Tuesday 30 March 2010

Atacama Crossing Equipment review

Here is my promised review of all the main items of kit I took to this years Atacama Crossing.  Hope future competitors find it useful.  I've linked many items to RacingThePlanet's International online store, which has increased it's range of stock massively over the last couple of years.  It's also where I found most of the items at the most competetive prices for the items including delivery (and I did shop around).  If you are in the UK, you will want to use RTP's UK store.  If you want a full list of my food and kit in a spreadsheet with weights and calories then email me and I'll send you a copy.  My whole pack weighed about 7kg (about 6.7kg on the start line after breakfast).  You could comfortably get this down to 6kg, or less, with a lighter weight backpack than the one I took, and not using some luxuries such as the pillow and thermarest.  If you can get by on the minimum 2000kcal a day (I can't) then you can make huge weight savings. The lighter your pack the better time you are going to have on the race, remember that!

Backpack – OMM 32L
First time I’ve used this pack in an multi day event and overall it worked well. It has a small sleeping mat, which came in handy to use under my Thermarest on the rockier camps, or to put my feet on otherwise. I cut off 100g of weight; removing webbing, toggles, elastic, clips, and shortened the straps to make the overall weight of the pack more acceptable. The pack has a built-in whistle so some weight saved there too. The pack was comfortable overall though which is important. I’ll never wear a 'front pack' again, as I did with other packs, such as the Raidlights. Front Packs are just annoying, and they bounce around if you are running. The hip and side pockets of the OMM pack are sufficiently large to store the current days snacks, and other items you need to hand. The idea is that you never have to remove the pack from the start line to the finish line. I did find that I had made such weight savings that the pack was too big, it wasn’t near full when I started the race. I could have got away with the 25l, but I’d likely take a look at the 375g Inov-8 pack, or the new Terranova pack I’ve just heard about.

Montane Marathon Featherlite (Smock) - I took the smock, this link is for the Jacket version. I suggested to RTP they might want to stock the smock as well. Other websites (not RTP) advertise the smock being 85g. When it arrived the attached label says 100g. I weighed it and it was 111g, so basically their weight claims are, well, dubious! Ok, you might say what are a few grams, but when you are pinching weight everywhere it matters. Those of you who do the same will empathise. Apart from that the smock performed well enough as a lightweight wind-stopper. The smock is lighter than the jacket version due to only having a half-zip. Oh, by the time you sew on the four patches from RTP, as required, you’ll add another 20g onto the weight as well.

Head Torches
I took a Black Diamond Ion which weighs 30g. Does the job well enough and is all you really need for the Atacama. It’s nowhere near as bright as a Petzl Plus but it is adequate and half the weight. As a backup I took a Tika E-Lite which is comparable but more prone to malfunction due to the rotary on switch gathering sand.

Space Blanket and Red Flashing Light.
I actually took a small Eurohike blanket weighing about 40g. Didn’t need it, but it is mandatory kit.  I bought the standard RTP red flashing light to attach to my rucksack (mandatory) for the night stage.

First Aid Kit
I took all of the items in the mandatory kit except for Second Skin, which is just as bad as Compeed. I'm going to be harsh here, but if you are not used to foot care then you can easily make this mistake.  You want your head looking at if you use compeed/Second skin on actual formed blisters. Correct use; It's fine to use it on a hot spot, but a lot of people think it's ok to use on a blister, and then find when they remove the second skin all their actual skin comes off with it, and leaves a painful raw spot that its extremely painful to walk on. I favour just draining a blister, usually leaving a cotton thread through it (to continue wicking out the juice), putting something to cushion (like small piece of bandage) and securing it with Leukotape. I also brought along some Friars balsam to use as antiseptic and as a foot adhesive (to make your feet sticky before applying tape). Hydropel is good stuff to use as a lubricant too.  I also took a small stick of lip balm as required.  Many people's lips dried up and cracked during the week, so ensure you make use of this stuff.

A small Silva 40g compass. No bearings are given in the roadbook, and there is no route map in the roadbook, so even though this is mandatory kit, it’s essentially worthless as you would not be able to use it if lost. I’d suggest RTP remove it, or provide some guidance as to how it could be used to find help in each stage if lost. (i.e keep heading south and you’ll hit a road)

Fleece hat (37g) and gloves (22g)
I took a lightweight Nike fleece hat that I wore in bed and in the mornings. The ultralight runners gloves I didn’t use at all.  Both items are mandatory kit

P20 suncream
I decanted half a bottle into a lighter weight bottler and barely used half of that as I wore full body cover. Nevertheless you don’t get sunburn wearing P20. I’ve been through 3 deserts and it has never failed.  You can but this in duty free at most major airports, as well as your typical stockists.

