This post is not intentioned to be a kit review as such, more of a round up of the important elements for me and the kit that I reach for in different conditions
Salomon SLab 12 Skin pack: This has been reviewed to death and always comes out with evangelistic praise for it. There is good reason. The numerous reviews also mean that I won’t bother giving an in-depth one here. Packs have moved on now and the downsides of this packs (if I’m being exceptionally picky) are the position on the back – don’t get me wrong, it’s very comfortable and you won’t really know it is there, but on a hot race it does cover a lot of surface area when compared to the Ultimate Direction packs which sit higher and have a smaller footprint. It’s also pretty heavy as a bag which is largely created by the materials rather than the design. I’ve little doubt that Salomon will redesign this bag/ bring out the next generation, but with this pack they very much got it right. A lightweight version would be a big step forward though… not that one notices the weight particularly with this pack. Overall the pack is exceptional and I would buy another one tomorrow, or at least one of the numerous packs that have emerged based upon the same design principles. If I were buying new now I’d seriously look at the Ultimate direction packs, but when you have to run with a pack this has to be near or on the top of the list.
Race belts Vs Bum bags: Race belt, race belt, race belt. I reviewed the Nathan Trail mix 4 and I regularly use it on fell races and long distance trail races where I can get all the kit on it. The key difference for me is the lack of pull on the stomach. Yes when full of kit it can bounce a little excessively, but so does a bum bag; the one guarantee I have with a bum bag is that it will ride up above the hip bone and Pelvis and then it is pulling on my stomach which is uncomfortable and slows me down as I can’t breathe properly or efficiently engage my core.
If you’ve not tried a race belt before I thoroughly recommend them and would be the first in the queue for a Nathan belt.
Hydration/ Bottles: Personally I like the idea of bladders but I see them as totally impractical for running. The draw backs are easy to spot:
- You have no idea how much is left in them/ how much you have drunk
- They are a nightmare to fill from a stream
- Filling up en route at an aid station or stream is very slow and frustrating as you have to get it out of the pack, fill it and then manage to stuff it back into the pack where the rest of your kit has happily morphed into the space it left.
- With the exception of the Inov8 horizontal bladder I find the water in the wrong place and sloshes
- You can only have one drink type at a time – I like to run with both water and a sports drink
- They are a pain to clean
In short, stick to using them for walking if at all.
To me a bottle needs to be absolutely leak proof (how many bottles actually are!) easy to squeeze, have a good flow and be easy to carry – essentially I’m looking for something that won’t let me down and won’t soak my pack/ spray me in the face/ dribble on my hand as I run. I’m a big fan of Nathan bottles. They flow well, are robust and are my “go to” bottle. The large 600ml bottle I have fits in the front of my SLab pack The handheld strap on the Quick draw plus (the old version I have – the new version looks much better) does tend to come undone as I move, and I’ve just not got around to pimping it with Velcro, but it remains comfortable at all times and is very suitable to non-mountain or American style groomed mountain trails.
I’ve tried just for experimentation purposes and confirmed that handhelds are not suitable to technical terrain and the sort of rough open fell land that we run in the UK…. or maybe I just don’t have the coordination? I’ve also got an Ultraspire handheld which is excellent, but again if I’m hyper critical the nozzle doesn’t always close correctly, or at least it requires a bit of concentration/ check that it is, so it loses out to the Nathan in my view. Well made kit though and I use it regularly.
Kahtoola microspikes: I could spend hours talking about how fantastic these are. A total game changer for running. Personally I see the invention/ evolution of super bright head torches and these Microspikes being responsible for the biggest step change in my running enjoyment. They enable me to enjoy and feel safe in places that would have simply been inaccessible to me previously. Three of my most enjoyable days out have been made possible by these – a run around Helvellyn in Alpine conditions (a day I can’t quite believe I haven’t blogged), a trip around the Peris Horseshoe in similar conditions and another day I can’t quite believe I haven’t blogged whilst in the Alps – poor weather lead to a run of epic proportions around a ski resort. The looks on people’s faces when I stopped off in a mountain hut for a waffle in my shorts and trainers was easily worth the run alone!
The spikes are essentially sit between snow chains for a car and crampons. They are totally flexible are on the feet in seconds and give total confidence on hard pack snow and ice. What more do you need to know! They bring a child like element back to the soul and can’t fail to put a grin that stretches from ear to ear. Sure they don’t allow you to float over snow that hasn’t got a sufficient crust, but a water proof coat doesn’t enable you to walk on water either. If you ever want to walk or run in the hills in winter/ wintry conditions then these are an essential piece of kit for both safety and enjoyment. I would not live without a pair.
Compression clothing: Do I like the idea behind compression clothing and buy into the concept? Yes – for the legs. Do I find it comfortable? Yes. Do I believe all the marketing hype behind compression clothing? No. Does it cost a lot more than the alternative? No. Given the choice would I buy it again? Yes.
