Explore the perks and challenges of running on trails.
So, you want to start trail running and might be wondering what the pros and cons of trail running are. Instead of thinking about pros or cons and how that stacks up against personal preference, we encourage you to think about the key differences between trail running versus road running or hiking, and how to get the most out of the experience.
Trail running feels different
Running on varied terrain is harder than on roads because it challenges the body to adapt at speed, sometimes while gaining vert (AKA: vertical elevation gain), and maintaining balance on obstacles like gravel, roots, downed trees and rocks. Many new trail runners experience elevated heart rates while running, soreness in the core and glutes as those stabilizing muscles strengthen and even burn more calories.
You don’t have to take on technical terrain or chase vert to be a trail runner. Any unpaved surface qualifies. Even if you love road running, seeking out a soft surface to run on for some easy miles is a great way to give your body a little relief from the repetitive motion of running on pavement.
Picking the right shoe for the run
Wearing the right shoes for trail running is important to prevent slips and falls or injury and make it more enjoyable, especially when tackling more technical terrain. There are a few key differences between trail running shoes and shoes for road running.
Most notably, trail running shoes are designed with more rubber and deeper lugs on the outsole, the part of the shoe that touches the ground, to provide better traction on tougher terrain. Think about the difference between winter and summer tires on a car. Winter tires feature deeper treads to reduce the buildup of snow and ice and offer better traction in slick conditions, whereas all-season tires don’t have deep treads, putting more rubber in contact with the road for better grip. Simply put, trail running shoes are similar to winter tires, whereas road running shoes are more like all-season tires.
Trail shoes often have a gusseted tongue connected along the sides to prevent dirt and other small debris from entering the shoe. Midsoles, the thick part of the sole that offers cushioning may be a bit stiffer than a road shoe and sometimes have a rock plate incorporated to protect feet from bruising caused by rocks.
That’s not to say you can’t wear your road shoes on trails. Many road runners do, such as on rail trails and unpaved paths connecting paved routes. If you’re exploring trail running and aren’t ready to invest in new trail running shoes, your road running shoes may be fine. If you aren’t sure, just flip your shoes over and look at the bottoms. If you see a lot of exposed foam, they won’t have much traction and will wear out pretty quickly on trails. However, shoes with a lot of rubber on the outsoles will last a little longer and offer some traction.
It’s important to note that road shoes will wear out faster on trails because of the rougher terrain. We recommend limiting your road shoes to dirt and crushed gravel to slow down wear and tear.
Of course, shoes aren’t the only thing trail runners wear. Here are some tips for what trail runners wear every season.
Access to trails for running
Road running is great because you can walk right out your front door and get some miles. Trail running, on the other hand, can be challenging depending on where you live and might require some planning and travel to get to a trailhead. However, many cities’ green spaces feature paved trails with adjacent surfaces to run on. These dirt and gravel shoulders are designed for runners looking for a softer surface. Greenways also sometimes have dirt paths.
For example, runners in New York City have access to unpaved trails in Central Park. The Bridle Path Loops include a 1.66-mile trail that surrounds the Reservoir running track and an extended loop up into the North Meadow fields that tops out at 2.5 miles.
Safety considerations for trail runners
Before hitting the trails, there are a few important things to consider for a safe trail running experience.
If you get lost running in a city, you can ask for help or get an Uber back to your home or car. If you’re lost in the woods, it’s harder to get help. At a minimum, familiarize yourself with a trail map. These are often available online, and many parks and preserves have maps near parking lots and trailheads. Snap a picture with your phone to have on you while you’re running. Also, apps like AllTrails and Gaia GPS make it easy to navigate trails using the GPS on your phone.
First aid and emergency response
One of the reasons people like to run trails is for the peace and quiet that comes with less pedestrian traffic and zero vehicle traffic. However, this comes with the risk of having an incident and no easy access to help. A good rule of thumb is to tell someone what your running route is, when you’re going and approximately how long it will take you. This way if you don’t check in at the end, they know they need to send help.
We recommend adding a small first aid kit to your running vest to handle small injuries. You can find these on Amazon and at big stores like Walmart and Bass Pro Shops, or make your own first aid kit.
For those running deep in nature, any place where cell service is spotty or on a technical trail with uneven terrain where emergency response requires different equipment used by a highly skilled group (often volunteers!), we recommend taking a satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach. It’s an investment, but you can’t put a price on safety.
New and experienced trail runners alike should familiarize themselves with the local rules regarding hunting. Hikers should be familiar sharing trails with hunters, but road runners might not, so it’s worth noting it’s not uncommon for woodland areas popular for hiking to also be open to hunting, especially in the spring and fall months. Here are four tips for trail running safely during hunting season:
- Stick to established trails: Most hunters will be situated deeper in the woods, away from people traffic, because that’s where the hunting will be best.
- Pick the right time of day: Animals tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, and that’s when hunters tend to be out. Avoiding those times of day helps enhance safety for trail runners. If you can’t avoid dawn or dusk, the next two tips are essential.
- Make noise: Singing out loud or talking to your running buddy will make unseen hunters aware of your presence. If you trail run with a dog, clip a small bell to its collar.
- Wear hunter orange: Hunter orange is the universal safety signal for hunters because it’s a color not found in nature and it can easily be seen in low-light conditions. Our Trailblazer Hat (men’s | women’s) and Women’s Fleece Ponytail Headband come in hunter orange. Don’t forget to hook your dog up with an orange bandana for their safety. While hunter orange is best, in a pinch, hi-viz yellow and other neon colors are options when you don’t have hunter orange handy, or can be worn in addition. The key is to make yourself seen! Many of our TrailHeads styles come in bright colors with reflective accents for added visibility in low-light conditions.
Trail running is the perfect combination of running and hiking. It shares similarities, yet has key differences from the other activities, but we think the cons of trail running are far and few between. If you’re looking for a new way to challenge yourself and enjoy nature, trail running is a great option.
Check out our blog for more tips to help you take the trail less traveled.