Review: WAA 20l Ultrabag – the perfect Marathon des Sables bag

This post was last updated on October 15th, 2020 at 12:54 pm

As promised, here are some more detailed thoughts on the WAA 20l Ultrabag we were all given at the MDS expo on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s fair to really call it a ‘review’ since, while I have run 23 miles with it, I have not yet used it for its intended purpose – a multi-day ultramarathon. But whatever, here are my thoughts.


First up, I have the third edition MDS version. The ‘MDS’ bit just means it is yellow and has Marathon des Sables branding, the ‘third edition’ bit seems to incorporate some subtle changes which I will come onto later. It’s also worth mentioning that the pack has two possible front pouches. The one shown in most of the images is larger, with elastic strapping on the front, and the option for bottle pouches on the sides or strapping a bottle to the top. However, at the expo some people received this and some, me included, got the ‘lighter’ version of the front pouch which is just a small pouch with one holder for a water bottle at the side. In principle, fair enough, but I’m a bit fed up about it as I’m not sure the lighter pouch is going to do the job for me.

The trouble is that at most water stations runners will be given 3l of water, and without the option to strap a 1.5l water bottle to the top of this pouch, I’m not clear what I’m going to do with the water that won’t fit into the two 750ml water bottles on the shoulder straps. I may be able to solve this another way, or I may just have to buy the other, bigger, front pouch.


Anyway – other than that, this is a bag that was specifically designed for the Marathon des Sables, and it shows, with lots of features that feel like someone went “if only my bag had a XYZ”. In most respects that’s a really good thing, resulting in some neat features to make life easier, but the one downside is that it results in a relatively heavy bag. I haven’t weighed it yet but I’m told that with all the attachments it comes in at nearly 1kg, around double the weight of other super-light 20L bags. It’s all a trade-off, though, and I’m prepared to sacrifice a bit of weight for the ease and convenience of managing my kit that the WAA bag provides.

Layout and features

Starting with the main body, the bag has a very rectangular shape which makes it (some people think) a little ugly-looking, but I suspect makes packing a lot easier, especially if you are doing what a lot of ultra-runners do and packaging everything into separate little bundles that stack together ‘like Tetris’ as the man from WAA put it. It is extremely compressible, with elastic straps on both sides that can be used to shove kit into or to squash the bag down from its full 20l capacity to around 4l. The point is that as the week goes on and you eat your food, you still want a bag that keeps everything tight and not rattling around.


Inside the main compartment is an elasticated pouch that you can shove a few small items into to keep them secure, and an unclippable water-resistant zip-up pouch. This is one of those features that adds weight but also convenience, allowing you to put either wet clothes into it to keep the rest of the pack dry, or food into it to keep it sand-free when you are putting other things in and out of the bag.

One of the nice features with the main compartment is that it unzips almost all the way around (270 degrees apparently) so that, if you place the bag flat, you can fold the whole back off and see the entire contents easily. That makes it much easier to grab things from the bottom of the bag, as well as to reassure yourself you haven’t forgotten anything before you set off each day. Once the compartment is closed, two clips also attach the back of the bag to the top of the shoulder straps – these can be tightened or loosened depending on how full the bag is, and the theory is that they bring more of the weight of the bag over the top of the shoulders and not on the back.

In previous versions there was an option to attach a forehead strap to these clips so you could take some of the weight on your forehead like a Sherpa. In theory that is still possible but as far as I could tell the strap itself wasn’t included and it’s not really something I envisage using.

On the back of the main compartment are two little elasticated pouches, four points to attach your race number so it is visible from behind, and a long vertical pouch running down the back. Originally this used to be for the mandatory flare, but many people used it for storing foldable running poles, although apparently it was a bit too narrow to easily fit two poles. Anyway, the flare has been done away with this year as all competitors have emergency GPS beacons, so this pouch has been officially made a running pole pouch and has been made a little larger so that it should fit two properly.

The waist strap I found a little annoying – it is a very simple webbing belt with a buckle and adjustors, but with two padded pouches slipped over the belt providing some hip padding and extra storage. That’s all well and good, but as they aren’t attached to anything they tend to slide around when I’m running which drove me mad on my long run on Sunday. Job one is going to have to be securing them back against the main body of the bag so they are just over the hips and not moving around or getting in the way of my arms.

The chest strap is pretty standard, and like many other ultra-running packs it includes a whistle which presumably eliminates one mandatory item from my list. There are also four more of the race number attachment points here, so you can attach the number over your chest as the rules require.

Finally, on the shoulder straps are the two water bottle pouches and two 750ml water bottles with drinking straws. These aren’t bad, although the lack of an elasticated rim around the pouches makes replacing bottles on the move a bit harder than it might be. I also found the straws a bit rubbish – they have drinking tips that can be opened by pulling away from the straw (that probably makes no sense… but it’s basically the standard open/close sports drinking bottle type arrangement) but there is no positive click and if you pull too much the whole rubber tip comes off very easily. They also seemed rubbish at getting the last inch or so of water in the bottle, but I guess that may be my fault for doing a bad job of cutting the straws down or positioning them. At any rate, Graeme Harvey convinced me that there are much lighter bottles available so I might look for something a bit different over the next few weeks.

