August 27, 2013

5 Trail Running Safety Tips

El Capitan at the trail head.
Notice the white paper on the sun shade;
it says the number of runners,
the name of the trail(s) and gives
an expected time of return.
Like every runner, I get very excited when I think about going out on a new trail. It is one of the best adventures, as I never know what I’m going to get, where I’m going to go and what wonders I will see. So, of course, I jump at every occasion to venture out in new places.

When my friend Micah disappeared in the Gila wilderness, the worst of the wait was to imagine him out there, probably badly injured, shivering to death in his running shorts and t-shirt at the bottom of some cliff or ravine. Even if it turned out that he suffered a heart attack and died almost instantly – and, thankfully, painlessly – I will never forget how powerless and desperate I felt at the idea that he was lost, somewhere, with only the clothes on his back.

Since that day, I’ve never hit a trail without carrying at least some safety equipment and taking some basic measures in case something goes wrong. I’m not necessarily talking about my weekly run at the local park where I know other runners and hikers will be out there and professional aid is available close by. Although it’s not a bad idea to always have some safety, I am also a runner and I’m not going to burden myself if I don’t need to. But every time I go out on a run in a more remote area, alone, or on a new trail, I always take the following precautions.

1. Emergency survival
If you’re going to take only one piece of safety advice from this post, take this one. Bring a survival kit with you. It doesn’t need to be big and bulky and there are some very good products out there for minimalists like us runners. Your kit needs to have at least a safety blanket, and I recommend having the sleeping-bag type which will keep you way warmer. You also want some matches, or a lighter, or at least some fire starter. Duct tape is a must and takes almost no space; you can even roll it on a small pen or your tube of electrolyte tablets. Extras can include an ultra-light knife, first-aid material, water purifying gear or tablets, a signaling mirror and a high-pitch whistle.

2. Leave a trace
Tell someone where you’re going and for how long. If you just don’t know, say it anyway. “I’m going to go wander around the Mesa Trail” is way better than no information at all. You have no one to say it to? Post it on Facebook or Twitter. Your running friends will be happy to know you’re out and they will know where you went. When you get to the trail head, leave a paper on your windshield saying the time you left, the direction you took and the time you expect to be back. It takes about a minute to do, will make any search & rescue attempt easier and could save your life.

3. Be ready to face the cold
Even in the warmest areas, it gets cold at night. Should you be stranded somewhere after the sun sets, it will get cold and you will suffer hypothermia. Also realize that the clothes you run in will be drenched in sweat, hence completely useless if you need to stay warm. Bring a pair of arm warmers, a light rainproof jacket and a Buff. These three items will fit any running backpack, vest or even waist pack, and they weight next to nothing. If you want extra safety, add a pair of lightweight pants or tights.

4. Pack food and drinks
You already know that you need to fuel on the run. Make sure you bring extra food when exploring a new area, and never keep going past your last third of fluids. Getting dehydrated and / or starved on the trail will have you struggling over obstacles you usually fly over. And if you get stranded or lost, you will be happy to have the extra fuel at hand. You might also have to deal with running partners who didn’t bring or forgot their own fuel, and save their butts :)

5. Mark your way
If you’re running a trail for the first time, more so in remote areas, and come at a trail crossing, stop and look. If the trails are marked, make sure you follow the right one. If they aren’t, pick a couple rocks or some sticks and shape an arrow on the ground. You can choose to make it point forward or back, just make sure you are consistent. Tracing the arrow on the ground is an option, but it’s not ideal as rain or even wind could erase them. Even if you have a GPS, these little markings could become very useful if you run out of batteries or have a breakdown. Of course, remove your arrows on your way out.

These five little things could make a difference if you get in trouble. They are not complicated and constitute healthy habits to take when you go out on an adventure. I hope you never need to spend a cold night on the trails, injured, but if you do, you’ll be happy you were prepared for the situation and will not freak out, alone, suddenly realizing you’re stranded, starving, cold, and no one knows where the hell you went.


  1. As important as any of these, I'd also include (sufficiently-detailed) map and compass.

  2. Great little piece of advice. Safety come first always. I have been in some very hairy situations over my running career!

  3. Good article, many time I forget about bring these simple Items i know I would of wished I had if I got lost.

  4. Thanks for sharing your tips, Flint! Getting injured is never fun, and it's definitely hard to tell when it would strike. At the very least, those tips would come in handy, in case an emergency happened along the way. It’s better be safe than sorry. All the best!

    Ramona Walters @ OMNI Clinic

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