How to Pack Your Pack

There are very few trail runners who don’t geek out a bit over gear. It is a fiercely competitive arena, with manufacturers taking giant leaps in terms of technology and design over the past few years. Fabrics, finishes, waterproofing, breathability, weight, ergonomics… you name it, they are improving it. And let’s face it, for all that we love to run light and free, gear will make or break our mountain time.

With the Bos Sport Mountain Challenge Series, amplified by Jaybird kicking off next month in Jonkershoek, we asked some experienced trail runners to share their wisdom, gained through trial and error, when it comes to packing their packs.

Consensus was that there are some basics to get right up front. Get your pack expertly fitted. There are, for example, women-specific packs with shorter back length and modified straps across the chest. As you deplete the water in your hydration bladder or soft flasks, the fit will change a little. Adjust your straps accordingly in order to avoid chafe. You’ll want to balance out the weight of your kit, fuel and water for comfort.

Emergency kit should remain in your pack whether you are training or racing. When packing, ensure that you do so in a way that reduces the number of times you take your pack off during a race.

Whether you are heading out for 5 hours of mountain stoke, or preparing for a monster multi-day trail event, the following advice is golden.

Pamela Paton from the Eastern Cape recently completed the 76km Addo Trail run. “I put my phone on airplane mode in a waterproof bag and have it easily accessible so I can take photos. I have a reusable cup clipped on the outside of my pack so I don't need to take my pack off at water points unless I need to refill the bladder.”

Richard Schroder is a regular on the trails of the Cape, and has completed various multi day and mountain ultras, including the SkyRun 100km. “Arm warmers can be preferable to starting with a base layer if you expect it to warm up later (otherwise it's a hack taking everything off and then back on!). Collapsible cup clipped to outside of your back for easy reach is a must when there are streams - saves water in your pack for later. Food most frequently eaten - make it easily accessible to your dominant hand. Less frequent stuff - other hand. Heavier stuff to the bottom - helps prevent bouncing (particularly with vest-type packs). Also… pack an easily reachable sense of humour for the longer stuff!”

Andrew Booth is a well-known trail organiser and runner from KZN. “Use the right size pack for the job. If your pack is very full, avoid using a bladder as it will be difficult to refill. Use bottles instead, especially if lots of drinking water is available on course. Try and remember where you have packed everything! Test your setup and distribution in the pack a few times before race day. Try different shirts under your pack. Some are more comfortable than others.”

Nothing worse than the gradual, burning chafe that comes about when a running top and pack create friction! Bare skin below a pack is generally not recommended if you are out there for more than a couple of hours.

Dan Marlan van Hemert, an athlete from KZN, “The packs with elastic cords work well for jackets or pants, as they are secured but out of the way. Use your back pockets use for all the infrequent stuff. The front pockets crammed with all the frequently used stuff.  Learn your pack and its capabilities.”

No doubt that lighter IS better for both comfort and speed, which is why the various manufacturers work tirelessly to produce kit that weighs less, packs small, but does not compromise on performance.

Erik Vermuelen has experience on the trail event organisation side, has photographed races and participated as a trail runner. “When in doubt, leave it out. When buying, err on the side of smaller. The more space you have, the more junk you’ll pack.”

Trail running pro, Bennie Roux, concurs, “Keep the weight down!!! If it is not on the compulsory list..... Think twice.”

Investing in the pricier kit that achieves performance AND packs light is worth it. Of course the flip side of that is the tendency for less experienced runners to skimp on key items which could put their life, and the lives of others, at risk. The compulsory kit list at a professionally organised trail event has been drawn up and modified according to actual emergencies experienced during events or training sessions. These lists can seem excessive or unreasonable, but should not be questioned.

Chris Goldschmidt from Cape Town is an accomplished runner, race organiser and race safety officer. “A common symptom at kit check is people trying to leave something out because it will not fit. During the event competitors should be encouraged to use their protective kit. People with low body fat are particularly vulnerable to cold and often find that they are already severely affected before they eventually put on more clothing (at the finish) and would be significantly compromised it they had to stay out on the route due to an injury. Compulsory kit is not intended for when you run, it is for when you can’t.”

Ian Hendry, a distance runner from Gauteng says, “I go with full compulsory Skyrun kit for any mountain training run. I go heavy when I’m in the mountains - safety first.”

Rob Nel from the Cape is a trail runner and medical rescue technician with Wilderness Search and Rescue. “A space blanket (also known as a rescue blanket) can and has saved lives, when it is used correctly. Along with the Space blanket is your windbreaker. You first need to create a “cavity” in which to trap air before applying the space blanket. If the space blanket is applied directly to wet, cold skin it does more harm than good as it conducts all the bodies heat away from the body instead of reflecting it back towards the body. These are my most important items and then comes the rest! Remember, shelter first, water second and food third, after that you can start adding the comfort creatures such as spare socks, etc.”

Desmond Deary, a Cape mountain runner through and through, has some sage advice when it comes to safety kit maintenance, “What I recently discovered though is that your space blanket can expire. So if like me you have had the same emergency blanket in your pack for the past 5 years and you’ve never had to use it, it’s probably a good idea to replace it.”

Once you have packed all the compulsory kit and optimised your pack fit and the weight distribution of your gear, there are some really clever hacks to consider.

Adventure junkie, blogger and all-round mountain lover, Alfred Thorpe, “Two pairs of GOOD socks, and change them halfway through the long days. Happy feet are the key to stage racing. Blisters just spoil the fun.”

Sabrina Kondelis, a Cape based runner with lots of international big mountain and ultra-distance experience shares a hack that takes the bulky bandage rolls and turns them into smaller, sleeker little numbers that fit in to small pockets. “An oldie but goodie hack; measure and wrap the required bandages around a tampon (applicator). You can remove the cotton, but it can also come in handy (for wounds). I also agree with less is more. Get familiar with the route, where you can resupply, where you might need specific items, and work backwards. Buy the best kit in your price range for less bulk. And last, you will never eat as much as you think. Be prepared, but realistic.”

Adhesive ankle strapping or medical tape is generally on a compulsory kit list, and can come in handy for various reasons, as multi-sport athlete Brenna Coupland explains, “Always pack some sort of medical tape! Or KT tape. You never know when you're going to need to stop a bleed, seal a tear in a piece of equipment or cover up skin that's starting to chafe.”

And finally, Eleanor Yeld Hutchings swears by good old fashioned Duct Tape, “Take a little roll of proper Duct Tape! Works for fixing packs, fixing shoes, holding anything together (other than your sense of humour!), bandaging wounds (over gauze/soft bandage), sealing holes in bladders or bottles, leaking tents or air mattresses…”

Coming up next, a look at what goes in to (and comes out of) a quality waterproof jacket, and how it may well save your life on the trails. 

Words by Kim Stephens