What Every Trail Runner Needs To Know About Time In The Wilderness: Part One, Safety
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on traveling in the wilderness as a trail runner. This first piece focuses on safety and preparedness, while the next covers wilderness ethics.]
I often tell people that my background as a long-distance backpacker was better training for ultrarunning than the 10 years I spent as a competitive track and cross-country runner. It’s only recently, however, that I realized this is true in multiple ways. It’s not just the mental ability to break big tasks (and distances) into smaller ones that ultrarunning and backpacking have in common. Both also involve a lot of time in the wilderness. When you’re running 20 to 30 miles, you’re getting deeper into the wilderness than many weekend backpackers.
It stands to reason, then, that trail runners, and ultrarunners especially, should have the same knowledge base as all wilderness travelers. However, many people did not find their way into this sport through a background in wilderness travel and adventure; they got here because of a love of running.
My husband, whom I met when we worked together as climbing and canoeing guides back in the 1990s, initially scratched his head at this. After witnessing more than one occasion when I had to give advice, instruction, and/or appropriate gear to one of my running partners, he wondered, “Isn’t this stuff just common sense?”
But the truth is, it’s not. What feels like common sense to someone who has spent most of his life either taking outdoor courses, planning wilderness trips with friends, or guiding expeditions into remote regions, is unknown territory to a runner without that background.
Not only do I think there is a knowledge gap among some of the trail running community, but I also think many of these runners who lack a wilderness background don’t recognize its importance. I adore my running community, and I always believe that every runner has the best of intentions, but I have witnessed runners turn their noses up at maps; leave their toilet paper, gum, and food on the trail; feed wildlife; and start a long run into a snowstorm wearing too-little clothing. These things break my heart.
It’s for this reason that I want to share some of my knowledge here, so that all runners can assess, and perhaps improve, their skills, and then head into the wilderness both safely and ethically.
In spite of the title of this article, it is by no means all encompassing. This is merely an overview of many of the things you should know and understand, with the onus on you to educate yourself further. It is important for all of us to travel the trails as safely as possible, and to be stewards of these beautiful landscapes.
So what do I mean when I talk about “wilderness”? Federally designated wilderness areas, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, are lands that have our nation’s highest level of protection. Please don’t confuse this official term with my liberal use of the word “wilderness.” When it comes to safety and preparedness, I am definitely moving beyond this definition to include any area where you might be without immediate help in an emergency. Much of the advice I am about give could be applied to shorter trails (five to 10 miles) in areas not considered to be remote, while all of it should be weighed when heading to lightly traveled areas with the intent of covering 20 to 30 (or more!) miles. Please consider the hazards presented by the specific area as well as your own limits.
Where You’re Going
Research Your Route
One of the first and most important steps to being prepared is researching your route. For many of us, this is also part of the fun. There is little more exciting than when dreaming becomes planning and an epic run is realized. Some important tools for research are maps, guidebooks, and websites with route-specific information.
Often the most helpful sources in researching a route are other runners. They can give you details that may be unclear from a map or guidebook, such as knowledge of unmarked trails, water sources, hazardous creek crossings, and how long you can really expect to spend on trail. Nearly every time I plan to head into the wilderness on an adventure in an area that is new to me, I ask questions of as many people as I can. Frequently, their advice has proven to be invaluable.
Tell a Friend
Whenever you go for a run, you should be sure to tell someone where you’re going and about how long you’ll be gone. How many details you decide to give depends on your route. If you’re just headed out for your standard Friday-morning run with the boys, your wife probably already knows where you are and when to expect you back. If you’re headed out for a full day on the trails, you should write down details such as your trailhead, route, expected finishing point, and expected return time. If someone needs to call in the cavalry to help you, they’ll have a much better chance of finding you with that information in hand.
Knowing how to navigate in the wilderness is important for every runner in your group. If you are on a trail with which you are not familiar, a map is a basic, essential tool to bring with you. Depending on the surrounding terrain, you may also be able to use landmarks. Look around! Notice the proximity of surrounding peaks, or anything that can be seen in the distance. Pay attention when the trail changes direction. Other important navigational tools are a compass and a GPS. Make sure you are very comfortable with how to use your map, compass, and GPS.
