MARATHON DES SABLES PACK LIST
With a little over a month to go, the final preparation will be on its way for more than 1.300 daredevils that are ready to take on the Marathon Des Sables (“MDS”). Aside from the month-long physical and mental preparation for this mighty challenge, the equipment plays an equally important role to master this 250-kilometer desert crossing.
I have written before about my entire experience at MDS (Click here). Below you find a summary and a few learnings from my Marathon Des Sables adventure in 2017 in terms gear, equipment and food. At the end of the article, you can also download my pack list for the equipment as well as food as a PDF file. First and foremost, according to the regulations, all of the obligatory equipment and personal belongings for each competitor should weigh between 6.5 kg and 15 kg. However, this minimum/ maximum weight does not include the daily water supply. The organisation will check that each participant fulfills the above obligations during the administrative and technical checks before the start of the race in Morocco.
Before talking about my recommended gear, you need to ask yourself what is the most important piece of kit for you, what level of comfort would you like to have, as well as what level of sacrifice would are you willing to make for that one week. Personally, I decided to keep my kit as light as possible, so my focus really was on saving single grams on all ends of the spectrum.
After completing the MDS, I can say that my strategy of focusing on light-weight, certainly turned out to be the right decision. Each piece of gear, as well as my food planning really worked out perfectly. I will go into detail below, but at the end of the day, my only mistake was to not bring a sleeping mat! My plan of saving around 200 grams, instead of bringing a mat along on the race, did turn into a painful experience, as I ended up sleeping on a rock-hard ground and gravel, which meant I was not able to sleep all too well during those nights in Morocco. I tried to mitigate this issue by creating a sleeping area by removing all kinds of rocks. Also, I moved to a neighbour camp for two nights and folded the carpet a few times to have a slightly thicker ground.
Instead of a sleeping mat, I carried a heavy anti-venon pump. Going forward, if I was to do MDS again, I would bring a lighter anti-venon pump and definitely bring a super light and compact sleeping mat, such as Klymit Inertia X Lite (3.8 cm thick, 173 grams light, 4 x 15 cm packing size) or Sea to Summit Ultralight Mat (5 cm thick, 296 grams light, 6,5 x 17 cm packing size). Aside from the sleeping mat, I would also add a pair of hotel slippers to my backpack, which are light, take up little space and allow walking around the campsite without the need to always put your running shoes and risk cutting your feet.
The organisation offers an all-in-one adventure kit that includes all the necessary pieces of equipment, except from any personal hygienic items, clothing and food. From what I heard and I have seen is that this backpack and gear, certainly serves its purposes and works. However, I admit that always prefer following my own rules and trying to pull together the optimal kit. In the end, after reading countless reviews, blogs and comments, it worked out and I was really happy with my own kit choice. I do not think that there is a one-size-fits-all equipment, so it really takes some trial-and-error to find out what works best for you. This is especially true for the food that you are planning to bring along. Make sure to test and try everything out before you are flying to Morocco.
Below you will find a list with the mandatory equipment that is required by the organisation to be carried with you at all times. I have written my product of choice behind the required item and added my comment if necessary.
Backpack: Salomon S-Lab Peak 20 L (565 grams)
I have not seen many people using this backpack, however I was more than happy with the product. It provided enough space for all my equipment and offered a great fit to my body. For the first two days, when the backpack was fuller, I had to attach my sleeping bag to the outside. I used a piece of rope and easily attached it to the bag, so that it would not move and remain in the same position. After I had eaten the first load of my food, I was able to put the sleeping inside my backpack afterwards. Also, I used two thick shoe laces at the front of the backpack to tie up the two shoulder straps. The two existing straps are elastic and did not offer enough stability.
Sleeping bag: Yeti Fewer Zero (300 grams)
Brilliant sleeping bag that keeps you warm enough during the night, while being light and small enough to store in your backpack during the run.
Head torch and a complete set of spare batteries: Black Diamond Storm (110 grams)
Top notch head lamp with great battery life. It was bright enough during the night and I did not have to change batteries.
