A trail into the forest or mountain is a rewarding and exhilarating experience that offers a wide range of breath-taking scenery. But as these destinations often take us into remote areas, we have to always plan our route carefully and be mindful of what we wear and take with us.
The most important gear items for trail running are well-fitting shoes and comfortable running clothes that fit the weather. Other important gear you’re likely to need depending on your route includes a way to navigate, as well as a way to stow something to eat and drink, as well as emergency supplies.
There are so many different factors and variables to take into consideration when gearing up. The more experience that you build up through trial-and-error, will help you over time to be more in tune with what your specific needs are and what you’ll have to take with you on your run. If you are just getting started, don’t worry, this is the ultimate guide of what to wear and pack for a trail run!
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What Not to Wear for a Trail Run
Before we dig into all the fine details of what to wear on a trail run, let’s first have a look at the Top 5 no-goes.
- Pants That Are Too Long: When walking around school or work, you can get away with pants that graze the ground or that are barely off the ground with your shoes. When you’re running you don’t want anything touching the ground that you can step on.
- Stay Away From Abrasive or Stiff Clothing: That starchy cotton shirt or those jeans are probably not a good idea. Whether you’re trail running or hiking, you are going to feel your clothes move against your skin in a repetitive action for miles! It’s important that whatever you wear is smooth and is slick against your skin. Those old super-comfortable t-shirts that are super soft work really well in warm conditions.
- Old Worn Out Shoes. Your running shoes lose cushioning and shock absorption over time. Running with worn-out shoes increases the impact on your knees and joints, and can cause many uncalled-for injuries. While some sources to say you need to replace your shoes every 200-250 miles, the more important thing is to listen to your feet, ankles, knees and body and make sure you have the support you need.
- Too Small Shoes. Your feet tend to swell when running, especially in summer. If your feet are hitting the end of your shoes you may be at risk of getting bruised toenails from your toes rubbing against the front of your shoes. OUCH!
- Don’t ever wear brand-new gear on a race day. Race day is not the day to try out your new running shoes or sports bra, you can try out those babies on a different day. It’s best to stick with the gear you already know works for you and your body.
What to Wear for a Trail Run
There are so many different factors that come into play when choosing the right clothes for a trail run. With so many different products and gear to choose from, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The good news is that you don’t need a fancy running outfit to be a good runner. But if you want to ensure that your runs are safe and comfortable there are a few items to consider investing in.
Running gear is usually made from high-tech versions of fabrics such as nylon, wool, and polyester. Running-specific clothes are designed to be lightweight and to move effortlessly with your body. Running technical fabrics are specifically designed to keep you dry and warm (or cool, depending), wick sweat away, and the seams are strategically placed in areas that prevent chafing.
Quick Tip Before We Get Into Specifics: When you go on your run, be careful not to overdress. Once you are up and running, your body will quickly warm up. Your extra body heat will make it feel about 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the actual outside temperature. For example, if the temperature is above 55°F outside, you’ll probably be fine running in a T-shirt and shorts. The exception is if it’s windy or raining.
Let’s start with the basic must-haves.
Trail Running Shoes
The key to trail running starts at the bottom- your shoes! Wearing the wrong type of shoe is one of the most common causes of running injuries. You will need a good pair of well-fitted running shoes. For a better experience, you can specifically find running shoes designed for off-road trail running. These are called “Trail Runners”.
If it’s your first time purchasing running shoes, it would be recommended to visit a store with an expert who can evaluate your foot and running style.
How are Trail Running Shoes Different from Ordinary Running Shoes?
- Traction: The traction on trail running shoes is a lot more important than cushioning. Trail shoes have various tractions- they have large lugs (raised treads under your shoes) and multi-directional lugs to maximize grip.
- Support: Internally trail shoe stability comes from a more secure fit heel that fans out to a wider toe box and then from the upper supportive material that aims to strap your foot down and prevent it from sliding around too much. Externally trail shoes have a broader platform that provide better balance and stability.
- Protection: trail shoes often have tighter-weaved mesh uppers than compared to road shoes. These mush uppers protect your feet from the sand, debris, dirt, and small rocks. Have you ever noticed those thick, beefy rubber caps on the toe area of trail shoes? They are known as “toe bumpers”. They protect your toes from pain and bruising, should you accidentally kick something. Last but not least, most trail running shoes have a flexible and hard plastic plate in the midsole of the shoe that is there to prevent any sharp objects from stabbing the sole of your foot.
Do You Need Trail Runners To Go Trail Running?
I’ve gone trail running many, many times with just my regular running shoes.
Did my ankles break? Did I almost die? No… The point is that you can still enjoy trail running with whatever you wear running right now.
Did I wish I had trail runners? Yes.
