What to pack for a desert ultra

Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer race season is here.  Many committed runners have ultras booked in (any race longer than a marathon) and some even are looking forward to an ultra in an extreme location, such as high mountains, hot jungles, arctic snow, or in the desert.  I only have experience with a desert ultra so far so I thought I would share the things I am glad I packed.  Of course, this list is not exhaustive nor specific to your event.  Be sure you read all of the race info when packing as some races, like Marathon des Sables, you have to carry everything you pack while you run.  But others, like Ultra X Co's events, will transport your luggage for you.  These are important details you don't want to overlook.

In no particular order, here is a short packing list.  Items marked with a ✓ are for if you do not have a weight restriction. I will say that a local Jordan man joined us last minute with a regular rucksack, plain old trainers, and a baseball hat and was able to finish the race.  No sunglasses or fancy equipment.  Mind over matter, eh?

Salt/hydration- In the desert, you are going to sweat more in order for your body to deal with the heat.  Plus you will be running, which is another reason to sweat.  Staying hydrated is very important.  Drinking plain water on its own will affect your body as osmosis in your cells won't work properly.  You need to add salt in some shape or form to your drinks and food.  I used Aptonia Salt capsules* during my race, along with nuun tablets and salted pretzels.  I kind of made up my own dose and luckily didn't have any problems.  Please speak to a professional when determining how much salt you should take and when.

Poles- I used my Leki Micro Trail poles (similar to these Micro Trail Pros) every day except the first when out in the desert. I didn't strength train enough, nor practice enough in sand, to move efficently.  With the poles, I could use my upper body to pull myself along, as well as keep steady in the shifting sand.  My poles have a minimalist 'glove' which protected my hands and secured the poles.  They easily unclipped from the poles for ease (rather than having to remove the entire glove).  The poles were super-light and folded up if I needed to attached then to my rucksack instead of using them.  Poles tend to be a personal preference.  If you are new to desert running, I would say give them a try.  The majority of the competitors used them.

Sunscreen- This is a no brainer.  Adding a sun burn on top of fatigue would really put a damper on the race.  My Race Kit recommended Tingerlaat SPF50 because the sand won't stick to it. It was expensive but I used it and can report that the sand didn't stick to me at all.

Cap or scarf- You need to have something to cover your head from the sun.  I picked up the RaidLight Sahara cap and loved it as the cloth attaches with velcro.

My snazzy cap and Salomon Agile 6 with Camelbak
Bag to carry stuff- If you don't have to carry everything with you, but just what you need for the day, a small rucksack could do the trick.  Of course, you should try running in the bag before your race.  Figure out how/were a hydration pack will go too.  The Salomon Agile 6 worked for me.  I had two water pouches (one for plain water and one for nuun tablets) plus it fit my 2L hydration pack.  I would have preferred zippered pockets on my waist for easy access to snacks but I guess that is why the bag was so light!

Snacks you crave- As I mentioned, I had pretzels for the salt, but also Haribos, protein cookies, Lucho Dillitos, and more to keep me sane.  The one thing I didn't pack but wish I had was Diet Coke (hello- no weight limit!).

Warm clothes for evening- Depending on the time of year and where you are sleeping, the desert can get a bit chilly in the evening.  The nights we were in tents, I was fine.  We did have one windy evening outside on a rock, for which I wore my beanie cap and everything I had that was dry.

Biodegradable loo roll-  Lessen your environmental impact but using biodegradable loo roll.  I found it basically disintegrated when it got wet but it was better than nothing when in the middle of a 50km run.

Sunglasses- You need to protect your eyes from the sun's rays, as well as have a slight barrier for blowing sand.  My SMITH Attack Max with Chromo Pop were amazing.  They wrapped around my eyes and had a maximum view of the landscape ahead of me due to the single lens design.  The other cool thing, is that the lenses are interchangeable so I could choose a lens to suit the weather (but never had to swap as the sun was bright every day).  This option is perfect for like in the UK.

Music for the long days ✓- I bought a £10 MP3 player off of Amazon and only used it on my longest day.  I went for something cheap as I wasn't sure how the heat and sand would affect the technology.  To be honest, I don't usually run with music, so for not having music the majority of the race wasn't a problem.

Solar powered battery pack ✓- This should be the first extra thing you pack when you discover you can. I used it to charge my fitness tracker and activity camera (or faux pro as I like to call it).  Of course, I was not running to win the race which meant I had plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the scenery.

Blister kit- This is a no brainer.  Do your research to figure out exactly what you need.  Practice taping your feet up beforehand too.

Getting blisters fixed by the pros
Hand sanitizer- For the wild wees and camping without running water.  Nobody wants to get sick in the middle of the desert.  Along the same lines, don't high five anyone until after the race.

Camera ✓- As mentioned above, I had a faux pro for snapping the scenery and taking some videos (which will some day be a vlog).  The serious competitors did no bother with this or used their mobile phones.  It depends on how you want to remember and commemorate the experience.

Diary and pen to write memories ✓- This would be the thing I pack after the battery pack.  I have a terrible memory so I needed to take a few minutes each evening to record what happened that day.  After a while, everything becomes a blur!  If weight is precious, you can download an app, such as Evernote, to type in your memories each evening.  It works without internet.

Head torch- Because it gets dark.  Make sure it had red light so you don't wake up your tent mates and is strong enough to light the path ahead of you when running before sunrise.

Container and spork for eating food- Depending on what you pack, you will probably need a bowl of some sort (although I think for MDS you can use water bottle) and a spork.  You will be hungry.

Comfy shoes with insoles- In Jordan, I wore the Salomon S Lab Sense 6* (similar to these Sense 7s) with SOLE active medium insoles*, plus sand gaiters.  Because of my history of Achilles tendinopathy, I am very particular about what trainers I run in. I need something stable and cushioned.  The Senses were super comfortable during my training before I had the velcro for the gaiters sewn on.  Unfortunately, that is a risk with any pair of shoes when you have to add on velcro.  I was so bummed I couldn't wear them any more!  I have worn SOLE in the past and went with the medium thickness to allow for sandy conditions where my foot would be flexing over uneven terrain. I then transferred them to one of my other pairs of running shoes and am very happy with the fit.

If you have ever run a desert ultra, let me know if there is anything I have missed off of this list by leaving a comment below.  If you want a packing list for a regular race, click here to have a read of my head-to-toe packing list.

Interested in the Ultra X Jordan race (read my review of the 2018 event here)?  Entries close 21 July 2019.  You had better register asap if you want to join the team this year.

Items marked with an * were given to me pro gratis to review.  As always, all opinions are honest and my own.  This post also includes affiliate links which cost the buyer nothing extra, but help contribute to running this website.

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