Take a look at what Steezer Kitty packs for ultra-distance races. A newcomer to the sport, she's still learning but would love to share some thoughts with you!
I’m by no means an experienced ultra cyclist. I’ve scratched from one race and finished another on the day of the cut-off. But, I’ve learnt a lot from my mistakes. Equally, I’m lucky enough to be working at DotWatcher, the home of ultra-distance cycling, every day I look at racers’ equipment and read about their journeys. Often, I can glean tidbits from why people have scratched or why people have won by looking at what they packed. I’ll never forget one race where the leaders, who were some incredibly fast and celebrated ultra-cyclists, had to scratch. They were caught by a freak (and I mean freak – hail and winds of over 50mph) storm without anything for shelter. This meant that those that were a little more packed up were able to shelter through the night in raincoats and sleep in waterproof bivvy bags. Packing light is always a gamble and I err on the side of caution because, at the end of the day, being safe is more important than winning a race to me.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide, it’s just what I pack; everyone’s setup is different and personal depending on your needs. What I want to explore is what I pack, as a relative newcomer to ultras who has no illusion of being at the pointy end. I pack using different priorities, which hopefully, I cover below!
Then the last overarching priority I have is keeping it light. I’m not one to leave something that I need just to save a few grams, but definitely, all those little extra things can add up over a long period of time over a lot of elevation. For example, if I use a windproof that has sleeves and packs down to just slightly bigger than my gilet it might be better than packing up a gilet and arm warmers because, let’s face it, if I’m cold enough to pop on some arm warmers I’ll be fine with a lightweight windproof.
Safety – being out in exposed places for long periods comes with inherent risk. One minute you could be at the foot of a climb in the sunshine with pleasant winds and weather. Reach the top and you’re descending in winds, fog, rain, you name it. Making sure that if I had to sit at the top of that hill for 5 hours whilst it passes is important; Exposure comes on quick and sneaks up on people!
What I pack for safety:
- Emergency bivvy – I would go for this over a blanket as getting into something is so much warmer than being wrapped up.
- Whistle – in case I need to get attention in an emergency! You can pick up super-teeny ones at ultralight camping stores but I cut mine off a backpack clip that broke.
- A couple of chlorine tabs – you never know when you could run out of water and they’re very minuscule.
- First aid kit – I made sure I assessed my potential needs and packed them into a very small credit card size ziplock bag. I went for a few plasters, some blister plasters, ibuprofen (my chosen pain reliever but make sure you know your drug allergies!!) and some antihistamines. Also, I popped in some sterile wipes and some mepore tape.
- Knife – this can be attached to a multitool or a small swiss army knife, mine is on a swiss army knife that lost its plastic sides (inadvertent ultralight).
Bike mechanics -I’m reasonably comfortable repairing my bike and always make sure to take niche parts that I might need and can’t buy like a mech hanger.
What I pack for mechanicals:
- Gear Cable
- Small lube
- Quick link
- 2x spare tubes
- Tubeless plugs
- Tyre boot x 2
- Puncture repair kit
- Tyre levers
- Leatherman multitool – for the plier and screwdriver as well as a nice knife perfect for cutting off cable ties etc.
- Valve extender (I’ve got a deep rear rim and often find it a nightmare finding long valved 30mm tubes)
- Spare mech hanger
- Cleat bolts
- Pump – I wrap a few lengths of electrical tape around this so I can use some later if needed.
- Cable ties – these can be used in so many circumstances. I take a selection of each size and a few of each, I used mine recently to replace a pack strap that snapped. I also use them to add a layer of security to my lights so my sleepy brain doesn’t leave them on the ground.
Warmth – riding from 4 am to 11 pm (or even later!) can see a huge range in temperatures. Unless I’m riding in extreme conditions, I start with short sleeve jersey and shorts with some lightweight socks to build up or down in a layering system! Also, riding higher climbs can create different microclimates and descents can get a bit nippy so I like to make sure I can change between without needing to get completely nude.
What I pack for warmth:
- Leg warmers or knee warmers – can turn shorts into long bibs and take up very little room.
- Windshell – a small windshell, especially with a breathable back, takes the spot of a gilet and arm warmers. Going on a windy descent? I use my windshell. A little chilly but still sweating? I use my windshell.
- Long finger gloves – mine are quite compact and slightly water-resistant, just something to warm me up when your fingers get caught out in the wind or early cold.
- Snood – this closes off gaps and keeps my heat shedding carotid arteries warm. A gamechanger when it starts to cool off.
- Mid-layer – this is great for early mornings and late nights but especially useful for sleeping in or when I stop for snacks.
