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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

My MdS Pack List

(Though most of this is in my book, by the time the book hits the market on April 1st it will be too late for most 2018 MdS runners, so I've put this up here. Note: This version was written before I was at the MdS. I was happy with just about all my choices. But I posted a YouTube video with tips after I came back, just search for my name in YouTube and you'll find it.)

Coach Timon gave me a weight limit. My backpack, without the marathon kit which is supplied by the race organizers at check-in, should not weigh more than 6.5 kg.

Marathon des Sables, Holly Zimmermann, Ultramarathon Mom
Planning my gear
This is an unbelievable target when you consider what needs to be included in that number: sleeping bag, clothing, headlamp, camera, personal and safety items, oh, and food. For a week. Essentially everything that I will require to survive 7 days in the Sahara Desert needs to be carried on my back, except for water.

You have to weigh the pros and cons. Do I really need that extra pair of shorts? A pillow? Mattress? And how many calories are essential to get me through the rigors of each day? Can I live on dried fruit, nuts and sports bars? Or will I crave a hot meal after trekking for endless hours across the dunes under a scorching sun?

My coach, who has run the MdS three times, says, “Either you NEED an item, or you DON’T. There is no middle ground. If you think you MAY use something, or it MIGHT BE NICE TO HAVE…then leave it at home.” Consider this, if my backpack at the start, with marathon kit, weighs 7 kg and my body weight is 54 kg, then I am lugging 13% of my body weight in an environment that is already forcing my pulse to rise and my body temperature to increase…even when I am sitting in the shade.

Healthy snack while planning
Needless to say for the past two months I have spent endless hours analyzing food calorie content versus weight, scouring the Internet for the lightest safety items on the market, testing whether my stomach can handle certain new foods, not to mention training with a weighted pack.
Last week I gathered all my gear together and headed south across the border into Switzerland where I met with my coach to go through my pack list item-by-item. 

And here’s where we landed…

First, the ‘Essentials’, consisting of the mandatory equipment required by the rules and also the marathon kit provided upon check-in, all of which need to be carried at all times or penalties will be incurred.

Mandatory Equipment Description Weight (grams)
Backpack w/ bottles, whistle WAA-MdS-Rucksack with one side pocket carried in front  880
Sleeping bag Sea to Summit, Spark SPI 400
Head torch w/ spare batteries Black Diamond (62+ 36 + 36) 134
10 safety pins 3
Compass Recta DT200  21
Lighter 15
Knife with metal blade Exacto-knife 10
Topical disinfectant Sterilium, 100ml  107
Anti-venom pump VeniStop 37
Signaling mirror 10
Aluminum survival sheet Tatonka 210 X 160 cm 64
Sun screen La Roche-Posay, 50+ 62
Cash 200 Euro 6
Total  1749
Marathon Kit
Road book 80
SPOT Gen3 Satellite tracker 114
Chronotags Zeitmessung; Time measurement 10
Salt tablets 50
Toilet sachets 150
ID marks Punch cards 20
Total 424

Marathon des Sables, Holly Zimmermann, Ultramarathon Mom
WAA MdS Backpack
I chose the MdS backpack from WAA (see my users video tutorial for a basic intro to how it 'works') because it has everything that you need for this race, and it better had, cause that’s what it was specially designed for. I looked at a few other bags from Salomon and Raidlight but the fit and functionality were not optimal for me. 

The Sea to Summit Spark SPI sleeping bag was chosen simply on the recommendation of my coach. It’s light, compact, he used it in the desert, it worked. Period. But it wasn’t cheap. 

I bought the Black Diamond headlamp two years ago for a 24-hour bike race and although it’s not the lightest on the market, it’s a good quality one and I can’t justify coughing up a ton of money on for a new one, which I’ll never need again, just to save a few grams.

Marathon des Sables, Holly Zimmermann, Ultramarathon Mom
Mandatory items
Timon took one look at my compass (see my video guide to basic compass use) and said I needed to cut the flange off. Guess I need to look for that Japanese precision saw I’ve got hidden somewhere in the garage.

My little metal-bladed exacto-knife usually finds it’s home in my office where I use it to open packages. Cutting open a box with it one day I realized that it is probably about the lightest knife I’m going to find and it would be perfect for the MdS. Check.

The signaling mirror (very, very basic intro video to use of a signaling mirror) also got a nix from Timon and if I can’t find a smaller/lighter one then the Japanese saw will have double duty.

The weight of the items in the Marathon Kit are a guesstimate, but I have no control over it anyway. It’s all gotta be schlepped!

