The 50k trail run is a wonderful entry point to ultramarathons. It is the shortest official ultramarathon distance, 31 miles, roughly 5 miles longer than a marathon. While that might not seem like a significantly harder challenge, a 50k race is typically completed on much more challenging terrain, oftentimes in remote areas.
I can assure you that training for and racing a 50k is in a league of its own! In trail ultramarathons, the importance of having the right gear cannot be overstated. In some cases, it can even save your life! The general idea is to carry enough to keep you comfortable and safe but not so much that it drastically affects your performance.
We want you prepared for a variety of circumstances but still feeling light and fast! I will provide you with my list of essential items, but it’s up to you to test out various products within each space and find the one that works best for you.
For example, you are definitely going to need a system for staying hydrated throughout your race, but whether it’ll be a running pack, a waist belt, or a pair of simple handhelds depends on the race you are running and your body type, comfort preferences, and appreciated features.
Running 50k is hard enough in and of itself. Being prepared with all the right gear will allow you to focus your mental and physical effort on the running, and not on what you wish you had brought along but didn’t. Okay, let’s get rolling and set you up for success!
List of essential gear to pack for a 50k trail run:
Ever show up to the trailhead without your running shoes? Stomach. Drop. It’s the worst! Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the little things that we forget something major. Your perfectly broken in running shoes are item number 1.
Pro tip: if you are flying to your race, keep your running shoes in your carry on!
Wear what you wear in training! I know, I know, race day makes you want to get all dressed up and looking snazzy, but wearing anything new on race day is a risk. Also, definitely monitor the weather closely before the race so that you know how much layering to bring.
I recommend carrying enough clothing to get you through the worst possible forecast. It’s a fine balance though, you want to be safe out in the elements but you also don’t want to overdo it.
As a general rule, err slightly on the side of safety, but maybe consider ditching some pieces when you see your crew members along the route.
Your hydration plan will depend largely on the race you are running. If there are aid stations every 3-5 miles and the weather forecast is pleasant, you might only need a single handheld water bottle.
But if the gaps between aid stations are longer and the weather is more variable, I highly recommend wearing a hydration pack that can carry a couple water flasks or bladder. Typically packs also have convenient pockets and sufficient capacity for carrying all the items you might need.
Calories and Electrolytes
Similar to clothing, use whatever you’ve been using in training. It’s totally fine to bring all the calories you might need throughout the entire 50k. Aid stations are great but I view the food they contain as a backup if the calories I bring aren’t working for me.
So if Root Beer flavored Gu gel has been your go-to, stick to it! And then if at mile 20, your gag reflex is triggered by the idea of any form of gel, then dig into the fruit or mashed potatoes or chips or whatever sounds good at the aid stations.
It’s also good to remember that your intake of calories will be a little greater than during a typical training run. So if you usually take one gel per hour, plan on 1.5 or 2 per hour on race day because of the increased exertion.
Toilet Paper in a Plastic Bag
As we all know, nature sometimes calls at inopportune moments, so we have to be prepared! If you haven’t been doing this already, I suggest you start. I recommend bringing a snack-size ziploc baggie with enough toilet paper inside to handle the job.
After you do the do, you take your used toilet paper and put it back in the ziploc, seal it, and stuff it into your shorts or pack pocket. If you fold the toilet paper and seal the baggie well, it’s really not that gross. You’ll then cross the finish line and dispose of the baggie whenever an opportunity arises.
Why go to all the trouble? Because this is trail running and trail runners are stewards of the environment. It’s our playground and we need to protect it! Burying the toilet paper is insufficient.
Dogs, wild animals, or even the wind can unearth your toilet paper’s shallow grave and send it into a water source or back onto the trail for all to see. Pack it in, pack it out! That even goes for TP.
There are so many factors that contribute to chafing. The weather and environmental factors are two big ones. Your race may be in a more humid climate than where you train or you might get hit by rain in the early stages, which can set off some rubbing in areas of the body you never planned on.
Applying anti-chafing lube before the race is great, but having a little tube of it on you during the race is the best. You can address any issues that arise on the spot and stay ahead of any horrendous chafing experiences.
While not super common, some larger races require that you show an ID in order to pick up your race number at the packet pickup tent. It can also help in the case of an accident or emergency.
Bring along a paper copy or have the GPX track loaded on your phone’s navigation app, preferably both. Having a course map will provide you with some peace of mind as well as help you get back on track if you get lost or turned around out there.
