Splendidly Simple… in a Suitcase: Reflections on Choosing Gear

For most of the year, I’ve wanted to pen an ode in praise of keeping gear simple, in its design, ownership, and usage. Despite receiving a plentiful bounty of all sorts of gear every year in my role at iRunFar, I’d guess 90% of my apparel and pack usage is gear that’s at least a few years old with most of my favorites being at least half a decade old. Few of these products have breakthrough features or overly fancy components. In a word, they’re simple. Simplicity doesn’t preclude a product from being thoughtfully or carefully made. Indeed, simplicity demands exceptional execution.

Considering gear simplicity had me more generally reflecting on gear than I have in some years. First off, I’ll share a few general thoughts on picking up new running gear. After that, let’s take a look into my suitcase for some insight into the simplicity I love.

General Thoughts on Gear

  • Latest and not necessarily greatest. The latest and greatest gear worn by your favorite trail runner isn’t going to make you as fast as her or him. In most cases, it won’t make you any faster at all. For sure, sometimes new or updated gear can be more comfortable or less annoying or the like; that is, they’ve got marginal improvements. However, just as often, new or updated gear is just different. Don’t get caught in the trap of buying additional gear just because it’s new.
  • Need it? Read it. If you do need a piece of gear, do your research before you buy. These days, there are tons of in-depth editorial reviews as well as consumer reviews online. Also ask your friends what’s worked or not worked for them, or even see if they’ll let you give their gear a try if they own it. Go to stores and ask the staff there what they like. If it’s easy enough, check out the items you’re choosing between in person. Basically, put in the leg work to see if you’re buying what will work for you and your needs.
  • But do you really need it? Then, before you buy whatever it is, ask yourself if you really need it. Aside from replacing worn-out items (mostly socks and shoes), think twice about buying any new gear. In most cases, maintaining a list that delays purchases by 30 days from when you think about buying them can be effective at cutting nonessential purchases from all sorts of areas of your life.
  • Buy your best in bulk. If you really love a piece of gear that will wear out through daily wear, consider buying bunch of them. This is particularly true, if and when they’re discontinued and (bonus!) you can find them on clearance. A few years ago, I bought five or six pairs of my favorite New Balance running shorts and my favorite version of their 1400 road flat (that I wear on the trails). I’ve still not opened most of these, but I know I’ll have a personal favorite available as I need replacements.
  • If you love it, repair it! A little tear or hole in a pack or jacket or whatever doesn’t make it unwearable. If you really love a piece of gear, a few minutes of work, a lunch for a handy friend, or a couple bucks at your local dry cleaner or tailor can mean additional years of use. Sometimes, even if you can’t fix something, you can keep using it all the same.

What’s in My Suitcase

Currently, I’m on a 23-day European work trip that’s taking me to three very different running settings: the highly variable weather of the Alps; the warm-to-hot and humid conditions of northern Croatia; and the cool, rainy “fun” that’s found in the western Scottish Highlands. This is hardly a running holiday, so I’ve also got casual clothing for all possible conditions and a slew of reporting gear. That means I’ve got to maximize the utility of a small amount of running gear. In reality, the gear in my suitcase has passed through two filters this year: first, packing for our temporary relocation from Moab, Utah to Silverton, Colorado and, then, packing for this current work trip.

(* Enough of the following items also made it into my Hardrock 100 kit this year, that I’ll denote them with an asterisk.)