PHD Minim Sleeping bag
At 345g this is a sleeping bag at the extreme ultralight end of the market. It is just about useable in the Atacama as long as you supplement it by wearing your clothes (the bag is rated 8C). I also wore my down vest around my legs as additional warmth. If you like being toasty, then buy a heavier bag. PHD is a UK company with a reputation for selling excellent quality down gear.

Sleeping Mat - Thermarest Prolite 3 – Extra Small version
This weight about 230g, and only covers the torso. A good nights sleep is priceless (see next item), so 230g is a small price to pay. It worked out well until day 4 when I managed to puncture it somehow, and even if I had a repair kit I wouldn’t have been able to find the hole. Be careful with it and you’ll be fine.  The link is to the UK store.  I couldn't see the item at the time of posting on the main international store.

Thermarest compressible pillow
Not inflatable, they are useless. This is full of foam pieces and feels like real pillow. It is a 200g luxury but I always sleep really well. I’ve tried sleeping on folded up clothes and my backpack and they invariable feel like bedding down on a concrete slab. This is an essential for me to rest well.  RTP don't stock this item.  The link is a UK online store.  Do shop around for the best price, as the link provided can be beaten is price elsewhere.

Knife - Swisscard
I took the scissors and knife out of my Swisscard (credit to Hamish for that suggestion), weighing a total of 10g. The whole card weighs 26g, but you wouldn’t make use of any of the other items, so leave it at home.  The only thing you're likely to use the knife for is to cut the bottom off a mineral water bottle to make a bowl to eat your breakfast out of.  Scissors are useful for cutting foot tape etc.

Eye Protection - Oakleys
Personal preference but a pair of dark lense Oakleys worked well for me.

Head Cover - Outdoor Research Sahara Cap
Same one I bought in 2007 and have used ever since. I saw plenty of competitors wearing these. Can’t fault it to be honest.  Couldn't see this item on RTP's store, so the link is for another shop.

Shirt -Railriders Adventure top
I switched back to loose fitting long sleeve shirt this year, after not enjoying a long sleeve compression top. This kept me cool all week and I will use it again, despite two annoying gripes. The back rides-up as your run because the backpack slowly hikes it up. You could try pinning it to your shorts to stop it, but as soon as you start sweating the problems goes away. The other issue is that by day 4 the salt and sweat have made the shirt ‘carboardy’. Again, once you sweat it softens up. You could rinse it in some spare/medical water at the end of the stage to stop this. I missed a trick with the RTP patches you have to sew on as required by the organisation. I noticed a couple of bright sparks had their nationality flags and 4desert logos screen-printed onto their shirts instead of sewing them on. I can’t tell you how useless I am with a needle and cotton. Wish I would have thought of that idea!  RTP don't stock this item.  They are also virtually impossible to source in the UK these days.

Shorts/tights - Skins
I wear full length leg cover to save the weight of shorts, avoid sunburn, and ro cut down on carried sun cream, and also because I wear the leggings at night as well. So, multi-purpose! I wore Skins white/grey Camo. They look (marginally) more sociably acceptable than the plain white ones. I wore Under Armour vent shorts as underwear, and around camp.

Running shoes – New Balance 840
These were not the best shoe choice for a couple of reasons. They are trail shoes so had a tough sole, which was a plus point. They protected against stone bruising and I felt no foot pain in the hard salt flats. They had sufficient cushioning too. The grip however was not very good. They have a slim diamond shaped grip which gave no purchase when climbing sand. I don’t think any shoes are fantastic, but I certainly slipped back more than I recall. Some of these thin diamonds also sheared off in the sharp salt flats, leaving even less grip. The other issue with the shoes, was that they are very porous and let a lot of sand in. Wouldn’t have been a problem with decent gaiters but I chose bad ones.  These shoes got me through the race ok, sustaining only cosmetic damage, which is more than the ones I took last year did.  The shoes I took last year fell to pieces after 3 days and gave me blisters (on day 1) despite the (not New Balance shoes) manufacturers claims that the shoes were designed and specifically tested for desert use.  What shoes you use are up to you but I'd suggest trail shoes with a decent level of cushioning.  Many road shoes are too soft and you won't have good time in the sharp and hard Atacama salt flats in them.

