You don’t have to be a track superstar to be a trailblazer. Trail running is a beginner-friendly sport you can enjoy all year round. But before you go the distance, it’s important to go over the basics, from safety to essential gear.
Here’s everything you need to know to go trail running.
What you’ll need
- water bottle or hydration pack
- appropriate clothing for the local climate
- safety whistle and wild animal deterrents
- running shoes designed for outdoor terrain
- navigation tools like a smartphone, GPS watch, or map
To get the inside scoop on trail running, we spoke with Liz Warner, founder of Run to Reach. Warner completed 30 marathons in 30 countries as part of an international fundraising effort. So it’s safe to say she knows what’s up when it comes to running 🏃♀️.
“Trail running is a lot more complex than urban running,” she says. “I almost find it to be an entirely different sport in itself.”
Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Finding a trail is easy. But finding the right trail for your experience level can get tricky. Start your research through the following:
- Local clubs. Hit up local running clubs or groups to get up-to-date deets on your area. Some clubs list the best local trail routes on their websites. You can also contact a club directly and ask for an invite to their next meetup.
- Trail races. Check for upcoming races in your area. A lot of race routes are open for leisure runs, but it’s still a good idea to check with the race director to see if the trail is beginner-friendly.
- Running stores. Running stores can be a terrific source of info. Most employees will be well-versed in local trails. And if they’re not, they can prob point you in the direction of someone who can help.
- Good ol’ Google. Popular trails should have a decent number of online reviews. Research which trails are best for beginners and give it a go.
- USA Track & Field. This is the national governing body for all long-distance running, race walking, and track and field in the United States. They have a dope online feature that lets you look up trails in your area. You can use the advanced search option to specify your preferred surface, terrain, and distance.
Trail running requires a lot more agility than other types of runs, according to Warner.
“It is not uncommon to find yourself in situations where one wrong foot landing could land you in serious trouble,” she says.
That’s why you may want to start off by training at the gym or on outdoor tracks. This can help you get the basics down before you’re face-to-face with Mother Nature. (Psst… Here’s our guide to getting started with running at any level.)
Warner also notes that a strength training regimen is particularly important.
A 2016 review of research in highly trained middle- and long-distance runners found that performing plyometric exercises and low- to high-intensity resistance training 2 to 3 times a week for 8 to 12 weeks can help improve running economy (the amount of energy you use at a given speed).
A 2020 study also found that strength training can increase athletic performance in amateur endurance runners. Woot!
Even if you’re slaying a super safe trail, you need to be 10/10 careful. Remember your starting spot and always have a plan for how to get back safely. It’s also a good idea to check out the trail’s vibe beforehand.
“I always make sure to look at the elevation gain and how technical the course will be,” says Warner.
Fitness level and physical limitations
You won’t go from running newb to Sonic the Hedgehog overnight. And that’s OK! The most important thing is to keep your trail runs safe. That means fueling up before, during, and after your runs.
Warner suggests you bring at least 1 to 2 liters of water and 500 to 1,000 calories’ worth of snacks if you’re planning to run more than 5 to 7 miles. You may also want to carry electrolyte or salt tablets if you’re planning to run for 90 minutes or more.
Don’t push it to the limit
That whole “slow and steady wins the race” thing is legit. Pushing past your limits is a one-way ticket to Ouch Town. So take breaks when you need them. And if it hurts, STOP 🛑!
Reviews, weather, and wildlife… oh my!
Trail running can be extremely nourishing for your mind and body. But it can still be risky, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar area.
Warner suggests reading reviews about new trails to be as informed as possible. Avoid trails that have been red-flagged as dangerous, and stay updated on weather forecasts so you don’t get caught by precipitation surprise.
While in the great outdoors, you might be tempted to touch and play with animals, but you should never interact with wildlife. Just let the squirrels do their thing, fam. You also have to be on alert for more ROAR-y animals. If you run in an area that’s known for bears and other potentially dangerous animals, carry a deterrent 🐻.
Is it safe to run alone?
According to Warner, it’s always better to run in pairs when taking on a trail course. And even if you’re running with a partner or group, you should come prepared.
“Always bring an emergency blanket with you in case of getting stuck anywhere along the course and a whistle in case you need to call for help,” she says.
Now that you’ve taken notes on prep, here’s the lowdown on what gear to get.
As much as you might love your normal gym sneakers, they weren’t designed with trail running in mind. You should instead opt for a pair that are the shoe equivalent of an off-road Jeep.
