Better Than “First Aid”: Ultra Aid Kit Essentials

A few weeks ago I was running down a trail with a friend new to the amazing world of trail pounding. And then, they pounded. Caught a rock with their toe and landed with their ankle on another rock. Oof, and there goes a few ligaments.

Sure wish I had a cold pack…. Argh.

We got back to the car and I chastised myself for having such a crap first aid kit. Lots of bandaids but nothing truly essential for trail runners or even ultrarunners. Then I started fantasizing about creating such a kit myself and selling it, even a Kickstarter, the whole shebang.

But…. no. Some Kickstarters are lame and mine was about to join them.

And then I got pragmatic. Instead, I’ll tell you what will be in my perfect Trail Aid Kit for your car, and you can craft your own based on mine. No commercial first aid kits tailor to the odd desires of trail and ultrarunners, so this kit might save your butt, or make your ride home far less unpleasant.


The reasoning behind each of these is usually self-explanatory, but I’ll elucidate when I have something to add.

START with a basic first aid kit with bandages and the usual. Most normal first aid kits have SOOOO many bandages and not enough of the ‘serious’ stuff. Keep the basic kit and get another sack for your ULTRA kit. 🙂

  1. Instant cold pack(s). For injuries, usually, but also can be used to bring down body temp if you are finishing your run on a wicked hot day (just wrap it in cloth so you don’t frostbite anything, then stick under armpit(s), alternating as needed).
  2. Stretchy compression bandage, any kind. Tons of uses. To hold an ice pack on or create stability.
  3. Technu. (Or IvyX) Ran through a patch of poison ivy or oak? These are pretty much your only option.
  4. Nut butter or other chafing relief stuff.
  5. Electrolytes. Tons of options these days. I have definitely finished runs low on electrolytes because I misinterpreted the heat or the weather.
  6. Space/thermal blanket.
  7. Water filtration. Can help in more ways than you think. If you get to the trailhead and realize you’ve forgotten bottles, take a LifeStraw to purify water on your route (if there’s a stream/spring/lake!). If you bring bottles and run out of water, fill your bottles at a water source and bring it BACK to the car to filter later if you know you’ll be dehydrated.


Not necessarily in your first aid kit, but in your car: WATER. (If you keep a plastic water jug in your car, change the water at least every month because that plastic will leach… ick.) Also, some dry clothes, possibly a towel, and some calories that are heat-tolerant. Nut butter packets are great. I like to keep some protein recovery powder and my shaker bottle to have something for my quivering muscles on the drive home (or directly to a grocery store for some FRUIT).

Further ideas? What else is something you would LOVE to know is waiting for you in the car as you stagger down the last bit of trail, hurt or dehydrated or (gawd forbid) bleeding? Let me know!

For realz. Car-stable PIZZA ROLLS!

[NOTE: this post is full of Amazon links; buy your gear where you choose!]

Gear Picks: Clothing Worn

What to Wear: Clothing While Hiking

(2nd in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)

Neatly folded up hiking apparel, never to smell this nice again.

Neatly folded up hiking apparel, never to smell this nice again.

Before my first thru-hike, I bought exactly one item of clothing brand new. I still have that item (a dress!) and it will be with me for many trips to come. Everything else was bought earlier, typically for trail-running. Note: in thru-hiker convention, items worn while hiking are typically not counted in pack weight. Here I won’t list grams and such.

Montbell Wickron Stretch Trail Dress

$49 direct from MontBell. Lightweight, quick-drying, with sun protection. With my arm sleeves it afforded me comfort and a haven from the Colorado sun. Really comfortable overall, though I could have used an XS size rather than S. MontBell told me they don’t make XS and I could get the equivalent if I bought Japanese sizing since they run smaller. That seems like a lot of extra work. And I’m not that tiny (34 chest, 38 hips, 28 waist). I figured a small should fit, but it was pretty roomy on me. Still really love it.

Arm Sleeves and/or Sun Gloves

Outdoor Research UV Arm Sleeves AND Outdoor Research Sun Gloves
I STRONGLY recommend both arm sleeves and sun gloves if you’ll be hiking above a few thousand feet. I’m in my early 40s and really starting to notice sun damage from a lifetime of “eh, who cares” sunscreen use. COVER UP! Bonus is that, with arm sleeves, you might only need a short-sleeve shirt for hiking: the arm sleeves offer a little warmth even when not needed for the sun.

Bottoms, For Ladies!

