How to get started with trail running

For me, trail running is the perfect summer workout. Of course, it's awesome just to be outside enjoying nature but trail running also provides shade from the hot summer sun and you won't feel like you're melting on the scorching hot asphalt!

Depending on where you live, trail running can be an excellent alternative to road running for a number of reasons. In fact, I've written a whole article about the pros and cons of trail running.

However, for some reason it can feel daunting to start trail running for the first time, especially if you're doing it alone. So I want to talk about a couple things you need to know before you get started on your first trail run.

After reading this you should have the knowledge and confidence to start making some tracks on your local trails!


The most important part of trail running is understanding how to stay safe.

The first part of being safe is understanding your risk. If you are running a 2 mile loop in town, you're not going to be as concerned with safety issues like exposure, wild animals, or getting lost.

However, if you are running a 20 mile long run in a huge national park...yeah, you're going to need to take some precautions.

Let's briefly talk about some of the risks that may be present on wilderness trails, then you can be the judge of which ones you need to be cautious of.

Exposure to the elements - This just means not being prepared for natural elements like heat, cold, rain, fog, snow, etc. The effects this could have on you could range from becoming dehydrated to getting frostbite! You have to make sure you are prepared for any risks that may be associated with the type of weather you are having.

  • Example: You head out for a 4 mile, there-and-back, tempo run on a local trail in the winter. You dress lightly because you're going to be running fast and working up a sweat. Halfway through your run you roll your ankle. Now you have to walk 2 miles back to your car. You've been sweating for the past 15 minutes so now you're wet, walking, and freezing cold with no extra layers...

  • Solution: Try to pack extra gear based on what you might encounter. This might mean extra water if it's summer time, extra layers if it's winter time, or extra food if you're hitting a longer run.

Wild animals - For most of us, the likelihood of encountering a dangerous, wild animal on a hiking trail is pretty low. But there are some people who live in higher risk areas that need to be aware of the animals on their local trails. Mountain lions, bears, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, scorpions, and even deer ticks are all animals that can do some real damage if you let them!

  • Example: You can find tons of big news stories about cougar or bear attacks even though they happen infrequently. In most cases the venomous animals are the most deadly and the hardest to see!

  • Solution: Well, for mosquitoes, ticks, and other annoying bugs that also tend to carry disease you should wear deet-rich bug spray. For larger, predatory animals from snakes to bears, you should just do your best to let them know you're there; most attacks happen when animals are surprised by runners accidentally "sneaking" up on them. For many animals, a bear bell will be enough to let them know you're near (or just talking out loud). Lastly, be aware of your surroundings, don't wear headphones, and be on the lookout for dangerous animals in high risk areas, like snakes who might be sheltering under fallen logs.

Getting lost - Getting lost is actually one of the most common dangers for runners, hikers, backpackers, hunters, back country skiers, and mountain bikers. Fortunately there are pretty fool proof solutions...if you're willing to spend the money. Thousands of people get lost every year which can turn a 1 hour run into a scary overnight if you're not careful.

Again, if you're running near a town or in a developed area you may not have to worry about this. But if you are in an area that is mostly wooded or in the middle of nowhere, this should be something to prepare for.

  • Example: You set out for a quick run on a large trail system that you aren't super familiar with. You end up taking a wrong turn, and when you try to backtrack you just become more lost. You eventually end up on an old deer trail that you thought was a hiking trail. Ah crap.

  • Solution: There are handheld GPS devices like this Garmin that are designed for people really getting into no-mans-land. Then there are emergency beacons like the Zoleo and the Spot which allows GPS messaging to let others know if you're ok, and SOS signals if you are lost or hurt. The problem with these, of course, is the price...over $100-$200 is a tough pill to swallow when you might never use the thing! Some runners choose to use a small compass like the ones you find on "survival" bracelets, but the reality is that most people have no idea how to use a compass, and they wouldn't know which direction to go if they did. I don't recommend this solution. To me, the 2 most important tools to have are a light, and a whistle. A light and a whistle mean people can see you from farther away and hear you from farther away. That means even if you break a leg and can't move, you're giving yourself the best chance to be found. Aside from actual gear, there are a few safe practices that you should be using when you go out for a trail run. 1) Tell someone where you're going and roughly how long you plan to be gone (even if that means a quick text or note). 2) Familiarize yourself with a trail map of where you're running. 3) Always carry more water and food than you think you'll need.

Again, I don't want to scare people who are already nervous about trail running. The vast, vast majority of the time you will never run into a problem. But it is important to at least think about the risks involved with your activities and try to plan accordingly.

