What kit does a road runner need to head for the hills in safety? Nick Mead gets geared up and hits the Lake District
As a regular marathon runner and lover of the outdoors, I’ve wanted to have a go at fell running and mountain ultras for some time.
But heading to the high hills badly prepared is a recipe for an embarrassing mountain rescue call-out – or worse – so Sean Hayes, an enthusiastic fell runner and employee at the leading Keswick outdoor shop George Fisher, helped me draw up a list of 10 essentials to run safely in the mountains.
1. First layer
Running generates a lot of heat, so you don’t need to wear anywhere near as much as you would for walking. I find shorts are enough for me in most winter conditions – but it’s a personal decision.
In the Lake District last weekend the temperature at sea level was 7C, but up at around 800m that drops below zero (the basic rule is to knock off one degree centigrade per 100m climbed) and even a 10mph wind on exposed skin can take that down another 5 or 10C. So for many, quick-drying leggings are a good choice.
A lightweight long-sleeved shirt suited me, even on a coldish March morning. If you opt for shorts and a T-shirt (or even a traditional fell-running vest) then arm warmers and leg warmers are useful if it gets chilly.
2. Windproof jacket
A lightweight windproof jacket treated with DWR can take the edge off a cold day and protect you from light rain – but is far more breathable than a fully waterproof jacket. I’ve been running in a North Face Flight Series Better-Than-Naked jacket this winter (£100) – and have found it super-light, breathable and fast-drying. If you overheat on the uphills, it takes up virtually no space in your backpack.
There are many other options on the market – Montane’s Featherlite Marathon jacket (£55) weighs 130g and stows into orange-sized bag, while the Sonic Smock (£60) from OMM, the company behind the Original Mountain Marathon, weighs just 60g and packs into a bag half that size.
3. Waterproof jacket and trousers
The weather was dry in the Lakes last weekend and my waterproofs spent most of their time at the bottom of my pack. I only got the jacket out on summit stops and some exposed high-level sections where the wind was strong, the problem with fully waterproofed jackets being that the taped seams stop moisture escaping as well as getting in.
But in the mountains nasty weather is a possibility year-round and a full set of waterproofs is on the essential kit list for many mountain events – run without them and a spot check could see you pulled from the race.
OMM’s Kamleika waterproof jacket (£160) and trousers (£105) are made from Gelanots – a soft, four-way stretch fabric which produces minimal noise when running. The company has recently rolled out a larger range of products specifically designed for mountain marathons, but useful for cyclists, hikers and commuters too.
A good alternative is the North Face AK Stormy Trail jacket (£160) – a light, fully waterproof hooded jacket made from highly breathable HyVent fabric. Being part of TNF’s Flight Series, it’s so light you hardly feel it’s there.
Given the bewildering choice of trail and off-trail shoes out there one school of thought, says Sean Hayes, is to stick with a shoe manufacturer from the area you want to run in, as they will have developed and tested the gear to suitable specifications.
The British company Inov8’s shoes are designed for and tested on UK hills in typical conditions – which means lots of wet grass, wet rock and deep mud. Aggressively studded options include the Mudclaw (£90), which can cope with the steepest hillsides – but are not great if you have to run any stretches on asphalt.
I’ve been running in Inov8 Roclite 315s (£100) for years and find these a great compromise. The sole is aggressive enough to cope with descents on wet grass and mud – and the low heel gives them a minimal feel. But they have enough cushioning to cope with harder surfaces and ultra races – I ran the 100km Norfolk Ultra in them last year.
For hard-packed dirt trails in dry conditions, France’s Salomon or Italy’s La Sportiva could be the right choice.
I tested a pair of La Sportiva Wild Cat 2.0s (£80), which feel like road shoes, with cushioning that can easily cope with tarmac, but which also have rough enough tread to deal with most off-road paths (no doubt La Sportiva’s climbing heritage helps here). They’re maybe not my first choice for the fells in winter, but have plenty enough grip for the kind of wet grass and mud you might find heading off the trail in your local park or woods, and are a definite option for an Alpine race like the CCC or UTMB. All that cushioning is heavy, though, and they weigh in at 620g – almost double the Roclites – but if you shop around you might pick up a pair for £50.