Going the shirt and pants route? Consider leaving behind those old-school hiking pants with zip-off legs. They’re heavy, complicated, and might not even be that comfortable under your hip belt. In recent years the prevalence of trail running shorts on thru-hikers has been quick and transformative (and note that with most running shorts you won’t need underwear as they have a liner built-in). Here are some of my favorites, chosen for decent length (no chafing, some sun protection) and minimal waistband stuff going on:

  • Oiselle Long Roga Shorts: everyone on the planet seems to love these shorts. Good pockets, as well.
  • Tasc Performance Challenge Shorts (5″): Good length, UV protection, and glowing reviews.
  • PATAGONIA STRIDER PRO shorts (any length, your choice!): details change constantly with pockets appearing or disappearing from year to year. That said, these remain some of the comfiest and longest-lasting shorts I have ever owned. Quick-drying and flattering as heck.
  • The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts: Kind of hard to source, but usually on Amazon for $50. Also, eBay isn’t a bad place. Ridiculously light and ephemeral. They’re the cuben fiber of shorts. Don’t abuse them too much and they will love you in return. They are SHORT, just be warned.

Undergarments: panties, bras, oh my!

Firstly, let me put a shout out for going commando. ESPECIALLY with a dress or skirt. Here’s the strategy I would use on every thru-hike from now on: carry one pair of favorite underpants, wear sporadically ‘as needed’ to balance out the commando days. Some hikers carry two pairs, but there’s no need for that. Even if you are not a fan of going without, you can survive a day or less after rinsing out your one pair (200′ from water sources, minimum!!) and hanging them on your pack to dry. (Oh, yes, on the outside of the pack! Thru-hikers are a practical lot.)

Ex Officio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Bikinis: The only underpants I recommend. They’re awesome.

What about sports bras? My advice is take your current favorite sports bra, the one that never bothers you no matter how boring it looks, and take that along. That’s it. I found one that doesn’t chafe (usually) and fits well and that’s what I hike in. It’s from Target. I think your sports bra is even more important for thru-hiking comfort than your underwear: after all, you’re wearing your pack right over its straps. Choose wisely, and TEST first!


Like sports bras, you do need to experiment a little and see what works. Here are my favorites over the miles, for several reasons and purposes.

  • Darn Tough Light Hiking Socks, $20 (I like crew height): best thing about these (if you keep your receipt!) is that if you wear them out, send them back for a new pair. For realz.
  • DryMax Trail Lite Crew Socks, $15: When you just want your darn socks to dry out quicker. If you suffer from a lot of foot sweatiness, DryMax might help.
  • SmartWool Cabin Socks, $20+: finally, SLEEPING SOCKS. It’s a good idea to put something clean over your tired and grimy feet before you slide everything into your fancy sleeping bag. When it’s time to go night-night, SmartWool is my pick. Get a thinner style if you want less weight and/or warmth.


Everyone’s feet have a shoe preference, based on history, shape, and lots of other factors like pack weight. But look down at the feet of 100 current thru-hikers and you’ll see probably 50+ pairs of Altra trail running shoes, often the Lone Peak model. Lone Peaks acquired beloved status on long trails about 5 years ago and their dominance can be seen in the tread left behind on any section of the PCT. I wore them for most of my Colorado Trail thru-hike last fall, with zero issues.

What should influence your shoe choice? First, your own hiking history. If you have always always always hiked in full-grain leather hiking boots, you will be most comfortable in those, for now. But if your pack weight is significantly less than 30% of your body weight, consider testing out trail running shoes. Light-begets-light in this case. By having less weight on your back, you could need less structure around your feet. And you’ll need to strengthen your feet, too, if they’ve been bound up in boots until now. Already a trail runner? You might be ready to jump right into a pair of Brooks Cascadias or Altra Lone Peaks straightaway.

Followup Notes and Comments

Clothing will always be a lot of personal preference. Some folks like to keep things as cheap as possible, even purchasing items at that “Wal-store” place and justifying the low cost with how many miles they can squeeze out of running shorts or whatever. I have some bias against that place: I’d rather paw through the running shorts section in any thrift store. This way, you’re supporting either a charity or a local business, and getting more use out of something that might have otherwise been thrown away. Heck, I’ve even bought Target brand stuff at thrift: $4 instead of $17.99 is still pretty awesome. And it’s a far cry from a brand new name brand pair of shorts at $50+.

Next up: Kitchen!

The Gear Picks Series Page

Gear Series: The Big Three

The Big Three: Tent, Pack, Sleep

(First in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)

When I finally set out on my first thru-hike, I had a base weight of 12lbs. Not bad. Definitely not super ultra light (SUL). Heck, it’s not even technically “ultralight” which needs to be under 10lbs. Most hikers will find that the easiest (though costly) way to get their base weight down is to lighten up their “big three”, which is the backpack, the shelter system, and the sleep system. Get these under 5lbs and you’re doing really well. My list below comes in at 7lbs on the nose, but you’ll find notes on how I’d cut that down next time.