Summary


Overall, this is a brilliant bag for the purpose it’s specifically intended – it has a removable pad that makes it pretty comfortable for a lightweight bag, and all the little features make organising your kit easily. There are a few niggles, and I will need to figure out how to best carry and drink my water, as well as experiment more with carrying all my kit and see how it feels at full weight, but as it stands I can’t see myself needing to buy any other bag for the race, and afterwards this should do me very nicely for fastpacking adventures.

Packing for a day trail run | Tips from the Trail

This post was last updated on July 28th, 2020 at 02:51 pm

You don’t need much for a one-day run, even a long one, but if you’re doing a trail run out somewhere a bit more ‘wilderness-y’, even if only for a few hours, then there are a few things you’ll need. Here’s what I take.

OMM ultra-15 backpack - perfect for a day trail run
OMM Ultra-15 pack, I love this!
  • Bag: OMM Ultra 15 – a beautifully light bag that’s got plenty of space for a one day run, hooks and channels for a camelbak, and side and belt pouches for easy access to snacks and gadgets. It also has a whistle in the chest strap which isn’t exactly a must-have but probably a worthwhile safety feature when running in a national park.

In a medium-sized drybag:

  • Lightweight rain shell. The one I use is the ‘free’ one that London Marathon handed out a couple of years ago to people who didn’t get in via the lottery. It’s neither as light nor as waterproof as the best ones on the market (Nike, Patagonia, amongst others) but it was free (sort of) and it does the job.
  • Down jacket. Way too hot to run in, but useful for keeping warm on the train home. The one I’ve got is rated down to -5 which is overkill for early autumn in the UK but given I’m trying to keep my pack light, it’s useful having a post-run jacket that, in a pinch, could double as an emergency ‘broke my leg and have to stay the night in the open’ jacket. Check out this resource for some of the down jackets we’ve reviewed.
  • Clean t-shirt. Not vital, but much appreciated on the train home, not least by those who have to sit next to you…

In a small drybag:

  • Phone, keys, wallet etc. also a penknife but only really because I carry one everyday anyone.

To wear:

  • Nike dryfit shorts and tshirt
  • Brooks Ghosts running shoes or Salomon trail shoes, depending on the terrain
  • Asics running cap, one I got from the Marathon de Paris
  • Buff, also from the Marathon de Paris

Nutrition:

  • 1.5 l Camelbak of water
  • A handful of gels
  • In the case of Tuesday’s run, I was trialling dried banana chips and Peperamis, as I’ve heard they can be good for the Marathon des Sables

Sussex Border Path trail run: 15 miles of bliss

This post was last updated on July 30th, 2020 at 08:58 am

Yesterday, as it was beautiful and sunny and it’s a while since I’ve done a big run, I did a 15 mile trail run in the South Downs. A big part of planning a trail run is figuring out a route that runs between two train stations, but is still attractive and interesting to run along. I’ve been a fan of the Ridgeway for that, but it’s sort of the wrong side of London for me, whereas most of the train stations in the South Downs are an easy direct train from Clapham Junction, my nearest big station. Although I’d hoped to run some of the South Downs way, I just couldn’t work out a run of the right length that would enable me to start and end from a convenient train station, so I’m going to leave that to another day when I’ll camp out for one or two nights. Instead, I decided on the Sussex Border Path trail run, a route across a less well known but still extremely pretty route which skirts more round the edge of the national park and which conveniently almost links up Haslemere and Petersfield, two well-connected medium-sized stations.

Jake on the Sussex Border Path trail run
Me, just after setting off on the Sussex Border Path trail run. Notice I’m not sweating yet.

The trail is largely well sign-posted, but nevertheless there are several points where it’s almost impossible to find the next section without a map. The Sussex Border Path website conveniently provides the relevant sections of the OS map on A4 PDFs so I just printed out the bits I needed and used that. Even then, getting onto it from Haslemere was a struggle – at one point you get to a row of houses and have to get behind them into the woods, there is infact a public footpath but it’s un-signposted and hard to differentiate from the very non-public footpaths that lead into people’s gardens. Aside from that and a few other points where the path diverged and no signpost was to be seen, it’s a lovely route to run; largely quite close to civilisation (which is good if you need to re-stock water or have to abort for any reason) but avoiding too much time spent on roads and generally very quiet and picturesque. The majority of it (or at least the section I ran, which is only a small part of the total path, of course) is in woodland so there aren’t a huge number of sweeping vistas, but I did stumble on one, albeit only by slightly losing my way, and it was the kind of perfect solitary spot with an uplifting view that made the whole effort of 2hrs round trip on the train worthwhile.

forest in sussex
The Border Path trail offers stunning views into the green heart of Sussex.

The run itself was just what I needed training-wise; hilly, with some steep sections, but nothing too ridiculous, and plenty of uneven ground. I didn’t take it overly quickly, but managed to maintain a decent trail pace of 9:44 over 15 miles, which is fine for this sort of thing. All in all, a good day out – the next step is to run more of the path, with more weight, and camp out overnight.

end of the sussex border path trail run - some parts of the route have a primal feel about them.
The end of my trail run beckons. Thanks Sussex, I’ll be back on the Border Path soon.

If you’re looking for a more rugged route that you can run or hike, then check out write up of the north to south route across Dartmoor.