How to Stay Safe on Trail
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Tips and Gear for Trail Running Safety
In Boy Scouts growing up, we were taught to always be prepared. The official scout motto is just that… “Be Prepared”.
It’s why, when my wife and I went on our first few backpacking trips together, the weight of our bags was a bit laughable. It’s also why my wife stared at me, wide-eyed and mouth dropped open, as she pulled out 3 separate pocket knives from my bag and discovered part of the reason why our bags were so heavy. I also carried way too many changes of clothes and had enough food for double the time we’d be out there. Hey, I was prepared!
I’ve learned my lesson since then. I’ve learned to carry “just the basics” while also being prepared for anything. When it comes to trail running safety, it means being prepared mentally as well as physically.
There are a lot of additional factors to consider for staying safe on the trail versus running on the road. You’re a lot further from civilization. This means assistance is further away, you’re less likely to have cell service, and if something did happen, it’s less likely that a good samaritan will notice you in distress. The terrain makes it more likely you’ll trip and twist an ankle. There could be dangerous wildlife. There likely aren’t as many water fountains around to rehydrate you.
Excited for your run? Ha!
I don’t bring these factors up to scare you. Trust me, trail running is worth the added risk. You just need to enter into it being prepared.
Here’s what you’ll need to know and bring to stay safe on the trails.
Running Safety Tips
Slow Down on Difficult Terrain - Don’t be afraid to walk. One thing you learn early on about trail running is that it’s not always about running. It’s about finishing the run safely and successfully. That means walking at times to avoid twisting an ankle or tripping over tree routes. Then, as you build confidence, you know what your limits are.
I’ve been there. Laying in the dirt I mean. It’ll happen to you at some point as well. Let’s just try to minimize the number of times that it does.
Find Some Trail Buddies - I know this isn’t always possible. But it’s true what they say… “Safety in Numbers”.
For me, it’s also more fun to share the experience with others. I’ve had many lifelong friendships begin on the trail. Plus, running with others will give you insight into additional trail running tips and different techniques you can start trying out for yourself.
Keep One Ear Free - If you listen to music or podcasts when you’re out on your run, only put your headphones in one ear. Also, keep the volume at a level that you’ll be able to hear someone approaching. This helps you stay alert and aware on trail.
Check the Weather - Don’t forget that the weather could be significantly different on the mountain where you’re doing your run from where your home is located.
Also, don’t forget to check the weather for the entirety of your run. It may be a chilly morning when you start your run. By midday, though, it could be a scorcher and you then find yourself drinking more water than you had anticipated. Or the opposite could happen. It could be bright and sunny when you start your afternoon run, but a storm cloud could be just over the mountain. Be smart and be prepared.
Keep an Eye on the Sky - Speaking of weather, just please, don’t mess with storms. If you’re prepared for rain, I’m all for running in the rain (and even snow and light hail, within reason). But if lightning is coming, postpone your run. If you see an unexpected storm approaching while you’re out on trail, cut it short and get to safety.
Communicate - Let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back. I often leave my planned route up on the computer for my wife. If something were to happen, she would at least know where to start looking. If I have service on my phone, I also try to keep her updated on my progress at least a few times throughout my run. If things are slow going but I’m safe, she knows not to worry.
You’ll also want to communicate to hikers and other runners you’re approaching from behind on trail. I usually start with a simple, “Good morning!” as I approach about 30 feet back. As I get closer, I’ll say something like, “Hey there, passing on your left!” Speak up. You’ll be amazed at how many people you’ll still startle. But at least you tried!
Know What to Expect - When you’re planning out your run, don’t just plan for distance. Elevation change can also be a big deciding factor in how long you’ll be out there.
If you can, keep the terrain in mind as well. Are the trails rocky? Are they well maintained, or will you be bushwacking a bit? Did it rain recently? The slick trails may slow you down, and the river crossings quite a bit more treacherous. Was there a windstorm yesterday? You may find yourself climbing over additional fallen trees.
Familiarize Yourself with Wildlife - You should know what wildlife to look out for in your area, and what to do about it if you do have an encounter.
Are there bears? Black Widow Spiders? Mountain Lions? Is it autumn in the mountains? You’re more likely to come across snakes sunning themselves on the trails. But what snakes around you are poisonous and which ones are harmless?
Most likely you and the wildlife will end up scaring each other, and you’ll each go your separate ways. A little education could go a long way in the case of an emergency, though!
Stay Aware of Your Surroundings - I know how easy it is to let your mind wander on trail. But one strategically placed root will snap your attention back to the present moment real quick. A scar on my left knee reminds me of this every day.
