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Running on trails satisfies a primal need to connect with nature. Getting off the concrete and into the woods is mentally and physically stimulating. The objective is a good-feeling run, unifying mind, body, and soul. And while the forest paths may seem safer than running the busy roads there are some precautions to take before venturing out into nature.
It might be a sunny warm day as you head out the door in your neighborhood, but just a mile or two up the mountain it could be damp and cloudy. Always check the forecast for where you’re planning to run and carry a “just-in-case” water-resistant jacket with hood.
In the summer, plan your run to avoid the hottest part of the day. And if you notice storm clouds beginning to roll in, don’t panic; head for lower elevations and stay in control of your speed.
It's so easy to get disoriented in the wilderness, even in your local town woods. Always tell someone about your intended route and when you’re expecting to return. Don’t go alone on a long run in a new place; bring someone along who knows the trail. Carry a cell phone, a whistle, and a map in case your cell phone dies. On an out-and-back run, mark your trail at key intersections, using rocks and sticks as landmarks to guide you safely back. Be sure to give yourself some wiggle room before sunset in case you get lost or need to take a slower pace back to the trailhead.
Always carry a waterproof ID or sport bracelet with your name as well as contact and medical information; if you have an accident, first responders can quickly identify you. Don’t be an easy target for stalkers: If you run the same trail at the same time each day, it’s a good idea to sometimes change it up. And ditch the earbuds and headphones; you need to stay alert to the sights and sounds around you. As you run along the trail, continue to note potential exit routes. If you do feel threatened by a person, animal, or the weather, one of these escape routes can bring you back to safety.
It’s important to carry the essentials you’ll need for a day on the trails. Water in a hydration pack or on a waist belt is a must. Gels and bars are light and easy to carry. Basic first aid in the form of alcohol wipes and ibuprofen will be appreciated if you take a hard fall.
Yes, even on your local trails, coyotes, bobcats, and even bears are roaming. Animals tend to be most active at dawn and dusk so to avoid coming face to face with them, run at different times of the day. Make noise as you run along; some runners attach a small bell to their hydration pack to alert animals of their presence. If you do meet up with a critter, don’t freak out. Stay calm, stop running and stand tall. Never turn your back and run away; that can trigger a chase reaction in predatory animals. The most common animal you will probably encounter will be another trail runner or mountain biker’s dog running along off-leash. And speaking of wildlife, wear bright colors during hunting season to be visible or just avoid areas where hunting is prevalent.
The best way to avoid an accident or fall is to concentrate on your form. Smaller strides allow you to have more control of your body, especially on uneven terrain. Keep your arms slightly away from your body, using them for balance. Scan at least 10 feet ahead, so you can see what's coming. That goes for running behind someone; give yourself enough room to see the trail, not your buddy's butt. Always step over roots, logs and rocks; they can be slippery or loose. And pick up your feet! The lazy shuffle step you use on the roads will ultimately trip you up.
On trails, think time, not distance. You're trading mileage for strength when you hit the trails. And thinking about time keeps you from thinking about your speed. General rule of thumb: Every hour on the trail equals 45 minutes on asphalt. More if you're running a trail with a lot of hills, rocks and roots.
The right shoes are essential when running on trails. Trail runners should look for a shoe that delivers the ride and response of a road shoe with the traction, protection and support that trail running demands.
Trail running has its own set of rules. We share the space with mountain bikers, hikers, horses and hunters. On trails, yield the right of way to the slower person: Bikes yield to runners; runners yield to walkers; and horses always have the right of way. If approaching someone from behind, especially someone on a horse, give a verbal warning communicating which side of the person you'll be passing on, left or right.
Get to know what poison ivy and poison oak look like; it's everywhere, but avoidable if you know what to look for, especially when looking for the perfect pit stop. Wear high socks (knee socks) and spray with an insect repellent that works for ticks and mosquitos. The CDC recommends DEET as an effective repellent to deal with those summertime pests. Give yourself a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day, and don’t forget checking your canine running buddy as well.
Sharon Barbano is a Road Runners Club of America Certified Long Distance Running Coach and a past U.S. 50K trail running champion. As a wilderness guide, she’s led trips through the Alps, Sierras, White Mountains and the Wind River Range.