If you’re a new runner, there’s a good chance you’re a trail runner. This niche has hit the ground running in recent years, and surprised many by becoming a serious sport. But it’s more than that. Trail running is attracting seasoned road runners and inspiring new runners to embark on their own running journey for a variety of reasons. Some say trail running is a spiritual experience, comparing it to a church or an exercise in Zen philosophy; others see it as a way to get faster on the road with less impact on the body.
Whatever your reason for trying your legs at trail running, there’s one question you’ve probably asked yourself: what trail running gear do I need? Because you’ll be out in the woods alone, running up mountains, and conquering the elements, you might want to start on the right foot and prepare yourself properly. It’s a good place to start, and there’s some amazing gear out there to keep you safe and running at top speed.
But first, a disclaimer. Before you run to the store and invest in top trail running gear, make sure it’s the sport for you. Make sure you’ll use it. You probably already own the best trail running gear for beginners: road running gear. Road running gear will suit you just fine until you begin more serious running and longer, more risky routes.
Let’s start out with the most important item for serious trail runners: shoes. The reason that you’ll want to invest in, and maintain, a solid pair of shoes throughout your running career is that no one likes injuries. Just like with road running, if you’re prone to injuries then you’ll want to buy a shoe with more support and structure. If injuries aren’t an issue, you can move on to the lighter shoes.
Trail running shoes differ from conventional running shoes. The main difference is in the soles of the shoes. Conventional running shoes have softer soles to make up for the higher impact of concrete. Trail running shoes are a little firmer. The benefit of a firmer sole is more traction, something that will be useful when you’re running steep trails, propelling yourself off of rocks, or coping with muddy conditions.
When buying a running shoe, make sure you have a half-inch or so of extra room. If your toes brushing up against the front of your shoe, you need bigger shoes. Another best practice is to visit a specialized running store for a gait test. Essentially, a gait test will help you pick a shoe that supports your foot in the way that you run. It’s like having a shoe made just for your stride—preventing injury by preventing missteps.
For more on choosing the right running shoe, see our 5-step guide to choosing the perfect running shoe.
This is also important for all runners, so we won’t be spending too much time on this topic. There are two things to consider when selecting running clothes: temperature and friction.
When trail running, you may find yourself running through different climates. Dress for the weather, but if you’ll be running in and out of forests or up mountains, do your best to select multifunctional clothes. Some examples of multifunctional clothes would be wind-breakers with zippers to increase or reduce ventilation, like this women’s running jacket from Adidas or this stylish men’s running zip up from The North Face. Multi-functional clothing will help you make the most of your run in any weather. Preparing for sudden changes in the weather will help you stick to your training schedule and prevent skip days (for more on making a training plan and sticking to it, see our tips for beginners).
For hot days and long runs, staying hydrated is essential. Gone are the days when staying hydrated meant lugging a water bottle along as you run. According to the experts at REI, you’ll want to consume five to ten fluid ounces of water every fifteen to twenty minutes while you’re running. It may seem tedious to carry so much water with you on longer runs, but you’ll feel the difference.
Once you get into serious distances—more than ten miles at a time—consider purchasing a hydration pack. These form fitting water vests have come a long way in recent years, evolving from a clunky backpack into something you will forget you’re wearing. OutdoorGearLab gives a great overview on the available best hydration packs for runners in 2018, here.
Our bodies need water over the course of a long run, but they need more than that. Especially by completing long runs, we put ourselves at risk for electrolyte depletion. Sports drinks are a possible fix, but that involves carrying more fluid and weighing yourself down.
Pack an energy pack from GuEnergy to put back what running strips away. Runnerclick.com also has a fantastic list of product reviews so you can find what works for you. I dont see anything wrong trying what works for you while your training to find what works best for your body when you begin running races or just extremely long distances. Hydration products are touted for their ability to decrease recovery time and prevent cramping, among other symptoms of dehydration.
Watch, phone case, or app.
Seasoned runner’s stance on data in running differs vastly. Japanese novelist and marathon runner Haruki Marukami uses a thrifty wrist watch (and some old school tunes) to time his runs. Others record and track their running data meticulously. It’s really about what keeps you motivated, but there’s an option for everyone.
An old-fashioned wrist watch can help you track your workout while you’re on the trail. If you run the same paths, start a timer to track how your progress across outings (though speed isn’t necessarily important). Maybe you’re more of a techy-runner, check out this list from thewiredrunner.com for a curated list of watches that offer gps features, along with incline data and heart rate.
Of course, a smart phone will offer you many similar features. The only problem is where to put it. Amazon offers a number of convenient phone cases for your arm or waist.
Once you figure out where to put your phone during your runs, you open up a world of trail running apps that didn’t exist a few years ago. Strava provides a useful app that helps you understand your data, and a gps to give your run direction and help you find new trails. TheRunExperience is a similar app that provides you with trail maps, and coaching from experts dedicated to helping you make progress quickly and safely. The last app we’ll share is called NeverAlone, and this one’s a little different: plan your run and activate the app, if it notices that you’ve stopped moving then the app will contact your emergency contacts to let them know your location. This will keep you safe on solo runs.
Yes, the sun on your skin and the wind in your hair are probably among the best sensations you’ll feel well running. But running long distances in the sun can take a toll on skin, and the bright setting sun has led to many a tumble. Trail runners have become notorious in the running community for their use of trucker hats, which offer light-weight, breathable, and adjustable sun protection. Specialty hats also exist and offer additional protection from the elements, such as these specially designed hats from Patagonia.
While ordinary hats can work just fine for trail running, specialty glasses are worth their salt. Ordinary sunglasses will bounce around, fall off, and lead to more trouble than they’re worth. A good pair of running glasses will fit snuggly with a rubber seal preventing them from bouncing around on your face. They’ll offer peripheral protection as well, a feature you’ll be thankful for as the sun sets on a winding trail. Generally, they come with a strap as well, keeping them on your face (and in one piece) if you take a tumble. Here’s a list of the top trail running glasses in 2018.
Trail runners run into a unique problem in the running world—total darkness. Even if you’re not planning on running past sunset, play it safe by bringing along a fitted head lamp so you can find your way out of the heart of darkness.
Rocks, branches, and roots—oh my! For long solo runs, consider bringing along a running pack (fanny pack or backpack) with a first aid kit. Even the nimblest among us will likely take a fall at some point, making a first aid kit indispensable. Again, our friends at REI have put together a list of trail tested items to get you started. Another good idea would be to include a whistle in your pack, especially if you’ll be running alone.
If you’re going for a nice, tranquil run and not an all-out race against the bugs, you’ll definitely need to put on some bug spray before leaving home. Some runners have to worry about this, some don’t. It all depends on what kind of climate your trail is located in. A swarm of horseflies and mosquitos will have you running at record speed if you forget to suit up with bug spray. And worrying about ticks isn’t my idea of a desirable post-run routine, so take precautions.
As the old saying goes: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Trail-running is a uniquely rewarding experience, and training schedules have no room for runs cut short. If you have any trail running tips, leave them in the comment box. Or you if have ideas about the best trail running gear, we’d be happy to hear from you! Now, get out there and run!