The Perfect Kit: Running the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

The Perfect Kit: Running the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc


(Photo Courtesy of Yitka Winn)

Many trail-running races encourage runners to carry minimal supplies with them while racing.

Europe’s prestigious Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UMTB), which takes place each August, is an exception. Runners must carry, at all times during the 104-mile race, an extensive collection of mandatory gear—a lack of which can be cause for penalty or even disqualification. The route circumnavigates Mont Blanc, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, and ascends 31,000 feet of vertical gain along the way.

A sampling from the list: waterproof pants (or “overtrousers,” in French parlance), two headlamps (“torches”) and spare batteries, a waterproof jacket, pair of waterproof gloves, emergency blanket, whistle, food and water, warm midlayer top, cap, personal cup, adhesive bandage, and mobile phone.

Selecting the right gear—including a comfortable running pack with which to tote it all—can be an ultramarathon in and of itself. After spending my summer in Telluride, Colorado, testing the latest and greatest in ultralight waterproof outerwear and other ultrarunning gear, I present this “perfect kit” for running UTMB.


Though many running hydration packs offer just a few liters of storage capacity—if that, even—the UTMB’s extensive mandatory-gear list generally means selecting a slightly larger pack than usual. The majority of UTMB runners will opt to run with something in the 10-12 liter range.

The Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest 2.0 ($160) features an impressive storage-capacity-to-weight ratio, with a capacious 11 liters of storage in an expandable, water-resistant silnylon compartment. Trekking-pole loops, ample easy-access (i.e. on-the-go) storage along the front straps and dual front-access, 20-ounce bottles—one for water, one for electrolyte drink—make this pack a perfect choice for UTMB.

*Click on the following product names to read in-depth reviews of all larger-capacity running packs that Gear Institute has tested recently:
Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest 2.0 (11L; $160)
Osprey Rev 12 (12L; $110)
Nathan Vapor Air/Airess (7L; $150)
Patagonia Fore Runner 10 (10L; $129)
Camelbak Ultra 10 (10L; $150)
Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 (13L; $150)


Waterproof, breathable jacket with a hood
The UTMB has been cancelled midrace in past years due to exceptionally foul weather. Given the frequency and fickleness of thunderstorms in the Alps in August, your jacket may be the single most important gear choice you’ll make. On any given year, runners are highly likely to spend time both carrying the jacket and wearing it—so weight savings, packability, waterproofness, breathability and comfort should all be paramount concerns.

The Marmot Essence ($200) offers excellence in all those areas, and then some. At just six ounces, it’s lighter than almost all others in this test, features a dialed fit for running, and breathes significantly better than comparable jackets—“possibly the best breathability we’ve tested in a hard shell,” Gear Institute Expert Ryan Stuart wrote in an initial review last year. For UTMB, it’s a no brainer.

*Click on the following product names to read in-depth reviews of all waterproof jackets with hoods that Gear Institute has tested recently:
Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket ($180; 5.9 ounces)
Berghaus Vapourlight Smock ($150; 2.6 ounces)
Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic Jacket ($200; 9.7 ounces)
Montbell Peak Shell Jacket ($189; 9.1 ounces)
Eider Pulsate Jacket ($150; 9.5 ounces)
Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket ($159; 6.4 ounces)
Marmot Essence Jacket ($200; 6 ounces)
Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket ($280; 9.6 ounces)


Waterproof pants
Any waterproof material is inherently less breathable than non-waterproof or merely water-resistant outerwear. Therefore, it’s unlikely any UTMB runner will spend much time—if any—actually running in this piece of mandatory gear, unless it’s absolutely pouring rain for hours on end.

So, unless the forecast calls for cold, nonstop rain, most runners will want to prioritize weight savings over high functionality. It’s hard to beat the 4-ounce, no-frills Montbell Peak Shell Pants ($99). No ankle zips makes for difficult on/off, but shaves several ounces when compared to most competitors’ 8-9-ounce offerings.

Other top picks include:
Patagonia Torrentshell Pants ($99; 9 ounces) – Comfortable, elasticized waist, zippered hand pockets, and generous ankle zips for easy on/off
Berghaus Hydroshell Pants ($110; 8 ounces) – ¾-length zips for easy on/off in muddy, rainy conditions; also unzips from the top for venting
Mountain Hardwear Plasmic Pant ($100; 8 ounces) – Best fit of all, comfortable fabric; zippered hand pockets, and generous ankle zips for easy on/off


Warm, waterproof gloves
As someone whose hands get cold very easily, particularly in the rain, my top pick for a lightweight (yet still fully waterproof) glove is the Mountain Hardwear Plasmic OutDry Glove ($70). The super-soft interior is cozy and warm, while the OutDry waterproof/breathable membrane does an excellent job fending off rain. Double-need stitching reinforces the seams—ideal for handling trekking poles or any hands-over-knees scrambling sections on rocks or mud.

Best of all, the fabric is nimble enough to get supplies in and out of your pack without needing to take off your gloves. The fabric is even touchscreen-compatible in case you want to access your smartphone on the run.

Other top picks include:
Montbell Out-Dry Rain Gloves ($47) – Ridiculously lightweight, flexible and packable with excellent, close fit; don’t offer much in the way in warmth, but breathe well for waterproof wear
Hanz Lightweight Waterproof Gloves ($35) – Made in the USA with stretchy, neoprene-like material that breathes well and offers a touch of warmth; nice and long through the wrist, though a bit too long in the fingers
Outdoor Research Versaliner Gloves ($52) – Innovative, two-layer system with warm underglove and waterproof overglove shell that can tuck away into the undergloves’ zip pockets; versatile design, though difficult on/off in cold or rainy weather


Trekking poles
Trekking poles are not required at UTMB, but there’s a good reason why more than 90 percent of UTMB runners opt to use them. (Race rules mandate that if you plan to use your poles for any portion of the race, you must carry them with you from start to finish.) The trails are steep, relentless, and frequently muddy.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find an ultrarunner in the Alps who doesn’t swear by Black Diamond Carbon Z Trekking Poles ($180 for adjustable-height; $160 for fixed-height)—some of the lightest weight, collapsible poles on the market. At a scant 9 ounces per pair, these feel virtually weightless. Plus, they fold up for easy stowing on your pack in a moment’s notice.