Tips and gear list for multi-stage ultras
When I first heard about and committed to doing a multi-stage ultra, I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare for it. I spent a lot of time researching and later refining my gear and nutrition with the experience of my first multi-stage races. In this post, I am trying to summarize some of my learnings from my three self supported and two supported multi-stage ultras.
1 – Training: Focus on a lot of time on feet
When I started training for my first multi-stage race, the 250km Gobi March, I mostly focused on increasing my weekly mileage and spending a lot of time on my feet. In addition to increasing my running milage and long runs on the weekend, I spent a lot of time walking everywhere and doing hikes with my backpack. Unless you are a competitive ultra runner, these races will involve a lot of walking, especially in the first few days with a heavy pack. I only had a few months to train, but between running and walking/hiking, I managed to get above 100km per week relatively quickly.
2 – Test your gear and nutrition
Most people test and train in their shoes, but the whole setup from underwear and socks to shirt and shorts in combination with your backpack needs to work for many hours day after day. Testing the entire setup you are planning to use on some long days will help identify hotspots and give you a chance to potentially make changes. At the very least you will know the sensitive areas, so you can try to prevent chafing with anti-chafe cream or taping.
Equally important is to test the food you are planning to bring on training runs, especially what you are planning to eat before and during the run. For hot desert races, I find it more difficult to eat enough solid food and like liquid calories like Tailwind. In cold weather, I don’t drink as much and prefer solid food. Gels are heavy because they contain water and I only bring one or two emergency pick-me-up gels for self-supported races. Honey Stinger or GU stroop waffles are a good lightweight option for solid food that is easy to digest on the run.
I find I can eat anything for dinner after a long day out running, but some people have trouble getting their dinner down if they have the same freeze dried meal day after day. Spicy food can also be difficult if you have a sensitive stomach, especially in desert heat.
Lastly, I find that I crave salty foods, especially in hot weather. Packing a mix of sweet and salty options can be a good idea to make sure you don’t get sick of all the sweet food after a few days. Salted nuts, chips or miso soup powder are all good lightweight salty options.
3 – Minimize the weight of your pack
At gear check before a self-supported race, you can usually find a wide range of backpack sizes weighing anywhere from 6.5 kg to 14kg and unfortunately first timers tend to have the heaviest packs. Being prepared for all kinds of scenarios might seem like a good idea when you don’t know what to expect, but a heavy pack can lead to chafing, blisters, balance issues and falls, back and shoulder pain and can make the whole experience miserable. I would recommend a maximum weight of 10kg / 22lb, especially for women, and try not to exceed that.
Food will be about half of the weight and planning and optimizing what you need is an important part of minimizing weight. Other items that can make a big weight difference are your sleeping system and jackets (rain jackets or warm/down jackets can range from around 100g to 500g). There will be a list of mandatory safety gear for most races and each item won’t be particularly heavy, but it adds up and something like a knife or compass can be tiny or big and heavy. Lastly, anything with water will be heavy, which includes any cosmetics and also wet wipes.
4 – Gear for self-supported multi-stage races
- Backpack: two popular options are the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25 (there is also a female specific FastpackHer 30 and a 35L version) and the super lightweight Raidlight Revolutiv 24L Race Vest. I have used both and I now prefer the lighter Raidlight packs, especially if you are focused on going fast, but they have no frame or padding and need to be packed well with something soft against the back to work well.
- Sleeping bag: Sea to Summit Spark SPII is a popular option for a 0 degree celsius requirement. For races in warmer weather without any requirements like MDS, the 280g Yeti Fever Zero sleeping bag can be a good ultralight option.
- Sleeping pad: this is optional, but I would recommend a lightweight sleeping pad for comfort and warmth. I have used a short Thermarest NeoAir Xlite and there is now an even lighter NeoAir Uberlight version. Some people prefer not to risk their luck with inflatable pads, especially in rougher terrain. The Thermarest Z-lite foldable pads are a good option in that case.
- Warm jacket: a lightweight down jacket has the best weight to warmth ratio and should weigh less than 200g. My favorites are Yeti, Montbell or Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer (less expensive and often available on sale)
- Waterproof jacket: the lightest rain jackets weigh around 100g. My favorites are Raidlight, Salomon Race Jacket (less expensive, but not as breathable) and Arcteryx Novan SL (more expensive, but very comfortable GoreTex jacket)
- Mandatory gear: mandatory gear isn’t the same for all races. It usually includes one or two headlamps, a compass, mirror, whistle, blister kit, elastic bandage and an emergency blanket or bivvy bag. Some of my favorites that can save a lot of weight include a keychain mini compass, the tiny Petzl e-lite as backup headlamp and for evenings in camp.
5- Food for self-supported multi-stage ultras
Many races have a minimum requirement of 2000 calories per day or 14000 calories for the race week. Some competitors are doing ok with that minimum, I tend to bring slightly more, but optimize weight with calorie dense options. You will definitely bring less than you are going to burn during the week of the race, which is fine, because we all have stored body fat and most people loose a few pounds during the race.
My food for a day looked roughly like this:
- Breakfast: freeze dried coconut porridge from Lyo Foods (400 cal)
- Running fuel: 2 waffles (2 x 150 cal), 2 bottles of Tailwind (2 x 200 cal)
- Lunch/Recovery: Recovery shake (250 cal) immediately post run, 1 bar (250 cal) and some nuts in the afternoon
- Dinner: freeze dried risotto, pasta or chicken tikka or other stew (800 cal)
For the long day I had more calories for the run, since I was running a lot longer. A good rule of thumb is 200 calories per hour of running after the first hour. For hiking at lower intensity, calories per hour can be lower.
I wrote a race report about a few of my stage races as well and they have a bit more detail about some beautiful multi-stage races:
- Atacama Crossing (Chile) race report
- Gobi March (Mongolia) race report
- Global Limits Bhutan race report
I am also happy to answer other questions. Just let me know in the comments.