Top Five - Trail Running Safety Tips

Way back when I started trail running, I absolutely threw myself into the adventure of the thing.  It became such a thrill to head out with my girlfriends on a Saturday morning at oh-dark-thirty.  We’d run all day long, having what was sure to be an absolutely epic adventure.

The truth is that we did have epic adventures nearly every weekend.  We’d laugh over beers at the end about how I got my leg stuck in mud or about the Superman another runner had.  However, in retrospect, I wonder how many of those epic adventures would have been tamed down if we hadn’t been incredibly naïve about safety and our surroundings.  Mostly, this was harmless fun avoiding major injury.  That said, during long trail runs and races, I have broken a leg, experienced projectile vomiting and honest-to-goodness hallucinations due to nutrition imbalance, and gotten lost many of times.  I don’t think I am particularly accident-prone, either.  I know other runners who have had similar pitfalls and issues.

Trail running is one of my all-time favourite activities.  I absolutely love the feeling of getting lost in the woods for hours on end.  I love the challenge of getting to the top of a mountain and the thrill of careening back down.  Sure, there are always risks involved in any sport, and even the most seasoned of trail runners knows that there can be a major issue on any trail run.  However, there are some basic ways to keep it safe, so that you can maximize the fun and still have an epic time.  Here are my top 5 trail running safety tips:

1.        Buddy up

We have all heard the warning to never swim alone.  The same warning should be given for trail running.  While you may be quite comfortable on the trails and know your way around, all of the knowledge in the world doesn’t help if there isn’t someone to call for help when you fall.  Plus, having two people making general chatter will cut down on the risk of an animal encounter.

Yes, I know.  It can be a major buzzkill to be out in the tranquility of nature with someone who won’t ever stop talking, but keep in mind that you have the ability to choose who you run with, and it is okay to set boundaries.  It’s also okay to let your partner know that, on a long run, you may choose to listen to an audio book or music.  Anyone who isn’t okay with meeting your needs may not be your ideal running partner.

When looking for someone to run with, make sure that you run with others who share your philosophies and abilities.  How fast does the other person or group run?  Will they slow down for you?  Will you slow down for them?  Will they wait for you if you get behind and vice versa?

Running with others is genuinely the number one thing practical you can do to reduce risk on the trails.  However, some of us do like to run by ourselves (or with our dogs) anyway.  Sometimes, there just isn’t anyone else who wants to get out on the trails.  When I run by myself, I stick to well-worn paths where I know someone else will come across me pretty quickly if I take a spill.

2.       Leave an ear free

Were you that running buddy above that told me you were planning to listen to a five hour audio book in the middle of the run?  I think that’s terrific, but I hope you do two things. 

Firstly, listen to your book with an earpiece.  There’s nothing worse than coming across someone on a quiet trail who wants to loudly share their book or music with the rest of the world.  It’s simply not good trail etiquette to harsh everyone else’s trail experience.

Secondly, please only use one earpiece.  Leave your other ear free to listen to your surroundings.  This is a safety issue.  You need to be aware of your surroundings to stay safe on a trail.  You need to be able to hear not only animals and falling trees but other runners or mountain bikers.  If a mountain biker is on a narrow trail and encounters a runner, it could spell major injury – or worse - for both of you.  If both of you are wearing headphones and cannot hear the other approach, it’s a recipe for disaster.  It’s also completely avoidable.

Certainly the best way to enjoy the trails is without headphones.  We all need to be aware of our surroundings in order to safely enjoy them.  Most of us tend to lose ourselves in running without the added distraction of headphones.  However, I understand boredom and the need to have entertainment piped in from time to time.

3.       Watch the ground and pick up your feet

I can generally spot the seasoned trail runners in a running crowd because they run with a different form.  They tend to pick up their feet and look at the ground more than road runners.  Road runners don’t have to look at the ground when they run generally.  They can look ahead a bit and see potholes and detritus in the road.  Unless you are road running in fairly remote area, abnormalities in the road are a departure from the norm.  Road runners don’t expect to trip and fall.  However, trail running takes a great deal more concentration.  There are roots, rocks, stumps, dips, and twists on the easiest of trails; they are the norm.

Trail running uses a different set of muscles than road running.  In fact, it tends to be more of a full body workout than running on the road.  This is not to pooh-pooh road running; it’s also a terrific workout.  However, when running on trail, you swing your arms to help leverage you up.  You use your core to keep your balance when a rock slips.  It’s an entirely different workout.

My trail girlfriends and I used to discuss at length how much a trail workout differed from a road workout.  You can expect to run slower on trail.  You can expect to climb more.  And you can expect to feel like you ran much, much farther than you actually did.  But the biggest difference between trail and road running technique is that trail running requires focus.  You need to look at the ground and concentrate on its changes to stay upright.  This becomes second nature after a while, but it is certainly a skill that must be learned.

Learn to pick up your feet when you run trail.  Learn to keep an eye on the ground, while also looking ahead.  Learn to anticipate what the terrain will demand of you next.  It’s particularly difficult to pick up your feet when you start to get tired, so learn to remind yourself to pick up your feet often.

4.       Bring more than you need

This doesn’t mean bring anything and everything for any circumstance.  Like with any other sport, you need to weigh what you think you will need against your ability to carry it.  Factors that you should keep in mind are how long you plan to be gone, how remote the area is, and how the weather conditions might change. 

