Monday 27 October 2008

Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon - Equipment review

So, I’ve conquered my second desert in the South African Augrabies Kalahari Extreme Marathon. You can read my review of this excellent event right here.

Now, I'm going to do an equipment review. I'm going to do review every piece of equipment I took. I know some of you will appreciate it. I'll review my food and hydration strategies, and my training and race performance in later blog posts.

I've hyperlinked many of these items, but please shop around for the best deals. I can't guarantee the link I've used is always the cheapest.

Raidlight Sac Runner 30l + Equil frontpack (now called the R-Light)
This pack I bought in 2006 a few days after registering my intent to do the 2008 Marathon des Sables. It has lasted through all of my training for the last 3 years, including countless one-day events, as well as La Trans Aq 2007, Marathon des Sables 2008, and Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon 2008. I have had to make repairs; lots of stitching holes and tears. The pack is quite lightweight, so the materials are not the strongest. Still, it remains the most comfortable pack I have tried. I tried the smaller Raidlight Evolution 2, but it's too small and not very comfortable to wear. The Racing the Planet backpack is a close second; it is lighter weight, but again not quite as comfortable as the Raidlight. However, I think it's now come to the end of its life. The strapping that the front pack clips onto has developed a deep crease which means the front pack keeps slipping off. It's practically impossible to repair this, so I will have to replace the pack soon. I'd like to take a look at the Aarn Marathon Magic 30l, but chances are I will go with a new Raidlight R-Light 30l. The new version is very slightly updated, extra pockets etc, but mostly the same. I did modify my pack. I added a luggage strap, sewn onto the main backpack. It wrap around and secures around the equil front pack as well. This holds the whole pack tight to the body and prevents 'bounce'. I don't use shoulder mounted drinks holsters as they bounce too much. I use one 800ml bottle in one of the equil front-packs side webbing pockets, and one 800ml bottle across the top of the frontpack, through the elastic slot for that purpose.

Helly Hansen long sleeve Lifa - 140g
A thermal base layer top that is in most runners wardrobe. Lightweight and warm, this is an ideal top to use on multi-day events. It's useful in the morning in the cold desert air as you are getting your breakfast. It's useful on the night stages if you get a little cold, and it can also come in handy as top to wear when you get back to camp after the days run. It is a little warm for direct sunlight use in the desert, but the other uses make this an invaluable addition.

Marmot 'Motion' jacket - 145g
Windproof jacket, which gives added warmth in the morning (you really appreciate it, as well as the Helly Hansen). Folds up to a tiny package, and is of course lightweight. Useful for night running as well.

Petzl E-Light - 30g
Mandatory item. The smallest head torch that Petzl make. The amount of light it throws out is reasonable; certainly enough to find your way in the dark. It throws out a very wide spread beam, and has no focus beam. It's enough to see where you are going, but there are more powerful head torches available if you are prepared to sacrifice another 50g of weight. This torch has a major design fault, when used in the desert. It has a rotary switch, to change from high-low-flashing-red beams. If just one grain of sand gets in the mechanism, you will have a hell of a job moving it from/to the position the place the sand is stuck in. I had this trouble in the Kalahari. I couldn't switch it on! I was scared to force it too hard in case I snapped the on switch. I eventually got it to work, by moving it very fast and trying to blow out the sand afterwards. This happened a few times. If you really want to take this torch to the desert then keep it in a plastic bag until you use it. Personally, I'd think seriously about using the Petzl Plus instead.

800ml Raidlight drinks bottles - 236g
I used one bottle for electrolyte, with the straw attached. You can keep the bottle in the front pack, and as long as you have it hoisted up to the highest position on your chest you can just suck on the straw. You may have to lift the front pack slightly to reach the straw, but it beats the bottles flapping around on those useless shoulder holsters. Oh, I also pulled off the rubber tip and binned it. You can actually suck liquid out of it then (some people have added a valve to the lid to sort this problem out)! The other 800ml bottle I have the version with the standard pop up/down sucker (no straw). This I only use for water for the whole event. Sometimes you just want water and not electrolyte. This bottle sits horizontally across the front pack. I think 1600ml of water is adequate for me to make it between checkpoints (800ml an hour is about right for me). Some of you may prefer to use a 1.5l mineral water bottle horizontally instead, but remember that's another 0.7kg of weight. It's water vs weight, do what is right for you.

