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Our sofas are comfy. But, let's not get attached. Getting driven from a shelter is something to plan for, and extreme circumstances could force a hasty flight by foot. Pivoting from a stand-fast-and-defend game to a mobile light-and-fast game doesn't mean scrapping your entire prep plan. If you're already in good shape for a long march, it could be as simple as paring down on some things and adding a few others to your kit. And being prepared … to suffer a little. But mostly being prepared.
Ultrarunners — those who cover more ground in a day than most do in a month — are basically preppers with a caffeine addiction who flee for fun. So we figured what better way to test some post-apocalyptic readiness techniques than pushing them to the extreme in a remote mountain trail race?
The Bigfoot 200-Mile Endurance Run in Washington's Northern Cascade Mountains is actually 205.8 miles. Its 96,000 feet of elevation change is more than three out-and-backs of Mount Everest. Runners have 105.5 hours to complete the gnarly point-to-point course, and unlike stage races, once the clock starts it doesn't stop.
It's a grueling test of grit, gear, and sanity, making it the perfect laboratory to put our pared-down survival strategies to the test. We set out last summer to conquer the Bigfoot, here's what we learned (sometimes the hard way) on the way to the finish.
Ultrarunners set out into the woods on purpose, and like preppers, have to be mostly self-reliant and thoughtful with what they carry. This calls for a delicate balance between carrying the necessary gear and adding too much weight.
At Bigfoot, we had 14 aid stations sprinkled nine to 19 miles apart throughout the course. These aid stations were crucial resupply points for food, water, and sometimes sleep, but in between we were on our own.
It was on the first long section in the Mars-like Mount St. Helens volcanic blast zone between Miles 12 and 31 where Jared Byrd, my running partner, and I realized our first critical mistake.
“Hey, I'm out of water.” Sh*t. “Me too.” Double sh*t.
Each of us had the ability to carry up to 3 liters of water, but at the first-aid station — underestimating the next 19 miles — we opted to save weight and bring just 2 liters. Mistake level: Big.
Temperatures that day were in the mid to upper 90s, unusually warm for the region, and the exposed nature of the volcanic blast zone meant we were fast hiking in a lava rock-coated oven. Eight miles in, with 11 still to go, we were both dry. So, we switched to Plan B, which meant activating conservation mode and slowing our pace. (Plan B should have been called Plan See-I-told-you-we-needed-all-this-stuff.)
Surviving off the grid often requires MacGyver-like improvisation skills, but the most important step is preparation before you leave. “Do research of the area before you go there. Google Maps is a great way,” says Bob Aksamit, a 10-year veteran of the Sheridan County Wyoming volunteer search and rescue team. “Get digitally accustomed to the area that you're going to be in.”
Aksamit also recommends going retro, carrying a compass — an old-school one — and paper maps. Had we done that, we would have known there was a clear-water stream another 7 or 8 miles ahead. But did we? Nope. Luckily there were hikers heading in the other direction who told us where we could re-up on water. That mountain stream saved our race, and gave us an excuse to use a piece of gear I'd hoped we wouldn't need: water purifiers.
Aksamit likes the straw-type systems, such as LifeStraw, because they are inexpensive, small, and lightweight. One major downside to these types of filters? They're great for using while you're at a water source, but it's tough and tedious to filter larger amounts of water to bring with you. You have to pull the water through the straw, then baby bird it back into a container.
We'd opted to bring the Sawyer Mini, a tiny system that comes with a filter and detachable water pouch. Fill the pouch with dirty water then squeeze it through the filter and back into your clean storage. Easy. We death marched to the clear stream, filtered a couple gallons of ice cold deliciousness, and made our way to our next checkpoint.
Six of the aid stations at Bigfoot were “sleep stations” with prepositioned air mattresses, cots, and blankets. We hoped to do all of our sleeping at the stations rather than on the side of the trail, but we were prepared (there it is again) to sleep in the dirt. We carried Adventure Medical's Emergency Bivvy.
