How to be Prepared for Safety on the Trail

Trail running is usually a pretty safe sport. Here's how to be prepared for those emergency situations when it isn't.

Photo: Getty Images

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Trail racing has seen a number of tragic deaths and life-threatening circumstances in 2021.

This May, 21 runners died during the Yellow River Stone Forest 100K in China, when freezing temperatures and gale-force winds arose, resulting in lost and hypothermic runners who were ill-equipped for the conditions.

At Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in August, a Czech runner fell to his death on a technical section of the 145km TDS race. His death is thought to be the first in the race’s 19-year history.

In October, race directors halted the inaugural DC Peaks 50 Mile in Utah just hours after the start when snow and wind created dangerous conditions for the high-elevation course. All runners were accounted for, but many were not prepared for winter conditions, running in shorts and without gloves.

In general, trail running is relatively safe. But weather, trail technicality and the remote nature of race courses can result in unfavorable conditions that increase the likelihood of dangerous situations. Both race directors and runners play a role in the sport’s safety, and taking the right precautions can reduce the number of incidents on the trail.

Be Prepared

Emily Edwards, an American runner based in Le Tour, France, was among the 221 TDS runners at UTMB directed to return to the Bourg St. Maurice aid station. Despite the hours-long return in freezing temperatures, Edwards said everyone was wearing everything they had, grateful for the race’s mandatory gear list that included warm layers and a space blanket.

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Required gear lists are more common in European races than American ones, likely due to much larger fields and more technical courses. In the U.S., permitting limitations typically result in fewer runners on faster, less technical courses. Because public land is more widely accessible in Europe, race courses often include a wide variety of terrain, veering off-trail into technical mountain slopes.

James Varner, Race Director for Rainshadow Running in Washington, has been rethinking safety strategies after the events in China and at DC Peaks.

“I do believe it’s ultimately the race director’s responsibility to look out for the runners’ safety, as oftentimes the runners are not making their own safety their top priority, instead choosing to go ‘light and fast,’” he said.

Varner, who has been running ultras since 2001 and directing races since 2004, said he has both experienced and responded to medical emergencies multiple times.

“We try to always have at least one medically-trained person at each aid station so we can respond to remote instances as quickly as possible,” he said. “Educating runners about the dangers and how to mitigate and prevent them is just as important as having aid stations that are prepared and capable of treating them.”

Jeremy Long, Race Director for Portland-based Daybreak Racing, says his team considers a number of variables when planning for emergencies, including accessibility, radio communications, distance between and frequency of aid stations, weather, race length, availability of medical staff, and water sources.

Long says Daybreak races always include HAM or other long-distance radios between officials, medical staff, aid station captains, and course sweepers in order to find and help any runners who may need it.

Fred Ambramowitz, Race Director for the Run Rabbit Run 50- and 100-milers in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says weather is their greatest concern when it comes to runner safety. 

“We’ve had temperatures in the 90’s, howling wind and blowing snow, and at night below freezing temperatures – sometimes all in the same race weekend,” he said.

While the race does not mandate gear, the Run Rabbit Run racer’s manual emphasizes the need to prepare for any kind of weather and includes a list of items runners should consider.

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“At our mandatory pre-race briefing we also stress the need to be prepared, that gloves, a hat, a warm jacket, a space blanket and spare batteries don’t do much good sitting in your drop bag if the weather changes unexpectedly and you’re in a remote part of the course, hours away from an aid station,” he said.

The race saw its first medical emergency this year, when a runner collapsed and fell unconscious due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. According to Abramowitz, several runners stopped and stayed with the runner, while others alerted the next aid station. The runner was ultimately evacuated by helicopter and recovered.

Hailey Van Dyk, a trail runner and ER nurse based out of Squamish, British Columbia, often runs in remote and technically challenging places. She recommends the 10 outdoor essentials outlined by the National Park Service:

  • Navigation
  • Sun protection
  • Insulation (a jacket)
  • Illumination
  • First Aid
  • Fire (matches or a lighter)
  • Repair tools (duct tape, pocket knife, screwdriver)
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Emergency shelter (like a space blanket or tent).

“The more time I spend in the mountains, the more gear I realize I need to carry,” Van Dyk said. “I always think, if I had to call SAR and they couldn’t get to me that day, would I make it through the night?”

Van Dyk also makes sure to tailor her gear for the season. Summer runs might include a water filter and sun protection; in the winter, she includes additional layers and a small stove in her pack.

As an ER nurse, she said that she sees a lot of sports-related accidents. She stressed that the patients who have the best outcomes are those who were the most prepared. 

While unlikely to occur, emergency medical situations can happen at any time on the trail, whether during a training run or in a race. Mountain weather can change at any moment and one wrong step can cause a fall. Preparation and awareness will increase the chances of survival for any runner.

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