Shirts

  • Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool shirt* (first year – 2011 or 2012?) – Simply my favorite running shirt ever. Many agree with me. It’s a silkweight fabric that still manages to drape nicely and feels great on the skin, even in hot weather. If you want to part with a men’s medium in decent condition, get in touch.
  • The North Face Better Than Naked shirt (year unknown) – The BTN shirts never fail to be solid warm-to-hot weather running shirts. That said, I like some years better than others. This would be a product that I wish could freeze on the best years without the “necessary” annual update.
  • Brooks Ghost shirt – One of two new items on the trip. I only received this in August and its light and airy design has me intrigued.
  • Columbia Montrail Titanium Ultra Half Zip – My go-to warmer weather long sleeve that compliments the Smartwool PhD long sleeve I wear in colder weather. For me, a true half-zip long sleeve–where the long sleeves can be pushed above the elbows–is the height of variability. This is the coolest temperature-wise (i.e., it remains comfortable at warmer temps) long sleeve I’ve ever run in. A couple burn holes don’t stop me from wearing it.

Shorts

  • New Balance Split Shorts* x 2 – One very old and very worn pair and another three-ish-year-old pair nearly fresh out of its packaging. Some version of these shorts have been my go-to for half a decade. I’ve found what I like and I wear them to death. I’ve finally started tossing out my first five-to-six-year-old sets of shorts as they’re finally becoming unusable. That’s a pretty good stretch!
  • Patagonia Long Haul Shorts (Spring 19) – Trying out a slightly longer option for more modest run-to-cafe-type situations.

Outerwear

  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Jacket* – Another piece from my favorite running apparel collection ever: Mountain Hardwear 2011-12. I’ve had seams repaired on this jacket (Thanks, Patagonia Worn Wear!) and wear it despite burning a few holes in it last October. It’s a well-made ultralight jacket with a simple silhouette. Another piece I’d buy used. No joke.
  • Montbell Ultralight Pants* – Another ultralight windlayer that goes everywhere with me. It’s not the easiest to get on and off (I’d love to design a slightly wider slip-on version of these!), but it works really well. This well-patched pair dates to August 2008. To be honest, I rarely wear these at home, but they can’t be beat for travel. (At home, I stick with a pair of barely-holding-together, more-than-five-year-old The North Face Men’s Running Pant. They’re nothing fancy, but I love the thin, breathable material that works for me from 15 to 45 degrees Fahreneheit. Nearly every running pant is too hot for me!)
  • Outdoor Research Helium II* – This is my bomber rain jacket. I first bring it for use during race coverage, but it’s also my running rain jacket of choice. The cut is simple and generous. It’s got a full zip and hood. The only bonus feature is a single zip chest pocket and I’ll take it. It’s a medium that fits well solo, but also easily goes over a small pack, so that I can take it on and off in variable conditions.

Packs

  • Nathan 10k Elite waistbelt – This is probably my most used piece of gear ever and it dates back to 2007. Really. Last year, I ripped a hole in the webbing. (It was worn thin enough that my finger punched straight through it during a routine adjustment.) There’s no good way to fix it, but I still wear it more or less every day. I’m saving my second one of these for another decade plus of use once this one is completely unusable.
  • Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest (v1) – While I’ve yet to try version 4 of UD’s Race Vest, this lightweight pack remains my standard for any runs where I need a small amount of gear. After wearing holes in a few pockets, I got a new version of the original a year or two ago.

Running Hat

  • iRunFar Headsweats Race Hat – Okay, I’ve only been wearing this particular hat for the few months, but I’ve been wearing one of these hats since 2011… at the latest. I left my very well-worn one at home as it’s got a couple barbed flyfishing flies in it that I didn’t have the time to remove before this trip. :-)

I’ve got a couple other accessories as well as my tried and true shoes–New Balance 1400v5 (with half an Altra Stoneguard) and Columbia Montrail Bajada III–and socks–a few versions of Drymax socks–choices, but the above gives you an idea of the small amount of simple gear that get me from cold and wet to hot and humid conditions. It’s not meant to inform what you should buy–indeed, nearly all of these items are no longer available–but to demonstrate the type of gear I go for and that there’s good reason to stick with well-worn, well-loved gear.

Call for Comments

  • What are your all time favorite, super-long term use items?
  • How do you get the most out of the gear you buy?
  • How do you go about picking out the gear that’s best for you?