Just because someone in your group is familiar with the trail does not mean you should rely solely on that person to get you through safely. In the event of an accident, you may not be able to rely on that person. Everyone in the group should understand the route and how to navigate it.
Know Your Evacuation Points
If someone gets injured, or you have to shorten your route because you’re traveling slower than expected, do you have options? Make sure everyone is aware of these bailout points. If a route has no evacuation options, you will want to take that into consideration when making your risk assessment.
What’s the weather like during the time of year you’ll be running? Are the creeks running high? Is there snow still on the ground? Are there any known trail closures? I live in the mountains near Tahoe, California, and I often answer these exact questions for friends coming up from Sacramento and the Bay Area to run trails. It’s easy to assume a route is snow-free when it’s been 100 degrees Fahrenheit at your house in the valley for a month, but this isn’t always the case. There’s nothing better than a local on the ground to tell you specifically about trail conditions. Social media can be a great way to ask runners you don’t even know about conditions in their area. Also, a visitor center, ranger station, or local gear shop can often give you an up-to-date report on the trails.
Decisions about group size should weigh a few factors, including safety, personal preference, and the impact on the environment. On trails familiar to me, I prefer a group size of no more than four. On remote wilderness trails, I think four to five runners is ideal, with a maximum of six. With fewer than four, someone could end up alone in the event of an injury and emergency evacuation. With more than six, communication becomes difficult and decision making challenging.
What is the experience level of others in your group? What about your own experience level? If I am out for a 20 miler on local trails, I’m perfectly comfortable taking inexperienced runners. In fact, it’s a good way for those runners to get more experience. If I’m planning a 30 miler in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, though, or anything equally remote and committing, I’m going to be more selective about the experience level of my running partners. Don’t be afraid to ask potential adventuring partners about their own experience level before heading out into the backcountry with them.
How you interact with your running partners can have a huge impact on the safety of your experience. For ideal group dynamics, go with experienced runners you know and trust in a group no bigger than six. Of course, that’s not always practical, and certainly getting to know other runners during a long day on singletrack can forge some of the best friendships. So, to the extent that you can, make sure there are at least one or two experienced runners in your group whom you know and trust. Talk to your group before you go about specific plans and pace. If necessary, you might create smaller groups of two to three within a bigger group so that similarly paced runners can stay together. Be sure to establish if and where the entire group will meet up during the run.
Make sure your group is clear that no one will be running alone, and be prepared to follow through on this commitment. This might mean that some runners in the group will need to slow their pace in order to keep a runner from falling behind. It also means that a solo speedster should not go flying way ahead, and that you should ignore the assurances of a slower runner who insists he doesn’t mind running alone. Communication is key in this regard. Last summer I spent four days running the entire Tahoe Rim Trail with four friends. During the planning stages, we had a meeting where the friend who did most of the planning brought a list of “rules” (one of which was “No one gets left behind!”) that we discussed and agreed to. This was an awesome way to communicate because it left nothing to question and made everyone comfortable with the expectations.
Group dynamics can become a safety concern when it comes to decision making. When weather moves in, how will you decide if you should turn around, reroute, or tough it out? What if the group wants to split? What if members of your group disagree about a navigational decision? Ensuring that you have positive group dynamics will enable you to make these kinds of decisions quickly and appropriately.
With all this discussion about group dynamics and group size, you may be wondering if it’s ever safe to go for a long run by yourself. I would answer this question with a very qualified “yes.” The easiest situation in which to say yes to a solo run is when you’re running a comfortable distance on familiar trails that either have many access points or at least will have a number of other trail users, should you really run into trouble. If your route is long, challenging, and heads into remote and little-traveled terrain, you should really consider whether going solo is the best idea, especially if it’s a route you’ve not previously run.
