Drop bags 101

Whether you have a crew or not, drop bags can be a useful tool in planning and executing your next trail ultramarathon.

For me, I love drop bags. I love the convenience of them and the control I have over most parts of the situation. The fun with ultramarathoning is you never know what is going to go wrong, until it does, so you often hear people say to “control the controllables” and work out the rest as it happens.

One of these controllables is your gear and nutrition strategy and the use of drop bags can be a key piece of this plan.

Most races offer a drop bag option for participants who do not have or choose not to use a support crew or when the race doesn’t allow crewing. I have mixed feelings and emotions around crewing and to be honest, I like to be self sufficient and not rely on crew being at certain aid stations or checkpoints. You never know what might happen with your crew whilst you are out running and how long it is going to take them to drive between checkpoints. Having your crew carry your important gear or fuel for a particular leg can create unnecessary stress for everyone.

Enter drop bags.

Now at no point should your “mandatory gear” be in a drop bag unless it’s with permission from the race and even then, I wouldn’t risk it. I always squash all my mandatory gear into the dry sack, carry it the whole time and I don’t touch it, ever, unless a race official asks to see it. That way I know it is always there, 1. In case of emergency and 2. In case a race official asks to check it. I’m not getting disqualified from an A race because my brain stopped working at 85k and I forgot to put something back in my pack at a checkpoint.

Mandatory gear

There is also the rare, but I’ve heard of it happening, circumstance where your drop bag doesn’t arrive at its target destination. So my advice is to always carry enough food to get you through an emergency like your drop bag not making it (a couple of extra clif bloc sleeves works for me) and always carry your mandatories.

So what is a drop bag, it’s usually a small receptacle that you can pop items in and the race organisers will take it to a certain point in the race for you.

Some races prefer plastic tubs, others soft, sealable bags.

There are a few massive do’s and don’ts when it comes to drop bags.

General rules:

  • Put any liquids in the bag, it’s asking for trouble. If you do want to risk it, at least put it in a zip lock bag and protect the other stuff in the bag and anyone else stuff whose bag might be near yours
  • Keep it light
  • Nothing fragile
  • Nothing valuable
  • Nothing mandatory
  • Really, clearly labelled (masking tape and a sharpie works well)
  • Sealable

Do your research and have a plan

In the weeks leading up to the race, have a good look at the race map and the locations of each checkpoint. Make sure you know which ones have drop bags and the rules surrounding them, like where you need to drop them off and when. Having this knowledge, will help you feel more comfortable on the course when you are out there by yourself. I always run checkpoint to checkpoint but knowing how far it is to each one is really helpful. You can always create a cheat sheet or list and have it with you on your phone to go back to.

Use drop bags that are easily recognisable.

You’ll have to label them with your name, bib number and the location as well. Some races will give you coloured tags to put on each bag which you collect at check in. The last thing you want is the volunteer spending ages looking for your bag so if you can make it easy to find then that is time saved on your finishing time. Lots of people use those supermarket bags and they are really great. Keep an eye out for limited edition ones though so you don’t have the same as everyone else. These are great for overseas races because they don’t have them and they are really easy to find. Also your fingers may stop working at some point during the race so try to pick a bag that is easy to open, avoid having to untie something if you can. I’ve also used Kmart book bags which have a draw string.

If you are anything like me, you are putting a lot of “just in case” things in drop bags. Extra first aid supplies, warm clothes, dry socks etc. I like to layer my drop bags, putting the least likely thing I will want on the bottom and the most likely thing at the top.

I like to put a little card or tag right at the top with a list of the non negotiattbles at this checkpoint. Ie: Must pick up head torch, food bag, re-apply sunscreen.

It’s easy to come into a checkpoint a bit flustered and the last thing you want is to leave without your food or your mandatory head torch! I’ve found a small zip lock bag or a packing cell is good for the essential stuff so you don’t forget it. Hopefully you’ve worked out how much food you should be eating on each leg so it’s already portioned and you just have to take the bag from your drop bag.

Things to include in your drop bag:

  • Reminder card
  • Why card
  • Food/fuel/powder etc for the next leg
  • Fun snack
  • wipes
  • first aid supplies
  • Sunscreen
  • Anti-chafe
  • Zip lock bag/plastic bag for wet clothing
  • Zip lock bag/plastic bag for rubbish
  • Buffs
  • Change of socks, shirt
  • Possibly warm clothing depending on the location of the bag
  • Extra batteries for head torch (location depending)

The finish line bag is essential. In the past, I’ve been guilty of under packing my finish line bag. Don’t do it, it can really put a sour taste on what should be a victory dance. It’s all about comfort. You’ll be surprised just how quickly you get cold, even for a warm race. I’m pretty sure everything in mine is at least two sizes too big and made of polar fleece or “teddy bear” material. Go get a polar fleece throw blanket from k-mart and put that in there. You will also want wipes, deordourant and a change of clothes. Try not to sit in your filth for too long, that salt and sweat can make any chafing worse, that’s what all the wipes are for.

What have I missed?

Comment below with your fave drop bag item or “fun snack” for a random point in the race!

Leave a Reply