Next up…clothing! No, it’s not required, but definitely essential. ;)

Item Description Weight (g)
Saharian hat Salomon 58
Short-sleeve top  Raidlight 99
Shorts Skins compression 83 g; Nike Dri-Fit shorts 112g 112
Calf tights Skins 53
Sunglasses Nike 23
Buff Buff 28
Running shoes /gaiters Inov-8 X-Talon 212 Size 44 with WAA-MdS Gaitors 650
Sports bra Patagonia 26
Socks Injinii toe socks 34
Total on Body 1083
Sand-proof glasses WAA-MdS 51
Compression tights for recovery XBionic 160
Underwear Patagonia 19
Shirt Asics Run4Refugees 95 g; Review Light shirt 70g 70
Extra socks Falke RU4W 31
Windbreaker Salomon 70
Slippers Renaissance Hamburg 58
Total in backpack 459

The Saharian hat from Salomon has a hole in the back for my ponytail! Reason enough. Check.

I choose a short-sleeve top from Raidlight because it is very light and breathable, it has a half-zip in the front so I can adjust it for cooling, it covers up to my neck so the backpack straps won’t have contact with my skin, it has gel application spots on the shoulders to reduce slippage of the backpack, and it has side pockets for sports bars, salt tablets, nuts, iso-tabs…whatever.

What Merino wool did to my back
Note on material: Please make sure you train with the shirt you are planning on wearing at the MdS, even if you have other layers over it and then your backpack, so that you can see how your skin reacts to the material of your chosen shirt under the weight of your pack. Many people swear by Merino wool but I have mixed feelings about it. I think it is a great material when you require a bit of extra warmth as a first layer when doing outdoor winter activities that do not require significant sweating, e.g. hiking, skiing, biking, etc. But when I run in Merino wool my sweat is simply stored in the shirt and comes off in a soaking mess when I’m done. Another huge negative is that when worn under a backpack it rubs against the skin and causes chafing (see photo). This may not be the case for everyone, but I’ve heard the same from others, so try it out to be sure!

Compression tights
Originally I wanted to wear loose shorts with a slip, but they are very short and I was afraid that if my legs swell slightly then the thighs could rub against each other and each step could become agony. So I choose the compression shorts from Skins (in pink) which are very comfortable and light. Timon saw these, laughed and said he is familiar with the Skins products and that if I don’t rinse them out after running they’ll be standing on their own after a couple of days, but I was planning on doing a bit of “laundry” each day anyway. (Then at the last minute, I changed my mind again for the loose shorts and was happy with my decision.)

I chose the calf tights from Skins simply because I find them more comfortable than those from other makers.

My tried-and-true Nike Impel Swift sunglasses have never let me down so they get to tag along in the Sahara.

My son trying out my sneaks and gaitors
The Inov-8 X-Talon 212s are my shoe of choice. I also considered something from Salomon, but on the advice of my coach (who also wore these) and from my own experience with the shoe I decided to go with these. They are very minimalist and not at all good for roads, but on the trails they are really like a second skin…light, breathable and plenty of space in the toe box. I bought the WAA-MdS Gaitors to go with them and had the Velcro application stitched into the upper by Timon’s trusted Italian cobbler in Zurich. How can you go wrong with that?

My itsy-bitsy Patagonia sports bra weighs only 26 grams. Of all the nights I’ve cried over not be blessed with a hefty front rack, I can honestly say I can’t imagine running with much more than perfect little size A’s. 
P.S. Thanks, God. ;)

Injinii toe socks! Separate the toes and you separate the sand that happens to get in and thus avoid chafing. I’ll carry an extra pair of regular socks in the pack…just in case I can’t get my toes into the toe sockets for some ungodly reason which I hope never to encounter.

There is not a huge market for sand-proof sunglasses so I had to go with the ones from WAA although they are slightly too big for my face. Timon says if there is a bad sandstorm then, worse-come-to-worse, I can cut two small eye holes in my buff and wrap it up and over my glasses. Good to know, but hopefully this will remain just a useful mental note.

My camp clothes consist of long compression tights from XBionic, a light-weight T-shirt (still undecided), slippers nipped from the Renaissance Hotel in Hamburg, and I have the Fast Wing Hoodie from Salomon for wind protection, though it provides no warmth and breathability is minimal if at all.

Now comes my own material which I have chosen to bring, necessary in my own eyes, but is not required. This list will naturally vary wildly amongst runners.