Pick Your Feet Up - If your feet are starting to drag, typically toward the end of your run, give yourself some verbal cues. Something as simple as, “Pick your feet up,” tends to do the trick for me. Yes, I say it out loud. Who’s going to hear me? Ahhh…. The beauty of trails :)
If that doesn’t work, take a walk break. Take a sip of water. Reassess. It’s just not worth the risk of falling and injuring yourself.
Approach Water Crossings with Precaution - Even familiar water crossings could be changed from your last run due to rain. It’s difficult to eyeball how fast the water is flowing and what footing is waiting for you beneath the rushing water (or even standing water).
Here’s a tip, though. If your friend is standing knee-deep in rushing water, and the stick they’re using for balance snaps in half… don’t cross the river. Find another route. Remember that, Chris and Cecile? ;) (Side note: We didn’t cross and found an alternative run all together, ha!)
Look Ahead - Keep your gaze approximately 15 feet ahead of you and remain aware of your peripheral vision. That way, you won’t suddenly come across an unexpected rock or root.
If you spot a great lookout off the side of the trail, don’t turn your head and run past. This is a prime opportunity to end up in the dirt. Stop. Look. Take it in. Enjoy. Heck, you’re in beautiful nature! Fully embrace the experience. (Snap a few selfies if you will.) Then keep running.
Use Your Intuition - Finally, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Especially with night runs, I’ve come across situations where something just didn’t quite feel right and my inner “danger” sensors were pinging. Instead of looping back to that same section as I had originally planned, I simply picked another route home. Trust your gut, and stay safe.
Gear for Trail Running Safety
Phone - It’s communication. It’s navigation. It’s weather updates. Bring it with you. And make sure it’s protected from water… you will be sweating!
Whistle - Most running vests have a built-in whistle, but you’ll want to double-check yours has one. And know where on your vest it is! The sound of a whistle will carry a lot further than the sound of your voice… and for a lot less effort.
In case of emergency, the signal for SOS is 3 short whistle blasts (S), 3 long whistle blasts (O), and 3 short whistle blasts (S).
First Aid Kit - Depending on the length of my run, how busy the trail is, and how far from civilization I’ll be, I’ll either carry my kit with me or make sure it’s available in my car. Oh yeah, and make sure you know what’s included and know how to use everything in there!
Wildlife “Gear” - Speaking of First Aid Kits, if you know you’re in snake country, carry a snake bandage and know how to use it. More likely to come across bears? You may want to consider bear spray.
Water - Plan ahead, bring enough, and actually drink it!
Headlamp - If your afternoon run goes longer than expected, you’ll be happy to have the light to guide you home. Keep in mind that the forest will get darker earlier than out in your open backyard. As an added security, I also bring along a spare set of batteries for longer runs.
Food - Same as water. Plan accordingly with how long you’ll be out there. I always bring at least something small with me as an emergency snack. Oftentimes, it’s a Larabar or something else I can just keep in my vest permanently until it’s needed.
Layers - As we discussed earlier, check the weather for the entirety of your run and be prepared. Will you need a long-sleeved layer? Or a hat to keep the sun out of your eyes? You’ll want to be as comfortable as possible from beginning to end.
Rain Jacket - I pretty much always bring a rain jacket along with me. If you get a light-weight, waterproof jacket (with taped seams), it’ll fold down to and weigh practically nothing. It’ll protect you in case of unexpected rain. It can also serve as an extra warm layer if you need to walk more and you get to the point where your sweat is cooling you down too much.
Navigational Tools - Not only to stay on your planned route but if a trail is closed or you need to cut a run short, you’ll be happy to have these tools.
Personally, I love Maps.me. I’m able to download a map onto my phone. The maps include both trails and roads. GPS will then show me exactly where I am on the map even when I don’t have cell service.
Pepper Spray - I know a lot of women that like to carry pepper spray, especially if they’re running alone. Obviously do your research and see what’s legal in your area. But, it’s something you may want to consider bringing along.
Alright, do you feel prepared? I swear, once you have your first few runs under your belt, pretty much all of this becomes second nature. After living in “poisonous snake country” (aka Australia) for so long, I’m finding it hard to get myself out of snake-watching mode, even though it’s much less of a threat here in South Carolina.
What do you carry or do to prepare for staying safe on the trails? Comment below and let me know!
If you’re looking for more details on what you should carry on the trails, check out Trail Running? 11 Things You Don’t Want to Forget.
Happy Running! ✌️😊
Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent, had to learn the hard way (many times) to pick up her feet on trail, and has the scars to prove it. She's also a Health and Wellness Copywriter. Find out more about how she can help you meet your business goals over at www.beckhamcopywriting.com