Your own experience level can even be a hindrance in these assessments, as overconfidence can sometimes lead us to make assumptions. Several years ago I mapped out an amazing 34-mile training run for myself through the High Sierra. Since the trailhead was in Yosemite National Park, I figured it would be a well-traveled trail. This turned out not to be the case in June on a trail that traveled over multiple 12,000-foot passes. Clearly overconfidence had been my downfall, and I neglected to inquire about how well traveled the trail was. I was able to send my husband some text updates from the trail, but we knew cell phone coverage would be spotty, so this wasn’t something that could be counted on. Had I realized that I would spend the first eight hours of my run without seeing a soul, I would have had to regretfully reconsider running it solo. Lesson learned.
However, there are some things you can do to help mitigate the risks of a long, solo run, such as leaving a detailed plan with a friend (You should always do that anyway, remember?) and using a GPS device like a SPOT tracker that can let others know your whereabouts. Just remember, it’s not that you must always run with others, but use a great deal of caution when deciding whether or not to undertake an epic solo mission.
Your Packing List
The Shirt on Your Back
A discussion of what to bring with you on your run begins with what you’re wearing. Obviously this is going to be largely dictated by the weather. Often, a pair of shorts and a shirt are enough. At a minimum, I would add sun hat or visor, sunscreen, and sunglasses. However, if you are heading into the mountains (or anywhere that extreme weather is a risk) for a full day, you should never leave without at least one extra layer, even when the forecast is dreamy. I’ve started plenty of training runs on the Western States Trail with warm, blue skies in Foresthill, only to arrive 14 miles later and only 1,000 feet higher at Devil’s Thumb under snowfall, prompting an adamant “WTF?!?!” while I don my jacket.
Some other additions you might consider: arm warmers or a long-sleeved top, gloves, rain jacket, insulated top, tights, and/or lightweight gaiters. My rule of thumb is to bring one more layer than I think I’ll need. I do this even for medium-length runs as long as I’m bringing a hydration pack where I can tuck a lightweight jacket. I have a Patagonia Houdini that I love for these friendlier runs. (It’s only a windbreaker–not waterproof!) Because it’s so-dang light, I can hardly justify not bringing it.
Gear to Bring
As far as what to carry with you, I bring slightly different gear depending on how long, remote, and risky the route is. Everyone does things a bit differently, but I find it helpful to know what others bring to see if they have an idea I haven’t thought of. With that in mind, here’s what I typically bring:
Standard Long-Run Pack
- Hydration pack – I use the Nathan Intensity because it’s lightweight and comfortable. It does not offer a lot of room for gear, but I can easily strap extra layers to the outside.
- Jacket or other long-sleeved layer
- Food – I try to bring a variety and far more calories than I think I’ll need. Never skimp on food!
- “Bathroom Bag” – This is a Ziploc bag which includes paper towels to be used as toilet paper, a spare tampon, and extra Ziplocs to be used as trash bags. I prefer paper towels to real TP because they are stronger and have a bit more friction, so you won’t need as much. I also keep an emergency lighter and matches in here so they’ll stay dry, even though they have nothing to do with pooping!
- Tiny packet of sunscreen, and lip balm
- Pills – Salt pills, Tylenol, ibuprofen, antihistamine (good in case of multiple bee stings or another allergic reaction)
- Cash – For emergency use, or maybe there’s a bar at the end of the run?
- Cell phone – The camera is, of course essential, as is the ability to call for help should you be lucky enough to have cell service. Consider helpful apps like GPS Kit which allows you to navigate with maps even without cell service, and will apprise family at home of your location.
- Extra plastic bags – Great to keep that cell phone dry, as well as your extra layers, in the case of inclement weather.
Epic Long-Run Pack (These items are in addition to the list in the standard pack.)
- Hydration pack – I use the GoLite Rush pack instead of the Nathan Intensity for runs where I need more storage.
- Even more extra food – I can’t run without calories, and if you should get stuck out overnight, food will help you stay warm.
- Bandanna – It’s a good general-purpose item that can be used in countless ways in an emergency. Sweat band, wound cleaner, splint attacher, bandage.
