The list of gear for trail ultrarunning can often look overwhelming! There’s the mandatory gear list, optional gear list, personal and back-up gear – it seems like the biggest challenge for the race is finding a race vest or pack big enough to fit it all.
With careful planning and smart purchases, you can have everything you need without carrying everything you own.
My first ultramarathon on trail was done with over 8kg/18lbs in gear and nutrition! Over the last few years, I’m yet to have a race vest exceeding 4kg/9lbs and I’ve still got everything I need for races up to 150 miles (240km).
So I’ve jotted down a collection of wisdoms from 15 years of ultra races on how to choose the right gear for the job and how to pack it effectively for racing. I learned the hard way so you don’t have to…
For races like Marathon Des Sables, this list wouldn’t be appropriate as hotter climates have a different set of requirements for almost everything.
Overall tips for choosing gear for trail ultrarunning
Get the right gear first time (unless it’s a trial – see point #2)
Ask an experienced ultrarunner and they’ll tell you how much redundant kit they’ve build up over the years.
You buy a cheap rain jacket that’s heavy and uncomfortable, then you upgrade to a decent one a year later before finally buying the best one for the job. You end up with 3 jackets and some wasted money.
If it’s an item that you’ll definitely get use out of – one of the essentials of ultrarunning gear – just get the best one for the job as your first purchase.
The basics, which are used often and are worth their weight in gold, are:
- Rain jacket
- Hydration system (bladder and flasks)
- Warm layer (thermals, long sleeve running fleece)
For any of these, the price you pay will always determine the benefit you get. More expensive items are lighter, more effective/convenient and last longer.
Test out non-essential and customisable kit before committing
For other types of gear that you’re not sure you’ll use or love, it’s worth testing it out first before committing your cash to it.
If you haven’t tried hiking poles and you’re not sure if you’ll use them, or if you’re undecided between the Z-fold design and telescopic poles, test them out first.
Buy a cheap pair to see if you like them. Borrow a pair from a friend to feel what it’s like to unpack and repack them on the fly.
Once you’ve decided that they’re a winner and you know which design to get, then you can commit dollars to it and invest in a great pair.
Other bits of gear for trail ultrarunning that fit into the try-before-you-buy category are:
- Waist-mounted bottle carriers
- Race vests and packs (to check for comfort and fit)
- Satellite messengers (such as Spot Trackers and Garmin In-Reach models)
- Calf sleeves and arm sleeves
For expensive items, borrow one from a friend or head into a store to see how it feels/operates (like playing with the different interfaces of satellite messengers).
For clothing, such as calf sleeves, buy a cheap pair online and see if you like the feel of them. If it’s a winner, invest in quality. If not, you’ve wasted $15 and saved yourself $50.
Test it in the right situation
You can’t decide if a piece of gear works for you without testing it in the same conditions as race day. The same applies for nutrition and hydration strategies.
I remember an alpine 100 mile race back in 2015. I tested my gloves – awesome. I tested my GPS – spot on. I tested my nutrition options – perfect.
Then on race day, it was super cold and I couldn’t operate my GPS with fat gloved fingers (very small touchscreen buttons placed close together on the interface), and I couldn’t open half my food packets with gloved hands. Very embarrassing and poor form from me.
So if you want to test poles, head to a similarly technical trail to your race. If you want to test a headlight, try it on open trail, single track and everything in between (more info on choosing headlights later in the piece – note, brighter is not always better).
Tips for gear for trail ultrarunning in cold conditions
To only carry what you need, but to cover all possible situations, is a hard task. Here’s some tips to lighten your load:
- Using components rather than a single item
- Preferred level of comfort
For any hikers, the concept of layering will be second nature. This is when you use multiple interlocking layers of clothing and gear to provide more protection than the sum of all items.
Rather than using a heavy rain jacket that is only good in the worst conditions, think about using a long sleeve thermal top (polypropylene is recommended for the right balance between sweat management and warmth) with a light long sleeve fleece and a waterproof/windproof jacket over the top.
The big benefit of that approach is that you can then remove layers as you warm up to regulate your temperature. With one bulky jacket to keep warm and dry, it’s either on or it’s off.
With layering, I’ve raced in alpine snow at 25 degrees Fahrenheit with a long sleeve polypropylene thermal top, this warm running t-shirt from Higher State and the waterproof jacket below (in addition to gloves, beanie and shorts). Side note: see the section on preferred level of comfort – my tolerance for cold is quite good, so that clothing approach is not for everyone but it shows what layering can do.
It might sound weird, but why use a long sleeve running top when you can use a short sleeve t-shirt and arm sleeves.