I’ve not tried many brands yet, but I do like the Skins range and they are certainly better designed than the under armour and Nike pro ranges. I find the shorts significantly reduce chaffing (although I also use tape – see below) and I do feel like my muscles are held in place/ don’t travel quite as far and thus it makes sense to me that I would experience less internal damage. Then again, our body is an incredible thing that repairs itself to a stronger position so are we doing ourselves any favours by using compression kit? Who knows. It does stop the chaffing and it doesn’t catch on anything and that is enough for me. The leggings are terrific and I have also found that wearing a compression top eliminates any rubbing from a back pack or vest. In ultra running these things are important as they are the things that will force you to stop.
I’m not so convinced by calf guards. Maybe I haven’t found the right pair yet, but I don’t believe them to make a huge difference. Many people swear by them, I can take them or leave them… one thing they will do for you is give you a ridiculous knee only tan. It’s not a good look.
Kinesio Tape: Essential injury prevention/ support tool or emperor’s new clothes? One thing is for sure that the marketing has been successful for this stuff. The colourful tape has moved from fashion statement to evangelical praise by many. I’ll reserve judgement until I am unlucky enough to get an injury that can be treated by the use of tape. Whether it is placebo or based in physiological science the tape works for many and I’m not going to knock that.
Personally I use it to avoid chaffing. The tape is supposed to have the same elasticity as human skin which means it moves at one with the body and doesn’t pull or rub as a result. Placing it over areas that chaff eliminates the problem for me. As this is a family show I won’t go into the areas I tape, but I definitely recommend some shaving before hand.
The primary downside with this tape is that it can be monstrously expensive, however I found this tape to work very well and the pre-cut strips also make it very easy to use. 6 rolls for £21 I don’t think I’ll need to buy anymore in my lifetime!
Poles: I’ll come right out and say it, I’m not a fan of poles. I’ve tried and failed with them. I still reserve judgement over their use in the Alps as I suspect the paths may lend themselves to a different experience, but in the UK for me it’s a no. I bought a pair in advance of the Lakeland 100 and they are mighty fine I have to say, lightweight, fold nicely to enable running in-between sections where you want to use them, although I’d want to pack them away if I’m not looking to use them for any real length of time.
I buy into the idea that the tap-tap-tap will increase or at least maintain my walking speed, I buy into the idea that it will remind me to keep my back straight rather than destroy my lower back as I’m hunched over, but I just can’t get away from the fact that I find them a pain in the backside. They get stuck in gaps and placing them can be a minefield as a result. I tried them again on Snowdon the other week as I knew I wouldn’t be running up. They were a pain again. I’ll take them to Europe but they won’t see the light of day in the UK again.
However, I do really rate the product, so if poles are your thing then the Mountain King Trail Blaze poles are excellent. They snap down into 4 sections and are exceptionally light. They are designed much like a tent pole and are assembled in seconds. I did have a comedy exchange regarding these on face book once; I’ll paraphrase:
- Neil: <Posts that he’s a convert>
- Me: I’m open to the idea and have some trail blaze poles, but what has converted you, what do you feel you get out of them?
- Neil: <Answers intelligently>
- Ian Corless: Chris, your poles are s***.
- Me: err, thanks Ian
All this really serves to highlight is that people have pretty strong opinions on the subject and you need to try them out for yourself. I’ve heard people suggest they aren’t strong enough but I haven’t had any problems and often I see the same people using them in a way that would be a struggle for any pole. If you’re going to use them then it’s worth watching some youtube videos on Nordic walking and practicing the technique. One thing I would change is the aggressive Velcro strap – I’d replace it with some 3mm bungee cord; but I “pimp” and adjust most of my kit so no big criticism.
Socks: I’m lucky in that I never get blisters, or at least it is exceptionally rare for me to do so. As a result innovation like the Injinji socks (a glove-like sock rather than a traditional mitten-like sock) are just another way for me to spend money I don’t need to. The principle problem I face when out in the fells is cold feet. I do feel the cold very easily. Running with feet so numb that you think you just have stumps left is problematic in so many ways; it leave you open to excessive damage and soreness at best and injury at worst.
I turned to seal skins as a way to combat this. It’s not because I believed they would keep my feet bone dry (they don’t!) but they do keep them a lot warmer than normal socks. For this reason alone I recommend them…. but it’s a cautious recommendation. They do feel very strange, and I’d argue you have to wear an under-sock, but this is easy to get over as once in the shoe the foot doesn’t move too much (or at least mine don’t!). They are expensive and I don’t feel they last very long so they don’t represent the greatest value for money, but then again when you’re out there and your feet are numb, you’d usually be prepare to pay a decent sum for that not to be the case.
I’ve not tried the much heralded Drymax socks and would certainly like to give them a comparison maybe one for the Christmas list. As you can tell, when it comes to socks I’m not really that bothered as my feet are generally pretty hardy to the elements… except the cold!