- Extra layers and a waterproof jacket
- Map and compass (sometimes a GPS)
- Trekking Poles – Mine are Black Diamond Ultra Distance. Good for travel over steep, exposed terrain, and helpful in snow.
- Headlamp – Bring it even if you plan to be back before dark.
- Water purifier – I use an MSR Miox Purifier, but there are many great, lightweight options available these days that do not affect the taste of your water. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking your water sources are safe. You cannot evaluate the safety of a water source just by looking at it. Did you see that cute marmot in your pristine paradise? Giardia is transmitted through the fecal matter of many animals, including rodents. You have no idea what has been upstream of you, and treating your water is so easy. Don’t take the chance.
- Emergency items – Lighter and matches (included in bathroom bag), space blanket, whistle.
A Note About Music
You may notice that I don’t bring music with me. I know this is a point of contention for many people, but for safety reasons, I really recommend against it. You can’t hear people or animals on the trail. You can’t hear if someone shouts a warning to you. You are oblivious to much of what is going on around you. Some people find that using only one ear piece allows them to hear, so if you must run with music, please use that method.
When Things Go Wrong
So, you got lost; you got separated from your group; someone in your group got seriously injured. Now what? The steps you take before you even begin your run can help mitigate these circumstances.
- Make a clear plan with your group, including your exact route and estimated time. Leave that plan with someone at home. Don’t deviate from your plan unless safety demands it. If you do deviate from that plan for safety reasons, try to update the person at home with whom you left your itinerary.
- Carry a device, such as a SPOT tracker or PLB, which can report your location through satellites so it works without the need for cell service. SPOT is probably going to be the most applicable of these for runners, but it really depends where you’re going. This article explains the differences in these devices.
If you have an injury in the group that will require an evacuation, make sure everyone in the group is clear about the plan. If you need to split the group in order to go for help, make sure no one is left alone.
If you get lost, your main job is to avoid making your situation worse. Rick Hood of Navigation Northwest gives the following advice for what to do when you’re lost:
- Don’t panic.
- If you’re on a trail, stay on it. Do not try to cut cross country back to where you think you should be.
- If possible, turn around and trace your steps back to the last place you were before you got lost.
- Stay dry.
- Conserve energy.
- If you’re stuck out overnight, you’ll stay warmer if you don’t lie down on the ground.
I will say from my own experience that I cannot emphasize enough the importance of tracing your steps back rather than trying to cut cross country. Maybe you lost the trail under a big snowfield, or you ended up on a game trail instead of the real trail. You’re not really lost yet. But you could be if you try shortcutting back to the trail or continuing on! Following your steps in reverse will help prevent you from getting truly lost.
Scary Encounters in the Woods
Different animals require different responses to keep you safe, so be sure to educate yourself on the specific animals you may encounter and what to do. Some hazards will come from large animals like bears or mountain lions, but even small animals, such as rattlesnakes, can pose real dangers. I have seen all of these guys while trail running (black bears only, though, never a grizzly), and my best general advice is to be respectful of the fact that you are in this animal’s home. Here are some basic tips for the big guys:
- Black bears are usually fairly timid and will often run the other way when they see you. A mom with cubs, or any bear that isn’t afraid of you, can pose a real threat. Give all bears as much space as possible. Back off, and reroute your run if necessary.
- Grizzly bears are less predictable. This brochure from Glacier National Park in Montana outlines on page two what to do regarding grizzlies.
- Mountain lions can also be quite dangerous. You’re best off if you’re not running alone. If you see one, don’t run, as that can trigger their prey drive and cause them to give chase. You should appear large and intimidating but slowly back off without turning your back on the lion. Reroute your run to avoid the lion. If you feel threatened, you should throw rocks. (Although I’ve always wondered how to bend down and pick up rocks while still appearing large and intimidating.) If attacked, fight back aggressively.
Everything I’ve ever read or heard about what to do in a lightning storm gives the same primary advice: Don’t get caught out in a lightning storm! There is simply no safe place to be. Some primary ways to avoid getting caught in a storm:
- Check the weather before you go. Don’t be afraid to cancel your run or choose a different, lower-elevation route (if you’re in the mountains) to be safer. Even if this is the only day you have set aside for your epic 14er outing and you drove two days just to get to Colorado. Be smart.
