Your Guide to Running Safely in the Backcountry
Running might not be the riskiest sport, but if you're not properly prepared, the backcountry can get dangerous fast.
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For five days and four nights, Ben Clark and two climbing partners sat at 21,600 feet. Snow piled up around them. Avalanches went off above and below—everywhere, it seemed, but where they were sitting.
“We’d been gone seven days at that point, caught in this massive storm,” he says. “Everyone below just assumed we were dead.”
The team had been attempting to establish a new route up the northeast face of Baruntse, in the Himalayas, when their weather window slammed shut. Hunkered down “on a three-butt-cheek ledge,” as Clark describes it, one member of the team started exhibiting symptoms of a stroke.
“So once the weather cleared, he can’t feel one side of his body, and we’ve got to get him down, reversing the route, avalanches still going off all around us,” Clark says. “I’m not sure how we didn’t die. But that’s the art of luck in the Himalayas—our skill got us into a place only our luck could get us out of.”
These days Clark, 36 and a father, has stepped back from his youthful habit of setting first ascents and pioneering new routes as a mixed alpinist. The Telluride, Colorado-based mountain athlete now opts for the comparatively tame sport of trail running—or his version, anyway.
“I’ve attempted Nolan’s 14 six times,” he says of the infamously difficult route, which links 14 Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet high and takes over two days to finish. “After three supported attempts I tried it solo. I keep getting weathered off by snow or storms.”
Running even the wildest mountain trails is nowhere near as risky as high-altitude Himalayan mountaineering. But it is still a sport where your skill can get you into a place that only your luck can get you out of, if you’re not properly prepared.
While Clark enjoys going fast-and-light in the mountains, his experience in the high country, where he has lost friends to exposure and avalanches, means he doesn’t take backcountry safety lightly.
“Even if you’re just one hour away running, you’re still an hour away, and things can change quickly in the Rockies,” he says. “It can go from 60 degrees in the valley to snowing above the treeline, or you can break your ankle when you combine the speed and gravity of running downhill.
“You see these guys running around in nothing but shorts, with no shirt,” he continues. “Yeah, sure, we’d all love that, but I’ve seen too many incidents in the mountains.”
We talked to Clark, as well as top ultrarunner Mike Foote of Missoula, Montana, about some basic tips for staying safe when you venture out into the high country for runs lasting a couple hours or longer.
It’s important to carry a significant amount of water if you’re going to be running for hours anywhere, but especially in the thin, dry air of the high country. Clark, an Osprey athlete, uses a six-liter hydration pack for multi-hour runs (and a larger 12- or 18-liter one for multi-day outings, like Nolan’s). In addition to carrying a 1.5-liter reservoir, it can also fit his extensive safety gear (more on that later).
If you’re out there long enough, you may also need to refill. That requires purifying the water from whatever natural source you find, to avoid giardia and other bacterial infections.
Iodine tablets or a lightweight water filter work for this. Clark has a unique solution: he jerryrigs a filter onto his hydration pack’s hose, so he doesn’t need to purify the water before putting it in his hydration bladder.
“I have a little filter that I put on my pack’s harness, then I run the hose through and cut it out so it fits there,” he explains. “That way, when I draw water through the hose, I’m filtering it right there. I don’t have to carry an extra cup for filtered water, or put a bunch of iodine in my system.”
Clark suggests using a running water source, which has a lower risk of harboring bacteria than standing water. “The clearer the better, but also look around,” he says. “If you’re in Colorado, you could be near a mine, and there could be dust or chemicals in the water. If you’re out East, there could be moss, bugs, tadpoles or other weird things.”
Even so, no matter how clear a water source looks, Clark adds, never drink it untreated; it can still contain harmful bacteria. “Don’t trust it unfiltered, unless it’s an absolute emergency,” he says.
Based in grizzly-bear country, Foote, who finished second at last year’s Hardrock 100, knows plenty about avoiding wildlife—and how to act if you have a run-in.
“The whole idea is not to startle wildlife,” he says. “They do not want anything to do with you, and if you announce your presence they will likely get out of your way.”
