What is Trail Running? [Skip to the Gear List]
I’d classify trail running as running that is not on asphalt, concrete or roads. There are so many different types of terrain when it comes to trail running, which is one of the reasons why it’s so fun but also challenging. For example, there’s technical terrain which may include sharp rocks, tree roots, river crossings, and even sand. Then there’s the more mellow, or runnable terrain which may include buffed/smooth trails, forest trails, fire roads, grass tracks, and also smooth rock.
Trail running gets even spicier when weather conditions change and suddenly the terrain you think you know begins to reactive differently. For example, when an otherwise easy trail, lined with smooth, dry rocks gets rained on, suddenly the terrain becomes slippery. This is why there are so many different types of trail running shoes to choose from, and also why we rate trail shoes as the first thing you should buy when you start trail running.
But wait, that’s not all, trail running has other challenges, like elevation profiles that will make most road running Strava graphs look like a flatline. Mountain races featuring extreme elevation gain and loss are for those who want more of a challenge from their trails.
Yes, you’ll need more leg muscle and endurance to get through a run like this but because this type of trail running requires that you climb and descend a lot (as opposed to running on the flat), you’ll also need to learn how to pace yourself properly with a steady heart rate for various reasons. Yes, there’s actually gear that can help you here too, like a GPS watch with on-wrist HR monitor for example, and trail running poles that can help you build rhythm and shift some muscle exertion away from your legs toward your arms.
As a beginner it can be easy to get issues like muscle cramping, GI issues (due to bad nutrition choices) or just find that their mental game isn’t strong enough yet to reach the finish, I have been through all of these myself. We have so much more trail running advice for beginner’s, so make sure you read through those articles. If you do happen to be a beginner, I’m envious because you’ve got the most amazing journey of self-discovery ahead of you!
How to start trail running?
It’s actually really easy nowadays, all you need to do is find a well-marked local trail to run on (don’t worry, there’s probably a trail within 30 minutes of you), get some decent trail running shoes and a few other essential accessories, and then simply go out and give it a try.
How to find trails near me?
Finding trails for running was actually harder than you may think when I first started out, Strava didn’t exist and the network of trail runners who I could ask was much smaller than it is today.
The easiest way is to find routes on Strava or simply build your own route based on Strava’s heatmaps feature, which lights up regularly used trails on the map. This is so great because you can guarantee that it’s going to be a good trail, simply because of its popularity.
What to wear trail running
A question we get asked a lot is: Do I need to wear trail running specific gear? Our advice is always, start with a good pair of trail running shoes and go from there, they are the most important item of gear to invest in when starting to trail run. You can get away with wearing other ‘normal’ running gear that you may already own, like t-shirts and shorts.
“start with a good pair of trail running shoes and go from there”
Keep in mind that not all running gear is created equal and because trail running is more demanding than road running, it’s worth reading up on the most durable and comfortable gear that will make your trail running experience as enjoyable as it can be, and that’s VERY enjoyable, by the way. We also have many advice articles on trailandkale.com to help you with your journey but this is a great place to start if you want to grab some new gear. We carry out endless testing and research to bring you the most informative and reliable trail running gear advice on the internet. This article is regularly updated, so remember to check back in, the next time you’re looking to buy some trail running gear. Read on for the best trail running gear of 2019, so far!
The Best Trail Running Gear of 2019
Trail Running Shoes
Our Best Trail Running Shoes in 2019 (So far): The Ultimate Buyers Guide! will help you learn more about which trail running shoes are best for certain types of terrain, events, and styles of running. It’s the best trail running gear guide for trail running shoes on the web. If you have any specific questions about a shoe, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you asap. If you’re reading this in Fall or Winter, we also have a Best Waterproof Trail Running Shoes Gear Guide that will help you choose your next pair of waterproof trail shoes.
GPS Running Watches
We recommend that you track your runs with a GPS watch. Knowing your historical running data is the best way to learn from previous runs and improve as a result. They are also a great motivational tool when they show you that you’re making progress. It is best to invest in one that:
- tracks and shows you altitude and meters climbed/descended.