Salomon offers a wide range and recently started testing their kit in the Lakes as they target the British fell-running market. Their first foray into the world of mud – the rugged, low-profile Fellcross (£130) – was developed with help from the Cumbrian runner Ricky Lightfoot.
With so much choice out there, as Sean Hayes advises, it’s worth visiting a specialist shop with knowledgeable staff: “They’ll talk to you and find out what you’re doing, let you try on a few things and take the time to get it right.”
5. Hat, gloves, buff
Whatever the truth about how much heat you lose through your head, a hat is obviously a good idea – and gloves too.
The multifunctional Buff (£13) can be used in all manner of ways, from headband to balaclava, pirate hat to cravat – although maybe that’s a style best saved for holidays in Europe.
Easily overlooked – but a good-quality pair will help your feet dry out quickly after they get wet, reducing the chance of blisters and making a long day in the hills far more enjoyable. Quality manufacturers include Inov8, Teko and Thorlo.
Obviously you need somewhere to put all this gear. OMM’s Ultra 15 pack (£55) is light (410g, or 360g ‘lean weight’), small enough to sit snugly when you’re running and with two side pockets for drinks bottles (and shoulder-strap bottle holders available as an extra).
The Enduro 13 from North Face (£69) is a bit smaller, at 8l, but has enough room for waterproofs, hat, phone and some snacks. It also features side pockets for two 500ml water bottles – a good option for long races as they’re quicker to fill than hydration bladders.
In the summer with the weather set fair you might get away with a belt pack like the Lowe Alpine Lightflite Hydro (£22), which at 260g offers 4l of space – enough for a light jacket, snacks etc – and a 500ml bottle holder.
8. Map, compass, GPS and weather forecast
If you’re going to run in the mountains you really ought to know how to use this stuff, or at least go with someone who does – try a club or the forum at fellrunner.org.uk. I did a five-day MLTB mountain leader training course at the Plas y Brenin national mountain centre in Snowdonia last year, which gave me confidence in the hills. PyB also runs weekend navigation courses, and numerous independent operators can be found in the back of outdoor magazines such as Trail.
Mountain weather forecasts are available online at the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) and the Met Office. Twitter is also a useful resource when trying to find out if there’s snow and ice on the tops – just search the name of your mountain and you might find photos taken in the past few days or hours. In the Lakes, the fell-top assessors provide daily conditions reports on Helvellyn and Scafell Pike.
9. Mobile phone in waterproof bag
You should obviously carry a mobile phone and some cash in a waterproof bag. You can get all sorts of expensive bags for phones, or use a small mountaineering stuff sack or even a sandwich bag.
10. Small first aid kit and emergency shelter
If you get in trouble in the mountains you may have to spend some time in hostile conditions, waiting for help or for the weather to improve. An emergency shelter or bivvy bag could save your life.
I always keep a survival bag (£11) at the bottom of my pack – a lightweight, compact and cheap solution. Lifesystems also makes a range of waterproof shelters (from £30) for two to eight people (see picture).
It’s also worth carrying a small first aid kit – or at least some plasters and Compeed to deal with hot spots and blisters – and you’ll find this on compulsory kit lists for mountain marathons and ultras.
And finally …
Traditionally derided by British mountain walkers and runners, poles can help utilise upper body strength on the uphills, save your knees on the downs and provide extra balance on technical sections. I recently splashed out on a pair of carbon Black Diamond ultra-distance Z poles (£120), which weigh in at 275g a pair and easily stash on a pack waistband when not needed. Note that while considered pretty much essential on the UTMB, they’re banned in many races, including the Western States 100.
If you think you might be out when it gets dark, carry a head torch. I roadtested the Petzl Nao (£135) on a night trail run in the Lakes and its 355 lumen output blew away anything I’d tried before. The programmable Nao has a sensor which detects whether you’re looking at a near or distant object and automatically adjusts light output accordingly, which leaves your hands free for poles or scrambling, and its rear-mounted USB-chargeable battery has a life of around eight hours. Petzl and rival Silva make a range of less powerful, affordable alternatives, from around £20.
Of course the list above isn’t exhaustive and everyone I speak to has their own fail-safe methods and gear tips – so whether you are an experienced mountain runner with tips or a wannabe with questions, you’re welcome to comment below.