Marathon Des Sables Packing List
I recently completed the Marathon Des Sables, ‘toughest footrace in the world’, in April 2019. 6 marathons in 6 days across the Sahara. You can read about my account of it here. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and also one of the toughest. When I was researching all about it, it was difficult to find out all the answers to my questions, so I created an MDS FAQ here, check that out for all the questions you have.
One question that I really couldn’t fit into the FAQs though, was the issue about what gear you need for the Marathon Des Sables. So I’ve tried to help out with a Marathon Des Sables Packing List below:
Marathon Des Sables Packing List
As you guys know, the Marathon Des Sable is ‘self-sufficient’ which means during the race, you have to carry EVERYTHING on your back as you run (everything except a tent and your water, they’re both supplied). The way it works though, the entire event lasts 10 nights. 8 nights in the desert, and 2 nights at the end in a hotel. Of the 8 nights in the desert, 7 nights are self-sufficient. That means the first night in the desert, you have access to your suitcase. I wish I had known that! So pack lots of snacks, food, comfortable clothes for the first 24 hours in the desert while you do your registration etc.
Secondly, I know lots of people are freaking out about getting the right gear. I was the same. I HAVE to have the right shoes or it’ll be a disaster. I HAVE to have the right bag, or it’ll be a disaster. I was in panic-mode. Believe me when I say, your gear isn’t half as important as you currently think it is. Honestly. Generally speaking, any sneakers are fine, any running bag is fine. Yes, you can have slightly better gear but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I spent a lot of time researching, and this is the gear I brought, all of it was great to be honest. But had I had slightly worse stuff like many experienced competitors had, it wouldn’t have affected me much. Most of the stuff (the food, the compulsory gear, the sleeping bag etc, I bought from My Race Kit who have a specific section for the MDS, I’ll do the same if I ever do the MDS again). One last hugely important thing is that you read a lot about people cutting their toothbrushes, draining their sunscreen etc to make sure they have as little weight as possible. That’s rubbish. Unless you’re an elite athlete, trying to finish top 50, you don’t need to worry about that. Focus on having the stuff that will make you comfortable and have a good race. One extra kilogram is not a deal breaker.
That all said, here’s the gear I brought, and the gear I’d recommend.
You want a pair of sneakers to run in obviously, but also you want something to walk around camp in too. So you need 2 pairs.
- Sneakers. I used Salomon Sense Pro 3 trail running shoes. About $150USD. They were great.
- Camp shoes. I used my Havaianas flip-flops to walk around camp. They were fine but not perfect because you can’t fold/squeeze them into your race bag. The best option are those free slippers you get from hotels, you can wedge those into your bag easily.
- Socks. You need 2 pairs. I chose the Injinji socks that reduce blisters when you do long distance running. I was very happy with this choice.
- Gaiters. You NEED this 100 %. You have to buy them online. But then you need to go to a cobbler to have velcro stitched onto your shoes so they’re semi-permanently attached. A lot of the terrain is deep sand, without these, you’ll have so much sand in your shoes, and even more blister issues. If you’re in London, this is the guy everyone uses.
- Calf compression guards. Your legs are going to hurt after 200+km! Try to make them hurt as little as possible, these will help AND also they’ll protect you from sunburn.
So you need to worry about what you’re going to run in every day, and also what change of clothes you may or may not want when you’re in camp each evening.
- Running shirts X 2. One can be absolutely drenched with sweat, so to have a second running shirt available is a blessing. I ran in the same shirt for marathon days 1,2,3 and changing to a new shirt for the double marathon was a real morale boost. Personally, I choose 2 long-sleeve running shirts to minimize sunburn, and that was a great choice. I choose underarmor running shirts.
- Sleeping shirt. Each night in camp, I relaxed and slept in a short-sleeve the North Face base layer, it was great.
- Running shorts X 2. I ran in Nike running shorts with an inner comprresion cycling short. Underarmor also make something similar.
- Warm/Down Coat. This is essential. It gets chill in the evening on the MDS, around 5 degrees. I bought the Raidlight down jacket and it was perfect. If you can avoid Down, that’s even better. It’s a cruel way to keep warm. My buddy used a Patagonia non-down jacket, and I’d do that next time.
Moving onto headgear. Your head gets very exposed to the sun and the cold at night, so take care of it during the race.
- Sports sunglasses X 2. One pair should be enough, but if you break them you’re in trouble! One good pair, and one back-up. And try to get wrap around glasses that block the sun from the sides too. I used a $100 pair I picked up in Thailand but any sports running/cycling glasses are fine.
- Buff. An absolute Godsend. You use it to protect you from sand storms, from the sun, to keep you warm. You can pick them up anywhere.
- Head Torch. Black Diamond. Don’t go cheap. You’ll appreciate an expensive, strong torch on the double marathon night race! Aim to spend $50+, don’t go for the $20 ones.
- Sun hat. The least fashionable clothing on the market. And hugely important. A peaked cap with the material covering the back of your neck. I choose the one from My Race Kit. It was ok, but some of the ones on the market clip the material onto the peak of the cap, so it shades some of your face too, they’re better.
