Trail running has long been a part of the everyman’s life in active cities such at Santa Fe and Denver, but it’s now becoming a trend, even in cities that have less access to great trails like New York City.
When push comes to shove, all you really need to go trail running is a pair of sneakers and nature, of course. But to make sure you’re properly set for the challenge, we chatted with a few experts to get you prepped and geared up. There’s a lot out there to choose from.
To find out what gear you need, and what gear you don’t, we tapped two experts in the trail running field: Golden Harper, founder of Altra and Scott Jurek, an ultra runner who recently nagged the title of the FKT (that’s fastest known time in runner-speak) on the Appalachian Trail.
Running is running — there’s not a ton you need to know. But in the trail running world, there are some things that can sound intimidating. Here are a few terms to know, so you can feel like an expert before you even get started.
Right of Way: You’ll come across a variety of groups of people on the trail, and it’s best to know who to move over for. Cyclists yield to runners and runners yield to hikers.
Trail Etiquette: If you’re coming up behind someone and are ready to move around them, simply say ‘on your left,’ and then pass them on their left.
Vertical: On the trail, miles upward toward the summit is not equal to the total mileage of the run. Three miles on the trail could equal 10 miles on the road in terms of difficulty. If you’re a beginner, avoid trails with a lot of this.
Types of Trails
Where you live will determine the types of trails that you’ll be running on. “The best trail is the one closest to you,” Harper says. He also filled us in on what types of trails you’re likely to find, depending on where you live.
Mountain West: When you think trail running, you think of the mountains. The ones found here are generally hard packed, don’t have a ton of mud and offer lots of vertical. Steep is a real thing here. You’ll cover a variety of conditions from the bottom to the top of the mountain (it might be sunny and 70 at the bottom, but windy and 40 at the top).
Midwest down to South: While this area might be flat as a pancake, the trails found here offer mixed conditions depending on the season and exact state. You won’t really find rocky footsteps with extreme footing or a ton of vertical, but you will deal with more slippery-ness than someone running in the mountain west.
Upper Midwest, Northwest and Northeast: Most of the northern pars of the country, like New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the Great Lakes region, tend to have trails that are floppy — that is, you’re dealing with more mud, and a soft mushy terrain. There’s normally more grass found on these trails.
Desert: From San Diego to Arizona, New Mexico to Texas, you’ll find dry, hard, sandy trails — and these are especially hard on shoes.
“For a beginner, the first thing is that [the trail shoe] is comfortable. You’ll put your foot in a more challenging environment than on the road, so comfort is the most important thing,” Harper says. “It should feel barefoot, relaxed and free.” Trying on sneakers is the best way to do that, and while you’re chatting with the sales associate, chat with them about the types of trails you’ll be on. “Match the type of shoe to the type of trail you run on — so, with rocky mountains, you don’t need a shoe with really big lugs. For the Northeast, where it’s wet and floppy, you’ll want big lugs to keep you upright in slippery terrain,” Harper explains.
“One of the biggest features I like to have is a lower heel height. The heel differential is lower than most road shoes, so I like something in the three to five-millimeter heel drop — it keeps the foot closer to the ground and gives me a more a stable platform to push off and land,” Jurek says. “New trail runners tend to think, ‘I want to protect myself completely from the trail,’ but having some sense of feeling is important,” he adds.
Waistpack + Water
While you don’t necessarily need anything beyond proper shoes, it’s smart to bring water with you, especially if you’re not familiar with the trail. You can use something as simple as a handheld water bottle with space for your keys, or something more intense like a hydration pack
Depending on how long you’re heading out on a run for, it’s best to pack a few snacks. In case the trail ends up longer than anticipated or you slow down and are out longer than you planned, reaching for these gummies or electrolytes will keep your energy up. You can also bring real food if you want — apples and peanut butter, grapes or anything your body craves when you’re outside.
There is something to be said about running into the woods and enjoying the silence. It’s not often that we disconnect, but trail running can be your chance to do just that. You can detour from this one if you’re looking to totally get off the grid.
If you do want to keep track of where you’re going, and maybe even drop breadcrumbs to get you back to the starting point, start with a basic GPS watch. While some watches like the Garmin Fenix 5S offer amazing GPS and battery life, if you’re just getting started, we recommend working up to something like that. Make sure you actually like running with a tracker and trail running before making a serious investment.