As trail runners, we like to carry the absolute minimum amount of gear so that we can travel as fast and light as possible. But things can change in a split second with something as trivial as a rolled ankle or simply by getting a little lost, turning what maybe should have been a 2 hour run into an 8 hour slog. You might need to hunker down to wait for help, or find yourself stopping to help someone else in need.
That’s why I’ve begun to approach every run in the same way by asking myself the same question, “what’s the worst that could happen on my run today, and what gear can I bring to help deal with it?”
In this post and video I’ll go over the 10 trail running essentials that I always carry to stay safe on the trails.
My 10 Essentials for Trail Running
Lack of light is the single highest cause of overdue calls to Search and Rescue, and it’s something that is so easy to avoid.
Modern headlamps are so small and light, there’s absolutely no reason to not carry one anytime you head out on the trails, no matter what time of day. And if you’re planning on being out at night, bring a backup or at least a spare battery.
2. Signalling devices
Many running packs come with a built-in whistle, although these can leave something to be desired. So you may want to consider upgrading for a much louder whistle. You’d be surprised just how much further this can carry than your voice in heavy rain and fog.
If you do find yourself having to call for help while awaiting rescue, a whistle takes much less energy and is much more sustainable than yelling. And if you can carry bear bangers and a pencil flare kit, even better.
3. Warm clothes
I generate a lot of heat when running so I try to always start a little cold. But ss a rule of thumb, I want to make sure I can stand still for at least 20 minutes at any time without getting a chill, so I’ll always pack at a minimum a set of arm warmers, a buff, and maybe a lightweight shell.
In colder months, I’ll typically bring a waterproof hard shell like the Salomon Bonatti WP, gloves, and often even a lightweight down puffy. Just remember to pack it in a ziplock freezer bag to keep it dry.
4. Some form of shelter
Again here, many packs come with a disposable space blanket which you should have on you at all times. An injured runner can go into shock pretty quickly and a space blanket can be wrapped around them like a cape or even worn like a skirt. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see two of these being part of the required kit for mountain trail races.
I like to step it up a notch with an emergency bivvy sack. It’s essentially just a space blanket that you can climb into. It would make for one of the least comfortable nights sleep you’ve ever had, but can keep you alive in the worst case scenario.
5. Water and nutrition
As part of your trip planning, you may have determined that your route has plenty of fresh water sources. So instead of carrying litres of extra water, you can instead rely on a water filter so that you can safely pull water en route.
I’ve tried all sorts of solutions, but my favourite way to treat water is to use a flask with a built-in filter like the new Salomon XA filter. The flow rate is so good that you’ll barely notice it’s there, and it saves a lot of time compared to squeeze or UV filters, allowing me to scoop water and filter as I drink on the run.
When it comes to nutrition, I usually aim for 250-350 calories per hour from a combination of run food like Clif Bars, Bloks and Gels, along with more regular solid food for longer days.
Remember to always bring a little extra, even if it’s just a bar. You never know when you might need to give a little nutrition to a fellow runner in your group or someone you might meet along the trail.
6. First aid kit
When you’re in the backcountry, you should always have at least one first aid kit for your group and just as importantly know how to use it. So consider taking some basic wilderness first aid training.
An off-the-shelf first aid kit is a great place to start, although you’ll want to pull out anything you feel you might not need and supplement it with things it might be missing, like extra bandaids.
I also keep some Ibuprofen, a few salt pills, and some antihistamines, as well as a bit of duct tape for gear repairs.
7. Fire starter
It can be tough to start a fire here on the wet coast, but for me keeping a lighter or at least a pack of water proof matches stashed in my first aid kit is a no brainer. In addition to keeping you warm, it can act as a signalling device.
I have some friends who stopped to help out an injured hiker on a local mountain last year who was going into shock, so they wrapped him in space blankets and started a small fire. When search and rescue arrived on foot that evening, they said that the fire helped them to locate the victim much quicker.
It’s also a good idea to carry something to burn. I like to carry some laundry lint in a small waterproof container. It’s enough to get a small flame going that I can throw some kindling on.
I keep a small knife in my first aid kit as well. This is another one of those “you never know until you need it” items.
In addition to gear repairs and modifications, it may come in handy for making a fire, for building a shelter, and for cutting bandages or any other first aid applications.
For most runs, I’ll rely on my Suunto Baro 9 to help with navigation. I can create and upload a route in advance to follow along when on the trails.
A good quality compass and a map can be a huge lifesaver, but again only if you’ve practiced first how to use them. So consider an introduction course on navigation which are often provided for free by some retailers.
As a last resort, you can use an app like Gaia or even Google Maps on your phone, ideally having downloaded the maps first for offline use in case you don’t have cell service. But I try not to do this as it can drain your battery and leave you without a way to call for help should the need arise.
That’s why I always keep my phone fully charged, turned off, and ready to go in case I do get into trouble.
There have been many stories of people who have managed to get a call in to 911 for help, only to have their phone die before they can relay their location. Be sure to learn as well how to get your GPS coordinates from your phone which can usually be done with the built-in compass app.
When travelling in more difficult terrain, especially if I’m alone, I’ll also bring my Garmin inReach. Devices like this aren’t cheap, but they are an excellent insurance policy and will give peace of mind to your loved ones just knowing you have it.
The inReach allows me to send out my location every 10 minutes so that someone with access can track my location, and they allow for two-way text messaging to standard cell phones as well as of course an SoS button to call for help.
We often refer to this list as the 10 Essentials, but in reality many runs call for fewer while others call for even more. In the winter for example, I typically bring my Hillsound Trail Crampons or even bring an ice axe, I’ll wear a helmet when scrambling, and of course bear spray when appropriate.
But there may be times when you’re just heading out for a quick run around your local trails, possibly without even wearing a pack at all. It’s important to remember that it’s not all or nothing.
Consider what the worst case scenario might be, and then decide maybe which 2 or 3 of these essentials at least you might want to carry with you, whether that be a buff around your wrist, your cell phone in an arm band, and maybe a small headlamp in your back pocket just in case.
Whatever you’re taking with you, make sure you’ve tested it and have the training to use it. And of course, always tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.
So what about you, is there anything I missed that you consider essential? Tell me about it in the comments below.