TarpTent Notch (1lb 11oz)

$314 direct from manufacturer. First, my light and versatile tent, used for all of the Colorado Trail in 2017 and more than a dozen nights since with nary an issue. With stakes, groundsheet, and sack, it comes in at 27 ounces. To pitch it requires two hiking poles: a welcome reason to bring the “sticks” that save my legs on long days. I could get a similar but lighter tent at far greater expense (sigh, Solplex….). I ain’t into doing the tarp thing, which would be far cheaper. And like Heather “Anish” Anderson, I prefer to keep the creepy crawlies out. So for me it’s a real-deal tent. Henry Shires, the founder of TarpTent, and his team build these in Seattle and they do good work.

TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO

TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO

Osprey Tempest 40 Backpack (2lbs 3oz)

Osprey Tempest 40. $160 from Amazon. One of the oldest items in my kit at 5 years old, this pack was my first serious backpack and it took quite a bit of adjustment before I found the magical fitment that made every mile well balanced. Luckily this pack’s torso length is adjustable and the hipbelt fits nicely snug right over my iliac crest. I wear my belt low compared to many women, so getting a big enough belt can be an issue, but this Osprey does the job. It is not superlight at 2.2 lbs, but it carries weight well and that’s more than you can say for a lot of the very light frameless rucksacks. If I were getting another Osprey today, it might be their new ultralight pack called the Lumina 45 which sheds nearly a half pound yet still has solid internal framing.

Thermarest NeoAir XLite Women’s sleeping pad (12oz)

$160 from Amazon. Whew! Crazy lightweight and packs down tiny when deflated. Drawbacks? A little crinkly when you roll around on it, thanks to the thermally reflective material inside. Other than that, nothing. This is the short version, meaning 5’6″ in length to capture just what is needed for shorter humans and not a gram more. The R-value is 3.9: wonderfully high. The thru-hiker favorite ThermaRest Z-Lite Sol weighs the same with half the R-value and must be strapped to the outside of your pack. It ain’t small. Why a thru-hiker favorite, then? Cheap, indestructible, simple. There you have it.

Marmot Xenon Women’s Sleeping Bag (2lb 6oz)

$459 from Amazon. This bag ain’t cheap nor light but boy is it toasty when you need it! I started my Colorado Trail hike with a phenomenal 20 degree ZPacks quilt (1lb 3oz!!!), which was unfortunately more of a survival rating. I was darn uncomfortable for a few nights before I swapped out for this Marmot, ordered in Breckenridge and shipped to me in Twin Lakes right in the nick of time. Still have the ZPacks and it is the lightest summer bag I will probably ever own. But it ain’t for fall camping in the mountains. This Marmot is rated for comfort at 15 degrees and ‘survival’ at -9 degrees. That makes it 30 degrees warmer than the Zpacks, which makes the weight all of a sudden seem tolerable. Biggest drawback to me isn’t the weight so much as the size it takes up, even stuffed, in the pack. That said, it still fit with my tent, the pad, gear and all my food inside a 40L backpack.

Marmot and Zpacks sleeping bags

Warm bag top, summer bag bottom. Note the Marmot was stuffed much tighter than the Zpacks.

Followup Notes and Comments

Heavier can be better! Let’s say you get your Big 3 down to a really feather weight. Below 5lbs or even 4. This means you definitely have a shelter that might be best when treated delicately. You might have a pack that can’t take more than 25lbs or even less. And you might be skimping on a bag that lets you kind of sleep but still keeps you pretty chilly throughout the night. Where would I recommend you go very light vs not so light? I’d spring the big bucks and get a really fancypants tent, taking 11oz off that weight. And I’d go back to a lighter pack, maybe shaving off 8-10oz more. But where does extra weight mean comfort that is truly wonderful? SLEEPING. Buy the best, warmest, most amazing sleeping bag you can stomach. Maybe it doesn’t stuff down super tiny. Maybe it costs $600. But sleeping poorly after a long day on trail because you are cold flat out SUCKS. And you won’t be rested for the next day.

When I started the Colorado Trail last fall my Big 3 weight was at 5lbs 5oz: quite a bit lighter than the 7lbs above. I was using an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 45 (8 oz lighter than Osprey) and that Zpacks sleeping bag (1lb 3oz lighter). Next “cool weather” trip I will stay with the warm sleeping bag, but probably switch to a lighter backpack again.

Next up: Clothes on your Body!

