Equipment Needs For Trail Running
Part of the allure of trail running lies in the escapist nature of it all: away from the hustle and bustle of the city and out of the narrow and crowded streets, a means to leave behind the noise and bright lights and simply escape into the ethereal peace of nature.
It’s a romantic image alright; but naturally there is a certain logistical imperative to plan ahead and plan accordingly to make this daring escape. If it were as easy as just running in a loop around your house, then I imagine part of the romanticism would be lost, and traded in for something else: access. Access to a tap, for water. Access to a fridge, for food and nutrition, and lacking that, access to a shop. Access to warmth and a change of clothes. Access, basically, to the emergency wartime rations runners are all too familiar with.
The trails are a runner’s frontlines, and, quite a bit of the time, all you have access to is what is in your bag. No shops, no facilities and no short-cuts (unless you are very brave on those mountain bike tracks). So we have compiled a short list of equipment needs, and the means by which you can most efficiently pack your gear, for when you head out into the wilderness.
There are two essential pieces of gear that are worth looking out for when hitting the trails: a bag and shoes. Quite a few brands do running- and trail-running-specific bags that are well suited to the higher intensity of the mountain or forest trails. These usually tote exceptionally breathable and moldable backs, lightweight materials to reduce weight and enough pockets for your essentials.
How they hold water is one of the primary differences between bags. Some feature a bladder, which is essentially a pocket designed to hold water that goes down the entire length of the bag and is accessed by a tube that hooks easily onto the side. Others, meanwhile, will have pockets on the bag straps, so you can access your water easily without too much wasted or awkward movements - for this one, you can get special bottles that are designed with softer materials so you can squeeze them directly from the bag straps. Of course, the vast majority of these bags remain lightweight, comfortable and adjustable - designed with a purpose to only aid you on the trails without excess or interference. The differences between them are often subjective and come down to the individual.
Another essential item for the trails are trail running shoes: there are a number of reasons why you would not use your standard road shoe on the trails, but the main one comes down to what the shoes are designed to do. Road shoes are designed for predictable and reasonably uniform terrain; trail shoes are designed for unpredictable variety. You can read our recent blog on how best to pick your trail shoe here:
How to Choose a Trail Shoe
What you wear for road running can have a big impact on the run itself - trail running, on the other hand, can have a big impact on what you wear. A cold wind could hit you as you reach the peak of the mountain, quickly gripping your bare arms and legs and digging deep into the bones. Likewise, the sunshine you had while zipping along the forest trail could easily change into bucketing rain. In other words, you need not only the clothing you wear on your back, but back-up gear in case the weather takes an unexpected turn.
Most of the running t-shirts and shorts you use for the roads will do you on the trails: it’s just a matter of wearing gear that doesn’t chafe. If it’s colder, leggings have the additional advantage of protecting the legs from thorns and nettles, while most waterproof jackets these days are well insulated. Waterproof jackets would be preferable to water resistant jackets on the trails, as catching a cold away from home is less than ideal, but any level of water resistance is preferable to no level at all. It is worth taking such a jacket with you on the trails and keeping it in your bag until needed. Even if it adds a little extra weight to the bag, you’ll be glad for it come the rain and wind.
It is also a good idea to bring a spare set of running gloves: merino wool is good in colder conditions for insulating the hands, while wind-block gloves are good for a bit of water and wind resistance. In the cold again, a beanie would not hurt either - quite a bit of heat escapes from the head, after all. On the averse, one that rare day in the Irish calendar year that we actually do get nice weather, sun cream and a cap certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
It also wouldn’t hurt to have a spare set of clothes in the car: something wooly and warm, even in the summer months, is a safe bet to get you out of your sweaty gear and into something fresh and relaxing. Overall, back-up is the key term to work with here. Always prepare your gear as if the weather was destined to take a nasty turn.
Nutrition marks another break away from equipment needs for road running. Unless training for a marathon, one has little need to bring gels or snacks with them out road running. With the proper diet and enough food and water beforehand, most of your weekend long runs can be done with (at most) a bottle of water.
While this is sometimes the case with trail running, having a good nutrition plan ahead of time in the eventuality of a trail run being longer, the climbs being steeper and the day being hotter could often save you from a potentially miserable experience. For one thing, trail running can often take quite a toll on your body. Softer surfaces can sap the energy from one’s legs that little bit quicker, while the exertion one has to make when climbing is often far greater than that on the relative flats of the road. In other words, it is likely that your body will need something to keep going. It also goes without saying that you are usually too far away from the shops to be able to pick something up on the go.
Depending on the individual, the individual’s diet, and, of course, the trail in question, what kind of nutrition one needs will differ. If it’s short and sharp, often water and maybe a banana or energy bar will do the trick. If it’s longer and in need of greater endurance, electrolyte gels (with or without caffeine - I find the caffeine helpful on the trails) can offer a substantial boost. Finally, if you are heading out for a good few hours, it might be worth packing a sandwich as well - make a day of it!
Although all of this is very important, nothing is more consequential than a good diet and a solid meal to recover with after - fast food is fun and all, but at least try to make a smoothie when you get home first!
It goes without saying that one needs to take care when on the trails. Not only can you encounter volatile weather and energy deficiencies, as outlined above, you can also get lost or suffer an injury. So ensuring we have a phone with us is vital, first and foremost. It also helps to have told a friend or family member ahead of time where we are going, if going it alone.
If we are in a race setting, then you will have already received a list of necessary equipment you will have to have if you are to be permitted to run. If you are only venturing onto the trails for your first time, it is worth having a peak at one or two race websites to get an idea as to what you should bring to ensure a comfortable and safe way. Below are some links to races that provide just that:
Preparing Your Trail Running Bag
Unlike hiking, when trail running, you rarely have the opportunity to stop for long periods of time to dig through your bag. You are running: the last thing you want is for your body to cool down. This goes without saying on long runs or exhaustive runs in general, but it can be even more consequential when in an environment that is typically higher above sea level and more exposed to the elements. Of course, some trails are more accommodating or shorter than this - but for those types of terrain and distances, a bag is not especially necessary. So this portion of the blog is addressing those using a bag when extra clothing and nutrition is always a safer bet to bring than leave behind.
Ensure you put the items you need to access quickly and on the go in easily accessible pockets. These things include water and nutrition. In the main body of your bag, you want to have a spare jacket, blanket or pair of gloves handy near the top of the bag so they can be gotten with minimum energy. After this, we can look at what else we’re bringing: extra or back-up nutrition, a map or head-torch, and so on.
If you’re now thinking, “God, this is getting a bit exhaustive - I just wanted to go for a run!” then you have the right attitude - this blog is not to bog you down with an endless list of needs and wants. Its purpose is to give you an idea of what you might need according to your training and the trails you are embarking upon. You want to have backup clothing, emergency equipment and enough food and water to keep your legs moving, but never forsake your primary objective when planning all of this: you are heading out to run, something I think we can all agree should first and foremost be fun and a wild adventure. With that, we can probably sum this post up with this: be prepared to be hungry and cold, and to have an outrageously oxymoronic blast.gm