- Compressable down jacket – these aren’t cheap bits of kit but I don’t regret it. It keeps me incredibly warm at night and in extremis, I wear them whilst riding. (If you’re looking for a vegan option there are synthetic ones out there.)
- Rain jacket – this one is a must for me, I never leave for any ride without one, let alone an ultra. A packable rain jacket that can be layered with the mid-layer or even the down jacket keeps me warm in pretty much any scenario that a summer-season ultra could throw at me.
Fuelling – This is something I struggle with! I made the mistake at All Points North of packing a tonne (I reckon genuinely about a kilo) of cycling-specific/outdoor nutrition. I immediately got what I later learnt was palette fatigue, I couldn’t stomach them and all I wanted was something salty and fatty. I now pack a range of snacks but also know where to stop. I try to plan to get enough food to emulate about 5 meals a day, even if it’s spread out as snacks.
What I pack for fuel:
- 750ml-1000ml fresh water – I put this in my hydration vest which also doubles as a snack storage device.
- 500ml-750ml isotonic water – replenish salts! There’s nothing better than getting a sip of salty-sweet water when I’m feeling dehydrated.
- Sweets – about a day’s worth, I usually get Haribo’s!
- Savouries – I like to get something easy to eat like a soft bread sandwich or savoury pastries.
Sleeping – This is relatively simple, I never plan on exclusively using hotels/accommodation, so I do have to take a sleep system. But, even if I wasn’t going to touch it I think I might still take it. I have to say, a sleep system is the one place where budget-friendly options are hard to come by! If you’re struggling to find something try second-hand markets, a gear library or posting on the gram.
What I pack for my sleep system:
- Lightweight sleeping bag – I go for something light and compact, but don’t go too far and cut out the warmth benefit, I like to make sure my sleeping bag at least covers the predicted coldest temperature! Getting some sleep is more important to me than a few grams.
- Lightweight mat – here is where I take the chance to cut some space, contradicting the above! Sleep is important but a hulking winter mat is really hard to pack and does add a lot of bulk. I picked an ultralight mat, but I learnt the hard way these can be delicate.
- Bivvy bag – This is crucial for my night’s sleep. On the first night of a race I recently did it rained, it wasn’t bad, but if I hadn’t had a bivvy bag it would’ve scuppered my outside sleeping for the whole trip.
- Pillow -This seems super bougie, but, I don’t sleep properly without one. Mine goes smaller than a pair of socks and it just makes all the difference.
- Running Shorts – a pair of summer runnings shorts are tiny but ideal for me to sleep in. They offer my bum a rest from sweaty bibs and they prevent me from worrying about being moved on whilst completely starkers.
Electronics – I’m sure a lot of readers will see my lights and charging capacity as overkill. However, on the last day of a race, phone wouldn’t charge overnight and I was scuppered. I’d bought a cable from a phone shop and they’d assured me it was the best thing since sliced bread (spoiler it wasn’t). Having a portable charger and being able to pick up a cable saved me! It meant I had my route, places to stop, an emergency lifeline and so on. Equally, I like to take a lot of lights! My dynamo is great, but descending at 40km/h in a forest I struggle to see with just that.
What I pack for electronics:
- Bike Computer – mine has a really good battery life and can map quickly. It also stores 200km rides which is a perk.
- Phone – I make sure to have a good screen protector!
- Main light – my dynamo paired with a 1000 lumen light.
- Backup light – this is around 500 lumens but also has a flash mode if I need it.
- Rear light – mine is super long-lasting, I just clip it on and forget about it.
- Auxillary lights – I’ve got a small clip-on set on my packs, one set on my vest and a set on my helmet. All superlightweight but keep me seen!
- Cables – I take an iPhone cable, 3 micro-USB and a light charger. I need the micro-USB for my lights and my computer as well as the portable charger itself.
- Portable charger – I took a 20000mAh and around 10000mAh but how now invested in one that’s about the same size. It seems overkill, but races are won and lost based on charged lights and GPS units. With many race organisers opting to have a mobile as a safety net, I try to make sure it is charged at all times. I once left a portable charger charging my phone overnight, it, and the phone, lost power in the cold and both were dead in the morning. I never charge overnight now!
- A watch – I like to take a Casio battery-powered watch so that if all else fails, I can tell the time!
Hygiene – bad hygiene can be the difference between scratching and not scratching. A bad saddle sore was race-ending when I did APN. Equally, staying damp for days on end is miserable and bad feet are just absolutely miserable when doing those early morning miles.
What I pack for hygiene:
- Toothbrush and toothpaste – can also be employed to make me feel more awake!
