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Ultra marathon gear: expert kit tips for winter ultras

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Writer & Endurance Athlete
Updated on
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The majority of long distance running events will have a mandatory ultra marathon gear list that will tell you what items you need to have in your kit bag to be allowed to cross the start line.

But what that kit list won’t give you, is the expert tips and tricks that you’ll only learn through experience. Like how to avoid fumbling around with batteries in the dark during a winter ultra when your fingers are numb with cold. Or why boot polish might be the unexpected essential that you’ll never do without again.

To save you from those first-timer mistakes that’ll have you cursing your past self as you rummage around in the bottom of your backpack to locate your waterproofs in a downpour. We share some insights from experienced ultra runner and coach, Jayson Cavill, and Spine 2024 competitor Kendra Wedgwood which go beyond the kit list to help you optimise your ultra marathon gear.

Jayson Cavill Spine Race
Jayson Cavill discovered a passion for running in July 2012, following a 36-hour running adventure with friends. Alongside his wife, Kim, Jayson is a co-founder of Cavill Coaching. He’s had plenty of success on the ultra-marathon scene, including 3 x winner of the Lakeland 50 mile race, 2nd place at Pinnacle Ridge Extreme Skyrace in 2022 and 1st place at the Farndal Hardmoors Trail Marathon in 2021.
Kendra testing out winter ultra marathon kit for the montane winter spine race
Kendra Wedgwood is an ultramarathon runner and a Detective Sergeant with the North Yorkshire Police force. After finishing first overall female at the Hardmoors Super Slam in 2020, Kendra went on to complete the Spine Challenger South in 2022 – again crossing the finish line as the first female home. Kendra is set to participate in the full Montane Winter Spine Race in 2024.
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Footwear for wet, cold ultra marathon events

When it comes to the precise type of trail running shoes you’ll need for an ultra, it depends on the distance you’ll be covering, the terrain and the weather conditions. But a key consideration for a winter ultra or trail running event is keeping water and dirt out of your shoes. And that’ll involve some extra gear beyond your running shoes themselves.

Many running shoe brands produce multi-terrain trail shoes which have built-in gaiters. But if you’re not opting for the built-in option, then Jayson recommends adding gaiters to your kit to keep dirt and stones out of your shoes.

Keeping your feet as dry and protected as possible is a key factor in ultra running, to reduce the likelihood of race-ruining blisters, cuts and sores. Alongside gaiters, for a winter ultra marathon Jayson also recommends trying a knee-length waterproof socks to reduce the frequency of water and small particles of grit getting inside. Wear a sock liner with your waterproof socks, which can be swapped for a spare pair if your feet do get wet.

Damian Hall 2023 winner snow photo credit Montane Spine Race
In a winter ultra marathon, keeping your feet as warm and dry as possible is key.

If your trail shoes aren’t fully waterproofed, then a simple wax coating (such as clear wax boot polish) is a not-so-obvious essential Jayson recommends adding to your ultra marathon gear arsenal. In a wet winter ultra, breathability is unlikely to be a concern. Using a wax coating to fully waterproof the uppers of your shoes is a great way to keep your feet as dry and comfortable as possible.

Head torch hacks

If you’re tackling an ultra event such as the Winter Spine Race, then a good head torch is essential for visibility when you’re navigating technical terrain in the dark. Brightness (typically you’ll need a torch with 100 lumens brightness or higher) and comfort are a priority. But a factor that can be overlooked is being able to keep the head torch charged up between check points.

Make sure you’re not relying on rechargeable batteries. A head torch with an interchangeable power pack is a good option, so you can carry spares with you – and in your drop bag. Where you keep your batteries is also something to consider. Store them inside your pack, rather than in an external pocket. Batteries do not perform at their best if they get too cold, and the last thing you want is to have your head torch batteries failing on you in the dead of night.

A top tip from Jayson is to tape your replacement batteries together in the configuration that they will fit into the power pack. When it’s dark and your hands are cold, trying to get individual batteries the right way up and in the right position can take up a lot more time than you might think.