- Be aware of the weather patterns in the area where you plan to run. Often in the mountains, the thunderstorms roll in during early afternoon. Plan to be off of any high peaks and passes well before this time. Set a turnaround time and stick to it!
- Turn around early if you see a storm rolling in. It may not look big yet, but if you wait until it is big, it may be too late to get to safety.
What about races? One of the worst lightning storms I was ever caught in happened while I was running the Hardrock 100. The race has long sections above treeline in high-elevation mountains, making that experience completely typical. So should you avoid races where these storms are a high risk? That’s a personal decision, but you should be aware that it is a very real hazard, and you should be prepared to sacrifice your race time to stay off the high passes during a storm.
If, in spite of your best efforts, you do get caught in a storm, this excellent document from NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School) gives some detailed information on lightning and advice on how to handle it in the backcountry. I pray you never have to crouch in lightning position during a storm, because it is truly terrifying.
Hypothermia is probably one of your biggest backcountry risks. Once it sets in, there is often very little you can do about it unless you are in a dry environment with a lighter and fuel to start a warming fire. Some tips to avoid hypothermia:
- Stay dry. This may mean carrying waterproof layers with you.
- Bring a windbreaker. As mentioned above, I always carry my Houdini windbreaker on long runs, even on the sunniest of Tahoe days. Temperatures can drop as you ascend or if weather moves in. If you’re wet from your own sweat, the wind can chill you very quickly. Windbreakers are great in those situations!
- Carry an emergency lighter or matches. In the event you fall into a creek on a cold day, or get stuck out overnight, a small fire can save your life.
- Keep moving. Your body movement will generate heat. If you can’t move much because of lightning, other hazards, or injury, jog in place, do jumping jacks–whatever it takes.
First, it’s important to note that if you are aware of any fire in the area before you go, you should do your run elsewhere. This is not just to avoid the smoke and possibility of getting caught in the fire, but also to be respectful of those fighting the fire. There are often hundreds of firefighters in an area using multiple access points, and they don’t need your car on those roads or at the trailhead. I’ve had to cancel plenty of big runs due to forest fires. That’s just life.
If you do see smoke or flames while out on a run, consider the following steps:
- Reroute your run to avoid the fire. It may look small now, but fire can travel fast. Also, if you don’t see anyone actively fighting it (air drops are the most obvious), call 911 to report it as soon as you have cell service.
- Talk to other trail users. Once, while I was backpacking in Oregon, the skies became frighteningly overcast with smoke, and ash began to fall. Eventually I ran across some other hikers who were able to relieve my panic with the information that the fire was actually over 100 air miles away.
- Be aware of your surroundings. This comes back to knowing your route and your evacuation points.
- In a worst-case scenario, remember that fire travels with the wind and moves faster uphill. If possible, head downhill into the wind to get to safety.
Large Stream Crossings
Many years ago, on an early season hike on the John Muir Trail through the High Sierra, I became an expert at large stream crossings. I heard a rumor that there are now bridges over all those streams, but each one remains burned in my mind as a huge challenge that I overcame.
Before attempting any stream crossing, you must assess the hazards and potential risks. This past winter I was out for a long solo run on the Way Too Cool 50k course in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The trails were benign and very familiar to me, so I was completely comfortable running alone even though I saw barely anyone out on the trail. It was the second day of a steady, hard rain, and the creeks were running high. I had fun crossing them, until I came to one that gave me pause. Although I had crossed this creek dozens of times before, it was quite a bit bigger than I had ever seen it, and I could see that the consequences of getting swept downstream could be serious. Considering that I was by myself and that I had other excellent options for my route, the decision was easy. I turned around and took a different trail. If I had been with other people, had trekking poles, and lacked other options, I may have made a different decision, but there wasn’t any question about what to do on that day.
If you’ve assessed the risk and decided to cross a stream, here is my advice for keeping it safe:
- Hunt around for the safest place to cross. Often this is not exactly where the trail crosses.
