Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

Everything I wish I knew when I started trail running

Trail running is one of my absolute favorite hobbies because it gets me out moving my body and immersed in nature. It’s different than road running in many ways, even though the core of it is the same. Trail running is dynamic and challenging, which makes it more rewarding to me. The more I’ve gotten into trail running, the more I’ve come to enjoy it.

Here are the things I wish I knew when I started!

Video I made while out on a trail run where I share my thoughts on how to get started trail running

Go Run!

Don’t let anything get in the way of you running, especially fear, uncertainty, or doubt. If you’re interested in going trail running, get out there and run! Find the closest trail to you and get out there to experience it firsthand.

It’s easy to get bogged down and not feel ready or that you’re missing some key piece of gear that will change everything. Really, there’s not much you need that you don’t already have.

Okay, great. With that out of the way, I’d love to share some more of the things I wish I knew when I was getting started.

Why Go Trail Running

For me, the big draw of trail running is being outdoors in nature. It’s so refreshing, especially when I spend so much time indoors working on the computer.

Trail running differs from road running in that it’s much more dynamic. There’s a bit less zoning out because you have to focus on what’s in front of you, otherwise you might trip and fall. I still get into the running zone while trail running, which is one of the best feelings. You’re moving swiftly and nimbly across the terrain. It’s a real blast.

The terrain can be so varied—from single-track trails with rocks and roots to dirt roads to boulders. Trails can go along rivers or scale mountains. Generally, the ground is much softer and more forgiving than the road, which I quite enjoy and seems to be better on the joints.

Trail running is, in someways, not that different from hiking. But the amount of ground covered in a short amount of time is significant, which is one main draw. While hiking is a bit more monotonous (not in a bad way), trail running requires more focus. That additional focus is rewarded with seeing more in less time.

Here are some of my favorite views from trail runs I’ve gone on:

Where to Trail Run

I wasn’t really sure where to go trail running when I started. I knew about Lancaster County Central park and some friends told me about some places, but it wasn’t until I got to know more locals and did some research that I gained more confidence in where to go and what would make for a fun run.

I’d honestly suggest starting with AllTrails. It’s an app that lets you find nearby trails with a considerable amount of sorting options, from distance to difficulty. You can read reviews from people who used the trail recently to get a sense of the condition and what to expect. Overall, I’ve found AllTrails to be a fantastic resource.

I’ve also learned about a lot of trails through my local running club, where each week we go to a different spot. After a year of cycling through the local places, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in where to go for runs based on how I’m feeling.

It’s best to try to find somewhere that’s simple to start. Don’t go deep into the backcountry for your first trail run. If you can find somewhere that’s nearby and you have cell service, a map, or past experience hiking there, go there. Having familiarity with the trail or confidence in the location will let you focus on running instead of navigation. A simple loop without a ton of offshoot trails or a simple out-and-back where you turn around and come back the way you went out would both be great trails to start on.

Don’t go somewhere with a ton of vertical gain! I think aiming for something that’s got about 100 ft or less of vertical gain per mile is a nice starting difficulty. The most important thing is to get on the trail and experience that type of running as compared to the road.

As you get out trail running more and more, you’ll gain confidence with the distance, terrain, location, and navigation. It gets easier and more fun.

A print out map is helpful, but I think using AllTrails is fantastic when you’re out on the trail because even if there’s no cell service, your phone’s GPS will still work. AllTrails lets you download maps offline, which can be so useful if you’re having some doubts about whether or not you’re on the right path. There are other apps that work similarly, but I’ve found AllTrails to be the most useful overall.

Trail Markings (a.k.a. Trail Blazes)

A common trail marking is the blaze—a horizontal stripe of paint on a tree that lets you know you’re on the right path. The colors vary, sometimes to distinguish between different trails. They help you ensure you’re still on trail and not lost. They’re a confidence booster for sure, and it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for them while you’re on the trail.

A single vertical stripe means keep going straight.

Photo of an orange blaze on a tree

Two parallel blazes means turn in the direction they’re angled, left or right.

Photo of two orange blazes on a tree angled to the left, indicating the trail goes to the left

Three stacked blazes like a diamond but with one side missing means the trail turns around 180 degrees, like a sharp turn.

Other times you’ll see metal posts with numbers and other info about the trail, including usage rules. Some trails may use actual arrows instead of the double or triple blaze markings for turns.