“Shelter can be anything from one of those emergency blankets to whatever you can put together out in the field,” Aksamit says. “Rock ledge, tree branches … but stay off the ground because the ground will draw the heat out of you.”
You can get hypothermia in any temperature, Aksamit warned, especially if you're been pushing hard and your body is depleted.
“If there's any chance of it being cold bring a sleeping pad, you need that insulating layer,” agrees Bigfoot Race Director Candice Burt. Burt is no newbie to fast-packing, covering large distances with minimal gear. She holds the women's unsupported FKT (fastest known time) for the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile route around the base of Washington's Mount Rainer.
Between her own running, scouting new race routes or marking trails, she will often spend back-to-back days in the backcountry with no access to aid. Burt's cold weather essentials made up the recommended gear list for Bigfoot runners; at a minimum, a rain jacket, hat, and gloves, and lightweight pants.
“I feel like the more I do this, the more I start to bring,” she said, adding that it's easy to start imagining all the worst-case scenarios. “It is absolutely worth bringing the extra weight of safety gear or warm clothing, a tent and a rain fly,” she said. “You could stay in that tent for a long time if you had to.”
Like good rule followers, we'd packed warm clothes to carry with us at all times. A packing move that seemed silly during Day 1's 100-degree highs, but essential when we bedded down to sleep during night two's 40-degree lows.
Our first goal going into Bigfoot was simple: don't die. While anything can happen over 200 miles in remote wilderness, there were certainly things we could do to (cough, nudge) prepare for most situations. The number-one issue we expected were foot problems. Over long distances, be it in an ultra marathon or if you're hoofing it to your safe zone, you're inevitably going to have issues with your feet.
“You get down to the basics, and that's what we're hitting the ground with every single time,” says Todd Nardi, an emergency medical services provider in Tucson, Arizona, and the medical director of the Bigfoot 200 and Tahoe 200. Nardi, who did four years in the Marine Corps as a light infantryman, has become Burt's specialist on treating runners' disgusting and mangled feet. He recommends preparing your feet for the long haul: Filing your nails short, buffing down callouses, and regularly massaging your feet to promote good blood flow. Good, well-fitting shoes or boots and wicking socks are also on his must list. (Nardi is a big fan of Injinji; we are too.)
If you have an issue, treat it immediately before it worsens. Nardi packs Leukotape, moleskin, and other foot care essentials to treat feet on the fly.
What he doesn't recommend is popping blisters. “I keep blisters intact because that's a sterile environment and that's how it's going to heal the best,” he says. “I don't want to inflict an open wound on somebody.” Open wounds could lead to another huge issue when you're on the run: infection.
We carried tape, bandages, alcohol wipes, and triple antibiotic ointment, just in case. We were lucky that we only had to patch up battered feet, but we were prepared for worse.
Unless you're willing to hump a cooler with you, you're going to have to rely on shelf-stable nutrition. Ultrarunners have to go for the most bang for their calorie buck, and tend to carry nutrient-dense noms. “The body can go for a long while without food,” says Adir Doliner, a competitive cyclist and emergency medical physician near Austin, Texas, “Your body just starts processing [muscle and fat] for energy.” So, say it with us now — be prepared and pack smart.
“Berries will only get you so far,” Burt jokes. She prefers to carry real food, things such as cheese, tuna, and salmon pouches, and tortillas. Other good options: almond butter packets, Epic bars, and baby food fruit purees. “Bring food you like to eat, like real food, not just a bunch of gels or bars,” she says. “Once you're out there it's so nice to have real food.”
Bigfoot's aid stations were a well-stocked buffet of soups, sandwiches, burgers, and burritos. We carried about 800 to 1,000 calories on us for in between. In a disaster scenario, you won't have those pit stops. So pack wisely.
