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How to Pack Your Race Vest for an Ultra

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So you’ve got all the items on your mandatory kit list and added all your race nutrition, an inexplicable number of electronic items and your lucky socks. Now it’s all spread in the middle of your living room and you’re wondering how to get it all in the bag. So here’s a really simple guide to how to pack right to help you get safely through your long day on the hills.

1. Choose the right bag

Common pack sizes range from 5L all the way to 30L. They all have different qualities in terms of fit, accessibility, bladder compatiblity, pole storage etc and the only way to really find the right one for you is to try before you buy. Once you’ve found a model that works for you, larger packs can normally be compressed if you don’t need that much kit so hopefully you can avoid purchasing multiple options. However, you may find that you want to increase capacity, weight distribution or accessibility of items by adding a chest pack or waist belt into the mix.

2. Deal with waterproofing

You are going to need drybags. Most race packs don’t make any claim about waterproofing – they prioritise weight. Even if a bag does claim to be waterproof, don’t leave it to chance. Prolonged time in bad conditions, not to mention regular accessing of your pack, and the fact that it is pressed against other surfaces, mean that the contents will get wet if they are not protected. So use good quality drybags of an appropriate size, but choose your bag carefully as some of the highly waterproof ones are also made of very heavy and inflexible material.

If you are doing a long ultra in extreme conditions, it may be best to line your entire pack with a large, highly waterproof drybag and then to pack inside in the same way as detailed below, but perhaps opting for lighter drybags for the items insde the liner bag.

You also need to think about waterproofing for small items that you keep outside of the main storage areas in your pack. Ziplock bags will suffice for things like unpackaged food, but other items will need something more designed for the job if you are out for a long time in wet conditions. Waterproof cases that house a phone and small powerbank and which allow for touchscreen operation without breaking the seal can be bought cheaply. I’m not an advocate of making unnecessary purchases of anything – let alone plastic items – but I personally think that this little bit of kit is essential for long, exposed days out.

3. Organise your items into categories

Time to tackle the chaotic pile that appears to be breeding. The aim is to divide things into 3 categories:

  • Items which need to be access easily and often. These would be hydration, enough food to last until the next checkpoint, phone and possibly charger, map and compass/ GPS unit (if using), and other miscellaneous items such as poles, hankie, glasses, salt tabs etc. I would also keep my whistle with these in case you need to use it urgently.
  • Items which will be needed every now and again or at a certain point in the race. These would be first aid kit, headtorch, spare batteries, additional fuel, spare socks, hat, gloves, waterproof trousers, jacket, base layer, toilet kit and other items according to preference e.g. sunglasses, or that may be on your mandatory kit list such as mug, spork, microspikes, goggles etc.
  • Items which will never be needed except in a race-ending situation such as needing to be rescued from the course. This will include bivvy/ survival bag, trousers, base layer, hat, gloves, emergency food.

4. Pack the items in each category in turn

Make sure that you have a list of everything that is going into your pack. As you pack each item, tick it off the list so that you know you have packed it and don’t need to unpack everything again looking for something.

If you are using a bladder for fluids, then this will need to be secured in the pack before anything elses. Otherwise, the items in category 3 come first. Put every item together in 1 dry bag. seal the bag and put it at the bottom of your pack. Once kit check is complete, this seal should never be broken unless something has happened that has ended your race and you need to stay safe.

Next the items in category 2. Some of them do not need to be in a dry bag – e.g. waterproof jacket, most additional fuel, headtorch, mug, spork, microspikes, sunglasses. By all means keep your storage organised by using a basic clear plastic bag for groups of items, but don’t put them in a drybag – this just makes it more difficult to access them and means that you have to unnecessarily break the seal of the drybag when you need them.

Put the remainder of the items in category 2 in 1 or more drybags, depending how you like to organise things. If you have multiple bags then pack similar types of kit together and label each bag so that you are not needlessly opening bags in the hunt for the right one (remember that any system needs to be idiot-proof to allow for the brain fog which will likely take over sooner or later during your ultra). Then pack these items in the main compartment of your pack, or one of the big back pockets.

Finally, deal with the items in category 1. There is much personalisation involved here, and you will need to do some experimenting to find out which pockets/ additional storage best suit each item to enable access as needed. Remember that some of these items do not need to be protected from the rain – e.g. most pre-wrapped food, hydration, compass, waterproof GPD unit, poles. But some will – e.g. phone, map (unless it is Harveys or another waterproof type). For these items, consider bespoke waterproofing as mentioned above and don’t put lots of items in one bag as you will end up getting everything wet due to the regular access that you need.

5. Test and Test Again

Make sure that race day isn’t the first time that you’ve put your kit together like this. Do it regularly on long training runs and use these sessions to make sure that everything works. Can you reach everything that you need? How easy is it to get your poles in and out? Is the weight distributed comfortably? Is anything rubbing? Can you remember where everything is when you need it?

6. Stay Organised

It’s one thing giving yourself a pat on the back as your proudly cross the start line with your pack in tip-top order. But unless you’re careful, by the time you’ve experienced 3 different types of weather, had to resort to the emergency nutrition because your stomach isn’t playing ball, been through 2 checkpoint kit checks and not slept for 24 hours, there’s a danger that your pack may resemble the forgotten corner of your teenager’s bedroom. To make sure that you continue to race effeciently and safely, be strict with yourself. If you get something out, put it back in the right place. When you replenish your bag at checkpoints, keep the order as it was before. A couple of extra minutes of admin will likely save you much more time and stress over the course of the race.

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