Gaiters – Raidlight stop-run (I'm linking this item so you can identify and avoid)
Do not buy these. They were not a great choice anyway, as they only keep debris out of the top of the shoes, by the ankles, as they don’t cover the whole foot. That isn’t the worst part though. They have a clip which hooks over your laces at the front. I have had two pairs of these fail by the clip just pulling straight through the gaiter and snapping off. I spoke to another competitor with the same issue. They are very shoddy quality, and not suitable for use in the Atacama at all. No idea where they might be useful in fact. They have found an ideal home in the bin though. There is a lot of sand in the Atacama, more than I remembered. You need ankle length gaiters that stretch over the whole shoe. Ideally ones made of rip-stop parachute silk, and not the lycra-type ones which although they do work, they can tear too easily. Whatever you wear, remove them before you enter the salt flats if you expect them to survive.

I took very thin Nike dri-fit socks for my baselayer, and a pair of Asics Kayano socks to wear over the top of them. Two socks gives better blister prevention as friction takes place between the two pairs of socks and not the sock and your foot (friction + heat + moisture = blisters, remove one element and you don't get any). The only reason I got a couple of blisters (non serious) is the gaiters failing and sand pouring into my shoes.  I don't get on with Injinji socks, which seem popular; they pad out the toe area so much they just gave me blisters on previous events.  A lot of people swear by these, so experiment for yourself.

Night time clothes
I wore a Helly Hansen Lifa in the evening and in bed, and usually my running tights too. I also wore a 150g PHD minim vest in the cold mornings, and used it around my legs in bed to supplement the sleeping bag warmth.

I took 2 x 500ml OMM ultra bottles which are a good size and don't bounce or swing too much. One worn in the OMM-i-Gammy shoulder holster. I modified it, and put a straw in from another bottle, so I could drink easily whilst running, leaving it in the holster. The other bottle was kept in the OMM backpack side pocket and easily reachable without removing the pack. I took a 30g 1 litre capacity roll-up pull-pul top platypus too. This was to satisfy the requirement to carry 2l. I only used it on very long or difficult stages. Most of the time filling the 2x500ml was enough for me to run between CP’s.

Electrolyte – Science in Sport (SiS) Go
I switched back to this again, after using Hammer Perpeteum last year. The Hammer was ok, but lacked a quick sugar hit, the other reason I don’t use something like Elete Water. Sometimes your blood sugar gets low and you want a quick sugar hit. I don’t carry gels or boiled sweets because they calorie to weight ratio is too low – basically they are too heavy for their gain. SiS Go has a fairly high carb content (depending on how you mix it of course), so gives the electrolyte and sugar. Some people add a little salt to the mix as well, if you don’t think you get enough from your other snacks.

Nutrition – 15.500kcal for the week.
I had a good strategy here I think. I had about 2600 kcal per day, knowing that I need more than that to function well on. I’m only about 64kg, but I burn a lot of calories. So, I didn’t pack any breakfast for the last two days, and only took one main meal (to last both days). The rest of those last two days calories were made up of snack bars that I knew I could, and would, use during the earlier stages of the week. I reasoned that I could effectively survive on virtually no food on the rest day (it got cancelled anyway this year), and that I could run the last stage on an empty stomach if I had to. This is exactly what I did and it worked out very well, except I didn’t quite pack enough spare snacks. I burned up all of my food early on that long stage. I should have just packed a few more snacks, maybe another 1000kcal for the week and it would have been perfect. So it’s a good strategy that just needs a bit of tweaking.  I only eat Mountain House meals, and I think I've converted a few more people away from the Expedition Food brand in this years Atacama Crossing.  Seriously there is no comparison in taste and even just the appearance between the two brands.  Mountain House is the best dehydrated food I've ever tasted.  REI.com stock the biggest range of Mountain House food, but RTP's range isn't bad.  The best meals for me are around the 800kcal mark; such as Rice and Chicken, Spagetti Bolognese, Pasta in Lasagne Sauce etc.

Hope that's been of use to you.  Always happy to answer any questions of course.  Good luck in your next event.


  1. Rich, well done in Chile. It must have been very satisfying to return and succeed!

    Great gear report - I'm glad you liked the PHD bag - it's the one I use, and it is currently running through the Sahara with a friend who is in this year's MdS.

    Only 2 months 'til the TransAq, so I'm starting to get my gear together. As always, your reports are very useful.

    Would you consider a link to your race report from my site?


  2. Hi William. Yes indeed satisfying this time. As long as you are going to get about 5C that PHD sleeping bag is very light and small. Be sure to say Hi to Anne and Vaughan on La Trans Aq. If the weather is anything like when I took part, it was hot and humid in the night, so you should be plenty warm enough. I expected the night run to be cool, but it wasn't at all. Only the views running up the Dune de Pyla at dusk in that stage made up the heat! You're welcome to link. I can add a link your LTA race report once you issue it.