What to Carry for Hill, Trail and Fell Running

The hills and trails offer beautiful, scenic and exhilarating running. But as this often takes us to remote and exposed places, we need to be mindful of what to take with us – too little and we could get cold and hungry, too much and we'll be carrying a miserably heavy bag.

If you're getting into the sport from a road running background, please be aware of the safety requirements of running in mountain terrain. Try not to go alone, or if you do, make sure someone knows where you are running and when you expect to return. Plan your route carefully, and have a bad-weather-route lined up should conditions get rough. Even here in Britain, the mountains can and do claim the lives of unprepared walkers and runners - don't let it happen to you. Safety warning over ;) the hills and trails are very rewarding running ground, so read on, be prepared, enjoy the views and HAVE FUN!

Of course, having the correct kit is also essential for safety and comfort. The considerations are many, and the factors variable. Experience gained from running in the hills will help you over time to be more in tune with your own needs of what to take with you. This article is to help you make some of those choices and point you to some of the best kit out there to enjoy getting off road.

This article covers what to carry. You can find advice on what to wear here,
choosing trail running shoes here and choosing fell running shoes here.

Fuel

This obviously depends hugely on how far you are running, and then what to eat and drink is also very much a personal preference. Weather is also a factor - British Summer and Winter can vary 30 degrees or more (!) On a hot summer's day after running uphill you're going to be more thankful of a drink at the top as you enjoy the view ;) We still obviously need to drink in the colder months, but our needs can be less.

As a general rule a run of over an hour/hour 1/2 will probably be more enjoyable/you’ll get less tired if you have a drink with you. Once you get over 2 hours you certainly need to drink, plus to avoid 'bonking' you'd be wise to take on carbs and electrolytes in some form. Gels or chews are the most popular: they are easy to carry and are formulated to digest quickly into your system and provide energy quickly!

If you're out there for hours doing ultra marathon training then, depending on your metabolism and digestion, it's time to possibly be thinking of solid food. What our stomach can handle in 'solids' when we run will vary massively for all of us, so definitely experiment to find that balance of what you can digest okay on the move with what you can still run strongly on. For some of us it will be sports bars, dried fruit, bananas, fruit/choc cake or just extra gels or chews that we know work for us over shorter runs. It could be worth trying to include some protein if you're going very 'long and slow'.

To carry 'food' and drink with you the choices vary depending on your preference of wearing a rucksack or bumbag. Most running rucksacks will take a bladder which can allow up to 3 litres of liquid if you needed it, while you can choose bumbags with bottle holders of around 500 ml. Running vest backpacks have become the popular choice in recent years and are great as they can spread the load of liquid between your front and back. Generaly you have 2 bottle holders on the front with bladder capacity on the back.

Some runners will still prefer to carry a hand held bottle with any other clothing/rations in a bag. Essentially it’s whatever works for you – main thing is to have what you'll need with you if you don’t want to drink from the streams or get cold and hungry! When going to the hills it’s usually good to pack an extra gel / bar / chew / sandwich of choice as an emergency ration. Or if you are someone that just drinks when you run, take something with you as an emergency ration that you hopefully never need. The new soft bottles are also great for carrying water. As they ‘compress’ as you drink you don’t get the ‘sloshing’ sound you do with a regular bottle, plus once empty you can store them away easily.


Race Safety Kit List

If you enter a fell or trail race you’ll find that there are now stricter mandatory kit requirements than before. These kit lists have been drawn up with safety a priority so also give a good guide to the essential kit runners should take to the hills with.

Following are examples of items that you might be expected to carry with you as kit requirement for a race – and as such are sensible to adopt for training runs too. These items are especially relevant when heading to the hills on longer runs, but can be adjusted for length of run, weather, time of year etc.

  • Headtorch (such as Petzl)
  • Map and compass
  • Whistle
  • Emergency blanket
  • Waterproof Jacket and trousers (with taped seams and hood to comply with race kit lists)
  • Emergency rations
  • Spare thermal layer
  • Hat / cap / gloves

Rucksack or Waist Bag?

This is a decision that depends on how you would rather carry things when you are running – on your shoulders, or around your waist – then deciding what size you need to fit the items that you might need to carry. The more expensive bags offer extra compartments so you can divide your kit up, or pouches for water bottles. If you are going ‘fast and light’ in summer a waist bag is usually fine. The OMM Waist Pouch 3L is one of our most popular options, as there isn’t much to it weight-wise. If you prefer a waist bag with a bottle holder then the slightly larger OMM Ultra Waist Pouch, will allow you to carry water and most of the essential kit for a long run in the hills in reasonable weather. If you go for a bum bag without a bottle holder you can pack a bottle into it, but consider if you'll be happy unzipping it every time you want a drink.

Backpacks start with very small storage/large liquid options in Camelbaks, such as the Camelbak Hydrobak, or there is an excellent range of OMM backpacks that range from 8L up to 32L. If you don’t want to carry too much then keeping it under 15L should be fine. However all of the OMM range have compression straps to ‘squish’ the bag in when it’s not full. So if you only want one rucksack and would sometimes have use for say 20L, you can compress it with 10L or so inside and still have a nice stable load.

The latest inovation in distance running packs is a ‘vest’. These marvelous pieces of kit have been developed by some of the top ultra distance trail runners on the planet and are now used throughout the field in many ultra races, as well as being even more valuable in training when you have don’t have an awesome crew as back-up to keep you fed and watered. The beauty of them is their ability to carry bottles and other essentials such as nutrition / map / gloves / GPS on your front, allowing instant access and saving you considerably on time. Carrying water on your chest distributes the weight of your load as well. The Ultimate Direction packs are one of the market leaders and come in 2 popular sizes depending on how much you need to carry. Over the last year vests have improved again and now all come supplied with soft bottles. This is a BIG step forward in comfort!

Distance and weather obviously play a factor in the size of bag you might need for the day. Shorter sunny runs chances are you'll be fine with a waist bag, longer winter run when more kit is involved and a rucksack becomes more useful.

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  • ElleDecember 14, 2015 at 4:30pm
    It's also a good idea to carry a bothy! I've been caught out a few times where I live in the Cairngorms and they're really nice to get inside and wait out a storm whilst being minimal in weight. They are also a godsend if you happen to trip and gash your leg...bandaging it up whilst sitting inside a shelter was much more fun than on the snow outside! On this note, carrying a basic first aid kit is a must, even if this is just a few extra large first aid/sterile dressings to cover any eventuality. Knowledge of how to apply them and when to start thinking of calling for help is advisable to learn. Reply
    • ShyamalaDecember 19, 2015 at 11:31am

      Thanks for your wisdom Elle, and lucky you having the Cairngorms out your back door!
      Indeed - if you are out there running in mountainous places then the 'weight' of carrying an emergency shelter (rather than blanket) can be negligable. When we are running our body temperature can drop considerably if we have to stop unexpectedly so you'll be super chuffed with yourself for having carried that shelter if you ever need to use it!
      Interesting timing you posting this as I also took quite a tumble out running on the trails this week and was very happy one of my running buddies had a simple first aid kit in their pocket. Yes: stuffed in a pocket!! Shows how easy it is to carry the basics and how appreciated it is on the rare occasions it needs to be used. I certainly hold my hand up to not always taking anything with me, but when you get a reminder you realise how little effort is needed to take a little extra care and be safe :-)
      Amendment to this blog to come now, so thank you to Elle for her contribution!

      Reply
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