There are 21 comments

  1. Brian Curtin

    One worthwhile upgrade from last year’s New Balance Split Shorts (Impact model) is the addition of a second pocket which has worked great for holding a couple of Gus. They have the zip pocket on the left and this open topped second pocket on the right.

    Picked up three pairs and can hopefully hold onto them for a while.

  2. Al

    I’m amazed you can wear a running shirt from 2011! Most of the running shirts I owned from many different brands starts smelling terrible after couple years even after using the sport detergents and etc.. As far as shorts, liners start sagging and loses their elasticity along with the fabric itself. Specially if you live and run in the Southeast where every run during Summer everything you wear feels like you stood under shower.

  3. Ellie

    I believe I have offered it before, but I have a ladies size small Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool shirt from 2011 should you want it ;)

    I love this article – yes, having some great gear is nice but so often there is far too much waste out there. I have been honoured with many generous sponsors but regularly gift items to friends simply because I have too much or items I won’t use. The trails don’t need to be a fashion or gear show, to me they are in fact about escaping all of that. I bought a small Nathan pack for Canadian Death Race in 2010, I used it just yesterday as it’s my go-to small commuter pack when cycling.

    1. Sean

      Ellie, I almost want that shirt from you just to keep Bryon from wearing it, and me possibly having to see him wearing it. Let me know if he ever asks, and I’ll out-bid him

  4. ASW

    I fully agree with being thrifty and carefully planning your running purchases, but I’ve sadly been burned when buying multiple copies of my favorite shoes when they’re changed/discontinued. Sometime in 2014 I bought four pairs of original NB MT110s to plan ahead for when the two pairs I was wearing at the time finally bit the dust. For whatever reason (e.g., changes in manufacturing, poor quality control, exposure to extreme temperatures before I received them), none of the new pairs made it past 200 km before disintegrating. Today, I can still walk my dog in my original two pairs of MT110s (no tread and uppers full of holes), but my new pairs are all long gone.

  5. Delia

    My longest-running piece of gear is an REI house brand longsleeve polypropylene top from 1997 (!!) that might have been sold as a ski baselayer – hard to remember. I wear it for a bit more warmth over a shortsleeve shirt. It’s probably lasted this long because I don’t wash it as often as the shirts worn underneath.

    Keeping these clothes out of the dryer is so important! Wash in cold water and hang them up to dry – it makes a big difference in prolonging life of elastics.

    I appreciate that some races are making t-shirts and other schwag optional (opt-in). Here on the east coast, Red Newt Racing is a good example.

  6. Sean

    This is one of the reasons why we’re buddies – we both like our old, simple gear, and see no reason to replace it when it’s been working great for a decade+, and continues to perform up to our high expectations.

    I’m a huge fan of a few of the items you mentioned: MHW Way2Cool shirt (I think I have 3 short sleeves and 3 tanks, all at least 6 years old) & MHW Ghost Whisperer Hooded Jacket (I recently had to get a hole patched on mine and MHW’s warranty department couldn’t believe the jacket was in such good shape for being such a minimalist jacket and 6ish years old). And no, none of my Way2Cool shirts or the jacket are for sale to you.