- can be set to show waypoints and ‘return to start‘, in case you get lost and need help retracing your steps.
- has a battery that will last long enough to keep tracking you on long runs (potentially 12+ hours for big days out).
- is durable to withstand mountain storms.
Our Best GPS Running Watch Guide will help you find the right one for you.
Technical Running Caps
A visor is more breathable, but it doesn’t prevent the top of your head from getting burned on a scorching hot day. A cap does but they can be warmer unless it is breathable. Our list of best technical running hats for trail and ultrarunning will help you find the right cap for you.
The Trail & Kale Classic Trucker hat is not a technical running hat but looks great during those more chill training runs.
Hydration Packs/Race Vests
As you begin to run further and end up being on the trails for longer periods of time, you’ll need to take more accessories with you, like your phone, some snacks, water, jacket, keys etc. A hydration pack is the best way to carry all these items and more in the most comfortable and efficient manner. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry, we have done all the research for you and have created a hydration pack guide that is regularly updated with the 5 best packs for trail and ultrarunning.
A Buff is a must-have piece of gear to wear trail running, one you’ll notice a lot of other runners wearing, in one way or another. It’s such a versatile item and weighs hardly anything. Key trail runner uses for Buffs are as:
- a headband (it’s sweat-wicking and cushions the impact of wearing a head torch)
- a scarf, when the cold wind bites
- a wristband that can be used to wipe sweat away or dare I say it, snot.
- a towel – soak it in cold water and put it on your head or back of your neck on a hot day
- in an emergency – a bandage or tournique…
A good pair of running sunglasses need to fit comfortably on your head (and cap) with zero movement and should be very lightweight. You can read more about some of our favorites here: …/tag/sunglasses/
Headlamps for trail and ultrarunning
Once you become hooked on trail running, at some point you’ll find yourself wanting/having to run when the sun has gone down. Some ultra-distance races even require head torches. See our regularly updated list of the best headlamps for trail and ultrarunning.
Trail Running Poles
Similarly to needing a headlamp, once you progress in your trail running journey you’ll inevitably want to take on bigger challenges in the mountains where running poles are a necessity for making long grueling climbs. They’re great for finding a rhythm and they’ll take some of the weight and effort away from your legs. Poles are an excellent hack for climbing hills faster and more efficiently. If you’re not sure where to start with poles, we have the perfect guide which lists the top 5 trail running poles, whichever ones you choose from our list will be a good choice.
Wireless Headphones for trail running
Every trail runner takes a trip to the pain-cave every now and then, but it doesnt have to be a place you stay until you reach the end of your run or cross the finish line of your trail race. Music can give you the motivation to break out of any mental or physical challenges you may be experiencing during your run. Make sure you buy wireless headphones that sound great, have a long battery life (long enough for ultras!), are durable and waterproof enough to survive a mountain rainstorm, and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Our list of top wireless headphones for running includes 5 of the very best.
Trail running top
If you’re new to trail running and/or don’t have the budget to go out and buy trail-running-specific tops, then you’ll be fine for most runs in normal running gear, assuming it is made of technical (ie not cotton) fabric and is designed to sweat in.
The key thing to remember when choosing a top (or tops) to wear trail running is that the weather conditions may well change while you are out. For this reason, on longer runs in particular, layers are important, so you can use your clothing to help keep you warm/cool, depending on the situation. I normally wear a T-shirt.
In certain countries, this is definitely a key item to invest in! It’s important to understand that many running jackets are water-resistant, and not fully waterproof. This means that they can handle a bit of rain, and are often windproof, but for any heavy rain or prolonged exposure, the jacket will start to soak through and you end up thoroughly wet, running around in a wet jacket with wet clothes underneath.
A great waterproof running jacket should:
- be fully waterproof (not just water-resistant).
- be lightweight.
- have some level of breathability.
- be form-fitting.
Luckily though, we have done all the testing and research for you. Here our list of the top 5 waterproof running jackets.
Trail running shorts
Many trail-running shorts come with built-in ‘pants’ so you don’t need to wear underwear with them.