“It is always best to consult with any specific trail running shoe brand to see what type of shoe is recommended based on the terrain,” Warner says.
If the brand doesn’t have the deets you need on their website, you can contact them directly.
Pro tip: If you’re running on a sandy or dirty trail, Warner recommends attaching gaiters to your running shoes. They can prevent mud and grit from getting in.
|Light trail shoes||More lightweight than their rugged counterparts, these shoes have sorta-stiff builds that offer modest protection from rough rocks. They’re good if you’re sticking to well-groomed terrain.|
|Rugged trail shoes||These have rugged soles to prevent slipping on slick, muddy, or rocky terrain. They’re also built with stiff construction to reduce your risk of foot rotation. The thick, durable exterior is great protection against thorns, brush, and harsh landings.|
|Off-trail shoes||These take rugged shoes to the next level with sturdy-AF structure and more support for uneven terrain. You can also take them through bogs, streams, and other slippery spots.|
Trail shoes need to have a “Cinderella’s glass slipper” vibe. The fit has to be perfect. You also have to keep arch support and sock thickness in mind. So for your first pair, you might be better off going to a brick-and-mortar store for a professional fitting than buying online.
In addition to terrain type, you can consider padding when picking a shoe:
- Barefoot. These shoes offer no padding and minimal support. Folks like them because you can get a better feel for the ground. But they’re def not the best for uneven or jagged terrain.
- Minimal. Minimal padding will give you a hint of protection from roots, rocks, and other sharp objects.
- Moderate. You should have enough padding to run on rocky trails without any problems.
- Maximum. Get ready for thicc layers of midsole padding. Some peeps say these shoes offer extra shock absorption for a more comfortable run. But others claim the cushioning is too soft and less efficient than less-padded alternatives.
Whether you’re running through the desert or the tundra, you need to stay hella hydrated. Here are the best water bottles to reduce your risk of a thirst trap:
- Insulated. An insulated bottle will keep your water crisp and cold. You can also get one that attaches to a belt so you don’t have to hold onto it the whole time.
- Hydration pack. Think of it as a backpack for your water. It has a tube that allows for hands-free hydration. Plus, it’s Dwight Schrute-approved!
- Filtrating. These babies are great if you’re using a fresh water source. The high grade ones will filter out bad bacteria and parasites.
Some trails offer printed maps you can take with you on the go. But it’s not recommended that you rely on those. Here’s how you can keep track of your locale.
Go with a GPS watch designed for outdoor sports. Some models have route planning, altimeters, and uber-long battery lives. They can also clock your pace, distance, heart rate, and calories burned.
Smartphones are great for map apps. You can download a map of the area at home in case you don’t have service during your run.
Pro tip: Get an emergency notification app. This can send a signal to your emergency contact or local authorities if you run into trouble on the trails. You can also share a live feed of your location with loved ones to help them stay in the loop.
Even in well-traveled areas, there’s a chance you won’t have cell service. A map can help you stay the course and find your way back to civilization if you make a wrong turn. It can also give you important elevation and terrain info.
A run in the sun can be super fun. But sunburn? Not so much. So be sure to slather on the SPF before you head out. Go with sweat-resistant versions that are optimal for athletes.
Whether you’re trying to maintain ventilation or keep your muscles warm, here are some attire options for comfort on the trail. Not all of these are necessary, obviously, but the weather in your area should dictate what you add or don’t add.
|Hot weather||Cold weather|
lightweight sweat bands to wipe off the wetness
a visor (to block out the sun but let your scalp breathe)
synthetic-blend clothing (which doesn’t absorb as much moisture as cotton)
puffy insulated vest
insulated running jacket
tech fabric or wool socks
running gloves or mittens
sweat-wicking thermal long sleeve shirt
hat, beanie, or headband to cover your ears
P.S. In super cold temps, you may want to wear a running balaclava (a hood/face mask combo garment) to protect your face from frostnip.
“Just in case” clothes
Some seasoned trail runners like to bring an extra stash of socks, thermal shirts, and sweatbands with them. All this can be easily stored in a lightweight backpack or even a fanny pack.
Trail running is a fantastic sport that peeps of all fitness levels can enjoy. But it’s super important to research local trails and do thorough prep before you head out. Also be sure to wear the right clothing for your climate and have a navigation device or map on you at all times.
Now get out there and run, F̶o̶r̶r̶e̶s̶t̶ [your name here], run!