- For streams that are too dangerous, you may need to hike upstream to a fork. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail just south of Mount Whitney, I once hiked upstream on Tyndall Creek for nearly two miles before it split into three forks which were each much more manageable to cross. Definitely worth the extra hike.
- Use trekking poles or, lacking these, hunt down a solid walking stick. Keeping your stability is essential.
- As you cross, keep three points of contact on the ground at all times (two if you only have one pole or stick). Make sure your foot or pole is securely placed before picking up your other foot for the next step.
- Move slowly. With rushing water, it’s hard to see where you’re placing your foot, and it may land deeper than you expected, or on a slippery rock.
- Cross one at a time. When I was first taught how to safely cross a stream, my instructor had us go in partners, putting arms over each others’ shoulders for stability. I find this to be less stable than crossing solo with trekking poles, though. The partner method could be a last option if you have no poles and there are absolutely no sticks to be found. For wider, slower-moving bodies of water, you may cross with your companions very nearby in order to provide assistance in a fall. If you do this, be sure no one is up or down stream of another person so that one person’s fall doesn’t cause a chain reaction.
This is another situation where experience can play a big role. Some people are much more comfortable with snow crossings than others. Do your research to learn as much as possible about the trail conditions before you go. Some snowy conditions can be fairly benign, while others are quite dangerous, so try to find out these things:
- How icy will it be?
- How steep are the slopes you will cross/ascend/descend?
- Is the snow firm, or will you be postholing up to your waist?
- How many miles of snow will there be, and how will this affect your navigation and travel time?
Some possible tools that can help you in snowy conditions:
- Trekking poles
- Traction devices like Kahtoola MICROspikes or Yaktrax
- Ice axe
Before going anywhere that may require use of an ice axe, make sure you know how to use it and have practiced your self-arrest. Make sure everyone in your group has done the same. My favorite written resource is Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, but the best way to learn is to take a class.
This seems like a great deal of information, I know, but hopefully it’s just a jumping-off point for runners to educate themselves.
My own education in the outdoors went something like this:
- At 19, I took my first backpacking trip, a two-month, field-studies course through University of California, Santa Cruz. This was an awesome introduction. Learning about safety, navigation, and Leave No Trace ethics through both direct instruction and experience is the way to go!
- At 20, I worked as a wilderness ranger in the Angeles National Forest.
- At 22, I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
- At 23, I began a seven-year career as a guide, leading expeditions in Minnesota, Canada, and Alaska in disciplines such as backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, and dog sledding.
- And of course, ever since that first backpacking trip, I have done countless personal trips and learned from fellow adventurers.
Your education, of course, may look nothing like this, and it doesn’t have to! Here are my best suggestions to prepare you for wilderness adventures:
- Take a class! There is nothing better than hearing it from an expert, and getting the chance to practice your skills. REI offers classes in wilderness medicine as well as navigation. Check for other resources in your area such as local guiding services or community centers.
- Read up. Books are an excellent resource, and you will find many titles on wilderness safety in your local outdoor store. Many hiking guidebooks begin with chapters on navigation and safety, and you may already have some of these on your bookshelf at home.
- The internet also has endless resources. Make sure the information you get is coming from reliable sources such as NOLS, Outward Bound, and national parks and forests, not “Chad’s Running Blog.”
- Find mentors. The experience of other people who are experienced in the outdoors is invaluable, and makes for great conversation and storytelling on the long trails.
- Be a life-long learner. I am definitely still learning, and you should be too.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What have you learned about safe wilderness travel that wasn’t mentioned in this article? Do you have any other tips for safe backcountry trail running?
- Can you share an example of where you overdid it in the backcountry, such as becoming temporarily lost, failing to wear the right clothes for the conditions, or similar? Alternately, have you ever encountered someone needing help because of injury, illness, or another issue in the backcountry? How did the situation resolve and what did you learn from that experience that you take into your adventures now?
- From who, where, and/or how have you learned the most about safe wilderness travel? Can you recommend a book, class, or other resource?