Yellow arrow indicating turn left for the yellow trail, orange blaze indicating the orange trail continues straight

And sometimes trails won’t be marked at all…

If there are two different color blazes on a tree, that means the two trails share the path. They may diverge at an intersection, so keep an eye on the color blaze you want to be following.

If you can’t see a blaze ahead and it’s been a while since you last saw one, that may mean it’s a good time to check your location on the map or backtrack until you find the last blaze you saw. You may have missed a turn, which when caught earlier, is much less stressful and difficult than going miles without noticing.

Essential Gear

While you can just head out with the clothes and shoes you have, there are some bits of gear that will help you out considerably when trail running.

There are definitely a lot of brands out there that sell expensive fitness gear and running clothes. If you’re just getting started, you definitely don’t need to buy the most costly shirts, shorts, leggings, etc. I buy most of my active wear from Old Navy and Target, both of which have lower cost active-wear gear. Thrift stores are a great option too!

Moisture-Wicking Shirt

Whether it’s the dead of winter or peak heat in summer, I always wear moisture-wicking shirts instead of cotton because it dries quickly and doesn’t hold water as much as cotton. These shirts are the slightly stretchy polyester shirts that I see a lot of people work out in. I wear long-sleeves in the cooler weather and short-sleeves in the warmer weather.

Shorts & Leggings

During the warmer months, I wear shorter running shorts with a built-in liner. They’re really comfortable and dry quickly. Some of the pairs I own have pockets, but I generally don’t carry stuff in them because it bothers me.

In colder weather, I wear skin-tight leggings that keep me warm. They dry quick when sweaty and work well. You can wear shorts over them if ya’ want.

Hat

I wear a quick-dry hat when running to keep my hair out of my eyes and protect my face and eyes from sun. Sometimes I wear sunglasses too, but usually the trails I’m on are covered by trees and sunglasses aren’t as necessary.

Rain Jacket / Warm Layer

It’s best to be prepared for unfortunate weather, especially if it looks like it’s going to be rainy and/or cold. A windbreaker or rain shell will go a long way and keep you from being miserably cold and wet.

Just a heads up though that when running your body warms up pretty quickly. So dress in layers and take them off as you warm up. The nice thing about having layers is that if you take a break, you can layer back up to stay warm.

Shoes

This is the big one! Trail shoes make such a huge difference in terms of confidence when running on the trail, especially if it’s raining or humid out and when running downhill. Trail shoes have much more traction than road shoes to give you more grip. Most running shoe brands have lines for trail shoes. My favorites are the Brooks Cascadia 15 GTX and the Vivobarefoot Primus II shoes.

Water Bottle

I use a handheld Nathan water bottle with a grip and pouch in it for shorter runs. It lets me quickly drink water in a way that’s comfortable to carry, plus the little zipper pouch has plenty of room for keys and snacks.

Photo of a Nathan running water bottle

For runs longer than an hour, I have a vest I use with bottles or a bladder that I can carry first aid gear, plenty of food, my phone, and other gear in. But if you’re just getting going, a hand-held water bottle should get you pretty far!

Phone

If you’re using an app for mapping, your phone is really helpful. You can also use your phone to track your run with an app like Strava to see how far you ran, elevation gain, pace, etc. Plus, if you run into a problem and have service, you can contact someone.

I have a GPS watch I got after six months of running regularly, and I really enjoy the features it offers for tracking my activities. I have the Garmin Forerunner 645, and overall, I’m happy with it. But I don’t think a GPS watch is required to get started at all. Friends of mine who have been trail running for years don’t track their runs at all and just go out there and have fun.

Headlamp / Head Torch

When running at dusk or night, being able to see what’s in front of you is key. A headlamp (a.k.a. head torch) is an elastic band with a battery-powered light that straps to your head and illuminates wherever you’re looking. These are crucial when running at night. If you’re just getting started and heading out later in the day, definitely bring a headlamp with you just in case.

Safety

When trail running, I think there are some risks to be aware of. You’re moving fast over uneven terrain, which can lead to tripping and falling. I have had my fair share of tumbles, from scrapped knees to bruised arms. But the more you run on trails, the more confidence you’ll have.