10x safety pins
Initially, it took some adjusting to figure out how to attach the bib number, as it has to be visible on your chest. I used 4 safety pins and attached the number to the straps. On the other hand, for the bib number on the back, I simply attached it to the back of my backpack with further pins.
Compass, with 1° or 2° precision: Silva Ranger SL (23 grams)
I actually never felt the need to use my compass, so bringing a simple and light version is more than fine.
Lighter: V Fire Easy Torch Outdoor (37 grams)
Seeing that I did not bring a pot to heat up my food with a fire, I did not use the lighter. With that being said, the people in my tent really made good use of it, as it withstood the wind in the desert.
In my case the whistle came with my Salomon backpack. Again, any basic, small whistle does the job perfectly.
Knife with metal blade: Victorinox Swisscard (26 grams)
One of my favorite pieces of equipment. The Swisscard is super light, very small and holds knife and scissor, as well as a needle and tweezers, which can be helpful for blister treatment, and a pen that I used to write my diary.
Tropical disinfectant: Schülke Octenisept Gel (25 grams)
I do not have a preference here, just go to the pharmacy and ask what they have available.
Anti-venom pump: Care Plus Venimex (145 grams)
As I have mentioned above, the anti-venom pump was probably one of the heavier pieces (145 grams) of equipment that I did not necessarily use. This item obviously comes in for the worst case scenario, e.g. a snake bite or similar, so I suppose it was good to know that I had a strong pump with me. I have found a lighter version from WAA: https://www.waa-ultra.com/en/aspivenin.html
Again, I do not have a preference, any supermarket, pharmacy or drug store will have one in stock. Just grab a basic make-up mirror. Similar to the anti-venom pump, the mirror will be used, in case you get lost and need to signal your location. In my case, the mirror was part of the compass, so that it was two-in-one.
Aluminium survival sheet (30 grams)
Basic piece of equipment, which I did not use. I think it came with my Salomon backpack.
Sun cream: Care Plus Sun Lotion (100 grams)
Similar to the disinfectant, any type of sun cream will do. Make sure to take one with a high SPF and that settles quickly, seeing that you are exposed to the sun all day long.
200 Euro or equivalent in foreign currency
Passport (30 grams)
Original medical certificate provided filled in and signed by the doctor
They will check this document, when you are registering and picking up your bib number.
Original ECG and its tracing
Similar to the medical certificate, they will check this document, when you are registering and picking up your bib number. In case something will happen, it will allow the medical stuff to immediately understand how your heart functions and rule out irregular heartbeats, etc.
EQUIPMENT SUPPLIED BY ORGANISATION
This equipment is supplied by the organisation and has to be carried with the runner at all times. It will be issued during the technical and administrative checks in Morocco and include the following:
The road book will issued on the bus ride to the desert. Detailed overview of the route for each day, incl. orientation marks along the way. The course throughout the desert is well marked and you will always see a runner around you, as well as are able to trace foot marks in the sand. Official cars are also patrolling the course during the stage. Hence, even though you might not be the best in reading maps, you should not worry of getting lost.
2 bib numbers (approx. 18 cm x 16 cm in size)
One for the front to be attached to the upper part of the chest
One for the back to be attached to the backpack
I suggest cutting out a same size piece of paper to try adjusting the bib number to your front and back at home.
Attach the card to the outside of your backpack. The organisation stamps your card at every check point, mainly checking that you have picked up your water bottle.
Distress beacon SPOT
GPS tracker to share your current location via satellite, as well as rescue device to call for help, in case of an emergency.
Salt tablets are important to be taken at least at every check point ensuring that fluid intake is being regulated.
The toilets at MDS are a plastic chair, in which you have to hang the sachet, and situated within a little cabin. You will be doing all of your business into the sachet. Once you are done, you remove the sachet, close it and put into the pin next to the cabin.
On the fourth stage, you be will be issued with a luminous stick, that will be attached your backpack and ensure that people can see you during the night of the non-stop stage.
Similar to all of your equipment choices, in terms of the clothing, you must decide for yourself how hygienic you would like to travel through the sand and how much sacrifice you are willing to make. In my case, I did not bring any spare clothing, but carried two warmer pieces of clothing for the night (fleece and long tights). I was very happy with my decision and did not miss any items during the race.