Sure, you’re adding more gear to your list. But the real benefit comes with your ability to fine tune your selection.
This is wear using components comes into play. You just add components to your day clothes, like arm sleeves and a beanie, to improve your temperature control as the night gets colder.
The same applies for using a buff, calf sleeves, a zipped gilet (windproof vest) and quarter zip running tops. You can configure each of these items differently to help regulate your body temperature and comfort level.
Preferred level of comfort
“Know thy self” – pretty sure some smart person said this some time ago. Not sure they were referring to ultramarathons though…
You may get ideas and inspiration for your gear selection from fellow runners, race reports and that subscription to Runner’s World that you forgot to cancel. But in the end, it’s about your personal preference and how you like to feel.
If you can tolerate heat, you may not need to worry about overdressing. If you don’t mind the cold, you can use a gilet instead of a running jacket.
Try anything for yourself and decide if it’s right for you. Don’t feel the pressure to wear or use any gear for running at night because “that’s what every runner does”.
Recommended gear for trail ultrarunning
Each item has been tested personally and is recommended for durability with use and washing as well as effectiveness for safety and maintaining comfort.
Focus on getting a lightweight jacket that can stash down to a very small size (ideally with a built-in pouch for storage).
Choose your breathability and waterproof rating carefully – aim for 5000-10000 (rated in grams or mm/m3) for colder conditions and 10000-20000 for hot conditions. The higher the number, the more it breathes but the “wetter” it’ll feel in a downpour. Lower numbers give better protection from cold wind.
Weighing in at 218g/7.7oz for the Medium size, this jacket is a great blend of durability and comfort.
It’s 10000mm waterproof and 5000g/m3 breathability means it’s well suited to cold to mild conditions, up to around 20 degrees Celcius/70 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on your preferred level of comfort.
Priced at $60 USD, it stacks up very well agaist the slightly lighter but not as durable models at over $120 USD.
Note: it’s a roomy make so if you’re between sizes, you can probably drop down to the smaller option.
This jacket is waterproof (10000mm) + seam sealed (this ensures no water sneaks in through the seams) and breathable (5000g/m3), so you can run without overheating.
It’s fluoro yellow color is perfect for high visibility night running and it has reflective elements for extra safety. It also comes in orange and other color combinations.
Best of all, it’s very well priced at around $40 USD.
It’s a big make so account for that when you order. I’m usually a medium in tops and the medium jacket is quite roomy on me, although I wouldn’t drop to a small size.
Wind can often be your biggest challenge, particularly in cold and wet environments.
Windproof elements make it easier to maintain a stable body temperature and some level of comfort, without adding the breathability issues that tend to come with waterproof garments.
This reflective windproof running gilet is perfect for cool windy conditions, keeping you warm without overheating.
The reflective detail and yellow color adds to its safety and makes it suitable for night running.
At around $20 USD, it’s perfect for conditions that are windy and cool but not jacket-worthy.
They’re a deliberately snug fit, so order your size as measured. I’m a medium in tops and the medium gilet has just enough room to be comfortable.
This quarter zip running top doubles as a wind-blocking element with some light water resistant properties.
The quarter zip makes it easily adjustable to control body temps and the fit is comfortable for all-day wear.
Priced at just over $25 USD, it’s a great replacement for a standard long sleeve running top in windy conditions.
Beanie and gloves
Getting the right thickness and breathability of fabrics is crucial for your comfort (and sanity) throughout a race.
For gloves, these come in different thicknesses as well as adding features like reflective detail for night running and windproof membranes for colder conditions.
For beanies, I’ve always preferred thinner tech fabrics for the right mix of warmth and sweat management. You can boost their warmth by adding a buff underneath if needed.
The classic hiking beanie (thicker, woolly designs) are typically too thick for ultrarunning. The bulk of them makes it hard to fit a headlight over the top and they are prone to overheating.
These gloves cover all the bases – reflective for hi vis, warm thermal fabric, moisture wicking and durable.
The gloves are designed for running at night in cooler climates and have a focus on safety with their high visibility reflective detail.
Priced at around $18 USD, they’re a great investment for years of night running.
These gloves are perfect for cold windy conditions, they’re also water resistant if conditions worsen.
They have touchscreen finger tips, added grip on the palms and a sweat-wiping pad on the back of the thumbs. Yup, they’ve thought of everything!
Priced at under $20 USD, they’re a vital addition to any cool weather ultrarunning gear list.
One of the most critical elements of any ultrarunner’s kit! Unless you’re making the podium, most of us will experience running in the dark by headlight.
