Roundtable: Mandatory Kit Requirements

Roundtable: Mandatory Kit Requirements

1 March, 2024

Cover Image: GBDuro 2022. Photo credit, Kitty Dennis.

In this roundtable, we open up the dialogue on mandatory kit for ultra distance races. We acknowledge that many races already have this in place within their list of rules. However with no governing body for the sport, there is no control over how stringent the criteria is, and race organisers will naturally have differing ideas about what kit is deemed 'essential' for the particular conditions of their race. Furthermore the unsupported aspect of ultra distance places a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the racer; with an emphasis on self-sufficiency, the racer is expected to prepare and pack accordingly for the conditions at hand.

In such a weight-conscious sport, it is common for riders to travel as light as possible, potentially taking risks and compromising their health and safety in doing so. In this respect, it is the race organiser's responsibility to ensure a minimum threshold is met for all participants, ensuring an equal benchmark with regards to kit and therefore health and safety.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, it has been demonstrated how fatalities can occur when safety measures aren't in place and mandatory equipment is not stipulated. For instance in 2021, an infamous incident occured in northwestern China when 21 ultra runners lost their lives in extreme weather conditions during an ultramarathon. The 100-kilometer cross-country mountain race turned deadly as freezing rain, high winds and hail hit the competitors, many of which had no protection or shelter. Five people involved in planning the ill-fated event were issued jail terms ranging from three years to five and a half years by a court in Baiyin, Gansu province. Their sentence was based on dereliction of duty and failure to ensure the health and safety of the competitors.

Thankfully we are yet to witness such serious consequences in the sport of ultra cycling. Lessons can certainly be learnt from the slightly more evolved sport of ultra distance running, whereby mandatory kit is now very much prevalent. Read on to see who we have on the roundtable panel delving deeper into this important topic.

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Above: Niel Copeland and Rig, ready to take on the Dales Divide in 2023. Photo credit, Kitty Dennis.

On the panel, we have a quartet of experienced contributors. Niel Copeland is a self confessed gear geek with a wealth of off-road races to his name including Silk Road Mountain Race, Atlas Mountain Race, Trans Balkan Race, Race Around Rwanda and Great British Divide amongst several others. By day he is an ultra distance cycling coach and qualified bike fitter. He also runs the DotBooster camp alongside Jasmijn Muller, working to impart his knowledge of all things ultra distance.

We are also excited to welcome ultra endurance athlete, author and public speaker Mimi Anderson to the panel. Mimi comes from an ultra running background, with an incredible palmarès to her name. She holds multiple course records and world records such as the fastest female to run the 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon (352 miles across the Arctic), JOGLE (840 miles from north to south of the UK) and the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles). Mimi has turned her hand to ultra cycling over the past few years, having recently completed the Pan Celtic Race in 2022 and the North Cape 4000 in 2023.

We are privileged to also invite author and ultra race winner Meaghan Hackinen to the panel. Meaghan has recently published her second book, Shifting Gears, an account of her experiences during the 2017 Trans Am Bike Race. From her experience of riding across continents, she has more recently shifted her focus to shorter off-road races closer to home in British Columbia, Canada. To name a few, her 2023 victories include The Buckshot, The 508, Lost Elephant and Log Drivers Waltz.

Finally, we welcome WR breaking ultra cyclist and race organiser Rob Gardiner to the panel. In 2019 Rob set the world record for the fastest traverse of Europe, from Tarifa to North Cape. Since this he has gone on to cement his name in the ultra distance world with several races to his name. Founder of The Perfidious Albion, Rob is also co-owner of Zolla Wheels and part of the Follow My Challenge team.


Above: Rob during Trans Pyrenees Race 2023.

1. Should mandatory kit lists be introduced to bikepacking races? If so, what are the key items that you'd expect to be made mandatory and how might this vary depending on race specifics?

Meaghan: I thought they already were! In several of the events I’ve competed in over the past few years, race organisers have provided mandatory kit requirements: from Lost Dot’s rules about minimal lighting and reflectors on The Transcontinental, to The Big Lonely’s extensive mandatory kit list that includes items like a waterproof sleep system, quilt or sleeping bag rated to at least 32°F/0°C, and the capacity for 3 litres of water. Other mandatory items that I’d expect (and have already witnessed) include first aid kit, basic tool kit, navigation unit, satellite tracking device, and down or synthetic jacket.