Own Material Description Weight
Toilet paper/wipes 30
Camera Lenco HD400 (121g w/ protective case) 54
Watch Polar, no GPS 42
Plastic spoon 3
Toothbrush, -paste 14
Ziplock plastic bags (clothes, road book, sleeping bag, daily food, medical items) 50
Twine 1 meter 1
Soap, small bar 10
Mini Tissues 10 pieces 30
Blistex 10
Diary 108
Pencil 2
Iso tape, Q-tips, Ear plugs 7
Total  361
My husband gave me the Go-Pro knock-off camera for Christmas, but I still have to figure out how it works. On the To-Do list. 

I’m not bringing my GPS Garmin watch since I don’t want to worry about having to charge it and carry a battery pack, but I’ll need a watch to keep a basic check on my pace and how often I’m drinking.

The plastic fork was the lightest I could find, but it’s so flimsy that I’m afraid if I even blow on it, it’ll snap in two. Need to contemplate that choice.

Daily diary
The only real ‘luxury’ item I’m bringing is a small book to be used as a diary so I can write down my daily adventures and make sketches when they are fresh in my head. You’ll get the benefit of this too when you can read it later on in my blog or in a book.

Mini towels
Personal hygiene articles will of course include a small travel plastic toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bar of soap, and well, toilet paper is also BYO. In addition I dried out some personal hygiene wipes and can simply add a bit of water to get an extra good cleaning. Hope my fellow runners, at least my tent mates, will do the same. 

I’ll also be taking some compressed mini towels. They are dried and compressed to the size of a bon-bon and then when you add a tiny bit of water to them they begin to release and you can unroll them and open them up to a size a bit larger than a Kleenex, but of a gauzy-towelish material. I plan to use these with a bit of soap for washing my face, feet, etc. then I can simply throw the dirty ones away.

A tube of Blistex is a MUST for me for sun protection of my lips, as well as ear plugs to help me get a good nights sleep (yeah, wishful thinking, right?). 

And….last but not least, what you’ve all been waiting for….FOOD!!!!

Long Day Food item Amount            (unit or grams) Calories / 100g Calories/unit Total Calories Weight/unit Total Weight
BP-WH 2 486 270 540 56 112
Nutrixxion 1 398 219 219 55 55
Millenium 3 476 400 1200 84 252
Cashews/Almonds 50 553 NA 276 NA 50
Dried mango 50 319 319 159 50 50
Sponsor EAC 6 NA 4.9 29.4 1.4 8.4
Nuun tabs for isotonic 2 NA 16 32 5 10
Dried coffee 1 NA 0 0 2 2
2455.4 539.4
Rest day Food item Amount            (unit or grams) Calories / 100g Calories/unit Total Calories Weight/unit Total Weight
BP-WH 2 486 270 540 56 112
Nutrixxion 1 398 219 219 55 55
Millenium 1 476 400 400 84 84
Cashews/Almonds 50 553 NA 276 NA 50
Dried mango 50 319 319 159 50 50
Dehydrated Meal 191 350 350 668 191 191
Sponsor EAC 6 NA 4.9 29.4 1.4 8.4
Dried coffee 1 NA 0 0 2 2
Total 2291.4 552.4

2 short days Food item Amount            (unit or grams) Calories / 100g Calories/unit Total Calories Weight/unit Total Weight
BP-WH 2 486 270 540 56 112
Nutrixxion 1 398 219 219 55 55
Millenium 1 476 400 400 84 84
Cashews/Almonds 50 553 NA 276 NA 50
Dried mango 50 319 319 159 50 50
Dehydrated Meal 191 350 350 668 191 191
Sponsor EAC 6 NA 4.9 29.4 1.4 8.4
Nuun tabs for isotonic 1 NA 16 16 5 5
Dried coffee 1 NA 0 0 2 2
Subtotal 2307.4 557.4
Total 4614.8 1114.8
2 Other
short days
Food item Amount            (unit or grams) Calories / 100g Calories/unit Total Calories Weight/unit Total Weight
BP-WH 2 486 270 540 56 112
Nutrixxion 1 398 219 219 55 55
Millenium 2 476 400 800 84 168
Cashews/Almonds 50 553 NA 276 NA 50
Dried mango 50 319 319 159 50 50
Sponsor EAC 6 NA 4.9 29.4 1.4 8.4
Nuun tabs for isotonic 1 NA 16 16 5 5
Dried coffee 1 NA 0 0 2 2
Subtotal 2039.4 450.4
Total 4078.8 900.8
Food item Amount            (unit or grams) Calories / 100g Calories/unit Total Calories Weight/unit Total Weight
Charity stage BP-WH 2 486 270 540 56 112
Millenium 2 476 400 800 84 168
Cashews/Almonds 100 553 NA 553 NA 50
Dried mango 50 319 319 159 50 50
Dried coffee 1 NA 0 0 2 2
Total 2052 382
Chia seeds 486 100
Micro-nutrients 53
Total weight 3642.4
Total calories 15978.4
Total weight in bag 6635.4

I’m not 100% set on this nutritional strategy, but plus or minus a couple of dehydrated meals and maybe a sports bar on the last day and I’ll have it covered.

