Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
One of the reasons running is so popular is because of the simple notion that “all you need is a pair of running shoes” and you can go running. It’s not quite that simple in trail running, but it is similar. If you want to start trail running, it can be as simple as lacing up your shoes and running on a trail.
However, the shoes you choose are very important relative to the types of trails you’re running.
But there are hundreds of trail-running shoes available every season, so where do you start? If you visit your local running shop or outdoor store, you might find dozens of different models. There are hundreds more at the tip of your fingers if you scroll through your social feed or visit online running sites.
Types of Trail-Running Shoes
While there are hundreds of models of trail-running shoes to choose from, generally speaking, there are three main categories of trail-running shoes based on the types of trails: Road to Trail, Moderate/Technical Trail, Rugged/Technical Trail. Choosing a shoe within one of those categories based on the types of trail you run most frequently.
Road-to-Trail shoes are ideal for running on smooth trails without many technical features, gravel paths and even paved roads. They typically have a lot of the creature comforts of road running shoes, including an agile, easy-flexing demeanor, a comfortable interior and a low-profile outsole lug pattern. Because they offer only modest protection, traction and durability, they are best worn for running on milder terrain.
This mid-range category of trail-running shoes includes a wide range of shoes for an even wider range of trail surfaces. These shoes are built for tackling trails with roots, rocks, steep climbs, sharp descents and other unpredictable, natural surfaces.
Shoes in this category typically have resilient midsole cushioning and protective features like reinforced toe bumpers and sidewalls and flexible rock plates embedded in the midsole for protection from rocks and roots. They also have more aggressive outsole lugs for enhanced traction for traveling over jagged rocks, loose gravel and sloppy wet terrain.
For the most rugged routes—whether that’s a rocky mountain route or a sloppy, muddy trail—you need purpose-built shoes specifically built for extreme conditions. Shoes designed for rugged mountain running are typically the most protective, durable and supportive, with reinforced toe bumpers, sidewalls and uppers, rock plates and aggressive, “sticky rubber” outsole lugs.
At the other end of the spectrum, this category also includes shoes for running in extremely wet and sloppy conditions with aggressive lugs for traction and possibly waterproof uppers (made from Gore-Tex or eVent materials).
Prices of trail-running shoes range from $100 to $250, but most shoes fall in the $110 to $130 range. Our advice? Try as many different kinds of shoes as you can. Over time, you’ll learn which ones work best for your feet over different terrain, and at various speeds and distances. The first key is finding a shoe that fits the size and shape of your feet, both when you try them on but also as you run over the ground.
Trail-Running Hydration Packs
The next most important piece of gear you’ll need while trail running is a lightweight pack that can carry your hydration fluids, snacks, extra layers of clothing and accessories (gloves, hat, headlamp, first-aid kit, etc.).
Packs come in a variety of styles and sizes and can include everything from:
1) hand-held water bottles with an accessory pouch,
2) race-day hydration vests with minimal storage capacity, and
3) small day packs that can a hydration bladder and stow considerably more for longer adventure-oriented runs, fast-packing endeavors and peak-bagging excursions.
Prices range from about $50 to $300, and it’s important that you find the proper type of pack to meet your needs.
The pack you choose should be based on the type of trail running you’ll be doing, what you need to carry with you as well as what you’re most comfortable carrying or wearing. Some runners like carrying water bottles in their hands, while others prefer everything stored in a vest or pack. Those decisions are based on whether you’re going out for a short to moderate run, a short or long race or a multi-hour run in the desert, in the mountains or on your local trail network.
Other questions that might help you understand what kind of gear and accessories you’ll need and what kind of pack you’ll wear include: Are you running with a hydration reservoir or soft bottles in vest pockets? Are you carrying a waterproof jacket? Are you running a race that requires you to carry mandatory gear? Will you be on a long run with places to fill up your hydration bottles or reservoir with clean water? Is it possible that the weather will change quickly during your run. Knowing the answers to those questions can help you understand what kind of pack you’ll need.
What should you wear trail running? It depends on the weather! But it also depends on how the weather might change. And what kind of terrain you’re running on. Start with thin, moisture-wicking base layers and build your outfit from there.