Remoteness and possibility for extreme weather are two of the factors that could influence kit lists. In backcountry environments where vehicle access is difficult, I’d expect kit requirements to be more robust to both ensure a rider’s survival while awaiting rescue crew if injured, or stopped for longer than expected.

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Above: Meaghan Hackinen, Big Lonely finish. Photo credit, Ebb Media.

Niel: I think the responsibility of whether they should be introduced is down to the individual race organisers. Ultimately they have the duty of care for the participants paying for the event. However, I do think they are a good idea and I think that when there are mandatory kit lists then I think it shows the race organiser is taking safety seriously.

I think ultra racing has done a lot to increase the diversity of participation and is actively improving its accessibility. But with a lot of races taking place in the high mountains with risk of exposure then people without years of experience of risk assessment and decision making on safety equipment can be at a disadvantage. Also there are quite a few at the pointy end that will trade appropriate safety kit for a lighter set up and I'm not sure this is always safe. Mandated kit lists ensure a minimum level of safety equipment for all riders.

In terms of what that should include then it will be dependant on the race. But all riders should have the right kit to survive a night out in the open in the conditions anticipated.

Mimi: I originally come from an endurance running background where most of the races had a mandatory kit list which could save your life if you got into trouble. Introducing a mandatory kit list to bikepacking would in my view be dependent on the location of the race, how isolate it is.

Most bikepacking races already have Helmets, front/rear lights and high visibility clothing as mandatory. I would add to that a survival blanket. If racing in a cold environment such as the artic or the mountains I would like to see added to the above list a minimum rated sleeping bag, an insulated sleeping mat, a bivvy/tent, a down jacket and warm gloves as well as waterproof gloves. If there are long sections where the only water source is from rivers then perhaps water purification tablets should be added.

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Rob: I certainly don’t think all races should have them, but I do think they’re a good tool to manage risk. There are several considerations that I think come into it. Obviously, races that are remote and in extreme or inhospitable environments are clear candidates. But I think there are more nuanced things to consider too. For example, the unpredictability of weather, even in milder climates. Similarly, the speed with which a rider can reach shelter due to the terrain must be a factor, as well as whether you’re vetting entrants based on experience.

It’s for these reasons that I have mandated certain minimum kit for Mountains of the Merfynion. In terms of what kit should be mandated, I think it’s really important it is an actual minimum to keep you alive and not a full packing list. Therefore, I’d usually suggest that just one or two insulating layers plus something waterproof should be enough. But, of course, it depends on where you are racing!

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Above: Rob during the Blaenau 600, 2023.

''A rider wanting to take a risk to travel ultra light and leave behind important safety kit could lead to the rescue services being put into danger to perform a rescue so it's not best left to chance.'' - Niel.

2. Generally speaking, ultra distance bike races place high importance on the unsupported aspect of a race in the name of fair competition. Might mandatory kit lists have a positive or negative influence on this, or none at all?

Rob: As long as the mandatory kit is kept to a true minimum, then I can’t see how it would have anything but a positive impact on races. I finished a race last year where I used one item from the lengthy mandatory list. And while I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this list was a good example of what a minimum should look like, I was content in the knowledge that at least everyone else was lugging around the same amount!

The other race I did last year did not have any mandatory kit and I felt it should have. I may as well say it was TPR since that’s about to become very clear! I loved the race but I felt that a lot of riders with primarily road experience ended up doing high mountain tracks. I certainly chose to do these sections and had the kit to survive if the weather had changed, but I also have quite a bit of off-road experience to fall back on. No one was forced to take these options, but it was a predictable outcome and I think mandatory kit would mitigate some of the risks without impacting the competitiveness of the race.

Meaghan: I think mandatory kit requirements would have a net positive influence on the sport, and no impact on fair competition. With the rising popularity of bikepacking, in my opinion the group kit lists would most benefit are rookies. And while it’s not unheard of for a rookie racer to compete at the front of the field - Fiona Kolbinger’s 2019 TCR win springs to mind - they’re also the group more likely to arrive less prepared, simply because they lack the experience to know otherwise.

From personal experience, I’m embarrassed to even share the ignorant packing decisions I've made: in an effort to cut down on weight during the Trans Am - my first ultra-endurance road race - I skimped on packing a reflective vest (or any other reflective items), and increased my risk of being hit by a vehicle. Mandatory kit lists would prevent others from making similar preventable mistakes, and increase safe outcomes.

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Above: Meg beds down during the North Cape 4000, 2019.