My breakfast each day will consist of two BP-WR bars and freeze-dried coffee for my needed caffeine kick. The coffee will only be hot if I’m lucky enough to have a tent mate who has boiled too much water for his/her own breakfast and has some to spare, otherwise it will be iced-coffee. The BP-WR bars are highly condensed wheat biscuits with high energy density of 270 calories per 55-gram bar, so I’ll already be getting over 500 calories in for breakfast, and the bars also have added vitamins and minerals. The only drawback with these is that they are very, very dry and crumbly, which is why I am planning on having them for breakfast rather than on the run. I can eat them carefully and make sure I don’t lose too many precious calories as crumbs on the ground.

My beloved dried mango
On the run I’ll be eating Nutrixxion and Millenium bars, which are also similar to the BPs in calorie density and nutritional value, but have different flavors to keep me entertained, namely, cappuccino, cherry and raspberry. At home I roast my own cashews and almonds and add soy sauce to them. Since I don’t eat meat these are a great source of protein, not to mention salt, which is going to be critical during this race. I’ll also be taking some dried mango just ‘cause I love it and I think I’ll need a sour-flavor kick. 

I plan on taking three Trek ‘n Eat dehydrated meals. Not necessarily for the calorie content, since they are considerably less calorie dense than my sports bars, but because I am afraid that at some point I may crave a hot meal. But again, since I am not bringing a stove, I will have to simply rely on pouring water directly into the meal bag and let it sit in the sun for an hour in the hot sand, letting nature take over the cooking. But on the long day I will definitely not plan on eating one of these since once I’m finally back at camp I’m sure all I’ll want to do is crawl into my sleeping bag and won’t have the energy capable to prepare anything nor to eat such a huge quantity of food. 

Dehydrated meal
Vitamins and minerals

And to top off the nutritional requirements I’ll be taking Sponser Pro Amino EAC tablets which contain an amino acid complex to help speed up my regeneration and also NUUN tabs to pop into a couple water bottles per day for an isotonic drink which will replenish some of the sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that I’ll lose through sweat.

And that’s it! So, what’s the final tally?

Total Weight Food                 3553 g
Total Own Material                 422 g
Total Mandatory                    2209 g
Weight of clothing in pack      459 g
Total Weight in Backpack   6643 g

Happy, coach? 

I am.


  1. I thought a whistle was required equipment, but I don't see it on your list?

    As far as the lighter signal mirror - I've used three 10 gram commercial signal mirrors with retroreflective aimers: the American Medical Kits Mini Rescue Flash™ (1.5"x2"), the American StarFlash Micro (1.5"x2") and the British BCB Mayday Signal Mirror (2"x2"). There is an online discussion of the last two here, including side by side photos of the mirrors themselves and their beams on a wall: http://forums.equipped.org/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=202655#Post202655

    I checked, and all are available on Ebay US with shipment to Austria. My favorite is the Mini Rescue Flash™, which was developed for (and is included in ) the AMK "Scout" survival kit: http://www.adventuremedicalkits.com/survive-outdoors-longer-scout.html.

    Alas, it is hard to find by itself, and the extra cost of the kit may deter you. The BCB has a diffuse, weak beam, so I'm not fond of that. The Starflash Micro might be a happy compromise.

    A straightforward way to get the mini Rescue Flash at lower cost is to buy just the (readily available) AMK SOL Rescue Flash 2"x3" mirror and cut off the ends with your Japanese saw to make your own 2"x1.5" signal mirror.

    For any of these, while the retroreflective aimer has great accuracy (which is why all US, French, and Chinese air force signal mirrors have them), they are non-intuitive at first.

    Here is a tutorial by the designer of the Rescue Flash mirror: http://www.dougritter.com/psp_rescueflash.htm

    If you are having trouble finding the "fireball" aimer created by the retroreflective aimer, here's an illustrated "step by step" procedure.

    This page goes a bit more into the history and operating principles of retroreflective signal mirror aimers: http://www.equipped.org/phony_signal_mirrors.htm

    1. Thanks for the super-informative comment! I'll check out your links. And yes, a whistle is required, and since there is one attached to the WAA MdS backpack I've listed it with that rather than separately...but thanks for watching my back! :)