How Not to Pack a Drop Bag

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It seems to me that ultrarunners pack all of their insecurities into a drop bag. Running really long distances through rugged terrain at all hours of the day can be daunting, and as such, drop bags can get unwieldy. It’s easy to forget that all bags must be transported and carried by volunteers. Many times, aid stations aren’t on the road, which means all your gear has to be lugged in on foot to the exact place that you’ll need it. So keeping your drop bags to a reasonable size is imperative (by airplane standards, they should be able to fit comfortably under the seat in front of you).

Keeping contents to a minimum will also benefit you on race day. You’ll have a much easier time finding what you need when your brain gets foggy and mundane tasks become anything but simple. It may seem like a good idea to have lots of options for jackets, hats, shoes and food, but that just makes things more complicated by wasting mental energy. Volunteers will also be able to assist you better if they don’t have to wade through a mountain of stuff just to find a specific gel flavor. Plus, you’ll minimize your risk of losing personal items by just packing the necessities. There are several commercial bags you can buy, but my favorite is a gallon zip lock bag – it’s clear and weather resistant, all for a great price (splurge for the ones with the “zipper” device).

So now that we’ve established a minimalist mentality, what are the bare essentials for race day? I like to think there are three main categories: food, clothing and gear for specific conditions. Medical supplies are usually stocked at aid stations, so there is no need to double up. If you do have a medication that is critical, I recommend keeping it on you at all times or giving the responsibility to a specific crew member rather than putting it in your drop bag.

When it comes to food, the easiest thing to do is rely on aid stations. Find out what type of gels and drink mix the race will have on hand and experiment with those during training. If they work for you, then there’s no need to pack extra for race day. If you do have specific needs, calculate your worst case scenario for how much food you’ll need to get to your next drop bag or crewed aid station. Some people prefer specific food at aid stations like burritos and sandwiches, but leave these for your crew to manage – those bags could be sitting in the hot sun all day.

Keep clothing to a minimum. You won’t need a new shirt at every aid station. The main reason for putting clothing in drop bags is changing weather conditions – most commonly, the decrease in temperature or threat of precipitation, and need for extra layers at night. A beanie, light jacket and a pair of gloves is often enough to keep you covered. When it comes to shoes, people are a bit overzealous to change their footwear mid-race. In 80+ ultras, I have only changed shoes three times. Two of those times were during particularly long road races (Spartathlon and Badwater) when I needed to change up the pressure points from the repetitive cadence. The other time was when it took me 29 hours to finish Western States and I changed out of my wet shoes because I was moving so slowly I got chilled. Most of the time, I don’t want to know what is going on with my feet until the race is over. New shoes feel nice, but only for a few minutes. Mostly, I think people like an excuse to sit for a bit. If you still feel the need to routinely change shoes in an ultra, leave that to your crew and keep the shoes out of your drop bags.

When it comes to gear, always make sure to bring a light or headlamp well ahead of when it will be getting dark. Depending on crew access, sometimes it makes more sense to have your light in a drop bag. And because of the critical need for light in the wilderness after dark, this is one place where I encourage planning for “just in case.” Specifically, put spare batteries or even an extra light in a middle-of-the-night drop bag. Other gear would include sunglasses or trekking poles which you might need at a specific time or place that doesn’t coincide with a crew stop. It’s also best not to put valuables such as an iPod or GPS watch in your drop bag.

Once you have decided on what you need, it is time to pack. Liza Howard suggests dividing your items into smaller compartments, like zipper-close sandwich baggies, so that things are easier to find. Once your bag is packed, make sure it closes securely so nothing falls out. By far, the most important part of packing is labeling your bag. They are organized by number at aid stations so at the very minimum, you need to put your bib number on your bag. I also always put my name and the intended aid station on my bag, too. Use a permanent marker and either write directly on the bag or on sticky tape that won’t fall off. And even if you’ve packed your stuff in a cute My Little Pony bag, please don’t run into an aid station describing what it looks like—just give volunteers your bib number to expedite the process.

Hopefully, after reading this article you will have well-packed and clearly labeled drop bags so that you can avoid a Drop Bag Disaster.

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About Author

Pam Smith ran her first trail race in 1992 and started ultra-distance races in 2002, with more than 70 finishes. She was the 2013 Western States champion and holds the Angeles Crest course record. She has been on a total of seven national teams for both the 100km and 24-hour events. Pam is running her seventh Western States 100 in 2018 under the Active Joe sponsorship. She lives in Salem with her husband and two children and she works as a pathologist. More of Pam’s writing can be found on her blog, “The Turtle Path.”

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