- Tiny soap – there are a couple of outdoor companies that do all-in-one soaps no bigger than a packet of tic-tacs, perfect for washing me and my kit. However, I just used some from the hotel!
- Spare shorts – I learnt, after APN, from the wonderful Emily Chappell that the best technique is to wash your worn pair and dry them overnight and throughout the day on the back of your saddle pack.
- Spare socks – just one pair of light socks in case my feet get soaking wet.
- A tiny towel – I’m not talking beach towel, my smallest towel comes in around the size of a tea towel but packs down to about the size of a golf ball or smaller, I opted for a bigger one when planning on staying at campsites that packed to around the size of some socks. Perfect to dab myself dry after a camp shower or to dry off after a rainstorm.
- Baby wipes – Mainly for use on my bum but there are lots of uses. It is also great if any gels burst or your spill anything anywhere. I avoid over-fragranced ones as this can be irritating for me.
With all the above, I wouldn’t want you to believe I don’t wear anything for the race! Depending on the start time and the weather I add bits from my warm kit.
- Jersey – short sleeve or long sleeve, my preference is short and I can layer to warm it up.
- Shorts – my most comfortable and tested pair!
- Socks – I have a really specific brand and style that I like, whenever they’re available I buy a few pairs.
- Road cycling shoes – I wear some leather ones (again there are vegan options) but these are great for staying comfortable and not rubbing.
- Sunglasses – I wish I had transition lenses. They’re great for riding with them at all times. I had sunglasses on at my last race, I took them off at dusk but was greeted with an eyeball full of midges.
- Helmet – I put lights on mine just to jazz it up.
- Base layer – I’m just always in the habit of wearing one. Sweat-wicking and, in the awful scenario of a crash, it might save some of my skin.
- Fingerless gloves – sometimes I wear them sometimes not. It’s a balance for me between road buzz and the seams getting annoying.
- Sports bra – I wear the same one the whole time, no judgement
What I don’t pack!
This one is probably a more useful section. I often worry if I leave something at home it might be the one time I desperately need it, I’ve had to have a word with myself and leave those triple socks or a flint. I’m a serial over-packer, but over time I’ve learnt that a few things aren’t required.
Spare clothes – I’m racing, no one is around to smell me and if they are, they’re too close! The only exception I make is spare bibs and spare socks as mentioned above. Everything else can also be washed if I’m in a hotel or campsite with a towel: just using soap, rinsing and then rolling it up in the towels and tread on it!
Shoes – my bike shoes stand up to a few metres of walking, but carrying around a pair of shoes is bulky and I find them hard to shove anywhere. Also, they’re always the items that people tend to lose! If I were to do a point to point, I think I might just pick up some flip flops at the final destination.
Casual clothing – leg warmers are perfect, I feel like an 80s fitness instructor, small and even though I might look a bit silly, they work to keep your legs warm. My down jacket can look smart and casual on any good day, #fashion. I sleep in a mid-layer, it keeps me warm and dries off anything that is left from a day’s riding but then I can pop it on at the start, finish and at any stops.
Stove – the idea of a hot morning brew may seem enticing, however, stoves are rigid and often bulky! They can take up precious space in your packs and also suck time. If I’m waiting 15 minutes for a morning coffee when the service station coffees are done in seconds during a food haul, it’s not worth it.
Tent – unless I had an incredibly ultralight tent, or was in a pair with an ultralight tent, I feel like I’m limiting my options to stealth camp and taking unnecessary weight. The only time I would take a tent was an interesting scenario mentioned by the ultra-incredible Jade Field: if it is really, extremely, unconscionably midge-ridden.
Another note, where do I pack things?
Two things are important when I choose where to pack things, the first is the density of the items and the second is accessibility. If something is tiny and heavy (like a multi-tool) I find it fits best in the frame so it’s beneath my centre of gravity and will fit in those small packs. If something is big and fluffy (say a sleeping bag) I like to put it in a bar bag so it takes up space but doesn’t affect my handling.
Accessibility – when I need something once a day, like my sleep stuff, I don’t need to access it on the bike so pop it in the bar or saddle packs. If it’s something I need often, like a windproof or my many snacks, I store them in a top tube pack or frame bag so they can be reached on the go!
No! As I race, I’ll refine your packing system. I’ll shed things, I’ll add things I never realised I couldn’t live without. This isn’t a guide, it’s just what I pack but if you find it useful, give us some love. If you need anything else or, have your suggestions then please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a DM on Instagram!
N.B. I’ve avoided naming specific brands, I’m not paid to write these and I don’t want to lead anyone to a certain brand. If you’d like any recommendations please hit up Steezy or even check out some useful youtube reviews!
Pic by India Landy!