Even though it’s possible to go trail running with regular shoes, many times I wish I had the additional support and protection on the bottom of my feet as well as the additional traction. I’ll be clear--these are nice to haves and not mandatory, but they sure make the going less difficult.
Trail Running Shirt
When choosing a trail running top it is key to remember that the weather may change while you are out. If you are new to trail running or you don’t want to spend a fortune on specific trail running outfits, then you will be just fine wearing normal running tops. Wear a loose-fitting top, breaths well, and that absorbs sweat quickly.
When going on longer trail runs, layers are important. The weather may turn, and using your clothing to keep you warm or cool comes more in handy than you might think.
In this picture, I have my fleece pullover with gloves and a hat over my regular running shirt. If my head got hot I would pocket my hat and if my hands got too warm I’d pocket those as well. This fleece pullover could unzip (or I could take it off and tie it around my waist like it was the 90s or something) and with all those together I could manage my temperature well.
Trail Running Shorts
Your pair of running shorts will need specific features to be suitable to wear while trail running – these are the key features to look for:
- Stretchy shorts that allow full-range leg movement.
- Water-resistant and quick drying.
- Made of robust technical fabric that won’t rip easily.
- Made with at least pocket. Bonus if it is a zip-up pocket.
Running Tights or Leggings
Running tights are a great option for cold weather. Compression running tights give extra support and may help to speed up recovery. Picking the right pair of running tights is similar to when you’re choosing the best running shorts and tops for you. Make sure to look at the fabric, fit, and features.
Trail Running Socks
Socks may seem like a no-biggie to you. But I would highly recommend that you take off your regular everyday socks and buy a pair of socks specifically designed to be worn while hiking or trail running.
I’ve found that my regular street socks aren’t padded appropriately and wear thin where I don’t want them to.
Instead, try to wear running socks that are technical, sweat-wicking fabric socks that will help keep you comfortable and dry. Look for materials such as nylon, polyester, or wool. The style of the sock is up to you. Many runners choose ankle socks for the summer and higher-rising socks for the winter.
If you have hiking socks, these will work great when you’re starting out.
Ankle socks work great for me most of the time, although if you’re running in gravel it’s possible for some to lodge into your sock and make you have to stop to fish them out. ugh… that’s the worst.
If you’re going to be running on trails with a lot of stones, sticks, and debris, then you may prefer socks that are water-resistant and have a bit of padding to help reduce chafing and blisters.
The level of support and tightness of a running bra varies from woman to woman. Many women prefer to have more support than not to prevent chafing. When you’re trail running you are going up and down sometimes steep slopes and so your torso may be at all sorts of angles, so it’s good to factor all of that in.
A Waterproof Jacket
A waterproof jacket is essential for excessive cold or windy weather. Even if you aren’t in the rain, it can make a huge difference in how your run goes.
If you do not own one yet, here are a few tips when purchasing one:
Look out for deceiving labels such as “water-resistant” or “weather-proof”. Water-resistant jackets are only able to handle small amounts of light rain, but when exposed to heavy rain it will soak right through, leaving you drenched in rain! Make sure that the label on the jacket says “waterproof”.
Buy one that is fully waterproof, form-fitting, lightweight, and has a level of breathability.
In fact, if you can find one that has vents so you can let air in and sweat escape, that’s the best of all worlds.
In this picture, I’m wearing the fleece pullover that I took on almost all my cold runs, but over the top, I have my Columbia Watertight II rain jacket (got it off of Amazon years ago. They still sell it here).
Even though it wasn’t raining, the rain jacket kept out the cold air. It has vents as well to let in the air where you need it so you don’t sweat excessively.
If you are getting serious about trail running and want to run in cold or windy weather, a good waterproof jacket is a must.
4 Bonus Features to Keep an Eye Out for in Running Clothes
- Compression: Purchasing running socks, tights, and tops that are made out of compression fabric may help to speed recovery after your run. This varies from person to person, and I know for myself that I don’t love excessive compression, but some people really like the extra support.
- Pockets: Pockets are great for trail running! Many running clothing pockets are specifically designed to accommodate phones or smaller items like your house-or-car keys, or your credit card. If you don’t want to carry a pack when you run, look for jackets, tights, and other gear with pockets.
- Sun protection: Some running gear is made of SPF clothing material that is specifically designed to protect your skin in the sun. In addition to wearing sunscreen and a hat, wearing SPF clothing can help decrease your risk of skin cancer.
- Thumbhole: Wearing a top or jacket with a thumbhole increases hand coverage, making it a bit warmer during cold-weather runs.
Excellent Trail Running Fabric Types:
- Nylon – Nylon is one of the most popular fabrics for running wear. It is sweat-wicking, breathable, and super stretchy so it’ll move with you for a comfortable ride.
