Trail Running Safety Tips

Another trail running post. Can you tell I’m daydreaming of spring training sessions, or at least a packed winter trail that isn’t buried under 4 feet of powder?  Soon, very soon my friends.  There was a really fat squirrel sitting on my back porch yesterday that assured me spring is just around the corner…after he dug a frozen cracker out of a snowbank, that is.


As previously declared on this very blog, if trail running were a religion, I’d be absolutely guilty of being a zealot trying to fanatically convert everyone over to the dirt.   But it is important to me that the new disciples of the trail running church show up with knowledge, safety skills, and most importantly respect for the trails, so I feel these types of posts are essential.  We’ve covered trail running etiquette, and reasons why every runner should take up trail running…at least occasionally.  Now it’s time for some general trail running safety tips, important for all trail runners, both beginners and experts alike.

Trail Running Safety Tips

Know Your Trails

I love adventure as much as the next person, but getting lost can become a life threatening situation pretty fast.  Now, for some of you your trails involve a very short out and back or loop in the woods situated in the middle of a sprawling urban city.  Chances are if you get lost (if that is even possible)  you’ll find your way to civilization pretty darn fast.

 Parham Bridges Park Trail

All of this? ONE MILE. I’m absolutely serious. Impossible to get lost on, I could see the parking lot from every turn.    Parham Bridges Park trail in Jackson MS.

For others, a trail system could border hundreds or thousands of acres of undeveloped back country, forest,  or desert land;  taking a wrong turn or getting lost could become a serious mistake.   Be familiar with the trails you are running.  If you aren’t, be sure carry a map (and know how to read it.)  Carry a cell phone or other GPS enabled device, however, do not rely solely on that device, for technology and GPS reception can fail.

Trail Map

Tell Someone Where You Are Going

I hate to sound like your mother, but tell someone where you are going before you head out, even if it’s simply a note left at home. In addition to location, give an estimated return time so those “in the know” know when to expect you back. If an emergency arises and you don’t come back, this gives rescuers an idea of where to begin looking for you.

On a related note: I won’t tell you to NOT trail run alone.  Sometimes the solidarity of a solo trail run can be an amazing experience, or even some much needed running therapy.  However, if possible, do run with a friend or a group.  Safety in numbers.

trail running group

Check the Weather

Before you head out for your run, check your local weather forecast. Being caught in a storm is not only a nuisance, but can become a dangerous situation while on a secluded trail. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t run in inclement weather, but more so to be aware of what you might possibly face, and prepare accordingly.

Wear Appropriate and Protective Gear

Trail running shoes are designed to give you better grip on the uneven trails. Further, they are often made of more rugged materials to help protect you from rocks, sticks, or other items you may encounter on the trail. Wearing tall socks or gaiters will help keep debris from entering your socks, as well as protect you from branches, poisonous plants, and even insect bites (like ticks). Often, the shade of the trees and change in elevation may result in drastic temperature changes, so be sure to wear or pack layers that are easy to remove or put on. Lastly, wear bright colors so you are highly visible to other runners, cyclists, or even hunters.


Nearing the summit of Sugarbush Mountain during the O2X Summit Challenge. Though warm and balmy at the base, the weather quickly turned to below freezing and windy at the top.

Bring Plenty of Hydration and Nutrition

Unlike running through urban areas with neighborhoods and convenience stores, it is very unlikely that you will find a reliable water or nutrition source on the trail. While fresh water sources may be available, the water quality might be questionable: bacteria or parasites like giardiasis can cause miserable gastrointestinal issues. Pack more water and nutrition than you feel you may actually need, in the event that you become lost or spend more time on the trail than you expected.

Watch Your Step

Trails vary greatly in types of terrain, from wide, flat, dirt trails, to single track lined with rocks and roots. Depending on the type of trail, you may encounter very few or very many natural obstacles along the way. Choose an appropriate trail for your fitness level and current trail running experience. Taking shorter, faster steps while you run will allow you to have better control, and maintain better balance, while covering the uneven terrain.  Also, don’t’ forget to pick up your feet, shuffling along the trail almost ensures this will happen:

trail running fail

Will this picture ever get old?

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

As mentioned numerous times already, trail running is often far more secluded than running through a neighborhood or an urban park. Leave your headphones at home, so you are able to hear the sound of approaching runners, cyclists, or even animals.  Which leads us to the last point…

Personal Protection

This is a highly debatable topic for some, but you should consider whether or not you want to run with some sort of personal protection item.  While some people do go to the extreme and run with firearms, a more common practice is running with a handheld pepper spray.  The latter certainly won’t protect you from a grizzly bear or mountain lion attack (both highly unlikely, but certainly a risk in some parts of the country), but may fend off advances from aggressive dogs or even worse, attacks from fellow humans.  Again, this is a personal decision, and you should certainly consider the areas you are running through (are there lose dogs? Unsavory people frequenting trails?) as a deciding factor as to whether or not you want to carry some sort of protection.  Lastly, if you do decide to run with a form of personal protection, make sure you are well versed and comfortable in its use.

From a change of scenery to a change of physical terrain, there are many benefits to taking your running miles off of the pavement and onto the wooded trails.  However, the often secluded trails certainly do bring on a special set of safety circumstances that must be taken into consideration.  Following the above tips will help ensure your ability to hit the trails for many miles to come.


Reader contribution:  Do you have any safety tips to add to this list?  Or have any trail running safety questions to ask? Please post in the comments below!


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  1. alisamarie says

    These are fabulous tips! Trail running always feels so much better, but definitely has more hazards!

  2. says

    I’m with you on the trail zealot! I actually tried to do a quick run yesterday with Tals (first one since the ultra) but it was so muddy from the melting snow that I had to stick to the roads…and hated it. I made it 2 miles and quit!

    • says

      EVERYONE falls, trust me Patty! You just have to brush yourself off and try again! I promise it gets easier and you fall less as you grow accustomed to running on trails!

  3. says

    OMG that squirrel! I have a pic from when we were in Monterey area in CA and there was this HUGE squirrel LOL- it was crazy! I always carry protection with my on runs, regular runs or trail runs. I had a horrible experience with dogs once and also have been followed by creepers a couple times. I think you can’t be too careful!

  4. says

    I’ve gone trail running and I didn’t enjoy it. It hurt my feet, hurt my ankles and the terrain was way too uneven for it to be enjoyable to me. Now my friend Rod LOVES trail running but I was scared of falling over tree root and the like. I think I will stick to street running.

    • says

      That is definitely half of the appeal (in my opinion), and one of the reasons I encourage all runners to hit the trail from time to time. The ever changing terrain will strengthen your ankles and balance over time. But I totally understand the frustration when you first get started.

  5. says

    Great tips. The only trails really close to me are much like your picture above (seriously, can’t get lost), but I did run the North Face Trail half marathon and it was a totally different world. I could not imagine running that by myself…

    • says

      I remember when my sister lived in Arlington (sort of near you, right?) , I ran the Mt. Vernon trails every time I visited her. Granted, those are paved “trails” but still, such a great system! A North Face race is TOTALLY on my must do list! I need to find one!

  6. says

    These are great tips! I ran lots of trails in 2012 when I trained for MCM and it was just so hot I needed the shade. There was one very memorable belly flop as my foot caught a root in the final 400m of a 20-miler. Thankfully I was very close to my car!

  7. Sue @ This Mama Runs For Cupcakes says

    Great list and great timing. I’m about to sign up for Ragnar Trail! Pinning for later!