Mimi: I don’t think having a mandatory kit list will have a negative influence as most of us will take the items listed above as part of our kit anyway. Perhaps some RD’s have had to have a mandatory kit list as some riders turn up under prepared in an effort to keep their kit as light as possible, putting themselves at risk.

I have witnessed on many occasions during my 20 years of running competitors turning up with absolutely the wrong kit for the race, meaning after all the hard training they weren’t allowed to start the event or had to do an emergency purchase. Event organisers need to ensure the safety of their participants without compromising the unsupported aspect of the race.

Perhaps rather than a mandatory kit list the organisers could put a list of suggested items on the website which could give riders a prompt as to things they may not have thought of. I know this would have been a huge help to me when I first starting bikepacking.

Niel: Having a sensible level of safety kit mandated should be seen as a default requirement rather than something that has an influence on the unsupported nature of a race. When you consider the unsupported nature of bikepacking races what is clear is that part of the objective is to create a level playing field. A mandated kit list would only increase this idea of a level playing field.

A rider wanting to take a risk to travel ultra light and leave behind important safety kit could lead to the rescue services being put into danger to perform a rescue so it's not best left to chance. The weather a rider encounters is often not down to them. The Tour Divide in 2022 had a number of participants air lifted off the mountain in a storm, and the general feedback from rescue services was that a number were not considered appropriately equipped. That is something that we should all think about.


Above: Niel during the TCR No.7. Photo credit, Simon Humphris.

''...the desire to be competitive, lack of knowledge, and imagined or hoped for best case scenario conditions are some factors that might cause a rider to underpack.'' - Meaghan.

3. Are you typically an underpacker or overpacker? How might the race scenario influence the level of risk and underpacking/overpacking mentality?

Mimi: I am definitely an overpacker! When I did the Pan Celtic in 2022 I scrutinised other peoples kit lists as well as chatting to more experienced cyclists. I packed, unpacked, packed again several times until eventually I was happy with my choices. However when I got to the start of the race the other girls in my “dorm” went through my kit and promptly discarded items they didn’t think I would need.

The longer the event the more I worry about not having enough kit so more stuff is added to my bed in preparation for packing. It’s not until I then try and squeeze it into my bags that I realise some items will have to go, that’s the difficult bit as I worry I’m making the wrong choices! My main concern is being cold as I tend to run cold and once my body gets too cold I struggle to get warmed back up again even with all my layers on. Although my kit list has improved hugely I think compared to others I take too much!

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Above: Mimi, about to take on the adventure of a lifetime, North Cape 4000, 2023.

Niel: I probably err on the side of overpacking. The time saved by having a few warmer bits of clothing when needed can easily out weigh the minimal time saved by not taking that warm clothing. I can't recall any top rider losing a race because they took too much kit but there are plenty of examples of some of the top racers going too light on kit and then losing the race because of it. Usually because they got too cold

The race environment will definitely influence the risk level and hence my approach to packing. I'm always going to be more cautious on a race like Silk Road where the consequences are so much higher than say a shorter road event round the UK.


Above: Niel's #kitgrid for Dales Divide; a short off-road race on home soil.

Meaghan: My goal in bikepacking is to be the perfect packer, carrying no less and no more than what is required to stay safe in slightly-worse-than anticipated conditions. I think the desire to be competitive, lack of knowledge, and imagined or hoped for best case scenario conditions are some factors that might cause a rider to underpack. Desire for comfort and a similar lack of knowledge are causes for overpacking. Duration and whether an event takes place on pavement or more remote backcountry should also enter into consideration. I’ve learned that it’s important to do your research—including checking the weather forecast—and be realistic about specific race conditions when choosing what to bring. For instance, last year I ditched my sleep setup because I was targeting competitive finishes in shorter mixed surface or gravel bikepacking races, but I still carried my emergency bivy bag and rain jacket in case of an emergency.

Rob: I was an underpacker but I’ve now probably gone in the opposite direction after a bad experience in a storm during Hell of the North West a few years ago. I always joke that being 6’5 and slim, I’m designed to lose heat! But that being said, I try to pack to both the conditions and the route. If high mountains are involved then I will always be more cautious.

These days, a lot of my riding is limited to the UK, so I feel I have a much better grasp of what I need if I race here. I will again be more cautious if I’m riding in a new country or environment. I always try to research the climate and expected minimum temperatures at different altitudes too.


Above: Rob during a route recce of Mountains of the Merfynion

4. Regardless of the race requirements, what are the key items you'd always choose to pack on an ultra race/adventure and why?

