A Guide To Race Kit For Utter Beginners
After receiving some emailed questions about kit before an upcoming race (Tinto, I believe), I started to keep lumps of text that I then used to respond to other people asking the same questions. That rolled into this, an entire webpage containing lumps of text. It is meant as some general advice, and ultimately your guide is the SHR Safety Guidelines here. Have a read of these documents and understand what they say – they are intended to explain what your personal responsibilities are in a hill race where the race organiser cannot realistically manage YOUR safety in what is, after all, a risk sport. Everything after this image of cold runners is just an opinion of a single person, me, not the club, it is entirely subjective – ultimately your safety is up to you.
In the beginning, there wasn’t much call for kit in hill races. A vest, skimpy shorts and a full beard were the only requirements. Since then, over the years, there has been greater focus on mandatory kit following a small number of tragedies in UK hill races over the past few decades (i.e. very rare but not to be ignored!). There’s no real point going over what changed and when, the most important one was fairly recently around 2014 (I think) when the standard mandatory race kit for Carnethy races changed from “full windproof” to “full waterproof” body cover. Your waterproof jacket must also have an attached hood. Plus map, compass, whistle, hat, gloves and occasionally food and fluids. Other races have also moved onto similar requirements as a standard, it seems to be more common these days. One important point with mandatory kit is that it is not the race organiser/director’s job to ensure that you have the kit you may need personally or to define the quality and suitability of your kit – it’s your job, as a minimum it needs to include the mandatory kit, and you need to make sure it’s sufficient for you and the race you are about to undertake.
There are a couple of caveats to the idea that you are entirely responsible for your kit:
- The race organiser/director may still reject your kit if it is obviously unsuitable. Missing items, or just items that are clearly not fit for the job, can be rejected. The easiest way to avoid that is to get decent quality gear – which is ideal, because decent quality gear is a great way to ensure your own safety!
- The race organiser/director can add items to the minimum mandatory kit list AT ANY TIME. It’s rare, but with worsening weather they may add extra items for warmth. The Carnethy 5 race did that in 2016, but if you’d seen the weather conditions, you would have already packed that extra gear without any prompting from the race director.
- Don’t abuse the race officials just because you don’t agree with them! They are volunteers, they are trying to keep people safe, and you are not helping anyone by arguing. The bottom line is that your opinion doesn’t matter, and theirs does. It’s a golden opportunity to set yourself right, or maybe even offer to help the organiser seeing as you won’t be doing the race.
Also, it’s a minimum kit, you still need to think of anything else that you may need to make sure that you are safe. Ultimately, you need to watch out for yourself, and make sure the gear that you have is the gear that suits you. Kit checks are not a challenge for you to find the bare minimum, or shoddiest kit, that will scrape through a kit check.
So…here are some words that I have thrown together on the subject. Again, just opinion, m’lud.
When I joined Carnethy (2009), the requirements for body cover were: full windproof body cover, which would typically be a Pertex jacket (very light but only rain resistant) and some lightweight showerproof overtrousers (plus hat and gloves). Occasionally, if the weather was bad, races would require waterproof body cover – this was a pain because waterproof clothing tended to be bulkier and heavier than the windproof gear. The extra weight and bulk made your bumbag uncomfortable, and you’d maybe even need to get a bigger bumbag! In recent times, however, with modern fabrics becoming better and better, this is no longer true, and you can buy waterproof jackets that are as light (if not lighter) than the old Pertex ones. In fact, I’ve not carried my windproof for a number of years on a training run, I personally don’t see any reason to take it with me compared to a waterproof.
Another thing to note is that lightweight running waterproofs are probably closer to polythene carrier bags than they are to actual clothing. They are the thinnest material ever, and offers little if anything thermally. Cold waterproofs against clammy bare skin is very cold indeed, so you should consider if you need to wear/carry something that will keep the waterproof material off your skin, should you ever need to stop.
You need to find waterproof clothing. Anything that says water RESISTANT is simply not suitable. Other words to be wary of are: showerproof, water repellent, or snowproof(?). Typically, if a jacket is waterproof the manufacturer will want to shout about it, so if they don’t explicitly say it, it probably isn’t. Clothing with taped seams is the usual giveaway, but some manufacturers may have got round this, ultimately it’s best to check to make sure. Your jacket needs to have a hood, as the hood is important – having a waterproof hat DOES NOT REPLACE THE NEED FOR A HOOD!
Pertex is a classic running jacket material, it’s windproof, but it IS NOT waterproof.
