MdS Gear: Pack and Sleep System

Marathon des Sables 2009Anyone who has run a self-sufficient stage race knows that the contents of your backpack become the foundation of your world throughout the week. Need to take care of a problem? A solution had better be in the pack, because if it’s not there, you’re SOL. Fortunately, my 25 liters of supplies were more than enough to keep me in top form throughout the race. Below I discuss some of the gear with which I started this year’s Marathon des Sables (a much different list than the gear with which I finished the race), how it worked, if and how I modified it, and, in a few instances, why I chose one piece of gear over alternatives.

[Yes, I realize some of you may be tired of reading about the Marathon des Sables at this point, but this post is a convenient way to discuss a bunch of gear that folks may use in a number of settings. If you are tired of reading about the Marathon des Sables, move on. If you want to find out about the gear got me across the desert, keep reading.]

General MdS Gear List
Below is a basic MdS Kit run down of my my MdS gear. In this post, I’ll discuss my pack, hydration system, and sleep system.

  • OMM Classic Marathon 25L with 2 Raidlight shoulder strap water bottle holders
  • PHD Minim Ultra Down sleeping bag
  • Gossamer Gear NightLight sleeping pad
  • Clothing/spare footwear
  • Mandatory gear (light, compass, antivenom kit, etc.)
  • Luxuries (sunglasses, iPhone, Garmin, solar charger)
  • Medical Gear

The OMM Classic Marathon 25 L (and Hydration System)
OMM Classic Marathon 25L packNo piece of kit is more important at MdS that the back pack – it must hold all your gear, serve as an interface between you and your gear, and be a functional piece of gear in and of itself. Give the critical nature of the pack, I tried four companies’ models that all fell between 22 and 25 liters in capacity. I plan to review each of the four packs individually, as each has advantages, but for the moment I’ll give you some highlights of my final choice: the OMM Classic Marathon 25 L. I chose this pack from a UK-based company because it was relatively light (not my biggest concern), had an integrated sleeping pad, fit well/had minimal bounce (the Osprey Talon 22 was the only pack I tested that bounced less), and I loved the hip pockets.

As mentioned, the OMM Classic 25 integrates a sleeping pad into the structure of the pack. To do this, OMM added a slot pocket between the back panel and the hydration pocket. The pack comes with a thin and dense sleeping pad with which I trained. However, I swapped that out for a torso-length Gossamer Gear pad once in Morocco. While it was a battle to get the rolled up GG pad in the pocket the first two days, it fit and was comfy. Packing the pad got easier even by the second time I packed it.

Bryon Powell OMM Classic Marathon 25L packThe pack fit solidly even after I pitched the sleeping pad. In fact, I had zero shoulder, waist, or back chafing during the entire event – a claim that I doubt many others could repeat based on what I saw. I loved the easy access the two hip pockets gave me to my Gu and salt tabs throughout the event.

As for weight, the pack is listed at a reasonable 725 g, but I’d cut that down by 144 g to 581 g by the time the race started. Post-race, the pack weighed in at a svelte 353 grams… less than half the original pack weight and 247 grams less than the pack’s supposed “leanweight.”

For the race, I purchased Raidlight shoulder strap water bottle holders with bottles. The holders slip over a pack’s shoulder straps to carry water bottles. The provided bottles include straws with bite valves, so that one need not do anything other than reposition their head and suck in order to drink. To shorten the story, I hated the bottles and purchased a pair of 26 oz Ultimate Direction bottles with kicker valves. I found that I had no problem carrying one bottle, so I tossed one of my Raidlight bottle holders after the first stage. While a full bottle would bounce slightly in the Raidlight holder, the holder performed adequately.

Sleep System
PHD Minim Ultra sleeping bagWhen I signed up for MdS, I had two more than competent sleeping bags: the Montbell UL SS 30F bag and the Rab Quantum Top Bag AR. Despite liking both of these bags, I knew I could shave a couple 100 grams off my pack weight by going with the PHD Minim Ultra Down sleeping bag. The bag uses 900 down (super high quality) to achieve a 46 degree rating while weighing well under 400 g. Michael Wardian and I ordered ours together and opted to have foot vents added in case we slept too hot, as the standard version of the bag is zipperless. (My version with the optional velcro foot vent weighed in at 368 in a Granite Gear #3 stuff sack.) It’s worth noting that PHD was extremely willing to make custom modifications to our bags to fit our needs.