Foote says he will shout—often arbitrary things like “Hey bear!”—if he is traipsing along a densely vegetated trail, running on a windy day and/or paralleling a creek; the reduced visibility and extra noise can make it difficult for an animal to know he’s coming, increasing the chance it will react unpredictably.
“I definitely do not wear headphones,” he adds.
If he does encounter a large animal, Foote first checks whether there are any offspring nearby, as mothers tend to be fiercely protective of their young. “Normally that means I exit the scene more quickly,” he says. But generally, “all animals want space. I walk slowly away from them while talking to them and not making direct eye contact.”
This can change if you encounter a grizzly bear. Grizzlies tend to be decidedly aware of their place atop the food chain. While running in grizzly country, Foote says he carries bear spray, an extra-powerful form of pepper spray that can be employed to deter a charging bear.
“I keep it accessible in a front chest pocket on my pack,” he says. “Keeping it inside your pack will do you no good. The one time I’ve been charged by a griz I only had one or two seconds to react.”
RELATED: Everything Trail Runners Need To Know About Wildlife Safety
Often, you can complete a long run in the backcountry without any issues. But when you’re that far out, in rugged terrain, it is important to carry a few items to employ in the event the weather turns foul or you wind up injured and stranded.
While he hopes not to actually need any of these things, Foote always carries a rain jacket, a firestarter, a headlamp and a cell phone—“for navigation through its compass, and if I get service high on a ridge or peak if needed.”
Clark carries even more than that.
“It’s pretty possible I’ll break my ankle if I’m running off trail, so I want to be prepared for that,” he says. His list of backcountry essentials includes:
- a spare base layer for his upper body
- a base layer or long underwear for his legs
- a fleece vest
- an ultralight down jacket
- rain pants and a waterproof jacket
- a warm hat and gloves
- a small headlamp
- a small Swiss army knife
- a lighter
- sunglasses and sunscreen
- spare socks
- moleskin for blisters
- bandage (in the event of an ankle sprain)
- an emergency/space blanket
- a DeLorme inReach satellite communicator or similar, for communication while out of cell-service range.
All told, Clark estimates this collection adds about eight pounds of weight to his pack. But, “If I have to sit down and bivy and spend the night out in the open, I’ll be okay,” he says. “That’s what you have to plan for.”
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A little bit of prep can save you a lot of trouble should things go awry on your run.
First, know the route ahead of time, or at least carry a map or other means of navigation. That way, you can route find if you get lost or if bad weather sets in and makes navigating by eyesight trickier.
“I slack a little on prior planning and prep sometimes because I don’t mind figuring out a route on the go,” says Foote, who cautions that his many years of backcountry navigation leave him more comfortable doing things on the fly. “Having tools like a map is great, though, when or if you need to adjust your route on the go. I carry a map, or photo of a map, on all my long runs in new territory.”
Second, let someone know your plans beforehand, so they can get help if you go missing. Foote tells his girlfriend where he is going and how long he plans to be gone. “We also agree on a time when she should call for help if I haven’t turned up or contacted her,” he says.
Foote notes that everyone has a different risk tolerance, and that some runs could have a wider window for how long he might take, based on terrain, familiarity with a route, and so on. “Each situation is different, so it’s important to come up with a time appropriate for each adventure,” he says.
Despite the best-laid plans and myriad precautions, disaster can sometimes strike in the form of a busted ankle or a quick-moving storm. If you find yourself stuck for the night, Clark says, the first step is to stay as warm as possible.
“Find pine needles to lie on, because they’ll insulate the ground, or cover yourself in them because they can keep you warm,” he says. “If it’s raining or the ground is wet, sit on your pack. Wrap the space blanket around yourself to retain heat.”
Clark also recommends moving around if you aren’t injured—particularly if you’re caught in a storm.
“If it’s raining and cold, moving around will help you stay warm,” he says. “If it’s lightning, a lot of people try to get on the ground, get on their elbows and knees, but I’ve always tried to keep moving through it and get down.”
Finally, Clark says, he occasionally carries a tiny Esbit stove with fuel cells, plus a cup.
“You can warm up some water—not boil it, but filter it and heat it up enough so you have a warm drink,” he says. “It’s a good tactic to pull yourself back together. You don’t want to get too comfortable because you want to keep moving if you can, but it’s good to give your body a little break.”