Okay, I’ll be honest with you here. I got into running because I do not like buying a lot of gear. All you need to run is a pair of sneakers, right? Trail running gear is a different beast, though!
Once I started exploring desolate trails and increasing my mileage, I found that there is a (surprisingly long) list of gear I needed to make my trips safer and more enjoyable. Trail running can be an entirely different beast than road running! Throw in wet, cold, or hot weather, and the list of essential gear starts to grow quickly.
Here is all the essential trail running gear and apparel I always consider taking with me on my runs. This list may vary substantially based on: the duration of the run, weather, the location and isolation of the trail, and the availability of cell phone service.
1. Trail Running Gear: Clothing
Of course, you’ll want to wear athletic clothing for your run. But, the exact type of clothing you’ll need will depend on the weather. The best trail running clothing will reduce your risk of sunburn, windburn, excess sweating, and the annoyance of constantly readjusting your layers throughout your run.
Hot-Weather Trail Running Apparel
I love a good, long-sleeved, hooded sun shirt. I love that I can stay cool while covering areas like my arms, chest, the back of my neck, and my ears (by pulling up the hood). A breathable, thin sun shirt can provide 50+ SPF protection and reduce your need to apply sunscreen while you sweat under the sun.
Everyone has their own personal preferences, though. If you can’t stand the restriction of a long-sleeved shirt, opt for a short-sleeved SPF shirt and wear sunblock liberally.
SPF Arm Sleeves
Arm sleeves are also a good option if you’ll be going through some large patches of sun-exposure but also large sections of trail with canopy shade, because they’ll enable you to rapidly adjust your sun protection.
Thin, sweat-wicking shorts will be essential in the heat. Wear shorts that are loose enough to allow sufficient airflow to cool your body as you sweat.
In hot weather, blister prevention is critical. Focus on wearing breathable socks that reduce moisture surrounding your feet. Though it may sound weird to wear wool in the summer, merino wool is a favorite among many runners for its moisture wicking quality. Consider using a thin liner sock under your wool socks to reduce friction, which causes blisters. Injinji and Fox River do a particularly good job of producing liner socks that runners and hikers swear by.
Cold-Weather Trail Running Apparel: Upper Body
Keep it thin, breathable, and close-fitting. A merino wool shirt, while expensive, is the perfect base layer for a cold run. Merino wool base layers also naturally reduce odor!
A thin fleece jacket or vest is probably sufficient, but you might want to consider adding multiple thin mid-layers as the temperature drops below freezing.
A rainproof, wind-breaking layer may become necessary in cold, wet, or windy weather. Ideally, your outer layer should have a great ventilation system that allows you to unzip the jacket under your arms and keep you from getting too warm.
Notice you’re getting sweaty under your layers? Don’t wait to remove layers if you’re feeling too warm, that’s what they’re there for! If you carry a running vest, you can quickly stuff thin layers in your pack, or you can tie layers around your waist. I live in a rural, wooded town in Oregon and have specific trees along my route that I like to stash my jackets behind. The only issue with this method is remembering to collect your layers after your run!
Pro Tip: Avoid cotton at all costs. The phrase “cotton kills” exists because cotton absorbs and retains moisture. It doesn’t have the wicking quality of merino wool or synthetic fabrics, meaning it can quickly make you wet and cold.
Cold-Weather Trail Running Apparel: Lower Body
Thermal Running Tights or Warm Joggers
If it’s pouring out, you might want to consider thin rain pants that easily zip on and off over your tights and shoes.
2. Trail Running Shoes
I must admit, I have a large arsenal of running shoes at my disposal. There are shoes I prefer for:
- Technical terrain where there’s a need to feel the ground underfoot. I like the Altra Lone Peak series, but the best way to figure out what works for you is to visit a local running store. Note that Altra’s tend to fit people with wide feet best.
- Unforgivingly rough ground (like lava rocks) or extremely technical terrain. The Salomon Speedcross 5 is a beast when it comes to tough trails!
- Wet or cold weather makes the Saucony Peregrine 11 GTX a necessity.
- Road running. I don’t do much running out of my trail shoes, but I used to really love the original Brooks Levitate.
- Easy-going trail and road running. Check out the Hoka Torrent 2 if you want to cruise in comfort.
Experiment with different brands to find what you like!
Waterproof Trail Shoes
- Tired of the squishing sounds your soaked trainers make while you slog through the rain? As a runner in the PNW, and one with chronically cold toes, I always keep a stash of Gore Tex trail running shoes handy. Bonus, they’re also great for running in the snow!