Quick side note: there’s no difference between a “headlight”, “headlamp” and “headtorch”, so any these terms may be used to describe the same thing.
The main features that an ultrarunner needs in their headlight are:
- Battery life
- Brightness (and color) of light
- Weight and fit
Simply put, the battery life, brightness and weight are on different ends of the spectrum. Basically, you can’t have everything. For example, if you want a long battery life, you either get less brightness or more weight (bigger battery).
There are some hacks that can help though. Lightweight and bright may mean a short battery life but if you can swap batteries easily, you can just do a midnight change over and get the best of each feature.
Some rechargeable options have swappable batteries, but you’ll need to buy a 2nd rechargeable pack specifically made for that headlight (such as Led Lenser’s H14.2R).
Other options are more versatile, like the Petzl Iko Core below, where you can use a battery pack or just use AAA batteries as a fall back option.
For the brightness and color of the light, be wary of overkill! Stark white light can be harsh to look at all night and reduces the natural color of objects, making it hard to distinguish between rock and timber lumps. It’s also a disadvantage to be too bright in foggy or misty conditions – the headlight illuminates the mist in front of your face, making it very hard to see the trails.
Petzl is known for its innovation in headlights – the Iko Core packs in features++ and at just 79g!
Super lightweight, IPX4 and with 500 lumens of brightness to illuminate the road or trail easily. You’ll get 2.5hrs of battery at 500 lumens or 9hrs at 100 lumens and it has spot and flood beam options.
It comes with a rechargeable lithium battery pack, and you can use AAA batteries as a back up or buy a spare battery pack (~$30) to double its life for racing.
This is my personal favorite! Weatherproof (IP68) and not too heavy at around 118g, it handles all conditions.
It has a 1000 lumen spot and a 400 lumen flood beam. Best of all, the flood beam is a beautiful yellow light to cast a natural light on the trail.
The 400 lumen setting on either globe lasts a whopping 22 hours, and it’s USB-C rechargeable (although I carry a spare 18650 battery for hot swapping mid-race).
Priced at around $90 USD, it’s the best combo of features on the market (in my opinion).
OK this headlight has everything, literally!
LED Lenser have created a headlight with a bright 600 lumens, focusable beam, rechargeable battery (18650), IPX4 and a long battery life (600 lumens for 10 hours).
For added safety it has a rear red light, making it perfect for night road running.
The only compromise is the weight at 158g, but with the rear-mounted battery pack, it still feels perfectly balanced.
Priced around $100 USD, it’s the only headlight you’ll need for every outdoor situation.
Other gear for trail ultrarunning
This hi vis race vest is fluoro yellow and has plenty of reflective panels on front, back and sides.
It features velcro fitting straps on either side for fast adjustment and the ability to remove and re-fit the vest with clothing or pack changes.
At under $7 USD, it’s the added safety that you’d be crazy not to have in your kit.
This running cap is the perfect design for hotter conditions, with a custom-built pouch wrapping around the back of the cap to hold ice cubes.
During the hottest part of races like Western States 100, the ice cubes slowly melt and send a cooling cascade of icy water down your neck.
For around $36 USD, it’s well worth it for comfort and temperature management when running in hot conditions.
2XU have designed these sleeves for runners who like to manage sweat and comfort, while having enough protection from the elements.
Firm fitting, they offer a nice level of compression wile also wicking away sweat.
For under $25 USD, they’re a great way to boost the protective value of a short sleeved running top.
These compression arm sleeves improve running comfort by wicking away sweat in hot conditions and insulating in cooler conditions.
The puffy dots on the forearm are handy to wiping away sweat (FYI, they don’t “enhance blood flow” as the marketing material suggests…)
Priced at under $25 USD, they’re a great addition to any runner’s tool kit.
Many runners swear by their calf sleeves, and this Compressport pair are great quality with the right mix of compression and comfort.
Calf sleeves don’t “stabilise the calf” or anything fancy – they just feel good to run in and reduce calf symptoms like soreness and tightness.
Priced at around $25 USD, it’s a small price to pay for durability and comfort.
You don’t need a chafe solution, until you do! Don’t get caught short mid-race or run.
This Bluerub chafe stick works as well at preventing chafing as it does at relieving it once it’s already happening.
At around $20 USD, it’s essential (almost mandatory) kit for any endurance runner.
Did you know that the two most common reasons for DNFs in ultramarathons are blisters/chafing and tummy issues?!?
Don’t let a hot spot become a blister and kill your run. Be proactive with this blister kit and treat them early with the right approach.
Priced under $5 USD, just throw one in your cart to avoid little problems getting out of hand.
Disclaimer for Best Gear for Trail Ultrarunning
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