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Intro To Trail Running

Your Essential Guide To Shoes, Gear & Trails

Running is one of the best ways to explore your favorite trails in any season. Running strengthens muscles, relieves stress, and reduces your risk of heart disease. It doesn’t matter how fast you are or how far you go—all that matters is that you’re out on the trail, making moves.

Gear To Get Started

Trail running is not a gear-intensive sport, but there are a few things that can improve your experience as you get going. 


A good pair of shoes goes a long way, but there are a lot of options when it comes to trail running shoes, so let’s break down the basics. Consider the terrain you’ll be on the majority of the time. From smooth gravel paths to technical scrambles, trail running encompasses many different kinds of pathways. The terrain and condition will dictate what types of shoes will be best suited for you. 

Smooth Trails: For wide, smooth, well-groomed trails, you can use lightweight, breathable shoes with a short lug pattern (lugs are the treads on the sole). Running on gravel and dirt with gradual inclines and declines means you won’t need much traction.

Singletrack: Think of those soft single-tracks on wooded trails. There will probably be a few roots to work around, but for the most part things are smooth sailing. On these, you’ll do well with thick foam in your shoe which can absorb shock.

Rugged Terrain: On technical single-track with rocks and roots, look for a shoe that has rock plates (hard plastic plates inside the shoe). Unlike cushions, these offer a more accurate feel for the ground that will help you nail your foot placement. This kind of shoe is also ideal for day hikes. 

Off Trail: Looking to forego the trail altogether and head off on your own? You’ll need a shoe made of heavier materials with extra thickness. A stiff upper will prevent any snags on rocks and brush. These aren’t designed for speed, but they’ll protect your feet on the most challenging terrain.

Wet or Muddy: Opt for your shoe with the deepest lug pattern. 

Snow and Ice: Your off-trail shoes will work best, paired with microspikes.

Other Equipment

Depending on the terrain, elevation, and distance you cover, these pieces of kit help make sure you stay fueled and comfortable when out on a run.

Pack, Vest, or Belt: There are many ways to carry your gear and what you choose depends on how much you want to carry and what’s most comfortable for you. Shorter runs may need only a pocket or small belt, while longer adventures may require a 5L or larger vest. 

Socks: Good socks can help prevent blisters, provide extra cushioning, and wick away moisture from your foot to keep it dry. Look for synthetic fabrics or merino wool, which helps mitigate both smell and moisture.

Snacks: Your favorite fuel is a necessary energy boost on longer runs. From gummies and gels to candy bars, it’s a matter of personal taste–literally. A general recommendation is to ingest 150-300 calories per hour for any runs that last longer than an hour.

Water: On runs longer than an hour or two, or runs in extreme heat, you’ll need to bring water with you. You can use small bottles that attach to a running belt, a hydration vest, or a small filter for getting water on the go.

Layers: Generally, add about 20 degrees to the ambient temperature when getting dressed, to account for warming up as you start moving. If heading up in elevation or out for a while, add some layers to your pack, like arm warmers, a windbreaker, and gloves.

Safety: A headlamp and emergency whistle, to a SPOT Tracker for more remote excursions. 

Navigation: If out for a while or in new territory, various mapping apps help keep you on track. From Trail Forks to free apps like Gaia GPS and your phone’s mapping app, there are lots of options for where you run. 

The more you run the trails, the more confident you’ll be with what you like and need to bring. Borrowing gear from pals or asking local runners what they like can be a great way to start. If you have gear questions related to the conditions you’ll be running in, the best shoe for the trails you’ll be on, and more, chat with a Gearhead anytime at 1-800-409-4502.


Finding Trails

Strava: You can download this app to see routes posted by other trail runners in your area and follow their lead. 

Trail Races: Many races take place on exquisite trails so signing up for a race is a great way to learn about nearby routes. 

Running Clubs: Running clubs will often have specific trail running groups and you’ll find many new trails by joining up with them. Not only will you run in new places, you’ll be able to find out about even more places to go by asking your peers.

Local Organizations: There are local trail improvement organizations that manage trail upkeep, and can be a great resource for trail info (plus: they usually need volunteers for trail work days, which is a great way to give back if you use the trails regularly).

Family & Friends: Even if someone isn’t a runner themselves, the places where they walk dogs, bike, and cross country ski could be great places for running as well.


Trail running is a unique way to experience your local trail networks as well as trails around the world. It combines euphoric runner’s highs with views from rocky ledges and flowery hillsides.

This sport requires a minimal amount of gear to get started and it’s the perfect activity to do with friends or solo. Ideas about proper speed and brag-worthy mileage can get in the way, but at the end of the day it’s just you and the trail.

Bethany has her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. She lives in Portland, Maine with her partner and their two cats. You can find her art and outdoor adventures on Instagram @bethanymclarke.