What we weren't ready to face was wildlife. On the second or third night (neither of us is certain which one), my running partner turned back toward me and ended up staring down … something. It was big, stealthy, and pretty close.
“If you do have confrontations, just slowly back out, try not to be aggressive,” Aksamit recommends. “If it's a mountain lion, you want to face them. Get their attention just like any house cat. Be big with them.”
Our run-for-our-lives muscles were pretty tired, so instead I closed the distance with Jared and we started banging our trekking poles together.
Poles can make a lot of noise, but the lightweight carbon fiber probably wouldn't make a great weapon. But if this bear/cat/squirrel/hallucination did charge us, I was sure going to try to poke it into submission. “Just be aware,” Aksamit says. “Make noise. Typically any wildlife will get out of your way.” It did and we pressed on … loudly.
We finished Bigfoot in just under 100 hours, which included about 10 hours of sleep and another six to eight hours killed at aid stations. Covering such a large distance in a short amount of time is daunting, especially knowing when it gets tough, it could always get worse.
For us, Bigfoot was a literal 200-mile walk in the woods — for fun. But everything we learned along the way could come in handy in a survival situation.
Ability to walk away from crippling highway gridlock? Check. Having the stamina to run down food in the woods? Check. Knowing we could move for days in search of supplies or shelter? Check. Those 100 hours in the woods gave us confidence in our kit and the knowledge we were prepared for almost any situation. We tested our gear, but also our grit and stubbornness — essential traits of ultrarunners and anyone looking to jump into something wild and unfamiliar.
Sara Davidson, 34, is a Maryland-based runner with more than 40 ultra-marathon finishes, including three 100-milers and the Bigfoot 200 Mile Endurance Run. She suffers from trail amnesia and is spending the summer training for another 200—September's Tahoe 200—with her boyfriend and mileage pusher Jared Byrd.
The 105-hour cutoff time for the Bigfoot 200-Mile Endurance Run meant we'd stretch our gear to at least 72 hours and likely longer; pretty close to the amount of time you should be prepared to spend alone and unafraid should chaos kick your preps into motion. Here's some of what we carried:
PB Adventure Vest 3.0
The unisex PB is customizable and loaded with pockets. We carried about 15 to 20 pounds of water and gear, but it road comfortably with minimal bounce thanks to the shirt-like fit of the Mono Mesh harness. It weighs in at just under a pound but boasts 16 liters of storage.
Starting at $500
The Fenix 3 can charge while tracking — a feature not found on all GPS watches. But the added benefit was its navigation capability. It has GPS/GLONASS satellite reception, altimeter, barometer, compass, and all the good stuff common on a watch of this flavor.
We chose this Mophie for its size-to-juice ratio: 9.9 ounces got us 10,000mAh of power (that'll charge an iPhone 6s five times). But don't neglect your non-recharge batteries either; go for quality. Bigfoot Race director Candice Burt says not to shy away from expensive batteries and buy gear that takes the same size battery (AA versus AAA) so that you only have to carry one type.
Waterproof and lightweight, the Ultra is a super packable choice to throw in your bag. Fully taped seams, armpit vents, and “FlipMitt” built-in gloves mean that this jacket will keep your warm and dry in nasty conditions. At 5.9 ounces, it crushes into a self-pocket the size of two fists.
These 3-ounce pants live in our adventure packs, and can be a lifesaver when caught up high or if the wind picks up — any time when SHTF. The 100-percent nylon material has a DWR finish that'll keep you dry in light rain.
We love the Ghost Whisperer because of its warmth-to-size ratio. For 7.7 ounces you get 800-fill insulation that'll keep your warm when the temperatures drop. Q.Shield down will stay warm even when it gets wet.
Other must haves? “Carry a whistle,” Bob Aksamit says. “You can whistle louder than you can holler.”
“I do like to have a little knife,” Burt says. “There's a lot of things you can do with that — you can cut your shoes open,” a move ultrarunners use if their feet swell too much.