The Best Gear for Trail Running
Suit up for the great outdoors with these tips, hacks and shoes.
If you’re tired of pounding the pavement and ready to refresh your running routine, maybe the answer isn’t chasing faster paces and higher mileage—maybe a change of scenery is what you need. Maybe it’s time to consider trail running.
Traveling along softer surfaces in natural settings could be just the right move for physical and mental rejuvenation. “Trails mean less pounding on the joints,” says Becca Menke, an RRCA-certified running coach in Chicago. To get the most out of your experience, you’ll likely want a few essential pieces of trail running gear, designed for the specific challenges of rugged terrain. Learn what to shop for—and why trail running is such a great way to mix up your runs—with these tips from trail running veterans.
Body Benefits of Trail Running
Physically, trail running strengthens your overall body more than running on the road or on a treadmill because it uses more multi-plane movements for balance. “As a result, more stabilizer muscles are recruited, delaying the onset of fatigue in the large muscle groups of the legs,” explains Dominique Stasulli, a running coach out of Boulder, Colorado. “The recruitment of additional muscles increases the overall demand for oxygen, which is why trail running can feel tougher on the cardiovascular system than running on other surfaces.”
“Trail running develops more strength and a better-rounded runner due to the uphill and downhill stimulation,” adds Boulder-based Zach Kuzma, an endurance running coach at Coach Kuzzy. “It is less specific than road running, therefore it allows the athlete to truly challenge more parts of their body, ultimately making their muscles more durable.” Better yet, trail running might even translate to faster paces on the road. “Leg turnover increases when navigating more technical terrain, which helps speed development and stride mechanics both on and off the road,” explains Stasulli.
Mental Perks of Trail Running
The simple act of getting on the trail often gives runners an instant mood boost. “The sensory experience can have a profound effect on a person’s mental health, offering mood-stabilizing effects and regulating the body’s stress response,” says Stasulli. “It’s a raw and humbling opportunity to feel connected with the natural world around you. For those with mental health struggles, a dose of nature might even be as calming, liberating or enlightening as a therapy session.”
Menke also points to the natural opportunity for mindfulness while out on the trails. “The constantly changing terrain and scenery keeps your brain engaged and your mind present,” she explains. If you’re feeling anxious or worried, the combination of physical activity and being in nature could make trail running the perfect way to de-stress.
In fact, those mental health benefits are a big reason why Kuzma switched from road running to trails. “Trail running helped me through the loss of my father, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism,” he says. “It gives me a sanctuary to continue to build the person I want to become.”
With all these benefits, giving trail running a try seems like a no brainer. So, where to begin? Ben Dicke, a running coach in Chicago, has plenty of advice. “One of the best tips I can give for new trail runners is to do a bit of research before you head out the door,” he advises. “Knowing the kind of trail you’ll be running—urban trail, technical single track with rocks and roots, high altitude exposed back country trail, or anything in between—will greatly help in determining the gear you’ll want.”
He recommends searching online for apps like AllTrails, which list trails around the world with helpful, specific reviews from users year-round. Pay attention to what other runners are saying, especially those who have been on the trail recently as conditions can change, and note the trail’s difficulty rating.
As for gear, hydration tops the list. “Perhaps the most important piece of equipment you’ll need if you’re heading out for more than one hour of trail running is a system to carry nutrition, hydration, and other gear,” says Dicke. “These systems come in all shapes and sizes.” Handheld water bottles can work well for shorter runs, adds Stasulli, while waist belts that hold mini bottles can free up your hands on longer runs (and also offer storage for keys and IDs).
As you increase the distance and length of your trail, you’ll probably be ready for a hydration pack, which allows for greater capacity and storage for things like energy bars, your phone and even emergency first aid.
Technology-wise, be prepared to go analog. Unplugging is, after all, part of the whole point of running in nature. “Having an offline trail navigation app on your phone is critical if you are running in unfamiliar territory, especially if the trails aren’t well-marked, says Stasulli: “Trail Run Project lets you download different areas and you can see where you are on the trail even when you don’t have cell service.”
To get the most out of your trail running experience, you’ll want gear slightly different than what you wear on the roads or at the gym. “A pair of trail running shoes that work for your feet is critical for enjoyment and longevity on the trails,” says Stasulli. “Comfort is key!”
Just like regular running shoes, trail-specific running shoes come in many different levels of cushion, grip and flexibility. And because of the uneven terrain, proper support is really important to protect your ankles. But if you’re not quite ready to invest in a pair of trail running shoes, Dicke says, “you can absolutely wear your trusty road shoes” on a sample trail run or two first.
Clothing-wise, layers are key, since weather can change quickly on the trails (especially at higher altitudes). A packable jacket can be a lifesaver. “The best run jackets pack down to the size of your fist and are extremely thin and lightweight; bonus points if they are waterproof as well,” says Stasulli.
Other items to consider: A beanie and gloves are important if you are in the mountains, says Dicke, and a neck gaiter or bandana comes in handy on hot sunny days to absorb sweat and keep the sun from burning the back of your neck. “You can also pull it up over your ears when it’s cold and windy,” he adds.
And remember, trail running is supposed to be freeing and fun. So rather than obsessing over whether you have all the right items, focus on these two: quality shoes and a way to hydrate. Then hit the trail and go.