Trail running can expose you to a variety of challenging conditions that road runners don’t have to contend with. Hills, uneven surfaces, forests, puddles, muddy paths, mountains, rocks and grass are all examples of the terrain which might be encountered.
Add a weather condition like rain, hot sun, fog and even snow to these terrains, and the trail run becomes even more difficult.
In this article, we’ll look at the top 15 trail running essentials so you are prepared and well-supplied to face trail running confidently.
Trail running essential 1: Trail Running Shoes
As a trail runner, your number one priority should be purchasing quality trail shoes. You might be reading this thinking ‘I already have road running shoes, I’ll just use them. I’m not going to spend money on more shoes.’ Please be aware that trail shoes are totally different to your everyday road shoes.
Many runners (myself included) have made the mistake of rocking up to a trail event – like a marathon or half marathon – in regular running shoes only to find their shoes are completely unfit for purpose. These runners can’t get a grip of the ground below them and constantly slip and slide through the race which not only creates an inconvenience but also a health hazard because falls are highly likely.
Trail-running shoes differ from road shoes in several ways. They have more grip for rugged terrain and lugged soles for improved traction to help you move more confidently over dirt, mud, gravel, roots and rock slabs. Trail shoes are also designed stiffer than their road counterparts to reduce excessive foot rotation which contributes to preventing injuries like a twisted ankle on the trail.
By now, you are probably well convinced that trail shoes are an essential part of kit for trail running so lets look at some examples of brilliant trail shoes.
What are some good trail shoes?
Trail running essential number 2: Running Backpack
If you’re trail running, taking a lightweight running backpack along is a fantastic idea. These handy backpacks are designed carrying running accessories and other essentials to keep you well-supplied on the trail.
Examples of what you might take in a lightweight backpack include energy gels, a mobile phone, a hat, a lightweight sports jacket, portable first aid kit, water bottles, food, a portable charger and more.
For ease of running most backpacks are lightweight and slick so have a limited storage space typically between 8 – 12 litres. Therefore, it’s important to pack compressible items where possible (clothing for instance) and to think carefully about what items are going in.
Here’s a few great running backpacks
Trail running essential number 3: Sunglasses
Sunglasses might not be an obvious trail running essential but failure to wear them can result in problems. These sunglasses are specifically designed for sports and have an array of benefits for trail runners.
Running Sunglasses provide UV ray protection, brilliant for hot days when the sun is particularly bright. They shield the runner’s eyes from any foreign objects which can arise in trail conditions like tree branches, insects, dust, mud, grit and more. Wearing proper glasses also helps runners look stylish whilst on the trail; not crucial but a nice bonus.
Here are some great sunglasses for trail running
Trail Running Essential Number 4: GPS Running Watch
Venturing into trails can be risky. Its more common for trail runners to get lost than road runners because trails are often unmarked, and terrain can be unpredictable. Arming yourself with a GPS running watch is a fool-proof way to mitigate against this risk.
GPS watches offer an array of benefits like pinpointing your location, tracking your movements, how far has been travelled, elevation climbed, calories burned and a heart rate reading to name a few.
GPS running watches, like the Garmin Forerunner 735XT, tends to be a staple of most runner’s arsenal anyway but if you haven’t got one and plan to do trail running I would highly recommend getting one.
Here’s some great GPS Watches for trail running
Trail running essential number 5: Quick fuel sources (energy bars, gels, sports sweets)
Trail running tends to burn more calories than road running as the body is constantly adapting to meet the demands of an unpredictable environment. Steep hills, slippery ground, navigating across rocky patches and wading through puddles are all examples of when trail running demands more.
With more calories being burnt than usual it’s vital you replace them with a quick and easy fuel source. Energy gels, bars, sports sweets and other snacks are a trail running essential. Stock up on your favourite type and flavour of quick fuel source, pack them in your trail bag and grab one every time you need one whilst on the go.
It’s better to keep your body topped up with fuel on the go than to leave it until after the run when you’re famished and completely sapped of energy. Believe me!
Here’s some great quick fuel sources for trail running
Trail running essential number 6: Footcare
There’s nothing worse than running on the trail and suddenly realising a huge blister has formed on your foot.
Remember, it’s always better to prevent a blister with a decent pair of technical running socks which keep feet comfortable and dry to reduce blister risk. If this fails and you develop a blister then it’s worth bringing some blister stick which coats the blister in a light balm to reduce painful friction against it and your shoe.
Also, I’d recommend having some blister patches handy which can be used in case of a particularly painful blister. Whilst this may be deemed a purely optional item for some trail runners, others would deem blister stick and patches to be an essential so they pack them into their trail bag or pockets.
Here’s some brilliant anti-blister items
Trail running essential number 7: Water
Whilst you’d think this one would be fairly obvious, the amount of runners who forget to take water with them on long trail distances is astounding. The human body is approximately 60% water. It’s important not just for trail running performance but also maintaining normal bodily processes.
Before setting off on your trail run, drink a tall glass of water for hydration and prepping the body for physical activity. Bring a bottle of water or two either in your backpack, in your hand or within a running belt when trail running. You never know how difficult your workout will be and when you might need some water to rehydrate yourself. It’s better to have too much water than you need than to have not enough water.
I’d much rather be slightly heavier and carry more water than not carry enough water and suffer from dehydration on the trail. From a bad long distance trail running experience, I know this to be true! Water is an essential trail running item so make sure you bring some with you.
I personally use this Science in Sport water bottle
Trail running essential number 8: Head torch
If you trail run early in reduced light, early in the morning or late in the evening, a head torch is perfect for lighting your path and illuminating any hidden obstacles.