You can wear whatever type of running socks you’d like—no-show, quarter, crew or calf-length—but snug-fitting, colorful, moisture-wicking versions made from soft, synthetic materials are the best. But word to the wise: never wear white socks! Save those for road running excursions or suffer “ring around the ankle” from the inevitable dirt and grime and settles around the heel collar and can wind up leaving a permanent stain.
There is some evidence that compression clothing provides muscular support and improved blood flow to your calves, reducing fatigue on long runs. Compression socks and calf sleeves also provide the secondary benefit of offering abrasion resistance and added warmth on cold days. Most importantly, compression socks are an ideal accessory for post-race travel and recovery because they can help offset swollen feet and lower legs.
What you wear below the waist is largely based on the weather and how warm or cool you like to run. Obviously it’s warm, you’ll probably want wear shorts—split shorts, long, surf-inspire shorts, boy shorts—but just make sure they’re shorts that don’t chafe in the worst places! Wearing tights, capris or running pants can add warmth on cool and cold days, but sometimes too much.
No matter what weather you’re running in, it’s a wise idea to wear a lightweight, wool or synthetic baselayer T-shirt (and/or sports bra) that effectively wicks moisture away from your skin and helps speed the evaporation process of your sweat. Keeping your skin dry will help regulate your temperature and keep you comfortable, no matter how the weather changes or what additional layers you might be wearing.
As you add layers of clothing, be sure you can maintain breathability so the moisture vapor from your sweat can be wicked away from your skin and begin to evaporate. Understand what kind of layers make sense for both the weather conditions you’re running in and also your personal sweat rate and comfort level. When it comes to trail-running jackets, it’s often best to opt for water-resistant jackets that maintain breathability through semi-permeable fabric and venting.
Arm sleeves keep your arms comfortable when warming up or in variable weather conditions while wearing a short-sleeve T-shirt. They’re also useful for sun protection. And, in hot weather conditions, they can help keep you cool by soaking them in water or adding a few ice cubes from an aid station.
Even if you never wear hats running, you might consider wearing one while trail running. Wearing a hat is another good way to regulate your temperature and reduce exposure to the sun, no matter if it’s a lightweight nylon running cap, a fabric tube or “Buff” style headband or a thicker knit hat.
You’re going to want your fingers to be warm, no matter the temperature. If you think it’s likely to get chilly, toss in a pair of non-cotton, lightweight gloves. They weigh next to nothing and will keep you from opening your vest’s zipper with your teeth. Too warm? Tucket them in your shorts or stash them in your pack.
Trekking poles have become a staple of trail runners who run ultra-distance races or long adventure-oriented runs in the mountains. These strong, lightweight and often collapsible poles—such as Black Diamond’s Carbon Z poles ($170) or Leki’s Micro Trail Race poles ($200)—provide valuable assistance while maneuvering up and down steep trails and technical terrain. They also lessen the impact on your feet and legs over the course of a long run or race and disperse the weight of your pack.
For most trail runners, a reliable trail-running watch with GPS technology is invaluable. These watches receive signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that allows runners to track their location, movement data and running performance. Not only can a GPS watch track the pace, durance and length of your runs, it can allow you to keep tabs on your heart rate, analyze your training and monitor the elevation and routes of the trails you run.
Prices range from $100 to $600 for basic to advanced trail running watches. If that’s too much for your budget, you can get started with a running or mapping app on your phone. A few of the best apps include Strava, Fatmap, CalTopo, Trail Run Project, OS Mapfinder, Never Alone, Gaia GPS and Google Earth.
Chafing can be one of the most minor types of trail running injuries, but also one of the most debilitating. These rub-on sticks and sprays can be a lifesaver if your skin is prone to chafing at high-friction areas. Some come in compact tubes, so you can bring them on your run and apply repeatedly as needed.
Cordless earbuds and bone-conducting headphones with Bluetooth connectivity allow for hassle-free running while listening to music or podcasts. Many models also allow enough ambient noise that you can stay aware and in touch with your surroundings on the trail. Wireless, running-specific earbuds range in price from $60 to $250.
