Most multi-stage events have mandatory kit lists, which can be both extensive and expensive, meaning lots of research – great news for gear geeks – and hiding your credit card statements from your partner.
Joking aside, it can be tempting to think you need to break the bank by buying lots of shiny new kit, so I've tried to save your wallet (and your relationship) by outlining the basics of preparing your kit for a multi-day event...
Feet first: what should you wear?
Firstly, that pack and shoes you’ve been running in for years are likely to serve you better than something Nobby from a Facebook group is banging on about. We’re all a bit different, so better to trust yourself than someone who doesn’t know you.
Also, at the risk of being annoying, the Western world is simply consuming way too much stuff, which often takes centuries to biodegrade (the average running shoe takes 1000 years), and the running world is highly culpable.
Do you really need an 18th pair of daps? Save yourself a bit of money and be kinder to the planet by sticking with what you’ve got, if you can.
For most ultramarathons, shoe choice is the most important decision.
And the biggest determining factor is a good, comfortable fit, to lessen the likelihood of blisters and similar issues (even if those will give you some ace snaps for social media).
Comfort is more important than grip, the drop and what colour they are; it doesn’t matter if you’re sticking to every rock if blisters have reduced your pace to an abject hobble and you’re having a miserable time overall.
For many races and for many kit items, simply sticking with what already works for you, will be your biggest and best decision.
Pro tip: Marathon des Sables
You don’t need any grip for Marathon des Sables (MdS) and you don’t need much cushioning (though a little bit will be appreciated – it can be rocky and you'll be adding the phrase ‘Lego fields’ to your repertoire).
I wore Innov-8 Terraclaws, which are no longer available, but Trailtalons, TERRAULTRAS or Roclites would all be perfectly sufficient.
Gaiters aren’t mandatory, but are highly recommended, to stop your shoes filling with sand. Don’t use options with a zip as you’re adding a potential problem – I saw many zips fail in the Sahara, with sand being the main aggressor.
For gaiters to be effective, you need a velcro rand sewn on (I sent mine to Alex Shoe Repairs), which usually changes the shape of your footwear a little bit, so I went up half a size. I wore a thin pair of toe socks and initially added an extra inner sole for what felt like a comfortable fit, but running in Saharan sand felt different to UK sand; after day one I ditched them and was blister-free for the rest of the race.
Are you racing or "relaxing"?
After feet, the next big consideration is whether you’re there to race or to relax? This decision will determine most of your kit choices.
If you’re there for a fun running holiday, you can take a few more options and more calories (more anon), to feel comfortable at camp; where, after all, you’ll spend a large portion of your time.
If you’re there to race, you will have to sacrifice relative comfort at camp to prioritise more comfort while racing; namely having a lighter pack.
Pro Tip: Marathon des Sables
Another MdS kit list quirk is that your pack must weigh at least 6.5kg at the start.
Competitors who are there to race won’t have packs any heavier (in fact as that weight includes your breakfast for day one, you could technically start the race with a slightly lighter pack). Be aware elite runners do get "kit checked" at the end of a day’s race and have been penalised for not carrying the mandatory €200. I was nervous about a missing safety pin being detected.
If you feel you need a new pack for an event, remember the weight of it – and it varies a surprising amount – contributes to your pack weight. So don't punish yourself, if you can help it, by putting 600g on your back before you've even added anything else. Some packs are lighter than 300g.
Consider going second-hand with your pack and for what is likely to be your most expensive item of kit otherwise, the sleeping bag. I was at MdS to race and went with the Yeti Fever Zero, which weighs just 320g but costs about £300. It kept me warm enough on those Saharan nights, though I wore all my clothes too (you could take a sleeping bag liner).
For a mat, I took two strips of foam, for shoulders and hips, which was perfectly adequate.
Nutrition and hydration
All this kit planning is hungry work and your multi-day race will be too.
For example, runners at the MdS must start with 14,000kcals (a minimum of 2,000kcals each day) of food. I took 2,600-3,000 calories a day and my tummy was still growling. I’d take 10-15 per cent more calories if I went back.
The post-race all-you-can-eat buffet was simply the greatest meal (more like three meals) I've ever had.
You'll want strong, sharp and salty flavours and tangs. And may find yourself becoming obsessed with the kcal per gram of food, with nuts (especially macadamias – though, damn, they’re dull) often being a winner there.
Dehydrated meals are de rigueur, Parmesan cheese tastes better than ice cream in the Sahara and pepperoni was a godsend. Take some sugars for racing too.
But also, when selecting tent mates (which can be done beforehand and in the desert or a combination of the two), pick the people with the largest packs, because they've brought too much food and will hopefully start sharing it out (technically this may be against the rules but it's widespread and impossible to police).
Food was repackaged to save weight and then vacuum packed to within an inch of its life. A weight obsession leads to calculating exactly how much sunscreen, toothpaste and sheets of toilet paper will be needed for the week, cutting the handle off toothbrushes, leaving sleeping bag stuff-sack behind and slashing straps off packs. After all, that might mean you can carry an extra 60g bag of peanuts!
To learn more about how you sweat and to receive a personalised hydration strategy for your sport, you can take Precision Hydration's online Sweat Test:
Pro tip: Marathon des Sables
I also took a small stove, a small light pot and bought fuel blocks from the race organisers (though you could share these items and costs with a tent mate if you get organised beforehand).
You need a headtorch for the 50-mile 'long day' and sometimes at camp, and those popular Christmas cracker options won't give you sufficient light. The Petzl Actik (86g, 350 lumens) was perfect.
What not to take
Some races require very specific bits of kit. An anti-venom pump is mandatory at MdS, even if it’s more of a marketing ploy than a genuine safety feature. The more specific an item of kit is, the less likely it is to be used again and the more likely it is people from the previous year’s race will have one in their cupboard and will happily sell it on. A win-win for you both (and the planet).
A race’s Facebook Page is usually the best place to start (just remember to ignore Nobby). ReRun Clothing has some excellent second-hand kit available very cheaply.
After those key items, it's largely about what not to take.
Other than a windshirt for the mornings before the sun had warmed us, I didn't take any spare clothes or additional footwear for camp in the Sahara.
You learn to improvise. Shoes in a bag become a perfectly acceptable pillow, while cutting off the bottom half of water bottles make very workable cups and bowls.
- It’s blindingly obvious, but read the rules of your race and read them early (especially if you have a birthday or Christmas where you can ask for kit as presents).
- Practise with your kit early so you have time to make adjustments or exchange them.
- Also, race videos can be revealing; what’s the weather like, what are people wearing and do they look comfortable?
- And take an extra safety pin.
In summary, start with the feet, but think about what you really need and what you really need to buy new, then consider whether you're there to race or there to relax.
Planning for a trip is very much part of the adventure itself. It helps prepare the mind and is all part of the fun.