Packable and Wearable
You’ll need to be able to carry your gear. Ideally you want waterproof clothing that is easy to cram into your bag, and sits neatly in whatever bag you’re using. That wax jacket you have will undoubtedly be great in bad weather, but it is not so great when you try and squeeze it into your bumbag. Looking online is a good place to start researching what is suitable clothing, and a lot of manufacturers have hill/trail running in mind when they create their clothes and will advertise their gear accordingly. A lot of jackets and trousers are packable into their own little bag, or can be compacted into one of their own pockets (forming a neat wee bag), which is perfect – I would recommend either of these, as it makes them much more manageable, but they are not essential. Some jackets and trousers advertise themselves as “packable”, but they may not come with a wee bag or cram into their own pocket, it just means that you can crumple them up, which is true of just about anything.
That’s not all, you need to make sure that it fits you. Can you zip up your jacket, with your hood up, and still run or walk? Bear in mind that you may have on a variable number of layers underneath the jacket, so maybe not too snug. Features such as “breathable” are something else you may want to look out for, but most of the waterproof running jackets that you’ll be looking at will make some claim about that. There are many online guides about this, or even ask in running or outdoor shops (our race sponsors are GREAT!) do have a look, but ultimately make sure it’s waterproof.
This is an easy one: don’t wear that cotton t-shirt to run in! Cotton is massively absorbent, and when you sweat it’ll get absorbed, stay wet against your skin, lose all its insulating properties, and drag every degree of heat out of your body – it’s genuinely dangerous. A quick search for the phrase “cotton kills” online will explain enough. You want technical clothing that’s suited to the job, specifically “wicking” materials. You’ll find that these can be very cheap, so it’s not a hardship.
This may not be explicitly against the rules, but I would strongly, strongly, strongly advise against headphones. Hearing is important for safety, that’s why we carry whistles! The ability for the people around you to be able to communicate with you is absolutely essential. Being able to hear “watch out!”, “coming through”, and “help!” is necessary to keep us all safe. This is true in training too. Removing an entire sense whilst you’re running is, in my mind, bonkers!
A hat and gloves – easy, right? If you get really cold fingers you may want to consider ski gloves. Knitted wool and cotton hats are not great when running – in addition to absorbency and heat loss cited above, they tend to get baggy, heavy and slip down over your eyes in the rain. Running-specific hats are great, and a good place to start.
Some runners like baseball caps to run in, to keep the rain and sun out of their eyes, but that’s something for you to decide. Whilst it may constitute a “hat” for the kit check, I would consider carrying a beanie-style hat that can cover your ears, mainly for warmth should you ever need to stop.
Do not buy gloves with a magnetic clasp. When you try to navigate with a compass, you’ll understand why.
You need a compass, a proper one. Not that one that came in a cracker, not one that’s built-in to a whistle, a proper compass that consistently points north and has numbered bearings that you can read without your glasses. Ideally a “map compass” also called an “orienteering” compass, other types are available such as a thumb compass, but most people have the standard map compass. Make sure that it works! Walk around in circles, is it consistent? Is it STILL consistent after all these years? Be aware that you should try to NOT store your compass next to your mobile phone in your bag, as most mobile phones have magnets in them. On that note, be aware that GPS watches also have a magnetic field, so be aware of that when taking readings on your compass – use your other hand!
Your watch may have a compass, but most would/should reject that during a kit check. In my opinion, anything that can run out of batteries isn’t a great idea. Also, a compass weighs around 30g, so just stick it in your bag.
But…can you use a compass? That’s another question.
So, for all races, you need to take a map that you can use to navigate if you need to. A map. Not the maps on your mobile phone, I don’t care if you’ve downloaded the best OS software for it, you need a physical map with contours that you can hold in your hands and place a compass on.
I’m not going to tell you how to use a map. That’s down to you, I’m afraid. It’s a skill, and you need to try to learn. Even for short races, you still need to take a map and compass just in case. Even in good weather you can get disorientated, or you get injured, and you need to find your way to a safe point. When the clag comes down, I’ve found myself completely disorientated in places I know very well, so it’s good to have a compass and map to go in the right direction, and also to know in which direction to go! Running off a summit in the wrong direction is a common problem that has caught out everyone!
So, maps, for what it’s worth, here is what I do:
- If I know the hill and the area, I’ll print out a map from the race website (or Scottish Hill Racing if there is no race website). It’ll probably be the bare minimum requirement for the race kit check, additionally it’ll also show the route on it.
- Any area that I’m unfamiliar with, or requires better navigation, or just really long, then I would consider taking additional maps, normally printouts from Ordnance Survey site. Something that shows other features I can use to navigate, or safe places to aim for. Still take the race map though, as it has the route and may have checkpoints and bailout points on it.