Rob: I don’t think there are really any certainties with my packing lists beyond electronics. I did a short race a few years ago where I took a windproof plus a Merino jersey and that was it. But the forecast was perfect for the next 72 hours, I was riding in the south of England and a hotel was never more than 30 minutes away.

If I had to pick one item, then I think a hooded insulating jacket (down or synthetic) is probably the one thing I didn’t take when I started racing and now it rarely gets left behind. The ability to put on something to quickly trap heat, especially if it goes over your head, is really underrated. Knowing I get cold easily, I often throw it on for long descents at night and it’s nice to have as an emergency layer.


Niel: It all comes down to the worse case scenario and the likelihood of that happening and what I need to survive that scenario. Typically I'll consider:

Clothing appropriate to the anticipated temperatures. But I'll always take a few degrees off the forecast. You feel the cold more when tired. You also have to be equipped to stay warm if you have to stop for any reason. I've known a few riders go light on clothing and keep warm by continuing to ride. That doesn't work if you get a flat or have a crash.

Waterproof top regardless of the weather. You never know. Even racing in the heat of Oman I'd take a waterproof jacket. It was handy to give a little extra wind proofing in the middle of the night.

Sleep system. This will depend on the race and likely risk of exposure. A short summer race then I might not bother if the plan is to stay in hotels. My first Transcontinental race I knew I was using hotels every night so felt comfortable with warm clothes and a space blanket as emergency cover. A more exposed race then I will throw a lightweight sleeping bag in just in case things go south.


Above: Niel's #kitgrid from TCR No.8; racing again as a veteran, a kit grid influenced by experience and knowledge.

Meaghan: Emergency bivy for survival in bad weather in case of injury or necessary sleep. Headlamp for ease of navigation, setting up camp, looking into my packs, and dealing with mechanicals at night. Rain jacket because it always rains when you don’t bring it. Insulating gloves because my hands are susceptible to the cold and lose functionality quickly. Extra charging cords because I always lose them. Cash in case I have to pay someone for a lift to the nearest town if my bike has an irreparable mechanical. First aid kit specific to my needs including caffeine pills, eye drops, allergy pills, and Ibuprofen. Repair kit.

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Above: Meaghan Hackinen, Big Lonely finish. Photo credit, Ebb Media.

Mimi: As well as the helmet and lights I always take a survival blanket. As a runner I have used mine on several occasions to keep me warm, one of those situations was in the Peruvian Jungle where temperatures at night dropped way lower than anyone had expected, I would have become hypothermic without it.

A downjacket is essential on and off the bike and arm/leg warmers as another layer during the day if needed also good for night riding to keep me warm. A couple of buffs/snoods as they have so many uses. 2 x headphones just incase I loose one set. Waterproof jacket with hood and trousers, invaluable bits of kit and even if it’s not raining they are another way to keep warm. I always take warm gloves as my hands get cold at night. A quadlock as I have my route backed up off-line on my phone - great bit of kit!

In summary, it's clear that our panel agree on the importance of mandating kit lists for ultra distance races. Beyond the 'baseline' of lights, helmet and hi-viz, the specific items which should be mandatory is largely dependant on the race conditions. Meaghan mentions that remoteness and possibility for extreme weather are two of the factors that could influence kit lists. With a more robust criteria for those gnarly races such as Silk Road, Rob makes a solid point that the kit list should be restricted to an actual minimum to keep you alive, rather than a full packing list. With this in mind, a mandated kit list would increase the idea of a level playing field; if all riders had the appropiate kit to survive a stormy night out in the mountains, the focus of competition is then shifted onto the racing itself.

The two groups that could be categorised as 'high risk' may ironically be the polar opposites in terms of experience level: rookies and fast racers seeking a win. Meg points out - it’s not unheard of for a rookie racer to compete at the front of the field - Fiona Kolbinger’s 2019 TCR win springs to mind - they’re also the group more likely to arrive less prepared, simply because they lack the experience to know otherwise. On the other hand, experienced racers consistently at the pointy end of the race may trade appropriate safety kit for a lighter set up, therefore compromising safety no matter how fast they are.

''I can't recall any top rider losing a race because they took too much kit but there are plenty of examples of some of the top racers going too light on kit and then losing the race because of it. Usually because they got too cold'' - Niel.

Thank you to our ultra panel for contributing their thoughts on this important topic. We anticipate that this feature has hightened awareness around the importance of mandatory kit, and how it should be approached by race organisers. Stay tuned for the follow up feature, where we shall be exploring some hypothetical kit lists and key items to suit different race types.