Around mile 42 of a 100-mile trail running race, I suddenly ended up at a highway. There was no one around me, and I knew that I was not suppose to be running alongside a road let alone a highway.
There was no service in rural Kentucky, so I pulled out my smart phone that was connected to my Garmin InReach Mini, a GPS tracker and communicator. Looking at my location and the map on my phone, I somehow went two miles off trail. Luckily the highway was there to stop me, and I was able to turn around.
Coming back towards the trail I realized the markings that I somehow missed. Due to the lack of cell service throughout the whole race, I did not have the ability to call my crew or race director. Without my intuition and GPS tracker, I risked being lost in the middle of rural Kentucky.
Trail running and trail races are safe as long as you take the necessary precautions and follow good safety practices.
Here’s our top 10 tips for trail running safely:
1. Wear the Proper Shoes and Clothing
Trail running and running in general is a great sport to get involved in due to the minimal gear needed. As long as someone has a pair of shoes, they can start training. Although a huge investment is not required, having the correct shoes for trails can help make the sport safer.
Trail shoes are designed specifically for trails and terrain that is unlike the road. Without the right traction, runners can easily get injured out on a route. Make sure to purchase the right shoes that fit the type of trail running and terrain you wish to tackle.
Not only should you have the right trail shoes but dressing properly is also very important. Being out on the trails can involve summiting mountains or running along ridges where the weather can change drastically. You want to make sure that you have the right clothing depending on the weather and location of the run.
2. Hydration and Fuel
Even the most experienced runners forget how important water and fuel can be during a race or run. Forgetting to drink water or eat cannot result in “bonking” and can also lead to other serious issues like dehydration. Always consider how long you will be running and bring the necessary amount of water and food.
Not only is hydration important out on the trails but also in everyday life. Being hydrated off the trails is vital to trail running. This can also be applied to your nutrition as you want to eat healthy foods that will fuel you toward your goals
Training runs are the perfect time to practice and experiment with different foods and hydration. One rule to follow is drink when you are thirsty. Another rule to consider is if you plan to run over an hour, eat every 30-45 minutes.
Related article: Trail Running Hydration Packs: What The Pros are Wearing
3. Create a Plan
Before heading out on the trails make a plan. Plans can be as simple or elaborate depending on the distance and location the run will take place. On trails that you commonly run there is probably not too much planning required, besides where and when the run will begin.
As you venture into distances that will take a couple hours, you will want to do the proper planning for your run or race.
Look at a map and decide what route will be taken and how long the run might possibly take. Research the weather as this can be especially important if someone is running at a higher elevation. Look up possible dangers as these can be found on state parks, national forest, and national park websites.
Preparation makes trail running safer. Understanding the terrain and type of trails you’ll be on is required for your safety.
4. Share Your Plan
Once a plan has been created, share the plan with a crew member or family. This can be as simple as letting someone know where you will be and the estimated time it will take you to finish. That way, if something were to happen someone is aware of where you are.
When I am out in a place that has limited service, I usually send a message from my Garmin InReach at the start of my run. If you do not have a GPS with two-way texting make sure to alert people ahead of time. That way people are aware of where you will be running in case of an emergency.
5. Invest in a GPS Tracker
The amount of money that trail runners spend on nutrition for one race (maybe two) is about the same amount of money they could spend on a GPS Tracker and communication device. Usually these devices have a one-year subscription plan for around $200 after purchasing the product.
Not every trail runner needs a GPS device, especially if they are on shorter trails with cellular service. If you are a trail runner going on longer runs in places with no service, a GPS tracker is priceless. There are an array of GPS trackers, like a simple spot tracker/beacon or ones that are also a communication device.
From trail runners to climbers summiting some of the world’s largest mountains, most agree that the Garmin InReach trackers are one of the best. They have the option of the mini where a smartphone is needed to pair it with and the regular one where the map is displayed on the device. One reason why most of us love this tracker is because of the two-way texting on it.
When I got lost during my race, this device saved me. I have also used it to let family members know if a run is taking longer or if I need to update them on something important. Not only will a GPS tracker give you peace of mind, but I know that family members appreciate it as well.
6. Pack an Emergency Blanket and Extra Food
Expect the worst. What’s the worst thing that could happen during a trail run? Most people’s first thought is getting injured and not being able to make it back. Anything can happen on the trail and being prepared is the best way to keep yourself safe.
My hydration pack always has an emergency blanket and 250 calories of extra food. I think these items are the most important things you can bring with you besides water.
If you were to get injured on the trail, it can take rescuers a while to find you. An emergency blanket will keep you warm and help prevent the risk of hypothermia. Extra calories can help while waiting but also come in handy if a run becomes longer than estimated.
7. Beware of Dogs
The biggest danger I have ever seen on a trail is not bears or mountain lions, because running into these animals is rare. Sighting one of these creatures is actually a very lucky experience as long as they are not agitated. The one animal that has caused a safety risks in not only training runs but in races is a dog.
This might come as a shocker, but if you are running by private property or in rural areas dogs can be an actual threat. I have been chased down by a dog multiple times. No matter what the size is, the experience can be a scary. I have had fellow runners in races been chased down and bitten before.
If you know that you will be potentially running by dogs, simply bring pepper spray. That way if there is an encounter with a dog there is no injury caused towards the animal while also providing yourself with protection.
8. Run with Others
Being new to trail running can be overwhelming. There can be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings about the trails at first. There is nothing more invaluable than running with someone that has experience in trail running. Not only is it safer to run with someone else but they can give you tips on nutrition or other great trails in the area.
Running with others in no way means you should not venture off by yourself. The more time spent running with others, the more confidence you will have out on the trails. Trail running provides great exercise in amazing places. The more knowledge and experience you have can provide an overall better and safer experience. Eventually you will get the confidence to tackle trails solo.
9. Report if Something is Off
Park Rangers and law enforcement cannot make trails safe to run without the efforts from runners. If they are not aware of something, they simply are not able to fix the problem. If you see something or someone that is off, report it. Reporting issues makes the trails safe for everyone.
Strong running communities count on communication from trail runners to create better experiences for everyone. If a trail has a tree fallen right in the middle, tell someone. If mountain lion is spotted, let the park rangers know. Trail running is safer due to the due diligence of it’s community of runners.
10. Have Failures
Trail running involves failures no matter what distance you participate in. Even with all the safety tips, experience, and proper preparation there is the potential of something to go wrong. This should not be a reason to stop you from running, as trail running is a safe sport.
You might find out that you need to bring more water with you, you might get lost, but with all the proper preparations you can make yourself safe by adapting to the problem and learning from your mistakes. Trail running involves being flexible when things do not go right. By learning from your failures and continuing to get out on the trails, you will not only make it safer for yourself but as well for other runners.
Up Next In Trail Running:
Maddie is an avid backpacker, climber, and trail runner. When she is not out on the trails training for ultramarathons, she is exploring with her husband and son in their 1996 F350 and camper. If you cannot find her outdoors she is probably at a brewery drinking a sour.