Space blanket - 56g
Mandatory on most of these events. I have had to use one in anger on the MDS, during the night stage. Coming down from a big climb my body temp dropped to 35C (doctor measured it) so I needed this to warm back up!

Toilet Paper - 15g
Mandatory item. I'm pretty frugal on the amount I take. I used wet wipes to supplement use. Make sure put this in a freezer bag unless you want sand-burns!

Wet Wipes (14) - 65g
I pack 2 per day, 14 in total. I put 2, folded, into tiny 2x2 inch plastic resealable bags. These I normally use for cleaning out salt from my pores, especially on my face, neck and arms. A little water on them after the initial use, makes them reusable. If I have spare they can be used for toilet use. Don't be fooled as to how heavy these things are. So, don't go taking a whole packet per day.

First aid bag - 133g
Mandatory item.
Toothbrush (shortened) and Toothpaste - you will want to un-fur your teeth after a day drinking electrolyte. Trust me!
Ibuprofen - Anti-inflammatory. Most doctors would not recommend these for use during a race, as there are cases of anti-inflammatory drugs causing renal failure in dehydrated competitors. Perhaps useful overnight if properly hydrated. As with any drugs take medical advice before using.
Paracetamol - A useful and safer painkiller than ibuprofen.
Small roll of bandage - multi purpose. Useful as gauze to cover a drained blister before applying zinc oxide tape (Leukotape).
Antiseptic wipes - I usually pack a couple just to clean out cuts.
Friars Balsam (available at most chemists)- I decant perhaps 30ml into a small lighter weight plastic bottle. This really is multi purpose. It makes your feet sticky, useful to apply to help zinc oxide tape adherence. It toughens the feet. I usually apply it every night during an event to harden them back up for the following day. It's an antiseptic to clean out cuts. It can also be injected into a drained blister, then pressure applied to seal the blister back to the skin - this is not for the faint hearted, it is very painful (you have been warned!). It is very effective though.
Needle and cotton - useful for running repairs to kit. Also useful to attach a thread and pass into and out of a blister. Cut the thread and leave it in place to wick out the juice. Personally I leave this in place for the whole event, and usually the blister never fills back up again. It can then be removed, or will drop out as your skin renews itself over time.
Imodium - Stops diarrhoea fast! Enough said.
Rehydration Sachets (6)(e.g. Diorolyte) - I have one of these after every stage, regardless of how I feel.

P20 once a day sun cream - 100g
Mandatory item. Now the new formula works in 15 minutes (it used to be 90!). This is superb stuff. I came back from the Sahara still white as the snow. It bonds to the skin and prevents sunburn. One small bottle should be more than enough to last a week, even less if you are covering up your arms and legs of course.

Sleeping Bag - PHD Minim Ultra - 378g (including stuff sack)
Mandatory item. Can't fault this bag. Lightest weight down bag I've come across, rated to 8C which is more than adequate for the Sahara (usually, but the temps can vary). It was still too warm for the Kalahari. Most people slept on top of their bags until the early hours. Still, this is my bag of choice for desert racing. I also have to 0C Minim 300 which is baking hot and too warm. It will however be perfect for the Atacama desert, which is much colder at night. PHD did deliver it on time, this time around. Make sure you specify a date to them, and chase it up the week before if you order from them. The bags packs up very small indeed, incredibly light.

Signalling Mirror - 12g
Mandatory item. Get something small and plastic.

Knife - Swisscard - 26g
Mandatory item. The actual knife is tiny, but it is sharp enough to cut down a mineral water bottle to make a bowl or cup. To be honest that's about the only use you'll ever need to put it to on one of these races. The scissors will come in handy to cut zinc oxide tape, bandages. The pen and tweezers may come in useful too. Don't waste weight on a heavy Swiss army knife.

Strapping - Leukotape - 51g
Mandatory item. I take one roll of finger-width-wide Leukotape. I don't pre-tape anymore. My feet are pretty tough (more of that later). If I feel a hotspot coming I will stop and tape, and then usually pre-tape the area for the rest of the week as well. Leukotape is strong, sticky (even better applied after friars balsam). If you remove it at the end of the stage, be sure to clean your feet properly as it does leave a sticky residue. I can get away with just one roll usually. Depending on how tough your feet are you may need more.

Safety pins (10) - 4g
Mandatory item. For attaching your race number usually. Spares for a bandage maybe?

Insect repellent - 61g (small glass pot of Tiger Balm)
Not needed on the MDS, but very useful in the Kalahari. It acts as repellent as well as a bite-soother, and muscle rub. I love the smell as well.

