What To Wear Trail Running: Essential Trail Running Clothing

UPDATED: 13 SEPT 2018 – This post is for those of you who are new to trails and would like some ideas on what to wear trail running.

Do I need to wear trail running-specific clothes?

If you are already a runner then I would suggest you can just wear what you would normally wear to run, with a pair of trail running shoes rather than road running shoes. However, if you are looking to invest in some trail running-specific clothes, then read on for a summary of the key items, from top to bottom…

Cap (or visor) and sunglasses

I’ve paired cap and sunglasses up because it’s rare that I would want one and not the other. I wear both on pretty much every run (except at night :-)). They protect your head and eyes from the elements and debris, whether it’s rain, sleet, sun, wind, dust, tree branches or bugs. If you don’t need the sunnies on at times, they should fit nicely on top of your cap.

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A good pair of running sunglasses need to fit comfortably on your head (and cap) with zero movement and should be very lightweight. Sunski’s fit this description with the added bonus of being very reasonably priced.

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What to wear trail running: sunglasses and visor
Admiring a beautiful waterfall on the Routeburn Track, complete with sunglasses-on-visor combo

Cap vs visor?

A visor is more breathable, but it doesn’t prevent the top of your head getting burned on a scorching hot day. A cap does but is a bit warmer. I love the look of a cap, but my trusty The North Face visor is often my headgear of choice as it’s so lightweight and comfortable – even if it means I occasionally get the top of my head burned.

Buff

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

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What to wear trail running: headband and race vest
Alastair racing Matterhorn Ultraks 46k, sporting a Buff headband

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… favourites are my Lululemon Tech Tee (not a trail-running-specific top), or, on a hot day, The North Face lighter than air T-shirt. Seriously – I wear that orange top about 90% of the time in the summer, it’s so lightweight and breezy.

I also have a couple of long sleeve ‘baselayers’ which work well as their own top, or under/over other technical vest or short-sleeved T-shirts if I need a couple of layers.

What to wear trail running: The North Face top and Lululemon speed shorts
It’s that orange The North Face T-shirt and a pair of Lululemon Speed Shorts… again

Waterproof jacket

In certain countries (particularly the UK) this is definitely a key item to invest in! It’s important to understand that many running jackets are water-resistant, and not 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.

Look out for truly waterproof jackets and invest in a good one, that is waterproof, breathable, and has a hood. Two good ones that we own and use regularly are my The North Face AK Stormy Womens Jacket (since replaced by newer The North Face models) and Alastair’s Salomon Bonatti Jacket, which also comes in a Womens version. I also love the look of Inov-8’s Stormshell Jacket, which looks like it could handle pretty much any wet weather conditions.

What to wear trail running: a waterproof jacket is essential
Alastair running CTS Gower Marathon 2015 in apocalyptic storm conditions.

Trail running shorts or skirt

Given the choice of running tights/leggings or shorts/skirt, I’d always go for the shorts/skirt option unless it’s cold out (say colder than 8 degrees celcius, brr). It’s more liberating having free legs, and if you get wet then it’s less clothing that needs to dry out.

On a more personal note, I have a strong dislike for wearing underwear under running bottoms. It’s just another thing that can chafe in a sensitive area!

Many trail-running shorts come with built in ‘pants’ (or ‘knickers’) so you don’t need to wear underwear with them. My favourites are by The North Face (lighter than air shorts) and Lululemon (speed shorts) as they have this built in, and the features I’ve listed below…

A skirt or pair of shorts (either men’s or women’s) will need specific features to be suitable to wear trail running – here are the ones I look for:

  • Stretchy, to allow for 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).

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Tights or leggings

Good in cold weather, but as noted above, I would much prefer to run in shorts! Also Alastair is not a fan of the mens’ 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.

GPS watch

If you choose to track your runs and want to run with a GPS watch, then for trail running then it is best to invest in one that:

  • tracks and shows you altitude and metres 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)

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Our current favourites include:

What to wear trail running: Suunto Ambit 3S Customised
Suunto Ambit 3S Customised

Head Torch

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. The one we love and thoroughly tested while running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail is the Petzl Reactik + Headtorch.

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We tend to wear our headlamps over a Buff Headband for a little extra padding.

Socks

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.

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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.

You should also try toe socks, Alastair loves wearing them, especially ones from Tabio and Injinji.

Shoes

Check out these articles to learn more about which trail running shoes are best for certain types of terrain.

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In summary

Don’t stress when starting out in 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 run kit and a good pair of trail shoes for the vast majority of runs in the early days.

Having said this, we hope that this post 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 go out running trails further and for longer, comfortably.

Helen Dixon
Helen Dixonhttps://www.trailandkale.com
Trail Lover // Trail & Ultra Runner // Often found in the Mountains, Running, Hiking or Skiing // Seeking Peace, Beauty & Adventure.

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