For this post I want to write about the history of the lightweight backpacking movement and how we can apply these principles as mountain, ultra and trail runners.
The most obvious place to start for me is the UK. Since 1968 a yearly event now known as the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) has taken place. It gained some notoriety in 2008 when it was abandoned mid-competition due to ill-informed media coverage suggesting that challenging weather had placed thousands of competitors at risk – in reality only one person was injured. The object of this two day event is to navigate between checkpoints on a mountainous course carrying enough equipment for complete self sufficiency and an overnight camp.
The Compulsory kit list is as follows:
- Warm Trousers or Leggings
- Shirt or Thermal Top
- Sweater or Fleece Top
- Waterproof Over Trousers (taped seams)
- Waterproof Jacket (taped seams)
- Socks, gloves & hat
- Head Torch
- Food For 36 Hours
- Additional Emergency Rations
- Compass (GPS Not Allowed)
- Sleeping Bag
- Footwear With Adequate Grip For Fell Conditions
- Space Blanket or large heavy gauge polythene bag
- First-Aid, a minimum of a crepe bandage and small wound dressings.
- Pen Or Pencil
- Tent With Sewn-In Groundsheet
- Cooking Stove with enough fuel at the end of day 2 to make a hot drink
With such a lot of mandatory equipment you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d need a sledge to carry it all, but competitors manage to cram it all in to 30 litre rucksacks. Over the last 40 years gear technology has progressed as such so that the elite can run these races with very light weight pack sizes and if you are willing to lose a certain amount of comfort it’s possible to stuff all the gear in to a 20 litre pack!
It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that less weight = faster speeds. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.
The OMM may have birthed the ultra lightweight backpacking scene in the UK, but it has its roots in mountain craft, orienteering and fell running. On the other side of the Atlantic, Fast packing was popularized in a book written by climber Ray Jardine in 1992. His book, “PCT Hiker’s Handbook” (later retitled as Beyond Backing) helped to lay down the parameters and techniques that ultra lightweight hikers use today. By his third thru-hike of the PCT trail Jardine had shrunk his pack size to 4.1 kg (his first trek was with a base pack of 11kg).
Ray Jardine weighs up footwear choices. We’d want something a lot lighter than that old school running shoe…
The philosophy is simple, by stripping down the pack weight; ultra light backpackers cover more distance in one day, with less wear and tear on the body.
Ultra lightweight back packers or fast packers usually get quite obsessed with keeping the weight down – cutting off unnecessary strapping on packs, swapping tents for tarps, using bivy sacks or favouring super lightweight sleeping bags. You might wonder why you need to cut the handle off your toothbrush… The mantra is “every gram counts”
So how do we apply the light weight philosophy to day in day out mountain, ultra and trail running?
You may have already taken part in an event like the OMM or other adventure races – if that’s the case you would be better qualified than me to comment on these things. I’m much more of a single day event type of guy – preferring marked courses over the fell running style of navigation and orientation – although I’m not adverse to a little compass and map running during training or shorter fell running courses.
My gear requirements depend on two factors:
1. Length of time on feet, and 2. Temperature/weather
So the goal is to apply the less weight = more speed + less wear and tear philosophy. First off we have to work out what we need, what we really can’t live without and how we can make these items weigh less
Here are a few items that I’d call mountain essentials, these are my personal choices based on my own personal experience and comfort level…
Cold weather / bad weather
- Socks – varying thickness depending on temp
- Leggings or tights
- Thermals both long johns and vest (for extreme lows)
- Waterproof top
- Waterproof trousers
- Under pants
- Long sleeve tech top
- Hydration (bottles or bladder)
- Fuel, Gels etc (depending on duration of run)
- Ice axe (route dependant and based on experience)
- Crampons and or Microspikes (again route dependant)
- Survival blanket
- Some kind of bag to carry stuff in
- T shirt/ long sleeve shirt
- Shorts/ leggings
- Wind proof top
- Wind proof trousers
- Buff/ Hat
- Smaller bag to carry stuff in
- Under pants
- Visor /Cap
A google search for lightweight gear, brings back… well… lightweight gears
Now this is a really simplified way of looking at gear requirements for the mountains, obviously it’s possible to encounter winter conditions in the middle of summer, and I’ve run shirtless off a snowy peak on December 24th before. Mountain weather is unpredictable to say the least, that’s why the above is categorised by type of weather and not seasons.
So now I’m going to add a list of “luxury items” that can apply to all of the above categories
- Trekking poles
- Compression gear
- MP3 Player (more “faff” than “weight” I guess)
- Bulkier Food (things like chocolate bars, bananas, potatoes, cakes…)
- Heavier “less minimal” shoes (some might prefer a little more shoe for longer adventures)
My brother in law sporting the “least gear as possible whilst running on cold mountains” philosophy.
I’ve listed above the gear I use depending on temperature or expected weather, the other major factor with gear choice is the length of time you’ll be out for. If you are just popping out on a well trodden 10 km loop then we really have to think hard about a lot of the above stuff – do we really need water for an hour’s run? Is it really going to rain and if it does am I going to be cold? It’s beating down with sun but am I going to get sunburn running in the forest with my shirt off – is there any point in carrying a T-shirt? Do I need socks? Are compression sleeves going to do anything for me? It comes down to common sense, as we head out of the door or climb out of the car the first thing we need to ask ourselves is what can I do without and what do we really need. You may find that you are able to hit the trail with nothing more than a pair of shorts on.
Coming close to the finish at last years Trail des Cascades.