The Gear Picks Series Page

How To Turn Your Next Hobby Into A Life-Sucking Obsession [A Guide]

Also known as: “how to dive down rabbit holes like a boss!” I have a ton of experience in this rabbit-holing thing. I’ve gone off the deep end with interests as diverse as:

  • nutrition (and calorie restriction for longevity (hoo boy))
  • electric cars
  • hiking gear (back in 1998, hello Ray Jardine!)
  • wild edible plants
  • exercise physiology
  • straw bale houses, and even . . .
  • cryogenics

And in early 2017, it bit me again. This time it took the form of thru-hiking. I went from average ultramarathon trail runner to full-blown backpack-wearing spreadsheet-logging gear nerd in a matter of about a month. Don’t worry, there will be details. But first, a 7 Step program to deep-dive into your very own rabbit hole, from the early days of curiosity to full blow-off-your-friends obsession.

Step 1: Rabbit hole? What rabbit hole? One day, you suddenly become interested in something new. Perhaps it is something brand spanking new to you, out of your normal repertoire of interests, that you stumbled upon from a shared link or a book or a conversation. For example, you could be a laid-back introverted yoga instructor and suddenly you are fascinated by the idea of 3D printing your own shoes. It doesn’t have to be a physical activity or sport. You could get waaaaay into learning about gut bacteria. Or the history of masonry construction. Many times, it can be something tangential to another interest, an overlapping Venn circle of skills and participants. Let’s take an example that hits close to home for me this year: two decades of trail and ultra running rekindles an old spark of interest in thru-hiking. You (I) have free time and resources to bite this hobby off. It’s time!

Rabbit Hole by Jin Zan

Step 2: Oh hey, there’s a little dark tunnel over here! Wonder where that goes? Take a few steps, just for now, toward this new interest. Read up on gear, techniques, training. Read books and how-tos by those who have experience in all of those things. Follow about 100 new Instagram accounts. Do some legwork. Read a whole boatload of blogs. Watch some YouTubes. Join some groups. Buy some stuff. Research and research some more.

Step 3: Peer down the rabbit hole with curiosity. Kick some dirt down. It is now time to DO this new thing, in a not-so-small and not-so-timid chunk. All I needed was to just get a few more camping pieces to add to the gear, buy some food, and then go on a one month backpacking trip, solo.

Step 4: One foot in, both feet in: Down the hole you go. Connect deeply with the activity, body and spirit. Engage with the people out in the field. Learn about more resources WHILE you are out there actually doing this. Find out from other hikers about even more blogs and podcasts you’d not heard about before! Take mental (or physical) notes for research upon return.

Step 5: Where’s the daylight? Hello? Actually purchase Kindle books about hiking on your hike whenever you get a blip of 4G data. Order more gear from your phone from your tent. Get so excited and uncontainable you offer unsolicited advice to others out there, when you can tell that if they did X just a little differently they might enjoy Y more.

I took a LOT of notes about the Colorado Trail.

Step 6: The rabbit hole has consumed you. Your friends wonder where you went and who this obsessive person is that took your place. Already, begin thinking about improvements for the NEXT time around even before the first trip ends. Decide to get a better backpack. Ponder new trekking poles. Decide to sell some of your lightly-used but now-rejected current gear.

Stop. Right. There.

Anyone who now knows you can see this obsession from a country mile away. But if things are going to work out well for you (and your friendships), there does need to be another step or two before too long. You must move on to Step 7 if you hope to avoid your hobby becoming a life-choking dark hole of inescapable gravity.

Step 7: Climb towards the daylight again. Pause. Breathe. Stop and listen to those friends that see you becoming obnoxiously focused on one thing only. Slow the F down, already. There you go. Stop planning the next trip, the next gear upgrade, the next nutrition hack.

Write about what you’ve already done, whether or not it ever gets shared. Process. Go on walks. If you must, clean and sort and organize what items related to your obsession you already possess. Keep talking to all of those new friends you’ve met through your rabbit hole and wish them well on their current trips. Wish them well with sincerity, and without trying to hop on another project yourself right this freaking second. Go support them on their journey and write about that. Help the larger cause by making donations or volunteering your time.

Chips and Coke for a Southbound PCT hiker

Finally, once things have mellowed down, once the journals have been transcribed and the gear put away and the physical recovery finished, then you can begin again. Look at your new hobby/obsession with fresh eyes and a new eagerness. NOW, you can express your joy and experiences with the world. Push out those blog posts (right here, yo!). Send some lovely trip photo greeting cards to your family. Now, you can even think of ways you could make your experience more permanent and helpful, like a guidebook or a resource to make better gear or guide newbies on their way . . .

Because eventually, the next step will come, as well: your planning for next year’s monster adventure.