- Polyester- Polyester is ideal for running jackets. It is a plastic-based fabric, that is breathable, lightweight, and non-absorbent. It also repels UV rays and keeps you warm when it’s wet.
- Spandex – Also known as Lycra, is a stretchy and flexible fabric. This synthetic fabric offers you unrestricted movement and retains its original shape well.
- Polypropylene – Popular in running gear. Polypropylene is water-resistant and this fabric will stay dry to the skin’s touch, regardless of how sweaty you are, making it a great running base layer.
- Bamboo – Bamboo is naturally sweat-wicking, anti-bacterial, and incredibly soft. Bamboo clothing is a great eco-friendly alternative to synthetic fibers.
- Merino Wool – Merino wool is perfect for both hot and cold weather running. It is temperature regulating, extremely breathable, sweat-wicking, and anti-bacterial.
Is Cotton Out?
Cotton is so controversial when it comes to outdoors wear--and I generally have an unpopular opinion on it. I talk more about Cotton and whether it’s so bad for cold weather in my post here.
The key takeaway is that no matter what fabric of your base layer or shirt, it won’t matter if you don’t have a waterproof jacket or other protective layers (like a fleece). If you get wet in cold 30-degree weather in a polypropylene shirt and you don’t have a rain jacket, you’re going to feel cold no matter what the fabric is. Worry more about layering correctly rather than if you have the best fabric for your shirt.
All that said, I’ve run in cotton shirts many times (with proper layering), with no negative effect.
What to Wear in Hot Summers?
If it is extremely hot outside, avoiding the sun during the hottest time of the day would work better than any apparel. If you have enough guts to face the sun head-on, focus on protection and ventilation.
Protect yourself from the energy-sapping and unruly sun by slapping on some sunscreen, wearing a hat or visor, and putting on a pair of sunglasses.
As weird as it may sound, the goal in hot weather is not to stay dry. You’ll be sweating buckets full without any effort. Instead, the goal would be to wear a loose-fitting clothing piece made of a material that doesn’t chafe easily and will easily soak up sweat; allowing the heat and sweat to be transferred away from your skin into the air allowing you to feel a lot cooler.
Wearing long-sleeved clothing will protect you from the unforgiving UV rays of the sun. A thin, loose, and breathable top is highly recommended.
To learn more about what you can wear in hot weather to stay cool, read more here.
What to Wear in Icy Winters?
Layers are your friends! Layering clothing for a run is a skill. Everyone has a different tolerance to cold weather. Different thicknesses and types of fabrics will affect how many layers you need to put on.
If you have to choose between being slightly too hot and slightly too cold, aim for slightly too cold. It’s better to get a little cold during your run than to get too hot and start sweating. Your sweat won’t dry up as easily as in hot weather; making your core temperature drop. Sweating is fine in the heat, but in the cold, it can be dangerous.
If I always had a choice, I would never go running in sub-40-degree temperatures without my thermal underwear. Check out this article if you want to learn about how to get thermals that will fit for your body.
A fitted base layer will keep you warmer than a loose base layer. If the air is cooler than your body temperature and you have loose-fitted clothes on, the air will transfer the heat away from your body leaving you cold. Your second layer is to insulate. In better words- It’s time to get cozy! Wear something fleecy or fluffy that will trap your body heat inside.
Merino wool clothing is perfect for the icy winters. The third layer- a protection layer should be windproof or waterproof, it also acts as a second insulation layer. If you start to sweat a lot, strip off this layer to cool off and keep your sweat rate low.
Don’t forget about beanies, gloves, and warmer socks. Having a cold head, fingers, or toes can lead to a dangerous situation with those extremities.
What to Pack for a Trail Run
You don’t need to bring all your gear for every trail run you go on. If you are running around a park and you aren’t ever going to be 30 minutes away from the parking lot, you don’t have to bring anything.
If you’re going on a long run where you could land miles away from your vehicle or house, then it’s important to pack.
Many trails have vast differences in terrain, and you are exposed to diverse weather conditions, which require you to take specific gear and accessories on your journey. Whether you are a newcomer or you know the trails like the back of your hand there are a few important things that you shouldn’t forget to pack.
The duration of your adventure and the weather conditions will lead to a degree of variation in what to pack. What we do know is that it is annoying to carry unnecessary and heavy gear in our backpacks.
So, we will first take a look at the must-haves, and then later we’ll discuss the extras.
It’s not so important to use a specific type of bag, but just don’t wear a bag that is uncomfortable.
For example, we have several drawstring bags that are very lightweight and convenient, but if they have any weight at all the straps cut into your shoulders--you don’t really want anything making trail running any harder than it is.
A great option are bags with a water bladder so you don’t have to carry the weight of a hard plastic bottle.
