Running Trails

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This is a list of tips for first time trail runners; let me know if you have any to add.

  • Hat with visor Dappled sunlight through the trees looks lovely until the sun is in your eyes and you are getting blinded as you pound the trails. The only time I have taken a serious fall trail running was due to dappled lighting. A hat with a visor is invaluable.
  • Cycling Gloves There is always a risk of tripping and falling while trail running. Wearing cycling gloves can help protect your hands in the case of a fall.


  • Sunglasses The risk of eye damage is much higher when trail running. A stray branch can catch you in the eye and cause some nasty damage. I always wear some type of eye protection when running; don't take your eye sight for granted! (I wear Oakley Half Jackets with interchangeable lenses – clear for nighttime, yellow for dim conditions and dark polarizing for bright conditions.)
  • Inner game of trail running Finding where to put your feet is something that is best left to your subconscious. The conscious mind is needed to work out the right path, but it can just get in the way of the exact footing. This requires the runner to avoid over thinking about the trail. Your conscious mind should be thinking about the overall route along the trail, not each footfall.
  • Watch where you are going This sounds obvious, but is worth stating. You must avoid taking your eyes of the trail for more than a short time, or you will trip and fall, or go off the trail. You need to keep your eyes focused on the trail in front, and briefly flick your eyes further up the trail to make sure you know what is coming. What you are looking at will feed your subconscious and its ability to place your feet well. This also means you must not get too close to the person in front, or you will only see them, not the trail.
    • Running in the dark with a light can help teach you to focus on where you are going. (Thanks to James P)
  • Consider Trail shoes You may or may not need trail shoes; this is dependent upon the trail and the runner. If you are running on wide gravel roads, trail shoes are not really needed. If you are running highly technical single track, then there may be benefit. I personally believe in very minimalist footwear, and will wear Modified Nike Free even on technical trails. I will wear trail shoes if I need to wear traction aid on snow or ice, or if the trail is muddy enough that I may not have sufficient traction with the Modified Nike Free.
    • Waterproof shoes Waterproof shoes will keep your feet dryer for short runs through shallow puddles and short wet grass. However, once things get a little more serious, the waterproofing on the shoe is more likely to keep the water in than out. If you get a waterlogged waterproof shoe, you will have saturated feet for the rest of the run, as the water has nowhere to go.
  • Are we there yet? Running on trails is generally slower and harder than running on the roads. This will make a run of a given distance seem further. How much further will depend on the trail; a flat fire road will seem very close to the road, but steep technical sections can be very, very slow.
  • Leave No Trace Outdoor ethics apply to trail running! You should not drop any trash, leave anything behind, or damage any plant life.
  • Solitude is dangerous I love to be alone on the trail, but this type of solitude has significant risks. If you are injured, it may be a long time before someone finds you.
  • Learn to downhill carefully Going so fast you lose control on a downhill section means you are likely to come to a very ugly halt at some point.
  • Enjoy the dirt Trying to stay clean on the trails will be frustrating and miss out a lot of the joy of trail running.
  • Pack a change of clothes You are more likely to need to change clothes after a trail run than a road run, so fresh clothes are a good idea. Having some plastic bags for the dirty stuff if also wise, but don't leave it in there until the next run, or you will have a bioweapon!
  • Understand the local hazards Find out if the trails you are running have specific hazards. Are their mountain lions? bears? Poison ivy? Snakes? Hunters? Each hazard requires a different approach, but it all starts with understanding the trail.
  • Good manners Always allow someone to pass you on the trail. If possibly ask nicely, but if you are racing hard, shouting "trail" or "make a hole" is acceptable. Also uphill runners generally yield to downhill runners, the opposite of hiking. (Thanks to James P for correcting me on this)
  • Horses Be careful and respectful around horses, and horses normally have the right of way.
  • Cell phones A cell phone is always a useful safety aid when running. In the wilderness you may have very patchy coverage, but if you are injured, you are likely to get a signal before you reach a road.
  • Stream crossings Generally speaking, I do not believe it is worth trying to keep your feet dry when crossing streams. I find it is better to have shoes that drain well and socks that dry quickly. I think of stream crossings as four different types
    • Stepping Stones For these crossings you have to make a decision between trying to use the stepping stone (log, etc) and going through the stream bed. The stones give you the opportunity to keep your feet dry, which is always a good, all things being equal. However, if you slip on the stones, you not only get wet feet, but stand a higher chance of injury. Using the stones is also a lot slower. I will tend to use the stones if they are big and easy, otherwise use the stream bed.
    • Shallow Crossing These you can run through quite easily. Remember you can't see the bottom surface well, so go more cautiously.
    • Dangerous Crossings This is where the water is deep, fast moving and poses a risk of being swept away. Stream crossings at night are extra risky as it is hard to judge how deep the stream is. Use caution!
    • Cold Weather Crossings Crossing streams in cold weather can introduce the risk of frostbite. In this situation, it may be worth trying to keep your feet dry, even though this is difficult. Using a waterproof sock is probably the best option (waterproof shoes will not be high enough). Something like 'seal skins' are waterproof and will seal against the legs so that they will keep your feet dry even on deep water crossings. My experience with them is that they are not very comfortable and introduce their own issues, so I would only use this option if frostbite was an issue.
  • Twisting ankles Running on trails does put more stress on the feet and ankles than road running. I find that the key is lower leg strength, flexibility and mental ability. The mental ability is being able to adjust your balance when your foot turns and to relax that leg and what I can only describe as 'skip'. By reducing the forces on the foot that is turned, you can avoid serious damage.
  • Dangerous Flora Learn what poison oak and poison ivy looks like, before squatting in it.
  • Dangerous Fauna Watch the sides of trails for large wildlife like moose and bears. (Thanks to AKTrail)
  • Run by effort Figure out your effort levels, because pace is a useless concept.
  • Carry the 10 Essentials There are various lists of '10 essentials for the wilderness - mine is 10 Trail Essentials. What you need will vary depending on your run - a couple of miles through a local park is going to be very different to 30 miles through remote wilderness. (Thanks to joerunner)
  • Sunset Know when it gets dark - and it may get much darker than you are used to!
  • Weather Patterns Learn to read clouds, wind directions and other patterns. Some areas have thunder storms in the afternoon for instance.
  • Starting Line Position In a trail race, it can be very important to get your position on the starting line right. If you are too far back, it can be hard to pass people on the trail, making it difficult to make up the time. Too far forward and you can lose time as you make way for people passing you. (Thanks to Charles W)
  • Gaiters Gaiters can keep dirt and rocks outside of your shoes where they belong. My favorites are Dirty Girl Gators. Thanks to John Wayne (gr8ss4opper).
  • The usual rules All of the thing you know about running in general still apply, including Hydration, Cadence, Running in the Dark, Running in the Cold, Running in the Rain, Blister Prevention, Walking Breaks etc.