Sometimes race markings disappear! It’s part of the sport. I’ve been in races where vandals have moved trail signs or removed them altogether. Elk have even been known to eat colorful ribbons off of trees, which is not good for the elk or for the runners who might miss a turn.
So bring along a course map and know how to read it!
Cash or Credit Card
You never know what might happen during an ultra. If an old injury resurfaces during the race and you need to drop out, you might pull the plug in a town you are passing through instead of at the next aid station.
Note: Always notify the race organization if you drop out somewhere other than at an aid station or they might send out search and rescue to look for you.
With a little cash, you can buy a much needed meal while waiting for your crew to come pick you up or pay someone for a ride back to the start.
Remember that some 50k races start in the dark! Make sure to check the start time and time of sunrise to confirm a daylight start. It’s also possible during a winter ultra that you may not finish the race during daylight.
Or what if you get lost and you aren’t able to find your way out of there until after the sun goes down? You do not want to be fumbling around during the night without a headlamp so in an abundance of caution, bring a small headlamp just in case.
I have a space blanket tucked away at the bottom of my running pack and never take it out. It lives there and will likely never get used, but it’s always there just in case.
If for some reason I need to spend a night out in the cold or if I get caught in a bad storm or suffer an injury that sends me into shock, the space blanket can literally save my life. It weighs essentially nothing and they are very cheap so I recommend throwing it in with your race day essentials.
Optional but wise, mostly for safety purposes. If an accident happens and there is any shred of chance that you can find cell reception, it’ll be a lifesaver.
Another item I’ll place in the optional category but that I highly recommend is a memento that can motivate you or help you weather a low patch.
Whether it be a photo of your kids or a quote you jot down on a piece of paper or that tiny vial of sand you brought home from Thailand that reminds you to breathe deep. What will help you do your best? Or at the very least, remind you that your 50k finish is worth the suffering?
Recap and Next Steps
There you have it! Those are the essentials (with a couple optional add-ons) to bring with you to your 50k. I highly recommend that you start assembling your items well in advance of the race. And consider doing a trial run.
On your last long run before the race, go through the motions as if it were race day, assemble all your gear and carry everything you plan to bring to the race. You’ll then have a better idea of how everything will fit into your pack and what the exact weight will feel like.
50K Trail Run Checklist
|Running Shoes||A good pair of running shoes that are broken in and appropriate for the course terrain.|
|Running Apparel||Clothes that you have run in for multiple hours. Specific clothing and gear depends on the course terrain and weather, but the key is not wearing anything new on race day.|
|Hydration System||A hydration pack with a bladder, flasks, or a handheld water bottle. Many trail races are cupless, so ensure you have something to fill up with water and electrolytes.|
|Calories and Electrolytes||Gels, chews, bars, or other forms of fuel that you have trained with. Some runners recommend carrying all of their fuel with them in the race, and relying on aid stations to supplement. Don’t experiment with new fuel ideas on race day (save the Big Mac idea for later).|
|Toilet Paper in a Plastic Bag||A snack-size ziploc baggie with enough toilet paper inside to handle the job.|
|Lube||A small tube of lube to prevent chafing.|
|Driver’s License||Your driver’s license or other form of ID.|
|Course Map||A paper copy or a digital copy of the course map.|
|Cash or Credit Card||A little cash or a credit card in case of an emergency.|
|Headlamp||A small headlamp in case you start or finish the race in the dark.|
|Space Blanket||A small space blanket in case you get caught in bad weather or need to spend the night out in the cold.|
|Cell Phone||A cell phone for safety and communication purposes.|
|Personal Momento||A small item that can motivate you or help you weather a low patch.|
Alright, I hope you found this article helpful! It wouldn’t hurt to bookmark it on your internet browser or print out the easy reference checklist above to serve as a last-minute reference.
Best of luck in your 50k! You’re going to crush it!
Chase is a USATF Level 1 certified running coach. He has experience in both online and high school cross country/track coaching. You can find his writing in Trail Runner and Ultrarunning Magazine. As a lifelong runner with over 50 marathons and ultra marathons under his belt, he has learned the art and science of running by experience, sometimes the hard way. He is most proud of completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100 mile trail race in the Alps, or his 2:35 marathon personal best that he is intent on lowering to sub-2:30 before Father Time crushes his dreams. Find more from Chase at his blog, Treeline Journal.