Here are some of my general safety tips:

  • Stay hydrated, especially when it’s hot!
  • If you’re going out for a longer run, bring snacks and keep your body fueled; if you start to feel light-headed, it may mean you need to eat and drink water; I enjoy fruit bars and granola bars when runnning
  • Stay calm if you get lost and try to utilize the resources you have or ask passers-by for guidance
  • Be prepared by knowing your route, having a map, using a 2-way communicator, sharing your plan with a friend, or whatever it is you need to do to feel comfortable and confident; needs will vary by each individual
  • Be aware of what wildlife dwell in where you’ll be and leave them alone
  • Dogs may be off-leash, and I’ve gotten bitten before; be careful and cautious
  • If you roll your ankle or take a fall, take a break, walk it out, and see how you feel; try to walk back to the start or ask for help

It’s Okay to Walk!

This sound so goofy, but for the first six months of trail running, I wouldn’t let myself walk. While that’s fine for training, other runners coached me that it’s more efficient to power-hike and walk up hills than it is to run. You conserve your energy for the flat sections and the downhills. Or you can just walk to take a break. But don’t get so wrapped up the running aspect of trail running where you don’t let yourself take a break, slow down, or walk.

Here’s what I’d tell past-Brett: No one’s going to judge you for walking. Don’t be so harsh on yourself.

It’s not a race, unless it is a race!

Make Friends, Join a Club

Going out trail running with friends is a total blast. It’s a real adventure to get out and explore with them. It can also boost confidence to be with others, especially if they’re familiar with the area. I found the Lancaster Road Runners Club when I moved to Lancaster, which is a local club that has road and trail runs every week. I started going to the weekly trail runs, which is where I met a lot of my social group, made friends, and got to know the region a lot better.

If a trail running club doesn’t exist in your area, start one! Meetup.com or Facebook can be great places to start a regular running group that others can join.

Sign Up for a Race

Trail races are put on just like road races where you can sign up and give it your all on race day. Distances vary, but signing up for a race can help you hold yourself accountable and have something to train for. Also, if races aren’t your style, that’s okay too. It’s a totally optional aspect of running.

Me crossing a creek in a trail race

Have Fun

Finally, I think the most important piece of advice I have is to have fun! I think you’ll know pretty quickly whether or not you’re into it, and if you are, keep getting out there. Trail running has had such a profound impact on my life—from my physical fitness to my mental health to my social group. It’s a fantastic way to get out into nature and move your body. I hope to see you out there on the trails!

Photo of Brett in running gear giving the thumbs up

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: adventurer, video maker, writer

5 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running”

  1. Great write-up! This will be super helpful to people.

    I like the advice for people to use AllTrails, it’s an excellent way to find some trails. You can also check out Strava Heat Maps, which will mark the areas that runners are going. This can help you find some great trails.

    As a fellow trail runner, what’s your go-to snacks that you like to take on the trail with you? Always trying to nail down my nutrition haha.

    Keep up the good work.

    Kyle, The Travel Runner

    Like

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I’ll have to give Strava Heat Maps a try, sounds like a great way to discover new routes.

      I really love the Larabar Fruoit+Greens bars while out on runs. But my local market said they’re no longer making them, which is a bummer. I’ll probably just stick with the cashew Larabars.

      For longer runs, I’ll sometimes use goos, but they’re messy and not very satisfying, so I’ll instead eat dried fruit. For days when I’m out all day, I’ll put together a wrap or a sandwich and take a nice lunch break! I prefer to eat whole foods because they’re cheaper and more satisfying.

      How about you, any favorites?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m with ya on the whole foods. Gu’s and the like never really did it for me. They typically just made my stomach feel weird.

        I went through a weird phase last year where I was mostly eating gummy bears and other candies, which tore my stomach up typically and made me crash (shocker).

        So lately I’ve been going back to more whole foods that my body is used to digesting.

        I’ll have to check out the Larabars. Never heard of them until now. Thanks for the tip.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic write up! I have been interested in trail running for so long and I am eager to really get into it. I was on a backcountry hiking trip this past weekend and my sister and I had just arrived at our site for the night, exhausted after a 26km day. As we were making dinner three ladies ran up to the site and stopped to decide if they wanted to continue or not, they had already ran 40kms that day and then decided to continue on for another 12. My mind was blown! People sure are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I hope that you get out there and have a blast with it. When I hear about the long days that some folks do, it’s really amazing and inspires me to persevere and keep getting out there!

      Like

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