Shorts: Arcteryx Soleus (125 grams – In-use)
The key is to find a pair of shorts that is light, breathable and dries fast. Also, it does help if your shorts have pockets, so that you can store gels, or any other items that you may deem to be useful and need quick access to.
Shirt: Arcteryx Cormac (105 grams – In-use)
Again, light, breathable and drying fast. Some people say that you should bring lighter colours that are less attracting the sun. Both, my shorts and running shirt were black, but I did not notice any heat disadvantage. If any, darker colours are more resistant to the sand, dust and general dirt.
Hat: Oakley Perf Hat Cap (In-use)
I do not like hats so much, hence why I did not bring one. However, many athletes were wearing a sun hat, some even with a neck cover. It depends how sensitive you are to the sun and what you prefer to wear.
Fleece: Arcteryx Accelerator (180 grams)
The temperatures certainly drop during the evening/ night, so I recommend bringing a light fleece that you can wear in the evening and while sleeping to keep yourself warm. The Arcertyx Accelerator turned out to be the perfect choice. During the run, I carried the fleece in my backpack. I put it on as soon as the sun set at night and the temperatures started to drop.
Compression Short: Skins A400 Half Tight (In-use)
Some people opt for long tights due to the sand and better compression during the day, but I think half tights are perfectly fine.
Compression Tights: Skins A400 Long Tight (200 grams)
First, I was unsure, but then I decided to bring one pair of long tights, which was a good decision. They kept me warm during the night, as well as helped the recovery of my muscles.
Compression Shirt: Skins A400 Short Sleeve (In-use)
It is definitely much recommended to wear a base layer under your running shirt to prevent rushes and any other type of skin irritation.
Shoes: Salomon S-Sense Ultra (275 grams – In-use)
Clearly, the biggest debate around kit is about running shoes. Personally, I had very good experiences with Salomon before, hence why I decided to also run MDS in Salomon running shoes. It is very important that you have tried your shoes, as well as run them in before you are heading into the desert. Given the heat of the sand as well as the distance you cover, I recommend to pick a shoe with a thicker sole. Also, bear in mind that the heat and on-going impact will lead to a swelling of your feet. Select a size that is 1 or 1.5 bigger than your regular running shoe size. In my case, I am normally wearing a size UK 11.5 (EU 46.5 / US 12), but for MDS I chose a UK 12.5 (EU 48.00 / US 12.5). Given the fact, that I was also wearing two pairs of socks, combined with the swelling, the shoe fit perfectly.
Gaiters: Raidlight Desert Gaiters (60 grams – In-use)
There are different methods to minimize sand coming into your shoes. I opted for Raidlight’s Dester Gaiters. They are light, have a good amount of stretch, giving good protection against sand and have reinforcement around the toe area for enhanced protection in the rocky desert environment. The Raidlight Desert Gaiters come in two parts – 1) the sock 2) a velcro strip. Personally, I recommend to find a local cobbler and let him stitch and attach the velcro strip around your running shoe. Once you are in the desert, put on the sock first, then put on your shoes and attach the sock to the velcro strap around your shoe. The top of the sock is secured with an elastic strap fitting around your calf/ ankle. This solution worked brilliantly for me. Throughout the entire event, I had very little to no sand coming into my shoe.
Inner Socks: Injinji Performance Liner Socks (In-use)
Again, similar to the shoe debate, your choice of socks plays an equally important role. I decided to go for a two-layer solution. I was wearing a thin pair of liner toe socks. The main purpose of the liner socks is to keep your feet dry and prevent friction between your toes to prevent blisters.
Socks: Drymax Maximum Protection (In-use)
I chose a slightly thicker pair as my main sock to give me additional comfort and protection for my feet, as well as keep the sand away my skin, in case sand happens to come through the gaiters. Also, I suggest picking a sock that is slightly longer and closes with your gaiters, which was the case for my option. Again, this helps with keeping the sand out of your shoes.
