How to pick the right shoes, clothes, packs and other gear for trail running. What to bring and what to leave home for maximum comfort, safety, and performance.
Choosing gear for trail running tends to present a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, you’ll need more gear than a typical road runner to stay safe and comfortable farther afield. On the other hand, if you bring as much kit as a backpacker, you may find yourself trail walking, or trail crawling.
Happily, good quality, trail running-specific gear abounds. It’s evolved to be relatively lightweight, compact, durable, and often designed with trail-specific features. Some of it is tailored for specialized types of trail running. This means you’ll face more decisions, but also that you can expect to be taken care of regardless of your preferred distance and terrain.
It all starts with shoes. As trail running has matured as a sport, the number of available shoe designs has grown from zero to a few to today’s dizzying array of brands and styles and models.
Where to start? That’s easy: fit. You’ll do better in perfectly-fitted rain boots than in high-end trail running shoes the wrong shape for your feet. Always start with a close look at your feet. If you’re one of the lucky few whose feet are “average” in width, toe-box shape, and volume, then you’ll find you have a great number of choices. If you’re like the rest of us, you’ll find your choices narrowed right out of the starting gates.
Most athletic shoe companies have a certain house fit. If you have a wide foot with a square toe profile, typical narrow Italian shoes will cause problems. And so on. There’s one fitting tip that’s specific to trail running shoes: give yourself a bit more room in the toes. It’s important to keep your toes from hitting the front of the shoe on long, rocky descents—especially near the end of a long day when your feet have swollen.
The next considerations are your gait and any corrections you may need. Runners with flexible feet that overpronate (roll too much from outside to inside as the arches collapse) need more support. Runners with high, rigid arches often need a thicker midsole and more cushioning. Feet that are between the extremes are best served by neutral shoes.
Once you’ve narrowed down the field based on fit and gait, you can look at design specifics. If you want to run in a range of terrains, choose an all-rounder. If you prefer rocky, rooty, rutted technical trails, you’ll want more support and protection, including some kind of “rock plate” under the forefoot to keep your feet unbruised. Shoes for technical terrain often feature stickier rubber, which sacrifices a bit of longevity for good grip on smooth rocks. If you plan to encounter softer, looser terrain—grass, sand, mud, bogs, snow—look for an outsole with deep, widely-spaced lugs. If you’ll spend more time on well-groomed trails, a less aggressive outsole, with thinner and more closely-spaced lugs, will typically last longer and feel more comfortable underfoot.
Many runners replace their shoes’ stock insoles with an aftermarket footbed. Some of these provide a bit more cushioning or arch support. Some offer a bit of pronation control. Some are used just to soak up a bit of extra shoe volume. Some can be customized. Runners with more serious foot issues often use a full custom orthotic, prescribed by a podiatrist or pedorthist. If you know you’ll use an aftermarket footbed, it’s often best to buy a neutral shoe, so you can avoid having the motion control features of the shoe fight with those of the footbed.
Thin, synthetic, moisture-wicking socks keep your feet dry and comfortable. You may prefer the extremely thin variety used by many road runners, or you may prefer a slightly bulkier one. Socks can be a way to slightly fine tune the fit of your shoes, especially to reduce motion in a shoe that’s a bit more high-volume than your foot.
Shorts, shirts, tights, underwear, should all be made from performance fabrics and should fit closely without impeding your movement. Look for fabrics that breath, dry quickly, and wick moisture from your skin.
Some runners prefer minimalist road running shorts. Others prefer something a bit more durable and substantial, maybe with pockets for stowing a map or phone.
On longer runs, depending on conditions, you may choose to bring a shell jacket to repel wind and rain. Look for something very lightweight and breathable, that can be stuffed into small package. Many of them crush down to the size of a tennis ball and weigh just a few ounces. You may want a brimmed hat for sun protection, or a knit hat for the cold. In cold climes you may also need a long-sleeved shirt or lightweight fleece jacket.
Pack or Vest
You can choose from a range of packs and running vests that allow you to carry supplies close to the body, without a lot of sloshing around. The more compact, minimalist versions hold a hydration bladder or a couple of bottles, with a few pockets for energy gels. Larger packs can hold rain gear, fleece, lunch, spare phone batteries, a small first aid kit, a headlamp, or whatever else you might wish for.
Some runners use trekking poles in more technical terrain. Almost every runner who suffers knee problems uses them. A headlamp should be considered mandatory if you’re traveling far from civilization. If something delays you and you’re still out when the sun goes down, a headlamp spells the difference between continuing home and having to stop and shiver through the night. A GPS watch or app for your phone can help with challenging navigation, and can also track your routes and tabulate performance statistics. For hydration, some runners like a hydration bladder, so they can have water constantly on tap. Others prefer the simplicity of bottles. For very long wilderness runs, consider a water filter. These will allow you to safely refill from streams, so you don’t need to carry a full day’s water supply. Until you know your shoes well, consider bringing some blister protection. There are specialized products you can apply to a hot spot to keep it from turning into a full-blown blister. Many runners prefer simple first aid tape, or the more durable kinesiology tapes.
If you’re new to trail running, you’ll be safer and more comfortable if you err on the side of bringing the kitchen sink. As you gain experience, you’ll learn what you can leave behind. Then you’ll reap the benefits of running fast and unencumbered in the wild.