Head torches: See my previous post here
Down equipment: For me it’s PHD all the way. Yes it’s not cheap, but I believe you get what you pay for. If it’s fast light and warm you want then PHD is the Rolls Royce. I own a lot of down kit, some of which was purchased from major brands such as Mountain Hardware, others were made by a tiny shop in Kathmandu, I’ve got cheap Chinese copy gear and I’ve got PHD. I remember the first time I tried on my PHD Minimus pull over and thinking; “Wow! This is a different league!”
Don’t get me wrong, the £15 sleeping bags I got from the man in the tiny shop are excellent and I’ll never see better value for money, but when I’m not in Nepal there is now only one place I would look for a sleeping bag. The cheap Chinese copy gear is pretty poor, the down quality is substandard and there is a huge difference in the quality of down you can get, so beware. Down kit is expensive and is not right for every occasion. Get it right though and spend the money to do so, going cheap with down is an expensive mistake.
Jackets & waterproofs: I use two types of jacket out on the fells. Pertex shells for wind and warmth; full waterproofs. I am a huge fan of Montane in this respect. Their kit is extremely well made, it’s certainly fits into the fast and light ethos. Often possible to pick up extremely cheaply at certain times of the year so keep a look out. I picked up my first Montane jacket from field and trek for just £22. It is one of the most used items of kit I have. I find Pertex to be a simply phenomenal product range, although I was highly dubious about jackets made from their Quantum material simply because they are so expensive. I then tried one on. I was amazed and it will now feature on my Christmas list. Mountain Hardware have their Ghost whisperer jacket, Salomon have their shell and Montane have theirs too… I’ll happily have any of them! J
Until recently I’ve struggled on the waterproof front. I think part of this is due to the suggestion that a waterproof will keep you dry – frankly it won’t. Thus it’s about the right balance between, weight, dryness, pack-ability, running specific features. I’ve used several running specific jackets including the OMM Kamleika, Berghaus Vapour Storm (free with the Dragon’s Back as pre commercial testers) and the Montane Minimus Smock. For me it’s all about the Minimus. Incredibly light (143g), astonishing overall dryness (the breathability/ waterproof trade off) and supreme pack-ability. The Minimus represents exceptional value for money, my only question is how durable it will be and given the summer we’ve just had I can’t tell just yet. Both the OMM and the Berghaus leave me wet underneath – in general as long as I am still moving they also leave me nice and warm, but if I’m shifting out there then they both get very clammy and the Minimus then beats them by a country mile. As running jackets go they are all good, well cut jackets – the Berghaus in particular as the cuffs are outstanding… they genuinely stay in place without fuss. The Minimus smock does have a porthole hood which I thought would be annoying without a cap, but I actually find it quite comforting and prefer to run as is rather than adding the cap. There’s nowt as queer as folk.
Trousers wise I’m not a big fan, I’m happy just getting my legs wet so I have gone for the lightest ones I could find – again, it’s the Montane Minimus (125g). They pack to nothing, have decent enough zips in the legs to put on in foul weather and they have well thought out Velcro straps to ensure they aren’t in your way. It does seem daft to spend so much money on something you never really intend to wear, but when I have been out and it’s been cold/ wet enough for them they have not let me down.
Hats: Very important piece of kit, but whilst running it’s all about warmth Vs packability. I use a Gore bike skull cap – yes I look ridiculous but this style of item hits the sweetspot for my criteria above.
Brands: My go to brands are:
- Primarily shoes, but their clothing and packs are generally very good, can experience construction issues, but their returns policy is excellent so you can buy with confidence… just leave the socks well alone as they last a week if you’re lucky
- Fast and light specialist. Whilst they are not cheap, pound for pound I see good value for money. The best down kit. Fact.
- Compression clothing, I just don’t rate their calf guards
- Outstanding jackets/ body covering and gloves
- Fast and light principles – cut for running
- Outstanding design – genuine innovators, but not just for the sake of it
- Outstanding aftersales/ guarentees
- The Apple of running gear – expensive but excellent design with the drawback of evangelical and sometime pious following (thankfully not as pious as Apple users)
- Not cheap, but excellent quality, beam and aftersales. Superb products. Can’t go wrong with their headtorches
- Impressive extras within the box, great lamps and top quality construction
- Again, not cheap but some very good gear and thus good value for money. Be selective, try it on and pick the winners – the hat for me is a no brainer for both cycling in winter and running.
- Mountain Hardware
- Generally very good kit, not so focused on running specific activity though
- My favourite hydration mechanism and some terrific, well thought out packs and race belts too
It’s easy to get hung up on the cost of the brands above and there are alternatives out there. I do believe that the brands above represent good – outstanding value for money though – you certainly get what you pay for in mountain/ running kit and spending once on the right piece of kit is better than spending several times on the wrong. If using for Ultras then the right kit is just essential. The difference in psychology at the start line when you see somebody with a pack twice the size of yours is huge. The wrong kit will rub and/ or niggle at best and contribute to injury at worst.
So that’s my list… what’s yours?