Nothing special to mention here. I am happy to have brought some blister plasters, in case you require bigger treatment, the medical center is happy to help and serves all your needs.
Blister Plaster: 6x Compeed Blister Plaster (1,2 grams)
Standard piece of equipment and a must-bring. Personally, I was pretty lucky and it did only get one blister, which I had to treat for the last two stages. If you are getting a blister, ask the medical tent to give you iodine, which is a red liquid that helps trying out the blister.
Body Protect: Linola Schutzbalsam (65 grams)
I bought a tube of rich/ fat cream to put on those parts of my body that have been suffering from some friction, e.g. I put it on my feet at the beginning of the day, in order to keep the skin smooth of specific body parts and the risk of rashes or wounds.
Wet Wipes: 4x DM Balea Wipes (200 grams)
I definitely brought too many packages of wet wipes. I reckon two would have been just fine and I actually gave two packages away. However, either way it was nice to use a wet wipe to refresh yourself post-run, in the morning, or after using the bathroom.
Lip Balm: Care Plus Lip Balm (4,8 grams)
As mentioned with the body fat, the sun as well as hot and dry temperatures certainly do try out your lips, so make sure to bring a lip balm to protect your lips from drying out and cracking.
Tooth Brush: Dr Best Soft (5 grams)
You will find many pictures only of people cutting their tooth brushes to save weight. I was one of them. With that being, it does save a tiny bit of space. Is it necessary? Not really.
Tooth Paste: Colgate 25ml Travel Size (38 grams)
It is nice to have a fresh taste when going to bed at night, as well as waking up in the morning.
Sanitizer: Balea 50ml Hygiene Handgel (70 grams)
Bringing a small bottle of handgel does not harm, but offers some sort of clean feeling.
Towle: N-Rit Super Light Towel (44 grams)
I reckon that you do not really need a towel, seeing that your body is drying super-fast in the heat, but it does not harm having a little one at hand, when you are washing your body, face or hair.
In terms of my additional equipment, I tried to keep any luxury at home, so the pieces of equipment I have brought with me all fulfilled its purpose in its own right.
Powerbank: Goalzero Flip 10 (70 grams)
Necessary to re-charge your GPS watch/ HR monitor.
Watch: Garmin Fenix 3 HR (86 grams – In-use)
The watch worked perfectly and allowed me to have a look at my heart rate making sure that I would not overpace. In order to save battery life, I ensured to always turn the watch off when I was in the camp.
Watch Charger: Garmin Charging Clip (35 grams)
A few grams, but necessary to ensure that I could charge my watch.
Sunglasses: Oakley Radar EV Pitch (In-use)
Similar to shoes, backpack, socks, sunglasses is yet another topic that can be discussed for days. Seeing that I previously had good experiences with Oakley, I decided to bring an Oakley. The Radar EV Pitch was perfect at all times. It protected my eyes well from the sun, offered a nice light, as well as protected my eyes from the wind and sand storms.
Bottle: 3x Salomon Soft Flask Speed (102 grams)
I brought three soft flasks in total out of which I equipped two with a straw, so that I could carry them in each of my shoulder straps. In addition, I had one single flask that I could easily store below either my left or right arm.
Straw: 2x Salomon Soft Flask Speed Straw (20 grams)
As mentioned above, I used the straws for better access to my soft flasks.
Notebook: Pumpkin Zen (7 grams)
I am a big fan of travel diaries, so I sacrificed 7 grams to bring my very own little travel diary along. Plus, it was a little gift from my girlfriend.
Spork: Light My Fire Original (9 grams)
A must-have piece of equipment, allowing you to eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Electrolytes: 6x Stada Elotrans (120 grams)
Though you are carrying salt tablets, it does not harm to have additional electrolytes available that can be taken at your own convenience and taste nicer than pure salt.
Hydration Tablets: 10x Powerbar 5Electrolytes (42 grams)
I brought electrolyte tablets with me, which I used with water during the race, as well as it allowed me to have a different flavoured drink apart from just water.
Ear Plugs: Thai Airways Ear Plugs (0,8 grams)
Little surprise there are people that snore, so make sure to bring a pair of ear plugs to ensure a quiet and undisturbed sleep.