Head torches can be easily stored in a backpack and quickly slipped over the head, like a headband, for instant light coverage. Head torches are fantastic; they’re cheap, easy to use, light your path and help keep you safe in the dark. A must in any trail-runners arsenal.
Trail running essential number 9: Mobile Phone, Waterproof Case & portable charger
Whilst not directly running related, your mobile phone is incredibly important for safety on the trail.
Mobile phones, like the Apple iPhone 7, have become a fundamental part of our everyday lives and can perform thousands of useful functions. They can organise our day, wake us up in the morning and even offer gaming entertainment. There are even running-related apps like Strava, which allow you to track all sports activity.
Impressive as all these functions are, mobile phones are a trail running essential in case of an emergency. If you get lost, injure yourself by falling or an existing medical condition flares up, being able to contact someone is crucial for staying safe on the trail.
As trails are often away from civilization, it won’t be as easy to get help if you need it, so having a phone will truly be your lifeline. Whether you contact friends, family, a colleague or the emergency services, having a phone on hand will help others locate you and help.
Make sure you protect your phone with a waterproof case. As most runners are aware, the weather can change in a matter of minutes and what was originally a sunny day could turn into torrential rainfall quickly. If you don’t have a suitable case handy, your phone is at risk of sustaining water damage. Not good. Waterproof cases can be picked up for very little money and often last years so they are well worth the investment.
A portable charger can also be a life-saver when on the trail. There’s nothing worse than needing to call someone urgently, only to find your phone is out of battery. Not only is this inconvenient, it’s also dangerous as it could delay help if you have injured yourself.
Getting a portable charger means you don’t have to worry about your phone running out of charge when trail running.
Check out these phone essentials for trail running
Trail running essential number 10: Poles
Many runners don’t deem these an essential item, but you might want to pack some foldable walking poles for a tricky ascent, descent or muddy patch whilst on the trail. These poles help you keep balance, help with load-bearing, energy conservation, reduce joint stress, help to prevent knee and ankle injuries, and also help you keep grip when on a muddy & slippery patch.
Walking poles are designed for practicality so can be folded and conveniently stored in a running backpack. I find walking poles particularly useful on trail runs with large ascents and descents, like mountains or tricky forest terrain.
Whilst you might think you will never need one, I’d recommend getting one and storing it in your arsenal just in case you need might need it one day.
Trail running essential number 11: Insect repellent
Particularly in the Summer months, trail running environments are often prime locations for annoying bugs such as flies and mosquitoes.
In the UK wasps, bees, ticks, mosquitoes, midges, gnats and horseflies are all common insects which can cause a nuisance for trail runners. Whether they bite, get in your way or suck your blood (mosquitoes truly are gruesome), a quality insect repellent can keep you relatively insect free on the trail.
Insect repellent is a substance applied to the skin, clothing and accessories (like your backpack) which discourages insects from landing on and biting you. It can be purchased for very little money, stored in a backpack or pocket and applied with ease for insect protection. A true essential for trail runners, particularly in the summer.
Check out these handy insect repellent items for the trail
Trail running essential number 12: Sports sunscreen
Protecting your skin from the sun is important. Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, increases your risk of skin cancer, such as melanoma. It can damage the DNA of skin cells. Therefore, sports sunscreen is an essential item for trail runners.
lots of trail running tends to be done in shaded environments like in forests or woods, there will always be times where you’re exposed to potentially harmful sunlight. Gaps in trees, open fields and mountains are all examples of when your skin is at risk from damage.
Get yourself a bottle of high factor sports sunscreen and follow its application instructions. If you need to keep it in a running backpack and apply when necessary, particularly on hot & sunny days.
Trail running essential number 13: Technical Clothing
Dressing smart is fundamental for staying warm, wind and waterproofed during your trail run.
A lightweight jacket allows you to maintain core body temperature whilst keeping you suitably ventilated to avoid overheating. Your trail jacket needs to be light so it doesn’t hold you down and compressible so it can be easily squashed into a backpack.
Secondly, your top needs to be specifically designed for running. It needs to be quick-drying, lightweight, highly breathable, comfortable and ideally made from moisture-wicking fabric to draw sweat away from your skin.
For your bottom half you should wear tights of trail shorts which tend to be longer in the leg for extra protection from obstacles and low to the ground plants. Ideally, you’ll want compression shorts or tights which support the muscles, increase blood flow and reduce shock to the legs by keeping the muscles relatively static.
For practicality purposes, it always pays to get tights or shorts with a couple of small pockets for storing essentials like energy gels and bars you’ll need to access quickly.
Trail running essential number 14: Hats
Hats are a brilliant clothing accessory for trail runners. Not only do they keep out sunlight which protects both your vision and skin, they can also help you see in rainy trail conditions.
Trail running essential number 15: Lube
Lots of trail runners go for hours on end which means the skin can really take a beating. If nothing is done you will likely encounter chafing and possible blisters, both of which aren’t fun and are highly painful.
Remember to take the lube with you after it’s been applied; you never know when your nipples or toes might start chafing and cause you pain problems.
If you’re interested in more clothing and accessory related articles, check out the following blog posts:
- 9 Reasons You Should Buy A GPS Running Watch
- Top 5 Best Running Backpacks
- Top 13 Best Running Sunglasses
- 17 Game Changing Running Accessories
- 13 Best GPS Running Watches
- 10 Great Running Jackets For Men
- 11 Best Headphones For Runners
- 10 Great Energy Gels For Runners
- 30 Great Gift Ideas for Runners
- 30 Great Fancy Dress Ideas for Runners
- The Benefits of Running Sunglasses
- 7 Signals You Need New Running Shoes
- 5 Best Men’s Running Shoes for 2018
- Top 5 Running Shoe Brands