Mountain Safety Tips From The Pros

It’s mountain adventure season! Here’s what experts say about staying safe up high.

Photo: Getty Images

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Mountains are beautiful, tantalizing, and potentially dangerous training grounds that provide a challenge for runners of any ability level. The extreme weather patterns, varied terrain, and remote nature of mountainous trails must be taken seriously, with precautionary measures, the right gear and good decision-making. We asked several professional mountain runners and adventurers what they have learned from logging long miles and spending countless hours up high.

1) Do Your Homework

Know the trail

Before bounding up a new trail, take some time to research the area and download or print off local maps, says Allison Baca, who finished sixth in the 80K race at the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria. Seek out any online trip reports that are available to familiarize yourself with the finer details of a route.

“Do some research before you go, check out snow, travel time, mud, and road conditions, and read recent trail reports,” says Baca, who lives in Golden, Colorado. “Use this information to plan accordingly.”

Apps such as Trail Run Project, All Trails, Trail Forks, and Pro Trails are full of user reviews, beta, and offline options to research a trail thoroughly.

Check the weather

“Weather patterns can change completely in a six-mile run,” says Silverton, Colorado’s Sabrina Stanely, a two-time Hardrock 100 winner who twice lowered the Fastest Known Time for the arduous Nolan’s 14 objective in Colorado. “I always have an extra layer and bring things like hand warmers; they are always undervalued.”

Beyond checking the weather, it is essential to understand trends in the area and be aware of sudden lightning storms, hail, or snow. Temperature can also drop suddenly in the mountains, creating a need for more layers and calories.

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Become an expert

Knowledge of the outdoors should be something that is constantly growing. Taking time to take courses and read books can increase confidence and safety in the outdoors, says Justin Simoni, professional adventure athlete with La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction, known for self-powered speed records in climbing all of the Colorado Fourteeners

“The best thing you can do is get a book about mountaineering,” Simoni says. “You don’t have to learn everything, but a better understanding of mountain travel is crucial.”

Checking out books or taking classes are great ways to grow a better understanding of what it means to run safely in the alpine year-round.

2) Know Your Abilities

While it can be intimidating to start pushing boundaries in trail running, Baca encourages runners to test their limits.

“It is amazing; go for it, even if it is scary,” she says. “Get to trailheads early, don’t be afraid to bring a friend. At the very least, there will be someone to take photos.”

There is a balance between evolving as a mountain athlete and respecting current abilities. Having an understanding of what is realistic, when to turn around, and when to push oneself will ensure overall safety and enjoyment in the hills.

Be prepared to turn around

Reaching a mountain’s summit is not always in the cards, and many successful runners have had to let go of a goal because conditions or time were not on their side. “I think of the book, Into Thin Air,” says Stanely when asked how she justifies letting go of an objective, “ the people who stayed alive are the ones who turn around five feet from the summit.” 

Staying strict with a turnaround time, acknowledging changing weather patterns, or experiencing fatigue are all reasons to abandon a goal and get down to safety.

Don’t make comparisons to other days or athletes

It is easy to look at runs completed by others on Strava or Instagram and think a specific goal time is realistic. However, weather, trail conditions, and reactions to altitude can vary in how a runner will perform on any given day. 

“Good outcomes don’t always correlate with good decision-making.” says Sunny Stroeer, a professional adventure athlete and guide based in southern Utah. “Often, it is better to make good decisions than meet an outcome. With my first speed record on Aconcagua, I accomplished and got lots of recognition. But it was all a bad decision I made that day. I was sick and made the poor decision not to turn around, leading to one of my worst days in the mountains. It was the  adrenaline that carried me.”

RELATED: Avoid Comparison to Get The Most Out of Your Training

While looking at past runners of a particular route, it might feel easy to set time goals; it is essential to remember that every day and every athlete will have a different experience when altitude and varied terrain are in play.

Have goals, but know your boundaries

A major challenge in mountain running is that the types of technical surfaces can vary greatly from trail to trail or region to region. It can be scary, especially if you are alone. It is okay to push what you think is possible but still know what your realistic limits are,” says Baca. Slowly growing bravery in trying harder routes, especially with more experienced mountain athletes to start, is a great way to grow confidence and learn how to read rocky slopes and changing weather patterns better.

3) Make Good Decisions

Stay alert and aware

Mistakes happen when a runner starts to get tired. It is crucial to keep aware of the surroundings, even when the trail seems easy. Simoni explains, “Hurting yourself is always a risk in the mountains. It is easy to trip and fall; for me, that is way more common in easy terrain when not paying attention. Things can go from nonchalant to an emergency quickly.”

It is always a good day to have a good day.

On a trail run in the mountains, it is best to stay in the comfort zone of the least confident person in the group and to understand a group is only as strong as the slowest runner or the one who is dealing with the most challenges. Strong, fit, and experienced runners can succumb to altitude and atmospheric conditions unpredictably, which is why it’s important to stay present and understand how everyone is feeling

“With less experienced people, you might not push to ensure everyone feels comfortable,” Stanley says.“Hiking is just as beneficial as a good run.”

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Respect the trails

It is important to remember the difference between running in the mountains versus running on roads or lower, more mellow trails. It is not often not possible to outrun bad conditions on steep slopes or more rugged terrain, making the need for technical running skills, good decision-making, and humility even more critical.

“In mountain running, you have to have fitness, but you also have the right gear and strategy,” Stroeer explains. “Runners struggle with it taking more than fitness and speed. You must be strong with your mental game and respect mountains and the conditions. You have to be willing to not go for something if the conditions or day is not right.”

4) Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Let others in on the plan

When traveling on more remote trails, it is important to share details with somebody back at home. “Tell someone where you are going and give them times for texts or returns,” says Baca. Someone expecting a runner’s return is helpful if search and rescue need to be notified. All of the pros interviewed also stated that they bring a Garmin Inreach on their bigger runs or backcountry adventures to communicate if needed.

Bring extra calories

It’s always better to have too many calories than not enough, especially when long mountain runs turn out to be much longer than expected. Stanley jokes that she always carries the most food compared to others.“I do rough math and add 2-3 more gels than I think I will need, assuming I will have a gel every half hour I am out,” she says. “Sometimes I am hungrier than I realize.”

Extra food is also helpful if the adventure goes awry and the runner needs to spend more time out or exert more energy than initially planned.

RELATED: Your Race Fueling Plan: Evolved

Be prepared for emergency camping

Sometimes plans completely fall apart, and, for one reason or another, a runner might have to spend an unplanned night in the wilderness. Having enough extra clothing and at least a small bivvy sack can help keep you warm enough to make it through the night.

“As you move into big terrain, be aware of risks, especially when counting on speed,” Stroeer states. “If the speed you are relying on is not there, you are screwed. What happens if you roll your ankle and you are no longer weight-bearing? You can’t generate body heat and can’t move quickly. That is why shelter is very important. Taking a sleeping bag if needed, especially if at the limit of your abilities, is necessary to make it through the night.” 

The mountains are an incredible place to log major training or adventure miles, and with the right attitude and gear, they can supply a runner with memories that will last a lifetime.

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