MDS requires every runner to carry mandatory equipment as well as possess food supplies offering a minimum of 2000 kcal per day, so 14.000 kcal in total. With that being said, the food requirements for a 50 kg woman vs. a 90 kg man are very different, as are their ability to carry the weight in their backpack. No matter how much food you are planning to bring, you will most likely be in an energy deficit. Frankly, it is impossible to be carrying all the calories you will expend during the race so you will probably lose some weight.
HOW TO CALCULATE YOUR ENERGY NEED?
One way of getting an estimation of your energy expenditure can be by calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) plus the energy you are likely to expend during a stage in MDS. There are a number of BMR calculators available for free online. I used the TDEE Calculator (https://tdeecalculator.net/).
WHAT FOOD SHALL YOU BRING AND HOW DO YOU RATION YOUR FOOD?
This is of course a very personal choice based on any specific dietary needs or requirements you may have due to general beliefs, religion, cultural factors, intolerances and so on. In my case, I am following a vegan diet, so I am aiming to eat no food that has been produced by animals. Either way, it is important to test your food carefully in training to avoid surprises during the race itself. Again, I had kept an eye on the total weight of my food, so that I paid particular attention on a good ration of weight to energy, so I was looking for foods that are low in weight for the energy they provide. I split my day into four segments: breakfast before the stage, snacks during the stage, light meal after the stage and then dinner at night. In general, I recommend bringing dry food, e.g. nuts and oat bars, and freeze dried meals. Furthermore, note that it is not uncommon for your taste to change in the desert. Many people find they want saltier food and that they crave different things. This was not particularly true for me, but it certainly does not harm to carry a variety of foods to keep it interesting and ensure you eat sufficiently.
BEFORE A STAGE
DURING A STAGE
Like for any long race or hike, equip yourself with energy bars, fruit bars, dried fruit, etc. Avoid chocolate snacks and energy gels and drinks, which tend to react badly to the heat. I can highly recommend the Clif Bar Energy Bar. Depending of the length of the stage I took between two to four bars with me. However, I did realise that this was actually one too many, so that I gave a total of four to five energy bars away to fellow runners. For the long stage, I actually also had two Energy Oatsnacks with me, which also offered a good alternative to Clif Bar.
AFTER A STAGE
Upon finishing the stage, immediate recovery is important. Treat yourself to a refreshment, for example an energy drink and a salty snack. In my case, I prepared a red or green smoothie from Lyo, as well as enjoyed my daily ratio of salty nuts. In addition, I brought three Clif Bar Energy Bars to enjoy as additional fuel.
I started my daily dinner with either a mushroom or broccoli spinach soup. Then, as my main course I rotated between farfalle for one day and then a barley lentil risotto the other day. Again, I simply added water to re-hydrate the dish. Both types of soups, as well as the pasta and risotto tasted super.
HOW SHOULD YOU PACK YOUR FOOD?
Packaging can weigh a lot and you want to minimize it whilst ensuring the food is well preserved. Freeze dried meals are packed protectively, but some brands have quite heavy and big pouches. In a race like MDS it can be worth repackaging your food, e.g. by using a vacuum packer. This reduces weight of packaging and volume of the food, so that you have a better chance of fitting it into your pack. In my case, I took each dried meal and put the portion into a new zip-lock bag, which helped saving space. I prepared each meal by pouring water in the zip-lock bag and gave it some time to soak in before enjoying my meal.
Alternatively, you can use your 1.5 liter water bottle, which make excellent pots by just cutting the top off. Or, if you want you can bring a pot. However, I do not recommend such, due to the space, as well as for weight-sake and for hygienic reasons, as water for washing-up is scarce.
Initially, I had prepared daily zip-lock bag with all of my food supplies. However, it turned out that those daily ratios would not fit into my bag. Thus, I was forced to put each item of food individually into my backpack. Nevertheless, I kept my daily packages for the kit check before the start of the race, because it made it easy to show that I have enough calories for the event. After the check-up, I packed each item individually into my bag.