Trail Running: The Essential Gear

The best part about running? Other than the clothes on your back, all the gear you really need is a good pair of trail running shoes.

With trail running, the same logic applies. But there are a few additional items that can make tearing into your local wilderness on your own two feet a lot more enjoyable. Here are the refreshingly simple basics.

SEE ALSO: The longest trail you’ve never heard of

As with road running, the sheer number of options is enough to overwhelm (from the zero-drop minimalist designs to the ultra-padded SUV-sized shoes, and everything in between), so your best bet is to try on a few pairs and go with what works for you. For trail running, look for shoes with an aggressive tread to give you solid purchase in loose dirt, sand, and mud. We also like shoes with some toe protection like a hard rubber cage or band at the shoe’s front, which will protect you from encounters with the unanticipated rock or root. If you plan on running year-round or live in a place with a variable climate, waterproof shoes are a good idea.

hiking in trail running shoes

As with most outdoor pursuits, weather will largely dictate what you wear, but one rule of thumb applies in almost any climate: cotton kills. It may be comfortable when you’re hanging out, but when you’re running it’ll quickly get soaked with your sweat and won’t dry quickly, which can turn a light cotton T-shirt into something that feels like a piece of medieval armor strapped to your chest. And if the temps are cool, you will get cold, conditions that could lead to hypothermia. Other than that, go with a nicely padded sock to subvert the aggressive elements of the trail. And clothing with a bit of toughness will also protect you from the occasional scrape against a tree branch. In cold weather, start out slightly chilly; you’ll heat up quickly, and you want to hit that sweet spot of being warm without overheating. Tights under shorts keep your legs warm without the distraction of loose fabric at the ankles. In hot weather, shorts with liners should reduce any potential chaffing. Most also come with a few small pockets for your keys or energy bars.

Let your desired length (and the weather conditions) help guide you here. For shorter jaunts like a three- to seven-mile run, you may be able to hydrate before and after, which frees your hands while running. And remember, three miles on the trail requires more energy than the same distance on the flats because of the variable terrain and elevation shifts that you encounter. For longer runs, or for runs on days when the humidity is high, consider bringing a small, light water bottle, ideally one with a hand strap so you don’t have to clutch the bottle. Running vests with integrated hydration systems are also popular, especially for long-distance trail running. But even in short distances you may appreciate the hands-free access; sometimes with trail running you need your hands free to navigate over fallen logs (or to catch yourself during that inevitable stumble).

The Little Stuff
Unless you’re running above the tree line, you probably don’t need sunglasses; if you’re running in the woods the canopy of leaves from the trees will keep things pretty shady and you want to be able to distinguish the contours and features of the trail. If you have to wear shades, consider ones with yellow or clear lenses. Or just wear a hat, which can help block out some of the glare, ideally one made of tech fabric that absorbs moisture and keeps the sweat out of your eyes. Electronics are also a personal choice, from heart rate monitors and smart watches to wireless headphones. Whatever your preference, be sure you strap on your smart device(s) more securely than you might for a road run since the trail’s variable terrain will require a variety of movements you don’t encounter when running on a flat surface. Lip balm is also a nice-to-have, especially as you get more dehydrated.

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hiking in trail running shoes