- Warm hat. I didn’t bring a wooly hat for the cold evenings, and was very jealous when people popped theirs out and put them on to sleep! Bring a small one.
Bag & Suitcase/Backpack
Everyone (previously me too!) is obsessed with getting the right bag. My advice is don’t freak out, and try to get one at least 30 litres. 25 litres is a little small, and again, unless you’re trying to win the thing, the extra space is appreciated when you finalise your gear. You also will have a normal suitcase/backpack that you bring to the desert, and have access to on the first night, and of course the last 2 nights in the hotel.
- Running bag. I went for the 30L Raidlight. It was fine, that or the Ultimate Direction are the bags used by over 50% of the runners.
- Suitcase/backpack. I always use either Macpac 65 litre or North Face 65 litre backpack.
The most stressful thing about the whole MDS is planning the food. You have 6 nights/7 days self-sufficient, and the rules state you need a minimum of 2000 calories per day, meaning you need to have 14,000 calories in your bag when you start the race. You want high calorie, high carb, high fat, low weight. The best way to do this is through expedition food.
- Food. I bought the nutrition pack from My Race Kit. I’d recommend doing that, and then supplementing it with everything else you want and need. I used expedition foods. Which is great for high-calorie opions, and you also have great Vegan and Vegetarian choices too. I ended up with about 17,000 calories. The best way is to pack each day into bags so you know how many calories per day you’ll have.
- Gels, bars etc. You want electrolyte powders for each night. Tribe bars for lumch. And then energy gels (maybe 15/20 total) for during the days.
Minimize this. It’s heavy and unnecessary. That being said, there IS phone signal on about 50% of the race, so if you bring your Phone, you can be connected (but there’s nowhere to charge). That being said, the race is a beautiful experience, don’t ruin it by checking into Instagram. I went offline for the whole 8 days and it was transformational in how I now use, understand and experience social media. Here’s the tech I brought:
- Solar charger. Great to keep your GoPro (or phone) charged. Buy them on Amazon for cheap.
- Phone holder. Not tech per se, but my buddy lent me a waistband that you can store your phone/camera in, so you always have your camera handy. I really appreciated it as it encouraged me to take more pics/videos.
- GoPro. Hero Session is best for battery life.
- Sports watch. I just got a new watch actually. I previously used the FitBit Blaze which I thought was good, but awful battery life. I then upgraded massively and got the Suunto 9 Baro and it’s spectacular. Battery life up to a WEEK! I only charged it briefly once during the whole MDS, when everyone else was complaining about their Garmins and Fitbits. Also, Suunto is great for all long distance stuff (ultras, marathons, etc) I love it.
This is where the elites and the rest differ. The elites will have no mattress and a tiny sleeping bag. Normal people, like me, have a slightly better sleeping bag and some form of mattress, and maybe even a pillow. Personally I’d recommend everyone does the same.
- Sleeping bag. The most expensive piece of my gear and it was great. Sea to Summit. Can’t recommend it highly enough, packs tiny and keeps you warm.
- Mattress. I went for the Thermarest self-inflating mattress. I’d give that a 7.5/10. One of the better options. If you can handle the weight and size, you could go bigger.
- Pillow. Inflatable pillows are tiny. Many people don’t bring them. You should!
That’s most of the stuff you need. There are also a couple of compulsory pieces of equipment too.
- Compulsory Kit. This is part of the deal when you race at the MDS. Including anti-venom kit amongst other things. Rather than make up your own kit, it’s super easy just to buy it here.
- Sweatbands. I loved these, I wore one on each wrist. Used to mop up sweat, blood, sand AND helped protect from sunburn. Would defintitely use again.
- Wet Wipes. Standing shower, toilet breaks. Bring these!
- Toothbrush and toothpaste.
- Penknife. Your tent mates will love you. You need a knife to cut bottles etc and prepare your food but a Swiss Army Knife will have you covered for any eventuality.
- Stove. Your team mates will have them too, you may end up sharing, but do your bit and bring one too. Also, they’re TINY and cheap.
- Tape. You need it to fix your gear, to tape your muscles, to stop chafing. Zinc oxide is best.
- Sewing Kit. Be the hero and help fix your tent mates gear!
- Anti-inflammtory pills. If you carry injuries always, like me, you’ll need these.
- Pain killers. Bring them. More than you think you need.
- Camping mug. Simple titanium cup for camping, you’ll heat your water in it, eat of out it, drink out of it.
- Poles? Touchy subject. Also known as ‘cheat sticks’. It makes the MDS a much easier experience, but then again it’s not supposed to be easy is it? I didn’t bring them.
- Gloves. Lightweight gloves to protect yourself from sunburn.
What a ride. 10 of the best days of my life. The people you meet, the beauty of the Moroccon Sahara, the stress, pain, anguish and the relief and pride at the finish. If you’re thinking about it, just do it. Sign up, and then start training. You won’t regret it. Good luck.