Given how light the bag is, I knew I’d be pushing the temperature rating during the cool desert nights. That’s why I’d hoped to have a night to test the Minim Ultra in the bivouac before turning in our extra gear on Admin Day. (If first night was too cold, I would have switched to the much warmer Montbell bag that I had brought as a backup.) Flooding canceled our pre-checkin bivouac night, but I decided to take my chances with the PhD Minim Ultra anyway.

The first night started off cool with a light 5-10 mph breeze. By midnight the light breeze had turned into a 20-25 mph wind… and I was on the open, windward side of our two walled tent. I froze. Fortunately, by morning I’d wrapped myself up in the carpet that served as the floor of our tent and that windbreak was enough to make the Minim Ultra suitable. In later nights, I remained positioned on the outside edge of our tent, but cleared the carpet edge before going to bed for later use as a cocoon and otherwise modified the tent and backpack arrangements to cut down on the wind. Even in unseasonably cool conditions, these modifications were enough to keep me warm on the subsequent nights. I think I would have been much warmer had I had one of the interior positions in the tent. Another solution would have been a Mylar bivy sack to use as a windbreak on the outside of the bag.

Gossamer Gear NightLight sleeping padI slept on a Gossamer Gear NightLight sleeping pad my first two nights in the bivouac. Before the start, I cut the pad down until it ran only from my shoulders to just below my hip bone. At this length, it weighed 97 g… much lighter than the 152 g torso length pad included with the OMM pack. In addition, the Gossamer Gear pad was much thicker, softer, and had a egg carton waffling. It was quite comfortable. However, I pitched the GG pad before the 91k long stage on Day 3. My pack still rode comfortably without the pad and, more important, I slept fine. [Note: My previous model NightLight pad was not scored into thirds and had to be rolled up to fit in the pack.]

At bivouacs following tossing my sleeping pad, I took the time to prep the sleeping surface. I would roll back the rug half way and then drag one of the small support poles across the ground to remove larger rocks and level the surface. Once the prep was done, I was able to sleep like a baby without a pad.

I improvised a pillow throughout the race. The first two nights, I filled my stuff sack with the small amount of extra cloths I brought. Once I pitched all the extra clothes before Stage 3, I resorted to using my pack as a pillow. I also remember resting my head on my shoe one afternoon in the tent.

Conclusion/Questions
Overall, I was quite happy with my pack and sleeping situation at MdS and do not regret any of the gear choices I made. Here’s what I’d keep the same or do differently, if I had the chance to race MdS again next year.

  • Pack – I loved my pack and would be happy if I ended up running with an OMM pack once again. That said, I’d keep looking at other options. Going into this year’s MdS, I did not worry about the weight of the pack itself – I would next go round. Inov-8’s Race Pro 20 and Race Elite 20 liter packs are particularly intriguing.
  • Hydration – I could easily see myself once again running with a 26 oz UD bottle in one Raidlight shoulder strap carrier and use a second UD bottle as a handheld. However, I’d also look at modifying my pack so that I could simply slip the race supplied 1.5 liter bottle into an abdominal sling, a la the Moroccans, so that I wouldn’t need to spend the time filling my two bottles from the race-supplied bottle at every aid station.
  • Sleeping bag – I would, without a doubt, use the PHD Minim Ultra again. Quite simply, I don’t think there’s a better bag on the market for warm weather stage racing. In slightly colder weather, I’d go with my Montbell UL SS 3. Colder sleepers should consider the Western Mountaineering HighLite or Montbell’s new Spiral Down Hugger bag.
  • Sleeping pad – Not gonna do it. There’s no way that I’d bring a sleeping pad next time… at least not after Admin Day. It was great to learn that I had no problem sleeping on the ground.

Any thoughts on what gear I should change if I were to race MdS again? Looking for any pack trimming tips? Any questions about the gear described above? Let me know!