5 Tips for Planning a Trail-Running Road Trip

Everything you need to know to plan the best trail running road trip, no matter where you decide to travel.

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With recent gas price charts looking like the elevation profile of a (mostly) downhill mountain race, now’s the perfect time to start planning the ultimate trail-running road trip. Of course, it’ll take quite a bit more planning than your standard six-miler on singletrack. So we asked a few experienced runners and road-trippers for some pointers.

1. Budget Your Time and Money

Set a basic budget and timeframe. “Fuel for me and the car are the primary costs,” says David Laney or Ashland, Oregon, who lived and trained out of his car for much of last summer before placing third in Europe’s highly competitive Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.

Other costs can include lodging, race entry fees and gear. Laney saves money by camping in dispersed camping areas (there’s a lot of public land that is free to camp on, but check at a local ranger station or online to be sure).

2. Pick a Place

This is where you can get creative; the only bad location is one without trails to run. “Sometimes I try to find mountains that mirror the course of future races,” says Laney, “and sometimes I literally just look at pictures on Instagram and if the place looks cool then I’ll go visit.”

If you expect to have a lot of spare time after runs or on rest days, look for a destination that has non-running activities, such as a national park.

Some ideas:

– Grand Canyon without the crowds: The park has a wealth of lesser-known backcountry trails

– For the shoulder seasons: Sun-belt getaways and late-fall destinations for trail runners

– The South and Midwest contain some hidden gems, including Chattanooga, Tennessee, northwest Arkansas and Duluth, Minnesota.

– Go wild: Here are seven towns with wilderness out the back door, and six bucket-list backcountry trails

– Structure your trip around a trail race held in a scenic locale, or a vacation spot the whole family (trail runners included) can enjoy

– For the more ambitious: Trek north to Anchorage’s rugged trails or south to Baja Sur’s awesome, under-the-radar singletrack networks (or go really crazy and string the two together, via other great trail destinations up and down the coast: Squamish, Orcas Island, Seattle, California’s Lost Coast, San Fran, Joshua Tree, the Sespe Wilderness in southern California and many, many more)

– If you’ve got the time and resources, go abroad for an epic sweep through Patagonia or Iceland

– Or, embrace a quirky adventure like high-pointing, a more obscure niche of trail running that involves bagging the highest point in each state. On one of Laney’s most memorable running trips, he tagged the high points of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota. A less driving-intensive option is to tag the high points of counties (although those can be harder to find).

Once you’ve reached your destination, get the dirt on the local trails by stopping at a local running store, getting in touch with a local trail club (our Trail Club Finder is a good starting point) or using an app such as Trail Run Project.)

3. Pack More Than You Think You Need

There are the essentials, of course, like sleeping bag and shelter (if you can’t stretch out in your vehicle); two or more pairs of running shoes, especially if you anticipate wet conditions or stream crossings; layers for a full range of weather conditions; maps; food; sunscreen; and so on.

But the beauty of car travel is that weight and space aren’t a big issue, so you have the freedom to bring a few extras that enhance the trip. Peer inside pro runner Stephan Shay’s 1966 Clark Cortez camper van and you’ll see a paddle board, bike and shower system. While most of us can’t fit half that in our cars, there should still be room for some smaller “luxury” items, like that camp chair or foam roller you’ve been contemplating.

Laney’s go-tos are a camp stove and solar shower. “Eating granola bars and swimming in lakes is all well and good for a few days,” he says, “but eventually you’ll want real food and a shower.” Frequent trail-running road tripper Liz Baumgardt, of Rockford, Illinois, relies on smaller yet equally important items like moleskin, chapstick and bug spray.

4. Stock the Mobile Pantry

Road trips are a great excuse to eat copious amounts of trail mix and other snacks. But as Laney says, eating granola bars gets old (and isn’t exactly a sound nutritional plan).

Instead, try out some backcountry cooking. All you need is a camp stove and a pot or pan to make of a wide array of healthy and delicious meals. The sites Backpacking Chef and Trail Recipes have some ideas to get you started.

Restaurants and prepared foods at grocery stores and freeze-dried meals (they taste better than they sound) are convenient but costlier alternatives. Some grocery stores offer steeply discounted prepared foods right before closing.

5. Prepare for When Things Go Wrong

Snakebites, broken ankles, heat exhaustion, dehydration—a lot of things can go wrong when you’re miles away from civilization.

The best way to avoid or minimize serious trouble is preparation. Shay likes to bring along his phone, extra food and water, and a small pocketknife.

Be aware of your settings, adds Baumgardt: “Know what kinds of predatory animals you might encounter and the fastest way to evacuate, and carry a map and compass.” Run with other people when possible.

The road-trip aspect introduces a few novel concerns. Laney’s advice: “Cover the gear in your car with a towel”—an expensive array of stuff out in the open could make a break-in more likely—”and always, always leave town with a full tank of fuel.”

More on running safely in the backcountry: how to handle wildlife encounters, what to do if you get lost and a guide to backcountry-safety basics, including hydration, gear and getting caught in nasty weather.

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