Asics Kayano socks (4) - 30g each (120g)
This years Kayano's (white, gold and black colour) are slightly thicker than the old red, black and yellow ones. I was really dubious about using them, but I am converted. They advertise anti-friction thread. Probably an ad gimmick, but they do feel quite silky. I use these as my base layer socks.

Smartwool socks (2) - 48g each (96g)
The hyperlink is just an example of the type.
I was REALLY dubious about using wool socks in the desert, and even more dubious about wearing two pairs of socks at once (scared of heat build up). I wore these over the top of the Kayano's, initially as a way to pad out my shoes (which were 2 sized too big). However, the two pairs of socks seem to reduce the amount of friction on your skin, perhaps the socks rubbing against each other instead. I would usually use the same pair of Smartwool socks all day, but change the Kayano's underneath, at checkpoint 2 or 3 (and all CP's after that if I thought necessary). My feet ended up in pristine condition (one small blister that would have been avoided had I put on both pairs of socks from the start line). Everyone was asking me how I managed to keep them so good.

In addition to those 6 pairs of socks listed above (4 Kayano and 2 Smartwool), I started the race with an extra pair of each, wearing them.

Foot emery board - 10g
I use this to file off any skin that has built up during the days effort. Perhaps on the side of my big toes, the balls of my feet, or heels. Then I apply Friars Balsam.

A word on foot care at this point. I use Tuff Foot, an American product, to condition my feet. It has one of the same active ingredients as Friars Balsam - Benzine, amongst a whole load of others. This product does not dry out your feet like white spirit does. It just toughens the skin and connective tissues. You notice the difference after just a couple of applications. You typically use it before bedtime for a few weeks, then just once a week to maintain. I always use it every night for two weeks before an event now. It doesn’t make your feet sticky or make them as yellow as they go if you use Friars Balsam in the same way.

This routine, plus the two pairs of socks, is I am sure the reason that my feet survived in great shape. There is only one importer of this product that I am aware of (in the UK). I don't have any affiliation with them before you ask! Make sure you select the Human formula, and not the Dog formula incidentally. It's £15 a bottle, but will last a long time! Used before events, I have had just got through my first bottle - since January! You can order the product here

Friars Balsam costs pennies, but I think Tuff Foot is more effective.

MSR Titanium Kettle - 129g
It holds about 750ml of water which is enough for a dehydrated meal and enough left over for a hot drink. It has a lid so water boils faster.

Brunton My-Ti Folding Titanium Spork - 19g
The eating utensil of choice. Very light, strong and folds in half.

Spare Batteries AA (3) - 73g
I use these for my Timex GPS. I usually find I need 3 batteries, maybe 4 maximum.

Thermarest Prolite 3 - short version - 382g
Inflatable mattress that is worth it's weight in gold for comfort. Sadly in the Kalahari every inch of ground had spikes and mine (and everyone else’s!) got a puncture. No such problem in the Sahara. Might be worth packing the repair kit that you can buy for them? Apart from that, they provide comfort and insulation from the cold ground. I opted for the short version that covers about shoulders to knees. I imported one of these, along with the MSR kettle and Spork from the USA at a cheaper price than the UK. Might be worth checking if that is still the case with the weakening Pound value? There is an even lighter version '4' out now I believe.

Endurolytes (90) - 111g
I took 2 of these per hour, along with 20g of SIS Go to use at each checkpoint when I refilled my 800ml electrolyte. I didn't suffer from cramps during the week at all. I like the convenience of just popping a couple of capsules. If used alone you may need to change the dosage. Everyone’s needs are different, so see what works for you.

Coffee Granules - 14g
Enough to last me a week. A cup of coffee every morning gives you that spark for racing, and apparently eases sore muscles too!

Bodyglide - small stick - 35g
I find this useful to put over the top of Leukotape once applied to ensure the tape doesn't stick to my socks. It can be used as a general lubricant between toes, or anywhere to prevent chafing.

Chlorine tablets - 10g
I drop one of these in my electrolyte bottle in the morning and let it dissolve, and shake it up to kill any bugs. Personally I don't mind just drinking it afterwards to kill any bugs in my tummy (not entirely sure it works that way, but what the hell!). I also put one into my MSR kettle and drop my Spork in and leave for 10 mins at the end of the day. Just with a 100ml of water. Swish around and rinse. I am very hot on cleanliness when on events. I do not want to be taken out due to a stomach upset. For 10g you can't go wrong.