- You need to keep the map waterproof. Even if it’s a dry day, your sweat is wet, and printouts dissolve easily. So, ideally use a sealed map pouch, but I sometimes use a medium-sized ziplock sandwich/food bag, or rarer still a polypocket: you want to be able to see the map, and navigate, without getting it wet!
- The gold standard for any hill run is an fold-up Ordnance Survey Map, as printed by them, or perhaps a Harveys Map of the race. This is ideal for a long journey run, but may be a bit bulky for race conditions. You should still take a race map if there is one, as that’ll have a route on it.
If you can’t use a map and compass with confidence, you should not be racing where those skills are needed. Building confidence is easy though, all you need to do is use a map and compass more!
A whistle: loud, an “emergency whistle” from an outdoors shop is great, or a referee’s whistle. I attach my whistle to the string of my compass, just to keep them together and so I don’t lose the whistle. Some rucksacks and bags have built-in whistles, and these can be used for kit check. However, I personally find that having a whistle that is not permanently attached to your bag to be a better idea, and for the sake of 20g of weight it’s not a big deal to carry one even if my bag has one.
Oddly, these don’t feature in the mandatory kit. However, if you’re not wearing fellrunning-specific trainers you are probably doing something wrong. When time began, everyone had a pair of Walsh fellrunning shoes, but now other manufacturers are getting in on the fellrunning scene. As with road running shoes, go to a proper running shop and ask the staff. They will be able to help get the right size for you, and maybe offer some help with the right shoe. In Edinburgh, Run4It and Run & Become both have staff that can help, and are excellent places to start.
What about hot weather?
It’s a hot day, clear for miles, no rain forecast until next week, do you really need to take waterproofs? Yes! Unless the organiser explicitly says that certain items are not mandatory, then assume that you’ll need your full kit. It’s not your decision, so don’t bother arguing about it either! The temperature on the summits may be a lot colder, and the weather worse, so don’t assume it’ll be just as nice as it is at the start.
Additionally, warm and hot weather actually sees more casualties than you may think – people are surprised by heat more than they are by cold! In Scotland, hot weather is very hard to train for. You’ll sweat, losing water and salts, and that’s usually pretty bad. Overheating, sunburn, dehydration, heat cramps, chaffing, swelling feet, blisters – hell, you may find yourself carrying a heavier pack in summer than in winter.
So, ideally I would get a thin hat with a brim, baseball cap style or perhaps a jungle hat thingy, keep the sun out of your eyes. It’s also very handy to dip in a stream if getting really warm. Suncream, and I lube-up the bits of skin where my bumbag sits, as there’ll be less clothing between me and the straps. In fact, the dried salt from sweaty skin chafes more than just wet skin, so I lube-up the bits of skin that occasionally make contact (inner thighs and underarms for me). I normally take water, perhaps fluid with some electrolytes – some people may be carrying less water than you, and it feels heavy on your back, but try not to let either of these sway your own judgement. Check the race details and map to see where the water stops are, if any, and streams to cool off.
It’s not clever to drink large quantities of water before you race on a hot day. You’ll be depleting your body electrolyte concentration before you even start sweating. This can lead to early collapse. It has happened.
It’s hard to gauge, and we’re all different…and you’ll still burn, you’ll overheat, we all do at some point!
Dehydration and Hypothermia
These are two things that you need to watch out for, and watch out for in others. Of course, there are many other things to watch out for, but these two are pretty common if you’re outside sweating and/or freezing. So, have a look online for the symptoms (hiking and running sites are good sources of information), and try to familiarise yourself with what to look for. I’ve recognised early symptoms of Hypothermia in myself (Slioch Race in 2012 – what a year that was!), and it’s pretty creepy thinking back about it. So, on your next lunch break, have a look online and learn!
This is where it gets complicated. Back in the day, bumbags were the only choice for your aspiring fellrunner. Now, advances in lightweight, minimalist backpacks and race vests have changed the scene a bit. There are many different sizes and shape of bumbag, backpack and race vest. As long as it holds all your gear and food, that’s the main thing. So…have an idea of what you want to put in your bag before thinking about that bag for you! Also, the mandatory kit is “carried or worn”, so in some cases you may not even need a bag!
Be aware that:
- Bumbags can be a bit uncomfortable, especially as you add more weight and if they have a thin strap. They are good for shorter races, especially those where you don’t need to carry water. They also tend to be cheaper than backpacks and race vests.
