needed if there was a major or catastrophic issue. In my episode on the Life Saving Importance of Bringing ID, I highlighted the importance of you being able to be identified or to be able to prove your identity. As with my trail running race where I tripped and hit the eye socket of my head very hard, had I hit a rock instead of just dirt, I might have been knocked out or worse.
How will a bystander help me, especially outside of a race scenario where at least someone might have a race number pinned to my shirt to help identify me? What ID would ambulance or rescue crews need to find on you before providing care and assistance?
10. Hazard and Risk Analysis
First things first, a clarification of terms.
A “hazard” is something that could present harm, cause damage or other effects. A river crossing, thorns, equipment breakage, batteries (dying), etc…
A “risk” is an assessment we make about a hazard in terms of the likelihood of something happening and also the severity of the impact. If you are in a cold environment and season, a forecast of rain can present a high chance of it happening and of it having impacts such as hypothermia, blisters from wet shoes, technology that we use failing, …
You may want to plan and be equipped for it and how to decrease its impacts on you. Conversely, if it’s warm outside and you are running a race on the road, the impact of a bit of rain might be minimal so maybe you decide to just accept the rain without bringing a rain jacket. That said, you might want to waterproof your mobile phone, ID or money.
The “all-hazards” approach seeks to identify the likely hazards but to plan for the ones you consider the priorities. We can categorize hazards as natural, human caused and technology.
Emergency management strategies to deal with risks and hazards include prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and resiliency. In short, try to:
- prevent it,
- prepare for it,
- decrease the risk,
- know how to respond if it happens, and
- know how to return to normal and carry on, when possible.
“Risk tolerance” is looking at a risk and deciding how okay you are with that risk. For some, riding a bicycle without a helmet carries a risk they are not willing to take and therefore may not ride but for someone else, they may accept the risk and be okay with what could happen.
You can make a list of the hazards and risks for an event and then decide which of them you want to do something about. Doing something about them may be having the right equipment, having the right skills/training, or having sufficient practice and confidence to resolve something.
Here are some examples of risks and hazards to consider and grouped into categories. Keep in mind that many of these we process all the time such as feeling the cold air outside and just reacting by grabbing an extra layer.
1. Temperatures: cold or heat
2. Wind: high winds
3. Precipitation: Rain or snow
4. Topography and terrain such as cliffs, rockiness, trees, mud, …
5. Water such as river crossings
6. Dangerous animals: There is a big difference between planning for dangerous snakes versus grizzly bears.
7. Dangerous natural phenomena such as wildfires and avalanches
8. Think through the risks based on the location and time of year.
1. Minor and major injuries
2. Blisters or chafing
5. Low energy or bonking
7. Getting lost
8. Catastrophic incidents such as heart attacks, concussions, …
9 Theft of gear could be a risk or loosing critical items such as your phone or wallet
10. Think through the risks and plan accordingly.
1. Critical electronics failing or running out of power: GPS issues for either guidance or recording one’s route
2. Critical equipment failure: mobile phone issues such as dead battery, poor/no network, running out of credits,…
3. Critical equipment failure: headlamp either being without power or being broken
4. Transport issues such as car problems, missing the final bus provided by the race organizers,…
What did I pack for the 2018 Mont-aux-Sources Ultramarathon Trail Challenge in South Africa?
For the year I did this race and the conditions we had and my experience level, I packed the following things. I will provide some links to the type of items I had. Yes, they are affiliate links and I earn a small commission from Amazon (at no cost to you) if you were to buy something but I find people often want to see what item is referenced such as which backpack I used rather than me just saying “backpack”. If you buy something, lovely. If you don’t buy something, no problem at all. I just wanted to be able to show what I packed for this high mountain ultramarathon that took me 9 hours and 39 minutes.
On my body:
1. Saucony Peregrine 9 trail running shoes: https://amzn.to/2OEqbdQ (Peregrine 8)
2. CEP Compression socks that extend to just below the knee: https://amzn.to/2O41gn3
3. Quick-dry underwear: https://amzn.to/2QJMYWS
5. Quick-dry short sleeve t-shirt
6. Thin arm warmers
10. Mobile phone – charged (mandatory)
11. 2-pouch running belt to carry my phone and food items
12. Ultimate Direction trail running pack: https://amzn.to/2xB8TXP
13. Two 700ml water bottles (mandatory)
a. Eight gels
b. One pack of electrolyte discs
c. Two energy bars
d. Two packs of sport drink powder
15. Salomon rain coat (mandatory)
16. Wind vest
17. Buff or other item to keep head warm (mandatory)
18. Emergency kit:
a. wind-up flashlight (mandatory)
b. mylar rescue blanket (mandatory)
c. whistle (mandatory)
d. mini Bic lighter
e. emergency contacts phone list
f. a bit of money
19. First aid kit: (mandatory but not its contents were not defined)
a. Steri Strips to close wounds
b. Gauze pads
c. Athletic tape
d. Band-Aids or plasters
e. Petroleum jelly in small container against chaffing
f. Small container of suncream since I’d applied a generous amount before the race
g. Small bar of soap to help clean a wound
I think that is everything I had.
How did I do with my packing?
I highly recommend you also watch my Better Preparedness YouTube channel episode about this topic. I was very pleased with what I had packed and the decisions that went into it. I will be making a wrap up episode to look at how my planning and packing was from the perspective of looking back on the event. I will put a link to it here.
In the Comments section below, please share your experiences with regards to packing for long distance or complicated events.
Thanks so much for your support and I wish you best of success with your planning and preparedness.