How To Choose a Stage Race Backpack

One of the biggest challenges of a stage race is getting the right backpack.  

Here I explore what your criteria should be, how to test a good backpack and give some recommendations based on experience.

A stage race is a race over two or more days, and they are typically ‘self-supported’ – this means you have to carry all your equipment, including food and clothes, on your back during the race.  Examples include the Marathon des Sables and the 4 Deserts series of races.

Getting a backpack specifically designed for distance running is crucial – they’re designed to be lightweight, durable and fit comfortably while running.

Stage Race Backpack – Key Considerations

Here are some points to consider when shopping for your race pack:

  • Comfort is number one.  The pack should sit comfortably from the moment you put it on.  No weird chafing or straps irritating you.  It should complement the natural shape of your back and shoulders while running, and not put excessive stress on any area.

  • Front straps.  You want at least one strap that goes across your front to further secure the pack to your body and minimise movement while you run.  Most good distance running packs will come with two straps – one across the chest and one across the stomach.
  • Accessibility.  You don’t want to be stopping during a race to remove your pack just to get a gel.  You want enough front and side pockets so that you can stash everything you need quick access to – gels, snacks, race booklets, salts, camera – you name it.  Waterproof pockets are a bonus, too.
  • Hydration system.  When shopping for a pack you’ve got to consider what your hydration system is going to look like at the same time.  If you’re going with a Camelbak, does the pack accommodate this?  The pack should have a separate sleeve for a Camelbak, keeping it flush with your back.  If you plan to run with water bottles strapped to your front, does the pack already have bottle holders built in, and if not, which ones are you going to buy and how are you going to secure them?  Strapping water bottles to the front of your pack is a great idea and is my preferred way to carry water, but if you don’t get the bottle holder secured properly you will be left with a water bottle that bounces around with every step you take.  You want a bottle holder system that keeps the bottles as close to your body as possible, i.e. on the shoulder straps.  Therefore, you want to test out the pack with the water bottles filled.  Another plus point for having the bottles mounted to your front is that it helps spread the load between your front and your back!  See the Hydration System advice in the coming pages for more on this subject.
  • Size. Try and get the smallest pack you can get away with.  For a typical 6-stage self-supported stage race you should be able to get everything into a 25 litre pack if you are disciplined with your equipment choices.  The more room you have in your pack, the more you’ll be tempted to bring unnecessary junk.  And remember, your pack will become lighter and emptier after every day of the race.  Remember that you can utilise the straps and tie-down sections to mount sleeping bags to the outside of your pack if required.  I normally am short of space at the start of a run so have to secure my sleeping bag and flip flops onto the outside.
  • Front pack.  Many backpacks now come with an optional smaller pack to strap to your front.  These are great for two reasons – they give you a bit more room, and they also help balance the load between your front and your back.

How To Choose a Stage Race Backpack 1

Which Backpacks Are Popular?

WAA Ultra

The WAA Ultra 20l pack

Popular multi-day packs include the WAA 25l ultra pack, and the OMM 25l / 32l packs.   I’ve tried both the WAA 25l and the OMM 25l, and have enjoyed both – but the WAA 25l is now my go-to pack.  Its shape is less malleable, meaning it holds its form better even when stuffed with gear – which helps when running.

I’ve also found that the water bottle system that comes with the pack is the best I’ve found – it has front-mounted water bottles that hug your body really well, and even come with extra-long straws so you can constantly sip away while running.  

The pack itself is only a snug 20l, but it comes with an optional 5l front pack and two generous side pockets – I’ve found this is sufficient for my equipment (check out the example equipment list later in this section to see what I typically pack) – although for the first couple of days I do have to mount my sleeping pad and sleeping bag to the outside of my pack.

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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