Overall, the most important thing to look for in a bag is for it to be light, comfortable, and carries everything securely.
Fuel and Hydration
What to eat and drink on a trail run depends on how far you are running, what the weather conditions are like, and very much your personal preference too.
A short run will be a lot easier and more enjoyable if you have a drink with you, it is recommended to take water if the run is anything longer than an hour, but once you run for over 2 hours, it becomes a must! Most running rucksacks will take a bladder which can allow up to 3 liters of liquid. Running vest backpacks have become a popular choice recently, they and are great as they spread the load of liquid between your front and back.
Always have something light and easy to nibble on in your bag in case you stay out longer than planned. Add a few energy gels, crisps, nuts, dried fruit, bananas, snack bars, hydration salts into your backpack. They are light and easy to carry, they are easily digested, and provide energy quickly.
Getting lost in the woods or the mountains without any signal or people nearby is a terrifying experience. Attach a compass onto your bag, and always remember to carry a map of the area or trail with you. If you would like to be fancier, you use a GPS watch with electronic mapping.
Many smartphones have GPS capabilities, and although they are not as accurate as a serious GPS unit, they are often good enough for many situations.
If you are running off-trail in wild territory, then you need to use an app like AllTrail that has topology information for wild regions of the world so you can navigate in un-Google-mapped territory.
If you are interested in a running GPS watch--they are more accurate and will better tell your distances than a phone GPS. Check out more info about them, here in our article.
Carrying a small emergency kit bag is essential. Taking a tumble is a common occurrence in trail running. Every trail runner should carry a personal emergency kit. Do not be fooled into thinking that you’ll be fine and that you don’t need one. There are plenty of ways that you could get injured on a trail run.
Here are some suggestions for your trail running Emergency Kit:
- Adhesive plasters in several sizes
- Sticky bandage roll
- Tension bandages (for sprains)
- Antiseptic wipes
- Zinc oxide
- Safety pins
- Sterile gauze pads
- Petroleum jelly (for chafing and to stop blood flow)
- Stomach Pills
- Allergy medication
That sounds pretty intimidating, but you can usually find a small medkit that has what you all in one spot (like this one on Amazon). You can also pare down the kit to only have what you need for the duration of your run.
Some trails say that a whistle is mandatory, having one in your bag in case you get lost can help to signal for help or to ward off a predator.
Emergency Foil Blanket
Emergency foil blankets are usually mandatory for many trail races, and they luckily weigh next to nothing. So, it’s not a big deal to carry one of these around in your bag just in case you need it.
If you find yourself stuck out on the trail for longer than planned, a heat-reflecting foil blanket can be invaluable to keep you warm; for example, if you’re injured and can’t move. It’s also reflective, making it easier for emergency services to spot you if they’re out searching for you.
Trail runners spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun. It is important to protect your skin from sun exposure.
- Use a waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Make sure your sunscreen offers both UVA ray and UVB ray protection.
- Wear UV-blocking running sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Wear a hat to give your face extra protection.
A buff or a sweat-wicking headband or wristband is another must-have piece of trail running gear. A headband is also useful to cushion a head torch. You could also use a towel as an alternative to wiping off your sweat. A headband may be more breathable but doesn’t prevent the top of your head from getting burned on a scorching hot day. You may want to consider getting a technical running cap to protect your head.
More experienced runners use headlamps for running trails after sundown (or before sunrise). The second group of runners is ultra-distance trail runners that are required to have a headlamp with them at all times. But storing one in your bag is always a good idea. You can be out longer than expected or the weather conditions may change drastically. You never know when you might need it, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?
Extra Running Accessories
These aren’t necessary or required, but they are cool and can be super nice to have.
A simple watch that has a start and stops button is useful for beginners that don’t want to spend a fortune on trail running accessories. Runners can use their watch to time their run and measure their running and walking intervals.
A fancier sports watch can measure your steps, intervals, and heart rate. (see our article about running watch GPS units here)
A Phone Protector
Have you ever gone on a trail run, and quickly wanted to take your phone out to take a photo of the breathtaking scenery, and accidentally dropped your phone? It’s a hefty expense if broken. If you are an experienced runner, you probably already know how important it is to have a high-quality protective case on your phone.
A good pair of trail running sunglasses need to have visual clarity specific to trail environments. They need to be light and should comfortably fit on your head and cap with zero movement (as you will be running).
They help with long grueling climbs, take some of the extra weight off your legs, and help you build a rhythm.
Listening to music can give you extra motivation to break out of those physical challenges.
I hope this ultimate trail guide will help you on your next trail run. Most importantly, remember to wear the right shoes, have comfortable clothes, and layer properly. Pack something to fuel and hydrate you in your backpack, and remember safety first--pack in your emergency kit.