When I went on my very first trail run, a seasoned runner told me to take twice as much water as I think I need, and take a snack.  Getting lost is very common.  This is sound advice.  Over the years, I have come up with a list of other essentials that I bring.

I always, always, always run with my cell phone, even though I have a Garmin.  I do this because I may need to call someone for help.  Plus, I like to take photos.  When I wear a pack, I tuck it away so that I am hands free.

I also always pack baby wipes and baggies.  You never know what you may need those for, and they both have an incredible number of uses.  The baggies can keep a cell phone dry or help you pack out any messes you created.

I run with small amounts of sunscreen, lip balm, and Chamois Butt’r.  Any run longer than two hours will require re-application of all three.  On very long runs, I will also pack an extra pair of socks.  In addition, a very compact first aid kit is a good idea.  If the weather might change drastically, I pack a compact rain jacket or sleeves.

Lastly, I pack an EpiPen because I have a bee allergy.  However, packing it isn’t good enough.  It needs to be accessible, and my running buddies need to know how to use it.  Additionally, I avoid the trails (other than the very well-traveled ones) during the seasons when bees are the most active.  This is a common sense decision I made, with the consultation of my doctor.  Even the most epic of runs isn’t worth risking a bad reaction in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a bit of an urban legend, perhaps, but once in a blue moon you hear about the runner during a race who died because the emergency personnel couldn’t get to her quickly enough.  This is an important point because, if you are diabetic or have any other potentially life-threatening health issue, you need to communicate to others how to react if an issue arises.

Note that the keys to what I pack are “compact.”  Running with a heavier pack will weigh you down.  It also makes it more difficult to find what you need.  When looking to invest in things you might take on long trail runs, look in the backpacking section of your local store or Amazon.  Nearly everything comes in a compact version that will roll up in a very tiny square.  Likewise, travel containers come in very handy to pack small versions of lotions and lubes.

I am notorious for heading out on a trail run with nothing but my shoes on my feet (and my phone in my hand).  Worse, sometimes I head out with a weighted backpack that is full of books, which will certainly not help me in a bind. These runs can be helpful to condition your body for grueling conditions.  However, running without carrying a pack is not something you should ever do in an area that is not well-traveled and easily accessible.

5.       Have an emergency plan

Like buddying up, this is a super smart and practical thing you should do before every trail run.  Now and again, we hear of a seasoned runner who has to get airlifted off of a logging road or seasoned snowshoers who get trapped and lost in the snow.  Not every trail run needs to be an epic adventure, but getting lost is a normal part of trail running, and even the best plans can leave a seasoned trail runner in a surprising situation.  Usually, this ends up in a good story that can be told around the campfire.  However, the unthinkable can happen.

Know your route, and make sure that people who are not with you know.  Make sure you let them know when you are leaving, when you will be home, and who you will be with.  If you don’t return as expected, make sure they know to call emergency.  Also, let them know if you change plans, so that false alarms are not sounded.

Keep in touch.  This is the main reason I always carry my cell phone.  If I fall or get lost, I can call someone.  Even in an area where there isn’t strong enough cell service to make a call, a weak signal can be tracked.  I also communicate with my husband on Blackberry Messenger, which allows you to track the location of someone.  We call this a “stalker app,” but it has allowed us to follow along on runs and bike rides.  It has made pick-up easy after cycling crashes and running bonks alike.  There are many apps like this.  If you are going in really remote areas regularly, you may consider investing in a SPOT personal tracker.  This isn’t cheap and comes with a monthly subscription cost, but people I know with it have a great deal of peace of mind.  When you have an emergency, it will send texts to family/friends and emergency services.

Know your wildlife.  Trail runners generally fear encounters with cougars and bears.  A bit of healthy fear is good, but it’s not usually necessary to run in fear.  As a general rule, animal encounters are rare.  Animals want to leave humans alone, particularly if people are traveling in packs.  That said, know which animals are likely to be where you are running and how you should react if you encounter one.  Know whether running with your dog increases the risk of an animal encounter.  Also, know what kinds of poisonous plants exist in the area and how to identify them.  If you are really adventurous, knowing which plants you can and cannot eat is a fun skill to have.

Do not underestimate your terrain.  I began trail running when I lived in Oregon.  I was used to steep, muddy, and technical.  When I moved to Kansas City, I thought I would simply RULE the trails.  After all, I would now be running in a flat area that is dry in the summer.  What I hadn’t taken into account was that the weather added a significant level of difficulty to nearly every run.  Weather was extreme – too hot, too cold, or torrential downpour.  The rain would not just create mud; it would wash out the trail.  The heat wasn’t just annoying; it was incredibly unforgiving.  Add to that hills full of loose rocks, and I developed a new respect for those “flat, dry” trails.  The point is that every area has its challenges, so underestimating any terrain is a terrible idea.

Group runs are nice because, frequently, someone else has thought of your emergency plan.  Frequently, they are run in areas well-known to someone in the group, and there may even be someone with first aid knowledge there.  Regardless, sticking with a group as part of your emergency plan will put many heads together in a situation where one person panicking may not do the trick.

Happy trails everyone!