- Race backpacks are more comfortable, some people find, and usually have pockets on their straps for easy access to food/water. They are better at carrying more stuff, obviously. They can chafe a bit if you’re just wearing a vest, and can also make your back a bit hot. Oh, and they tend to be a bit pricier.
- Race Vests and some light backpacks are quite similar. Race vests don’t tend to have a great deal of storage, but its light construction and easy-access pockets make it ideal for many races and situations. These are currently the most expensive of the three.
Putting it all together…
This is all very good, but these few words and then “go and look for yourself” isn’t the most helpful. All I can offer is what I’d take. So, here is my kit for a short-ish hill race in good weather, and is suitable for me. i.e. This is my absolute minimum kit. I offer no guarantees about its suitability for you, it’s just what I have. As the distance gets longer, I’ll add more food and anything else I think I may need such as water. The more I need to carry, the more likely I’ll be to change to a small running rucksack. As you run more in the hills and races, you’ll discover what you need on a race.
This is what I carry in my bumbag:
So, details, with prices that I paid at the time, for reference:
|Bumbag||OMM Waist Pouch 3||£25|
|Waterproof Jacket||Montane Minimus Jacket||£100 (in sales)|
|Waterproof Trousers||Mountain Warehouse W/proof overtrousers||£10|
|Hat and Gloves||Karrimor Running Hat/Gloves||£3 & £5|
|Compass||Silva.||£5 (in 2012)|
|Whistle||No idea (possibly the football shop on Lothian Road)||£2|
|Map||Printed at home, kept in a polypocket||Free-ish|
|Vest||Carnethy (what else?)||£19 from Run & Become|
|Socks||More Mile Trail socks||£3|
|Shoes||Inov-8 Mudclaw 300||£90 (I think)|
After a race, you’ll get very cold very quickly, even on quite warm days. I’ll usually take a bag with a change of top at the very least. In most races your car will be nearby, which is good for storage, in others like the Carnethy 5 you might want to take a bag to store somewhere near the end (don’t keep any valuables in it, just in case). Within your bag, put it all in a poly bag to keep the clothes dry even if it rains. You can re-use your running waterproofs for waterproofing yourself after the race.
|Tracksuit bottoms||Or jeans, just something to cover your legs, keep your car seat clean!||£??|
|Hoodie||Carnethy (what else?)||£15|
|Socks/Trainers (occasionally)||Whatever you want, chances are the finish field will still be wet and muddy, so I usually keep trainers in the car.||£??|
These are not asked for at our races, but I had notes on them anyway…
GPS watch tracking
Utterly unessential (that weight might even slow you down!), but it’s quite rewarding to see your run afterwards. Also, Strava and apps like that are great for replaying the race in your mind. The only thing I’d say about this is that you should probably get a dedicated watch for it. Using your smartphone to track your run is all well and good, but running-down the battery on one of your means of signalling help is…well, not particularly wise.
There was a time when running with Carnethy it was frowned upon to wear a headtorch. “Your eyes adjust”, they said. That’s partially true, but as soon as one person wears a headtorch, it then essentially renders everyone else blind. Nowadays, everyone wears a headtorch after dark. Some have dull headtorches, as they prefer a subtle light that helps with depth perception. Others prefer atomic-bomb powered light cannons, that will melt the tarmac as you run. The only tips I would give are:
- Get one that’s intended for outdoor use. It sometimes rains in Scotland, you know.
- Is it rechargeable? This is quite handy and saves some money. Or get a battery charger and rechargeable batteries.
- Can you put “normal” batteries in, in an emergency? It’s wise to carry spare batteries, btw. Some overnight races require you to carry backup batteries.
- Can you vary the beam? The light you need can change, notably as you run from open areas to wooded areas. Also, you can turn the intensity down to preserve battery.
- Headtorches can be quite front-heavy, as the front unit carries the batteries and bulb. You could go for a headtorch with a rear-battery to spread some of the load.
- If it isn’t comfy, wear a hat. Obvious, I know.
There is also the option of carrying a headtorch if you need it, but not using it so that your eyes adjust if there’s enough light up there already. There’s more to see outside of that narrow beam, and the stars seem all the more bright!
Everything on this page is meant as some general advice, taken from my own view, it is not the opinion of the club, and I don’t accept any responsibility for that advice being incorrect for you.
Your safety is your own responsibility! Don’t flout the race rules. That’s a danger to you, a danger to others who might need your help, and it’s CHEATING. Ultimately, it’s very easy just to get the right gear and have a think about what you’re doing – it makes the race safer, you’ll have a better time, and everyone goes home happy! See, easy!