Camera - Casio Exlim S3 - 95g
This is an old credit card size 3 mega pixel camera. All the pics you see on here were taken by it. It's not great, but it's tiny and lightweight, and easy to use. You can still pick them up on eBay for much cheapness sometimes.

Alcohol hand cleansing gel - 37g
The smallest bottle you can find. The other part of my hygiene routine. I used this a couple of times a day in camp, before and after eating, and toilet etc. It's kept me healthy so far!

Bin bag - 19g
I carry one of these as an emergency item, akin to the space blanket. It is another layer of warmth, that weighs nothing, and can be used to great effect to retain warmth.

Eye protection
In the Sahara I used Wiley-X goggles. They have a removable bevel so they can be just sunglasses too. Realistically you have got to consider the possibility of sand storms in most deserts, so goggles are required. In the Kalahari this wasn't a danger, so I just used my Oakley’s.

Head Cover - Sahara Cap.
Had this for 3 years and it has served me well. Covers next and face with a drawstring tie under the chin. Can just be a cap as the whole neck flap part is removable. I've not yet found a cap that didn't warm up your head (I don't think such as thing exists!). I have however found that just placing it loosely on the head (as long as the wind is not too strong) is ideal.

Raidriders Ecomesh shirt - long sleeve.
Again, I bought from (as with the hat above) but their webiste does not look to have been updated for a very long time. If the company is still going they need to pay it some attention.
Had for 3 years as well. Keeps me protected from the sun and always cool. Has vents under the arm and across the back. Has a tendency to go very cardboardy as the week wears on, but 30 mins into the days effort when you are sweating again it soon softens up.

Under Armour Vent shorts underwear - white
Never had any chafing downstairs wearing these. Used in the Sahara and Kalahari. Slightly see-through, especially when wet!

CW-X Pro compression tights - black.
Highly rated, but I just found these too hot. Just standing still in the Kalahari my legs were cooking. Maybe I'll use them in the Atacama where they thicker material may be more appropriate to the cool night temperatures.

Under Armour Heatgear tights - white colour
As soon as I changed out of the CW-X and into these I felt much cooler. They are thinner and being white they reflect the heat from the sun. You do look a little stupid wearing them, but that is a price I was happy to pay. All week my legs felt comfortable and were protected from the sun. At no point during the week did I suffer from any muscle soreness (even after 250km!!), so maybe the compression properties had a hand in this? I don't know, but I can recommend them.

New Balance MT800 Trail Shoes.
These are no longer made. They have been replaced with the MT840's? They were the perfect choice for the Kalahari, which had a lot on uneven picky trails, and very little flat terrain. They had enough cushioning too. I think they were the best choice as road shoes would have left me suffering from stone bruising. For the MDS (Sahara) I'd say road shoes or adventure racing shoes with a lot of cushioning are the best choice, as there are usually a lot of flat stony plains - very runnable. Trail shoes with little cushioning will cripple you on that terrain.

Sandbaggers Silk Dune Gaiters (shorter Length)
I opted for these this time, instead of the Raidlight version, in the hope they would last me more than one event. I'm pleased to say that they will. After a rinse in the washing machine they look good as new. Make sure you get a cobbler to stitch the Velcro onto your shoes, and don't do it (or glue it) yourself, unless you really know what you are doing (and know 100% the glue will survive 120F). If you get the Velcro professional attached then you are unlikely to get any sand in your shoes at all. Gaiters were not needed as much in the Kalahari, but did prove their use at times. You'll likely need them most days in the Sahara though. One drawback - the ghastly colour. They raised plenty of laughs (though that could be with the white tights accompaniment).

Buff or insect net
Really need one or the other in the Kalahari as there are times of the day when lots of small flies are about. I used a Buff. Multi-purpose to cover your mouth, head, or wear around the neck (damp) to cool.

Neck Cobber
Worth it’s weight in gold. When it arrives it is light as feather. Soak in water for 20 mins and the crystals expand many times. Worn around the neck (covers the carotid artery) promotes cooling, the feeling of cool. Just keep turning it around periodically to get the 'cool side'. The evaporative wind process keeps the cobber cool, and so keeps you feeling cool too. It will last for days apparently (it lasts a week at home!). In the desert I'd soak it for a few mins each morning, and wet it at CP's too.

I hope that was useful to some of you. Please comment or email me ay questions. I’ll be happy to help.


