When the call of the wild has you running for the hills, don't forget to a take a second to prepare for every twist and turn.
It was at 12,000 feet, summiting a mountain and cruising through relatively mild terrain when Arizona-based run coach and NCAA-race record holder Alicia Shay rolled her ankle. With her car parked about 10 miles away, she now had about 4,000 feet of steep descent to navigate to make it back to her vehicle.
"After that experience, it was definitely hard to shake my fear during runs," says Shay. "I was always calculating in my head, OK—I'm this far away from my car, I have this much water left. But I decided to learn from that and use it to reinforce myself."
If you love trail running (or want to pick it up) then you probably know a thing or two about its many benefits—stunning views, fresh air, and improved strength and agility while burning major calories. But it's situations like Shay's injury that serve as an important and painful reminder about how quickly a fun trek through the woods can turn into a serious situation, and that even the most experienced runners can slip up. So before you head out on your next off-road adventure, take a moment to breeze through the following safety checklist (and these newbie trail runner tips):
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1. Research your route.
Whether you're trying a new stretch of dirt or hitting up an old favorite, know the specs of your run in and out. "Look at maps; download GPS data to your smart watch so it can keep you on track," says Shay. (She's fond of Strava, which provides access to tons of maps and location tracking.) Next, she says you'll want to figure out what the terrain is like—is it really technical? Is it rocky or smooth? Steep or leveled out? Is it crowded or more remote? "These are all really important things to consider to make sure you end up running the route you intended, but also so that you don't get hurt or lost."
2. Bring a friend.
One wrong turn can be the moment a 5-mile run becomes 15 miles. Running with an experienced friend, especially when trying out a new route, can serve as good insurance that you end up running your intended path, says Jeff Amaral, natural resources manager for the Bend, Oregon Park and Recreation District.
"You should always tell someone where you're going and when you're expecting to be back," says Amaral. "And be reasonable. Realize that there may be situations where it might be best to put off going for a run, like after dark or if you can't get a running partner."
If you insist on trekking out alone, Shay recommends using Strava's Beacon feature, which allows three chosen safety contacts to see where you are in real time. "If friends are checking in on you, they can say 'Oh, she's only this far into her run and she hasn't moved for 30 minutes. Maybe she needs help,'" she says.
3. Pack your pockets appropriately.
For Peter Fain, a Lake Tahoe–area run coach, race director, and snowshoe racing national champ, carrying a handful of essentials on any trail run is a must. His top recommendations: fuel, water, sunscreen, a cell phone, and sunglasses.
"I always suggest sunglasses for things like light reflections, but they also protect your eyes," says Fain. "I'm tall, so I'm always getting hit in the head with trees. It helps with bugs, too." Shay suggests carrying a light jacket in case of sudden weather changes, plus a small amount of basic first aid supplies—think bandages, ibuprofen, and disinfectant for scrapes. (Having the proper sneakers is also important. Here are 10 trail running shoes to help you break away from the pavement.)
4. Reconsider when to run.
While doing your trail homework, don't forget to check the weather and consider the time of day. While you might prefer running in the morning while it's cool or after work around dusk, these are prime times for animal activity near the trails, says Amaral. While the risk of animal attack is very low in most situations, Amaral says bears, mountain lions, and other woodland creatures tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, increasing your chances of an encounter during these times.
It's also smart to find your area's hunting season. Fain says to avoid certain stretches of a trail you know to be high-traffic hunting grounds, and always wear bright colors.
5. Think about intensity.
Both Shay and Fain stress that you should throw your usual pace and distance out the window when going for a trail run. "What may take you eight minutes on the road could take you 10, 12, 15 on a trail," says Fain.
Additionally, trails not only include twists, turns, and jumps, but rises and dips in elevation. "Your body is working harder on trails," says Shay. "You could go on a 10-mile run and cover 3,000 feet of vertical climbing. That's not just 10 miles then, is it?"
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6. Embrace your inner Girl Scout.
The biggest tip when trying a new trail, says Amaral: Make sure it has multiple exit points. And remember that you can never be too prepared. "Take a first aid or a wilderness class," he says. "Consider situations from every angle and come up with a plan for each. The more you prepare, the less you have to worry about."
Another good strategy is switching up your routines, says Shay. "If you're posting your runs on social media or frequently running the same routes at the same time, make sure you're being careful to change your patterns," she says. That can help you avoid having the wrong person able to track you. "If you're in a bigger city, it might not be safe to run trails at night or by yourself. And most importantly, just trust your gut. If something feels off, don't ignore it." (Learn more about the harsh truth about running safety for women.)
7. Stay calm.
Worried about coming face to face with Yogi Bear's really scary cousin? It likely won't happen, says Amaral. "Attacks are extremely rare, animals tend to avoid people, but the biggest thing that would provoke a bear is surprising them."
To avoid rounding the corner and spooking an unsuspecting bear, he suggests frequently making noise. Small shouts or wearing bells on shoes are good places to start.
If you do encounter an animal, such as a mountain lion, stay calm, he says. "Make yourself very large, raise your hands, maintain eye contact and back away slowly. You're trying to convince this animal not to attack. Don't turn and run." If you stumble upon a bear, the action steps are similar, but Amaral suggests becoming familiar with the specific tactics on bearsmart.com which discuss situations like if the bear has cubs.
8. Get out there.
Most importantly, don't let your list of what-ifs prevent you from enjoying this challenging, exciting sport. (These seven must-see trails will offer you some serious motivation.)
"I coach a lot of athletes who are making the transition from road and track running to trail," says Shay. "It's really fun to see how much they love it. They feel revived, they enter races, they go to some of the most beautiful places in the world to try new trails. Don't let your fears stop you from trying it."