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?