A thin, lightweight foil emergency blanket is an essential safety precaution if you’re venturing out into the backcountry. Hypothermia can set in quickly if you get injured or lost and can’t find your way back to safety. A simple, inexpensive emergency blanket is easy to bring along.
While trail running is not an inherently dangerous sport, a variety of ailments requiring first-aid can arise on just about any trail run. Having basic first-aid provisions—bandages, medical tape, anti-blister adhesives and ibuprofen — can help take care of cuts, scrapes, twisted ankles or a lingering headache.
A comfortably fitting, bright headlamp can help you navigate the woods during dawn, dusk or nighttime runs. Headlamps come in a wide range of output levels based on the duration 2 to 20 hours), brightness (100 to 800 lumens) and beam type (flood light or spot light). Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries or is fully charged before you head out on the nighttime run. (Eco tip: look for one with a rechargeable battery.) Prices range from $50 to $200.
Manufactured under various names, these little single-use chemical heaters provide warmth for several hours and work wonders on chilly fingers and toes.
Versatile neck gaiters are a staple for trail runners. Sometimes called by the brand name “Buff,” this tube of lightweight nylon or merino wool fabric is wonderfully versatile as a hat, ear/neck/wrist/hand warmer, face mask, hair tie, or improvised running belt. It can even be used for first-aid, as a sling or even a bandage.
For anything more than a short run in a park, it’s important to review or bring a map—and not just the one on your mobile phone. (When you most need it, you might find yourself out of cell range or the battery on your phone will die.) It should cover not just the area you’re running, but also the region around your run, in case you get lost. If you are relying on a map on your phone, consider downloading a GPX file of the area you’re running so you can access it when you don’t have cell service.
Gaiters wrap around your ankles and prevent dirt, dust or sand from getting into your shoes. They’re most helpful when you’re running dry, dusty or sandy desert trails or exceptionally muddy ground.
When shopping for sunglasses, look for lightweight models designed for running that won’t bounce around as you run. Sunglasses that transition from light to dark are ideal if you’re going to be in a variety of settings, from alpine areas to snowfields to forests.
The exposure to the sun can be pretty extreme while trail running, especially on long runs in the mountains where there is little to no shade. Apply sunscreen before you run and take a small tube with you on multi-hour runs.
If you might be running on icy or snowy terrain, traction devices can offer much-needed stability. These lightweight sets of removable metal spikes or coils attach to the soles of your running shoes to offer more purchase on ice. If you’re running frozen or snowy trails in the wintertime, you can feel much safer with them on.
If you’re planning a long run in a remote setting, you’ll want to carry a portable water-treatment system to help you drink more safely from mountain streams. Water filtration systems can include an advanced carbon filter or an ultraviolet light device.
Salomon XA Filter Flask – This flask is a lightweight filtration option for long backcountry adventures. This 500ml soft flask features a high-flow valve and wide 42mm cap for easy refills and drinking on the go.
Salomon S-Lab Shorts – Salomon’s S-Lab collection is a premier modular clothing system for high-performance. Lightweight, quick-drying and versatile, Salomon’s S-Lab shorts are fit for any trail adventure.
Salomon Ultra Pro Shoes – These shoes are built for long-distance comfort and engineered for a world-class ride on tough trail. Sensifit floating wings adjust to your foot as it swells on long runs, and opposed lugs provide unrivaled grip in technical terrain.
Salomon S-Lab Poles – A lightweight carbon shaft and minimalist design make these easy to stow and assemble on the go. Durable, simple and light, these are a staple for every mountain and trail runner.
Salomon S-Lab Top – This lightweight and breathable top wicks sweat and uses mineral oxide patches to reduce fatigue. Smooth construction limits friction to avoid chafing and sit nicely under a pack or vest.
Salomon Sense Jacket – This minimalist jacket is weather-resistant and breathable, and easily packs down to stow in a vest or pocket. Strategic panels of laser-cut holes keep you cool, and an active cut keeps weight down while allowing plenty of mobility.
Salomon S-Lab Vest – This lightweight vest is made of single-skin construction to eliminate bounce and chafing while carrying everything you need for a big day out. Easy access pockets and a minimalist design eliminate failure points to create a durable and versatile construction for any adventure.