3. Cold-Weather Trail Running Accessories
There are a few trail running accessories that apply exclusively to cold weather, including:
Hats and Headbands
- Buffs: A Buff is a versatile piece of equipment that can be used as a makeshift mask, headband, wind blocker, or a cooling towel when soaked in water and wrapped around your neck
- Wool or PolarTec running beanie
- Wool or fleece headband
- Choose gloves specifically made for running
- If it’s wet out, look for waterproof gloves and a pair of liner gloves that can be worn as an insulating layer
- If you’ll be running on ice, use YakTrax or microspikes to avoid slipping and sliding
4. Trail Running Gear Storage
Trail running gear for beginners may simply consist of an armband or running belt, and handheld water bottles for runs that are longer than an hour. I ran my first marathon and all of my training runs with nothing more than a running belt and a bottle.
However, I recommend carrying a running vest with a lot of storage capacity, such as the Salomon Active Skin.
Some ultra runners have multiple running vests with different liter capacities. You might want to consider utilizing multiple vests, but I’ve had no issues using my Salomon vest as my sole running vest. It’s light enough to come along on my lower-mileage training runs, while having sufficient storage for 50-mile races. It even expands enough to supply me with sufficient water and food for fastpacking trips.
When you’re putting in big miles, you’ll need water. Remember to drink-to-thirst to avoid dehydration or hyponatremia. Your trail running kit should contain:
- Something to carry water, such as a CamelBak Bladder or handheld water bottles.
- More than enough water to last between each water source, ensuring to account for humidity level, altitude, temperature, wind, and exertion level.
6. The Goods
Road runners are often surprised by the amount of food us trail runners consume DURING our workouts. Don’t forget to provide yourself with sufficient amounts of fast and slow energy sources to avoid the bonk (i.e. hitting an energy wall):
- Rapid energy sources, such as Gu Gels and Blocks, or Gummy Bears
- Slower energy sources, such as salted baked potatoes, fruit, quesadillas (with minimal cheese), or Clif Bars
- Electrolyte sources such as Nuun, Salt Tabs, Gatorade, or coconut water
A good trail running kit should contain a few items to enhance your safety. These safety items are applicable pieces of trail running gear for beginners and ultra running pros, alike.
Depending on how remote or long your run will be, you should at least consider the following gear:
- Cell phone (plus a fully charged battery pack)
- First aid kit containing anything that you deem essential, such as Moleskin, EpiPen, water purification tablets, chemical hand warmers, etc.
- SPF ChapStick
- Sunblock—I recommend a physical sunblock (such as zinc oxide) as a safer alternative to sunscreen
- Body Glide
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Extra batteries
- Reflective gear—consider using reflective tape as an inexpensive way to turn yourself into a human glow stick
- Pepper spray (familiarize yourself with relevant state laws where applicable)
- Emergency blanket or a garbage bag, which can be used as a vapor barrier in case of emergency
- GPS with satellite messenger or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Wow, I’ve just recommended over 30 different types of gear! It may seem overwhelming, but if you consider these questions before your runs, you’ll be able to narrow this list down to your essentials.
How Should I Decide What to Pack for My Trail Running Adventure?
To help make your decisions on what to take with you, be sure to consider the following:
The Low and High Temperatures
Determine the range of temperatures you’ll be exposed to so you can pack the appropriate layers.
The Real Feel temperature is sometimes more valuable information than the actual temperature.
Humidity and Forecasted Rain/Weather Events
Humidity creates a barrier of moisture around the skin that cannot readily evaporate, which can greatly increase your risk of overheating.
Rain, on the other hand, can rapidly cool your core body temperature. Bring the appropriate gear for the weather you might encounter.
Constant sun exposure will increase your need for water and electrolytes. Determine how much protection you’ll have from wind, rain, and sun.
Are there reliable water sources along the trail?
Cell Phone Service
Can you keep someone updated while you run? Can you call for help if you run into trouble?
Will there be relatively clear areas to establish line-of-sight connections, or will you be in deep canyons or under dense canopy?
Are you running alone? Is the trail popular or abandoned?
Length/Duration of Run
The longer you’re out, the greater your need for gear.
You can easily pack your trail running gear up and take it on a camping trip. That way, when you need to stretch your legs, or there’s a trail you want to explore without taking up hours for a walk, you can grab your kit and get moving!
Lizzie is a freelance writer and Public Health student located in Eugene, Oregon. In her free time, she can be found trail running, backpacking, and volunteering with her local Search and Rescue organization. Follow along as she trots around the Pacific Northwest on Instagram @Lizvwilson.
Photo credit in order of appearance: Adobe Stock – Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock – mavoimages, Adobe Stock – AYAimages, Adobe Stock – Everst, Adobe Stock – Alex Sipetyy, Adobe Stock – Jacob Lund, Adobe Stock – michelangeloop