Waterproof over trousers: tips for choosing and how to store them

In winter ultra marathons, protecting yourself against the elements and managing your body temperature are central to being able to successfully complete the race. That means you’ll typically find additional waterproof layers such as a jacket and over trousers on the mandatory kit list for winter events.

When choosing your over trousers, Jayson recommends to go for a pair with long zips at the bottom so they’re easy to put on and take off without having to remove your running shoes. It’s also worth looking for a pair of over trousers which have vent zips at the top. Conditions can be changeable, and you might find yourself warming up during a climb. But the weather can turn again pretty quickly. Ventilation zips are useful as you can cool off, without removing the trousers.

Laura O'Driscoll at Cape Wrath
Make sure your waterproof over trousers are easy to get to without removing your backpack.

During the event, stow your over trousers in an easily accessible side pocket when you’re not wearing them. You need to be able to put them on quickly without removing your backpack – or worse, having to dig all the way to the bottom of it. If your over trousers are hard to get to you run the risk of deciding not to put them on right away, even though you’re cold, because you don’t want to stop and lose time getting them out. That’s a big mistake, because your body will just be wasting energy trying to keep you warm and you can end up losing more time overall.

Ultra marathon backpack: what to look for and how to pack it

With so much essential gear to carry with you out on the race course, the backpack you choose for your ultra marathon needs to be both comfortable and sturdy. Another feature which it’s important not to overlook is the pockets on the backpack. Make sure you choose one with plenty of accessible pockets for items you’ll need quick access to. The less often you have to remove the backpack to retrieve those items, the better.

Choosing your backpack is one thing, but knowing how to pack it for maximum efficiency and weather protection is another. A top tip from Jayson is to use a large dry bag inside of your backpack to protect all of your gear from the elements. Inside that dry bag, use several smaller dry bags for separate items in different colours. This will not only reduce the risk of any water ingress damaging essential supplies. It’ll also make it far easier to find things, without having to rummage around. The last thing you want is to arrive at a checkpoint and waste precious time and energy searching for kit.

In training, practice running with your backpack to get used to the weight – and to test out different packing configurations. Remember that during your ultra marathon, you’ll be dealing with vast amounts of mental fatigue as well as the physical effort. You want packing and unpacking your bag to become almost second nature so that you don’t make any silly mistakes out on the race course.

A bulky stove isn’t necessary

If your ultra event features a stove on the mandatory kit list, it’s worth considering the intended use. If it’s more of an emergency option, then consider a lightweight stove. This will be perfectly sufficient to boil the typical minimum requirement of 400ml of liquid – and much more. In Jayson’s experience, a bulky storm proof or all-in-one cooking system is more of a luxury item. In ultra marathon events where you have support from checkpoints and access to hot water, this type of stove won’t be necessary.

Instead opt for a miniature stove and use storm-proof matches or a lighter to light it. Just remember that once you light a storm-proof match it won’t blow out, so get used to letting them burn themselves out.

Start your ultra marathon gear preparation early

If you’re an experienced ultra marathon runner, it’s likely you’ll have plenty of your kit already. But it’s important to check the kit list for the specific event you’re preparing for as early as possible, says Kendra Wedgwood. “Start buying the kit you need over the space of the year prior to the event you’re targeting, and start learning how to use it. Experienced runners will have some of the kit, but there’ll be items that are specific to each event.”

Sorting your gear early allows you to discover the kit that suits you best and practice with it, ensuring you’re as organised and well-rehearsed as possible when crossing the start line at your ultra marathon event.


Still deciding on your next ultra marathon event? Head over to our race guides section to help you find your next start line.

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. An endurance sport enthusiast, she has three full Iron-distance triathlon finishes under her belt

THE SBRX Show

In episode 1 of our new SBRX Show we sit down with ultra runners and coaches Kim and Jayson Cavill to get their take on the Barkley Marathons and triathlon & trail running gear reviews, training tips and more

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