Trail running is one of the fastest, simplest ways to explore the backcountry. But like any wilderness mission, it requires savvy prep and the right gear. Bring too much and you'll be seriously weighed down; skimp on the wrong stuff and you could find yourself unprepared for an emergency. Here are a handful of essentials that have seen me through solo unsupported trail runs across the Grand Canyon, multi-day stage races, 100Ks, and long DIY days in the mountains.
Nathan VaporShape Pack ($125)
My requirements for an ultra pack are pretty simple: I need enough pockets that I can access without taking off the pack; the pack needs to be adjustable so that it doesn't bounce or jostle; and it needs to be roomy enough to hold my stash for 40-plus-mile runs.
The two-liter VaporShape is all that and more: a multi-pocketed endurance vest that snugly hugs your shoulders and torso and keeps your gear within easy reach. The two front pockets (one zip, one elasticized) are ideal for gel packets, a phone, wrappers, pills, and other small first aid essentials. Long waist pockets hold bars, PBJs, and blocks, and the huge back pocket is roomy enough for a hydration pack (insulating sleeve included), a jacket, gloves, and a headlamp. A back bungee cord lashes extra layers as you shed them, and a plethora of adjustable straps help you dial in the perfect fit for racing or training.
Hydrapak Shape-Shift Reversible Reservoir ($33)
A dependable, leak-proof reservoir is the unsung hero of every trail runner's kit. Hydrapak is the best of the bunch, with a wide, envelope-like top that's fast to fill and opens and closes with a slider mechanism, which ensures a tight seal. You can fit a whole scrub brush inside, or simply turn it inside out; it's completely reversible as well as dishwasher safe, meaning no more leftover sports drink residue. Extra perks: The Plug-n-Play hose detaches easily so you can clean out any gunk, and the bite valve lock actually works. (Just remember to wash the valve well before using to rinse off the strong chemical taste.)
Spanish ultrarunner Killian Jornet famously runs epic peaks on only a few hundred calories, but for the rest of us mortals, 200 calories an hour is a smart benchmark for long-distance missions. Carbohydrate-packed energy gels pack small, go down easy, and absorb quickly, providing fast, reliable fuel on the go—but they're an acquired taste. My perennial faves for stuffing into vest pockets and the front of my running bra: vanilla bean and carmel macchiato Gu ($1.35), both of which come with caffeine. When I find myself in a dehydration hole, I chew a few margarita-flavored Clif Shot Bloks ($2.30), which deliver a walloping 150mg of sodium per serving—fast relief for fat sausage fingers and cramping calves. No matter what brand you choose, pack enough to go the distance and always train on your fuel before racing.
Patagonia Alpine Houdini Jacket ($199)
When I run high in the mountains, I always pack a lightweight jacket in case the weather gets ugly. The market's flooded with bantam weather-resistant, windproof shells, but if I'm going to lug it for 30 miles above 10,000 feet, I don't just want it to keep the wind out: I need it to keep me dry in even the heaviest of downpours. Enter Patagonia's waterproof Alpine Houdini ($199), designed by alpinists for emergency protection, so feathery it weighs under seven ounces and stuffs into its own pocket. The hood is generously sized for a climbing helmet, which means it slides easily over your beanie or visor and cinches tight to keep the drops out. Even if the forecast is for sunny skies, this one's so tiny it should live permanently in your pack.
Ridiculous Pain Elixir
I keep a small container of this in my front pocket on long efforts as on-the-fly Rx for tight achilles, aching calves, or any other muscle flare-up. Made from a special-blend coconut and sesame oil, green tea, coffee butter, blueberry extract, and a blend of herbs and spices, a dab of Ridiculous paste ($25)—named for its crazy results—increases circulation on contact to banish soreness and keep you chugging. It also aids healing and speeds recovery. Available as a two-ounce paste (transfer into a tiny container if you're trying to save on weight) and a one-ounce spray.