    Some of my other oldies-and-goodies:
    Patagonia 2002 shorty running shorts, v-notch, 2 pairs, each with 2 velcro-closure pockets for gels are still part of my bi-weekly rotation (although I’ve recently noticed the liner in one pair is now starting to get stretched-out and almost has some holes)
    Brooks 2008 shorty running shorts, 3/4 split, 2 pairs, each with 2 velcro-closure pockets for gels are great for interval and race days
    Patagonia 2002 light weight, long sleeve, 1/4 zip shirt is excellent in the fall and spring
    Smartwool 2002 mid weight, short sleeve shirt is one of my go-to base layers in cold and wet weather
    Craft 2002 mid weight, long sleeve, crew neck shirt is my go-to base layer in cold winter conditions
    Patagonia 2004ish Nine Trails shorts, 3 zippered pockets, great for run/hikes, swimming, traveling (all over the world), biking around town, etc. I frickin’ love these – and it’s the zippered pockets, liner, and longer (but not long) length that make them so versatile.
    MHW 2008 big cozy, comfy, warm down jacket; it’s been through some harsh conditions and hasn’t failed me yet.
    Patagonia 2002 Airius hat – I absolutely love how lightweight, breathable, and scrunchable this hat is. It’s accompanied my Nine Trails shorts and me all over the world.
    Pearl Izumi mid-1990s sleeveless, 3/4 zip cycling jersey; this is great for hot days on the bike and DIM (do-it myself) duathlons
    Ultimate Direction late-90s / early-00s foam handheld strap – light and simple, no extra pockets to hold stuff that my shorts can’t hold (the first generation of the Jurek Grip was an excellent replacement to this, but UD changed it so it now only fits their bottles instead of the standard 20-oz bottles that most people have)
    Bridgestone 1989 MB3 – my first, and only, mountain bike has evolved over the years and now serves as my main source of transportation around town, and still occasionally sees some dirt under its tires
    Etc, etc, etc…
    One prized piece of gear I bought in the late-80s, Oakley Razor Blades, were eventually sent back to Oakley about a dozen years ago when they told me they stopped making the glasses and its replacement parts, so they couldn’t replace the ear pieces that had broke; well, now they’ve brought back those classics and I’m bummed I sent back my originals.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that if you spend the money to get good gear, and treat it well (reference Delia’s comment about washing and drying; also, big props to Ian for optional schwag items), it will last a long time, so there’s no need to replace it very often. Use what you got until it needs replacing, not just when you want to replace it.

      1. Sean

        Thanks, Andy! Like I said, use what you got until it needs replacing, not just when you want to replace it; and really, I’ve never actually even wanted to replace my well-functioning 10-year old flip phone (the one and only cell phone I’ve ever owned). I considered adding it to my list, but thought that my comment should pertain to sports-related stuff, and my old flippie definitely has nothing to do with sports.

  7. Tak

    Hi Bryon!

    Thanks for the article! One gear item was missing: what kind of watch are you using for running? Are you wearing only one watch for all occasions or do you have a separate lunch watch? And have you considered of making a running watch review? That would be really handy and much appreciated. Thanks, man!

  8. Brandon

    I like to wear out my my gear as well, often finally giving in to my wife and kids’ complaints about the smell factor. I tell them I have a relationship with this shirt, these shorts, the socks from that race, and the smell doesn’t matter since I’m going to be sweating in it shortly anyway, but still…

    So, my question for you is how you keep your old stuff smelling decent enough to be allowed to remain in the house (or the garage, etc). Maybe there’s a secret detergent out there, or way of washing, that keeps things smelling like a rose?

  9. Chris

    Personally I cant find a tech running shirt that is as comfortable as a standard 100% cotton shirt. Sure the cotton shirt wont last forever, but the tech shirts always feel cloying, static-y, and they chafe the nips. Does any company make cotton running shirts?

    1. brandon

      I really like my current shirt made by Rabbit. It’s very soft and light, not cotton but has that brushed-cotton feel. It ain’t cheap but it’s made in the USA. I got mine from a race and bought a second one from the race as well.

  10. Patrick

    As far as the ripped hole is concerned: If you can access it from both sides, lay it flat/drape it and put some clear tape on one side, then coat with SeamGrip from the other. Let it cure. Peel off tape. An alterations taylor or a cobbler could also do some back-and-forth stiching over a worn area to reinforce the fabric. Both methods works fine for me on clothing and gear.

  11. JEFF BAILEY

    I keep an ice chest filled with a scoop of oxyclean (generic) and water in the laundry room.my running shirts go straight in there and soak until the next load of laundry is run. It seems to do magic!

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