A pair of shorts will need specific features to be suitable to wear trail running – here are the ones to look for:
- Stretchy, to allow for a full range of leg movement, to help with technical terrain and scrambling
- Water repellent and quick drying – and never made of cotton!
- Made of robust technical fabric that will not just rip at the first touch of a thorn, branch or rock
- Made with at least one zip-up pocket, in a location that won’t bounce (the lower back is best).
Tights or leggings for trail running
Good in cold weather, but as noted above, I would much prefer to run in shorts! Also, Alastair is not a fan of the men’s’ running tights look – but you never know, maybe he’ll change his mind if he discovers an awesome super-comfy pair to run in.
Similar points go for tights as for shorts and tops: look at fabric, fit and features.
Socks for trail running
While trainer-liner running socks look nice and minimal, I prefer socks that cover my ankles, as this provides a bit of padding if I kick a stone onto my ankle, and reduces the amount of mud, sticks and stones that end up in my sock during a trail run.
Like with the trail running tops and shorts/skirts/leggings, make sure you’re running in technical, sweat-wicking fabric that will help keep you comfortable and dry, and reduce the risk of chafing and blisters.
Get some ideas of which socks to buy here: ../tag/socks/
You should also try toe socks, Alastair loves wearing them, especially ones from Injinji.
Trail Running Accessories
A Phone Protector/Case
We are absolutely loving the Rokform Crystal Case right now, for all our trail running adventures. If you’re an active person, you probably already know it’s important to have a protective case on your phone. I for one am always on the move and pulling out my phone to take pictures of beautiful trails, it only takes one accidental drop and you’ve got a hefty expense for repair or replacement on your hands.
While this case is super protective, it also has a very slim and lightweight design, which means it fits easily into most pockets. If you like to run then you’ll want a slim case so it fits in most pockets and won’t weigh you down.
The Crystal Case will also grip any magnetic surface! For example, use your phone as a non-obtrusive GPS navigation device in your car with the Super grip phone vent mount, or stick your device to the fridge and use it as a recipe book in the kitchen. I’ve even started using it for trail running selfies at trailheads. Rokform Crystal Case full review HERE.
Extreme cold weather running requires that you wear gloves, trust me, when your running in the cold your hands are going to feel like ice blocks. We have put together a list of the 5 best cold weather running gloves for you.
A whistle can be mandatory in some mountain races but it’s also worth having one in your hydration pack in case you get lost and need to signal for help. Hopefully, you’ll never need to but there’s always a small chance you may need to use a whistle to ward off a predator, animal or human. We use the Fox 40 Sonik Blast Whistle for its insanely powerful sound output.
Emergency foil blanket for running
If you’ve run many long trail races then you probably own one of these already. These emergency foil blankets weigh next to nothing and are mandatory for many trail races. A heat-reflecting foil blanket can be invaluable as a means of keeping warm if you find yourself stuck out longer than planned, for example, if you’re injured and can’t move (or move fast). It’s also reflective so makes it easier for emergency services to spot you if they’re out searching and you have the blanket out.
Salt capsules or tablets
Especially when running somewhere hot, salt capsules are great to take to prevent issues such as cramping when running or hiking. Learn how to prevent muscle cramping while running with these salt tablets here.
If you’re running somewhere unfamiliar, it may be worth taking the trail map with you. I have this excellent Mt. Tamalpais trail map, that I sometimes refer to now, but was very helpful in learning about the mountain and its trails, and planning routes when I first moved to the area.
Trail Running Nutrition
We enjoy using Tailwind Nutrition to fuel our long runs because you can get all the food you need in liquid form. It’s easy, effective and tastes great, without the dreaded gut bomb. We buy the stick bundles as they store easily in your race vest. Each pack offers two servings which makes 12 sticks for $30 a very good deal!
Don’t stress when starting out trail running, especially if you’re not planning anything too adventurous in extreme heat/cold or mountain environments – you’ll be fine in your normal running gear and a good pair of trail shoes for the vast majority of runs in the early days.
We hope that this trail running gear guide has helped you have a think about the key items of clothing you should consider when deciding what to wear trail running, as having many of these should make your runs more enjoyable and enable you to run further, longer, and more comfortably.