  1. I found a new device called 'AquaJoe' to be a great help. It's a sports drink powder holder/dispenser for athletes. Much easier to use than plastic baggies. It weighs about an ounce.

  2. Hi, yes I have seen that before, but I bag up each full days rations seperately, the electrolytes go in the tiny bags too. I just get them out at the beginning of the day and put them in my front pouch, read for use at each checkpoint.

    I would have to take multiple of those devices to last a whole week long event as I doubt one would last a week? They also weight much more than the small plastic bags. Always a danger of losing it too, and you lose all your ration for the day/week and not just one refill. Also I don't want to be watching how much I've tipped in, on that measuing gauge, I just want to tip in an premeausured amount quickly and go. Thanks for pointing it out, but I think I'll stick to seperate bags. It's no hassle using them at all, takes seconds.

  3. Great review Rich.
    I've been stressing about my new PHD minimus bag, so happy to hear you liked it.

    I love the NB800s - shoe of choice currently - but I think you're probably right that they are undercushioned for races like MdS. I'll possibly end up with something in the 900 series.

    Very well done on finishing a famously difficult race.


  4. William

    You might get away with the MT800's, but it's a bit of a gamble. It just depends on how many hard rocky plains you have to cross. Last year it was a lot, and I was thankful for plenty of cushioning on the NB1100MDS. However, I do prefer the fit of the MT800 overall. I've had almost no foot problems whilst using them. On the MDS last year, road shoes would have been ok. Although the plains were stony, you are generally running in the tracks of a 4x4 which has swept the path clear with tyre-tracks, so I don't think stone-bruising would have been an ssue. They do change the course every year, so you never know. I can only say that pure low-riding trail shoes with little cushioning really are not suitable. People that used them really suffered.

  5. Great review Rich. I'm planning on using the underarmour heat gear tights in the MDS. Glad to hear they worked do well for you.


  6. Rich,
    Thanks for posting about the PHP Minim. Did you go with the zipperless design? If so, how did you like it? I'm running MdS '09 and have a pair of satisfactory bags, but if I could save nearly 300g of weight, it would be fantastic!

  7. Hi Byron

    I did go with the zipperless design. 300g is a great weight saving, and it also packs down a great deal smaller than my heavier 650g PHD bag. The nights in the MDS 2008 were surprisingly warm and the Minim Utra would have been perfect. Assuming it is the same temperature this year, then I would recommend it for sure. My advice would be to pack both bags and try the lightest one out for warmth the night before the admin day in the desert. Assuming it is warm enough, pack your heavier sleeping bag in your suitcase before the admin checks. This sia useful tip for all of your kit really. Take a few kit options and make a decision on the admin day.

  8. Thanks for the info and quick response, Rich. I might just go ahead and pick one up. Goodness knows I've purchased plenty of other items with lesser weight-saved/cost ratios!

    I look forward to reading up on your 2008 MdS. I love learning as much as I can about the race before hitting the sand.

  9. Thanks for the info and quick response, Rich. I might just go ahead and pick one up. Goodness knows I've purchased plenty of other items with lesser weight-saved/cost ratios!

    I look forward to reading up on your 2008 MdS. I love learning as much as I can about the race before hitting the sand.

  10. Rich,
    A teammate and I are about to order the Minim Ultra. My teammate ran MdS back in 2000 and is worried about not being able to vent his feet and legs. Did you find you ever got too hot in the Minim?

  11. Byron, I had precisely that problem with eh Minim 300 bag that I took to the MDS last year. It is a 650g bag, that is rated to 0C. It was much too warm for the Sahara. I bought the minim ultra as it's temperate rating is more suited to desert. I can't say for certain that it still won't be too warm on your legs, but it stands a much better chance. I would have taken it last year If I would have owned it at that point. You could specify the zip, but you are adding a couple of hundred g I guess. One night in the Saraha with the 0C bag, I actually got out of it, wrapped it around my upper half and left my legs to air and slept like that.

  12. Thanks! I am finding all this info very helpful. I'll be doing a mulitiday staged race for the first time this year @ KAEM...really excited about it!!

  13. Thanks Heather. Hope you found it useful. One footnote; last years KAEM was much cooler than ever before so a warmer sleeping bag than mine would probably have been needed. It was unusually cool though, and may well be normal tempes again this year. I'm sure Nadia will give you a weather update the week before, so you are well prepared. Enjoy your first multi stage race, but beware, they are addictive!