On longer routes things get trickier to assess. If I’m heading out for more than 2 hours then I will always check the local weather forecast – this will help me decide my route (no good running on mountain tops in a thunder storm) and what I should take. Again the question needs to be asked – what do I really need? I’ve been out on routes in the middle of winter for hours and hardly drunk a drop of water – did I need to carry 2 bottles? Only experience can help us with this. Do I really need such a long handled ice axe? Can I get away with a trekking pole instead? Can I use micro spikes instead of crampons? What is the smallest pack I can get away with?
I’ll address a few items that I think we can whittle off the list.
The biggy for me is always hydration, 1 litre of liquid = 1 kilogram. That’s a lot of extra weight to carry, I guess the argument could be made that you’ll sweat out enough to equate for the water you carry… hmm I think that for the first 30 mins or so you’ll be warming up, and if it’s a long weekend run you might not sweat much at all… if it’s cold – even less. I’d say that the water is weighing us down.
So here’s a thought – don’t bring any. There are always mountain streams and springs. This for me is the beauty of sport in nature, the ability to drink and eat off the mountain – you just don’t get that running on the side of the road. People tend to fear stream drinking, my rule is that I take fast flowing water that is running over rocks, from small streams above any settlements. I’ve been doing this for about 2 years now with no problems. I have some great routes where I can run with plenty of water stops, but if I’m planning a run longer than 3 hours I do tend to bring bottles with me as a backup. I still need to work on letting go completely although it is good preparation for races where carrying water is mandatory.
Another consideration is how to carry bottles – sacks add extra weight, belts can be a pain in the ass – I find hand holding bottles much simpler and more in line with the lightweight mountain minimalist philosophy that I aspire to. For longer runs I’ve been experimenting with an Ultimate Direction race vest with the bottles up front on the straps.
My preference is in the following order:
- Drink from streams,
- Hand held’s,
- Pack held’s.
I do not like bladders at all, every single one I’ve had went moldy in under 6 months, and they are a faff to quickly refill. Plus with a bottle you have the advantage of carrying a portable shower unit, or dropping in an electrolyte tab as needed. (Don’t make the mistake of dousing yourself with sticky Nuun water though!)
Clothing, how much and what
I think if we are looking to pare our gear down to the bare minimum in most temperatures we can do away with under pants, the support from the inner brief in running shorts is plenty I think. That’s a few grams saved already! Not to mention the feeling of freedom this inspires.
Another item of clothing I tend to not bother with is a T-shirt. As soon as it’s warm enough I ditch it. However, I do carry a very lightweight windproof if running for a bit longer, this is easily rolled up in inside its pocket come stuff sack and is compact enough to hold in my hand when running – I’m working on a strap for this to make it even more practical.
In really rough conditions (I’m talking about -15 degrees (°C) with deep snow) I’ve worked out that I’m comfortable with the following items – Bridgdale summit socks (you need a bit of room in the shoes for these so I often take out the insoles.) Underpants, thermal long Johns, running tights, two long sleeve technical shirts, wind and waterproof OMM technical jacket, Ski gloves, beanie and two buff’s (one used as a facemask, the other over the head after I’ve warmed up). I also carry a small pack with water, food, microspikes, spare gloves and windproof over trousers. And if venturing up the mountain I’ll carry an ice axe. During winter my shoe preference is for something a little bit thicker and therefore insulated, at the moment I’m finding the Inov-8 295 meets a lot of my requirements, and works well with microspikes.
Inov 8 295′s married to Microspikes. Watch out icy mountain trail.
With this setup I’m good for an all day adventure, it’s overkill for a shorter run where I’d most likely opt for lower trails, lose the pack and some of the warm gear, swapping the ski gloves for a pair of Windstoppers and maybe forgoing the long Johns.
Minimalist gear choice is always a work in progress, each year I find that as we enter winter I need less clothing as I re-adapt to the cold, at the start of the season I’ll always bundle up for my shorter runs and then regret it completely after I’ve warmed up – I hate running when I’m too hot! As Mountain and trail runners our greatest advantage over our hill walking cousins is the very fact that running means we’re warmer and able to carry less gear and less gear means we can travel faster more efficiently expending less energy. Of course if we run in to trouble in remote areas a small amount of emergency clothing – windproof top and bottom should be carried, for the last part of this article I’ll talk about options for carrying emergency gear minimally.
There’s a time tested method used by fell and mountain runners in the UK, a good old simple waist or lumber pack (know as a bum bag and definitely not a fanny pack). These have been around for ages, the most popular being a no frills pack made by Pete Bland Sports in the Lake District. This simple pack has one main compartment and two compression straps that cinch the pack tightly to the lumber region of the back, it’s big enough to fit all the emergency gear required to partake in a fell race, or just to be safe in the mountains.
We’re all carrying the mandatory saftey gear for the Pen-y-fan fell race, in our Pete Bland “Bum bags”
My preference nowadays is for a vest pack as I’m not too keen on having things tied tightly around my waist. I’ve been using the UltrAspire Spry pack this year during long summer races and training, this is large enough to carry the essential gear I need, plus some extras such as a smart phone and even a small bottle, but it’s still an incredibly small piece of material and very lightweight.
For longer adventures , my search was for a pack that was lightweight but still reasonably strong, over 10 litres capacity, and able to carry an ice axe. I eventually chose the Ultimate Direction Pete Bakwin pack, which I think is brilliant, but comes with a hefty price tag. Reviews coming soon.
For carrying water I use the Nathon quickdraw bottles, which can each hold extra stuff like smart phones and gels (just be careful filling up in a stream with you smart phone in the pocket).
Writing this I’ve come to realise just how vast a topic this is, I’m going to leave it here for now but expect a part two sometime in the future. In the mean time, if you have any thoughts and comments I’d love to hear from you