I'm not the kind of person to say "prepare for the worst case scenario" because that just isn't realistic. You're not going to carry several days worth of food and water, bear spray, antivenom, a GPS device, and who knows what else for a 5 mile run. You could pack some water, a gel or two, a whistle and a headlamp and still be running with a very light pack.

Finding local trails

After you've figured out what safety concerns to address, you need to find some trails relatively close to you.

For this I recommend using or (both have apps). Both of these will show you pretty much all of the local trails near you.

I find that Strava tends to be a bit more up to date, probably because there are so many people using the app and adding relevant changes to the trails. But I personally think that Alltrails is much easier to use and more intuitive, especially for people unfamiliar with trail maps.

Whatever you use, take a peek at the trails and read what people say about them, sometimes there is some good information in the comments!

One thing to pay attention to is the total elevation of the trail your looking at. While you might pay attention to which road routes have hills, the overall elevation of a road run generally pales in comparison to a trail run. Both Strava and Alltrails will show you this information when you look at a specific trail.

Gearing up

Alright, we're not doing a deep dive into trail running gear, I have another article about that! As a new trail runner you don't need to focus on the gear anyways. As you get more familiar with trail running you'll figure out what you actually need, and what people are just trying to sell you!

The two pieces of gear that I think are fairly critical are 1) Some sort of water bottle. 2) A running shoe that can handle the trails.

Notice I didn't say trail running shoes. Realistically, a lot of the trails that people run on don't require a trail running shoe. If you're going to be running on dirt roads, fire roads, flat trails, nature walks, or walking trails you might not need a dedicated trail running shoe.

Now, if you're running with a lightweight, minimally cushioned road shoe, that might not be the best option either.

But if you tend to run with a moderately cushioned shoe that has decent traction, there is no need to drop another $150 on a trail specific shoe.

However, if you're running mostly on hiking trails that have a decent amount of elevation, are somewhat technical, are muddy, or just generally tend to be slippery or chunky, you probably should think about investing in a pair of trail shoes.

Yes, it sucks dropping money on another pair of shoes, but trail shoes generally last longer than road shoes (depending on the terrain) because of the softer surfaces and because you just can't log as many miles on the trail.

As far as a water bottle, I love my hydration pack. I use the Camelbak Circuit which has a bladder on the back and a hose to drink from. Lots of other hydration packs have "soft flask" water bottles on the front of the pack which allow you to have two different types of drinks if you want.

These can be fairly expensive if you get a name brand like Nathan or Camelbak, but there are lots of lower-end hydration packs that I've found work pretty well!

Of course, you don't have to use a pack. Another option would be a running belt. These are much lower profile, lighter, and cheaper, however they don't have as much storage and you can't carry as much water.

Lastly, if you don't mind carrying something in your hand, you could just carry a water bottle!

Have fun!

If you're getting out on your first trail run, it's important to be prepared but it's also important to enjoy yourself and have some fun!

I mean, that's the whole point right? You want to have a good workout while also having an awesome time!

So here are a few tips that I always keep in mind when I'm running on the trails...

Don't think about your pace

If you think your trail running pace is going to be similar to your road running're wrong! My easy runs on the road are usually around 8 min/mi. , but my trail running pace is more like 11:00 min/mi. Huge difference, right!?

Your pace slows down because trails tend to be much hillier than roads and because trails are much more technical than roads. That means you'll be having to pay attention to each footstep to make sure you're not going to trip, slip, or roll an ankle.

Once you've been running trails for a while you might start comparing your trail paces to see if your fitness is progressing, but I still don't do that. For me, trail running is a way that I can get in an awesome workout without having to worry about the numbers.

Get used to walking

For road runners, walking can be seen as "failing" or giving up on your run (which is total bull****). But for trail runners, walking is just part of the game!

The biggest reason for that is because you can encounter much steeper sections on a trail than on a road and because those sections can be incredibly technical. There are some sections of trails that are just not "runnable", especially for us non-elite athletes.

So, if you are the type of runner who thinks that walking is failing, you'll have to get over that pretty quick.

Enjoy it!

As you can tell, my idea of a trail run is more in line with a fun run than a strict, goal-oriented workout. So when I'm on the trail, I treat it like a playground.

I'll run through streams, I'll jump from rock to rock, I'll walk or run along fallen trees, I'll stop to take in the beautiful views...I just do my best to enjoy being outside on the trails.

When you have fun doing something it means you're more likely to continue doing it. So I encourage you to have fun with this, enjoy it by allowing yourself to forget about the numbers for a little bit and just try to enjoy the process.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

If you're looking for more trail running content...CLICK HERE.

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Let me know what you think about trail running below, in the comments section!


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