In this ultimate trail running gear guide we share our essential trail running equipment list, which includes the trail running clothes and trail running accessories you may need to consider taking with you on your next trail run, and how different trails, countries and climates can influence what you will need carry with you in your running backpack on your next trail run.
If you’ve reached this trail running gear guide because you’re new to trail running and are looking for trail running gear and trail running tips for newcomers, then definitely also head over to our Trail Running For Beginners Guide, and read that next as it includes all the trail running basics, from how to trail run to frequently-asked-questions we are regularly asked by new trail runners.
If you’re reading this you may be wondering, why do you need specific trail running gear?
To answer that question it’s important to consider that trail running is very different to running on pavement for many reasons, including that there are so many different types of terrain you may encounter, as well as more exposure to diverse weather conditions which may require you to take more trail running accessories and equipment with you than you would for an everyday run around the block.
It’s true that if the type of trail running you prefer or intend to do most of involves shorter runs in more established areas, such as local parks, which have plenty of other trail users, marked trails and other amenities such as water fountains, then you won’t need very much trail running gear. However, trail running can also mean adventure races and mountain ultra marathons in remote areas – in which case, your trail running equipment list needs to be a lot longer if you’re going to bring all the essential trail running clothes and accessories you may need.
Our advice to new trail runners wondering what trail running gear to get first 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 running shirts, socks and shorts.
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. 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 trail running gear.
Ultimate Trail Running Gear Guide – Table of Contents
- How Running Trail Terrain and Climate Influences Your Choice of Trail Running Gear
- The FULL Trail Running Gear Guide
- Trail Running Gear Guide Summary
How Running Trail Terrain and Climate Influences Your Choice of Trail Running Gear
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 trail running races featuring extreme elevation gain and loss are for those who want more of a challenge from their trail runs.
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. For these reasons you can buy specific trail running 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.
Because of the additional demands of trail running compared to pavement running, you may also be more likely to experience issues like muscle cramping, GI issues (due to bad nutrition choices) or dehydration, so there is specific trail running gear you can take, such as water bladders and bottles, as well as running nutrition supplements you can carry with you such as salt capsules that can help reduce your propensity to experience cramping and stomach issues when you run.
Trail Running Gear Guide
Welcome to our definitive trail running gear guide! Click the links below to jump to a specific section, or scroll down to read through each of the essential pieces of trail running clothing and accessories you may need for your next trail run. For more detail on each type of trail running gear and recommended products we’ve also included links to our relevant trail gear buyer’s guides.
- Trail Running Shoes
- GPS Running Watches
- Technical Running Caps and Headbands / Neck Gaiters
- Running Hydration Packs
- Running Sunglasses
- Running Headlamps
- Trail Running Poles
- Wireless Headphones
- Running Clothes (shirts, shorts, pants, tights and socks)
- Trail Running Accessories
- Trail Running Nutrition
Trail Running Shoes
Our Best Trail Running Shoes 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, written by expert trail runners who have run trails all over the world.
If you have any specific questions about a particular trail 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 trail 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 and Headbands / Neck Gaiters
A running visor is more breathable, but it doesn’t prevent the top of your head from getting burned on a scorching hot day. A regular baseball cap does protect the top of your head but they can be warmer unless it is breathable, so you may want to consider getting a technical running cap to protect your head and help keep the elements out of your face (sun, wind, sleet, rain, etc).
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.
A Buff or similar sweat-wicking headband/neck gaiter is another must-have piece of trail running gear, 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…
Running 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 trail running accessories with you, like some running nutrition or snacks, water, jacket, plus your phone and keys etc.
A running hydration pack is the best way to carry all these items and more in the most comfortable and efficient manner. You’ve probably seen trail runners wearing these running backpacks with soft water bottles carried on their chest and wondered why these are so popular!
Not sure where to start when it comes to working out which size and brand is best for you? Don’t worry, we have done all the research for you and have created a running hydration pack guide that is regularly updated with the 5 best packs for trail and ultrarunning.
A good pair of running sunglasses need to be lightweight, have great optics and visual clarity specific to trail environments, and fit comfortably on your head (and cap) with zero movement.
See our regularly updated running sunglasses buyer’s guide to find a pair that suits you.
Running 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 trail races even require you to carry a headlamp as one of their set items of mandatory kit you need to carry to participate in the race.
To find a running headlamp that has the necessary brightness and waterproofing while also being light and comfortable enough to wear while running,sSee our regularly updated list of the best running 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.
Poles for running are great for finding a rhythm and they’ll take some of the weight and effort away from your legs. Trail running poles are also an excellent hack for climbing hills faster and more efficiently, if uphill hiking and running isn’t your strength.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to choosing hiking poles for trail running, 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 Running
Every trail runner takes a trip to the “pain-cave” every now and then, but it doesn’t have to be a place you stay until you reach the end of your run or cross the finish line of your trail race.
Listening to music when trail running 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 Shirt
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 running shirt or vest made out of technical, sweat-wicking fabric.
Waterproof Running Jacket
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. They may say they’re water-resistant or ‘weather-proof’ on the label if they’re not fully waterproof.
If a running jacket is ‘water resistant’, this means that it 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.
This means you should focus on ensuring you’re buying a waterproof running jacket not just a water or weather-resistant one. 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 mens and womens trail-running shorts come with built-in ‘pants’ so you don’t need to wear underwear with them.
A pair of running 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).
Running Tights, Pants or Leggings
Running tights are particularly good in cold weather, although I generally prefer to run in shorts when it’s warm enough to do so. Compression running tights are also a great option for training. Here’s our list of the top 5 running tights for cold weather running.
Similar to when you’re choosing the best running shorts and tops for you, do the same when selecting a pair of running tights: look at fabric, fit and features.
Running Socks for Trail Running
No-show (aka ‘tab’) running socks are a popular choice by many runners as they look nice and minimal.
If you’re going to be running on trails with a lot of stones, sticks and debris, then you may prefer socks that cover your ankles, as this provides a bit of padding if you kick a stone onto your ankle, and reduces the amount of mud, sticks and stones that end up in your 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. This means ensuring you buy socks designed to be worn running, rather than regular everyday or athletic socks.
Trail Running Accessories
A Running 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 phone 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. Running gloves can also be helpful for trail running in particular, if you need to scramble over rocks or move branches etc out of the way on overgrown trails, then gloves can come in useful.
We have put together a list of the 5 best cold weather running gloves for you.
An Emergency Whistle
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, so it’s not a big deal to carry one of these around in your running hydration pack just in case you (or another trail user) needs it.
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.
For a more detailed breakdown of other trail running emergency gear including what I have in the small running first aid kit that I like to carry with me on remote trail runs, head over to this post: Trail Running Survival Gear and Emergency Kit
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.
If you’re running somewhere unfamiliar, it may be worth taking a trail map with you, or at least a photo of it on your phone to refer to.
Trail Running Nutrition
You have almost infinite choice when it comes to what food to take trail running to give you added energy on those long trail runs.
As an example, 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. Tailwind comes in powder form and you can mix it with water to carry with you running – and you can change how concentrated you have it, depending on your needs and preference.
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!
Ultimate Trail Running Gear Guide: In Summary
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.
Remember, it’s important not to stress too much about having the right ‘cool trail running gear’ when you are new to 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 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.
If you’re looking for more trail running tips and ideas we also share those regularly over on our Instagram channel.