First Steps: Trail Orientation And Navigation

To trail run, you have to not only find a trail but also figure out how to navigate it. This sounds very simple and uncomplicated–and often it is. Road runners basically step out their door and go for a run, right? Trail runners, not always so much. Trail running sometimes requires a bit more planning and forethought. The good news is that jumping over this initial planning-and-preparation hurdle will make your running world more expansive and adventurous while giving you a more intimate understanding of your surroundings.

As with all things, work begets reward. Let’s get started: this article should help you become familiar enough with a trail network that you can enjoy a run or several upon its trails.

Trail Running Jargon
[Author’s Note: I wrote this section for someone who has spent little to no time on a trail. If you are familiar with the outdoors as a hiker, backpacker, mountain biker, or similar, what follows will be a review. Skip to the next section, “Determining a Trail’s Difficulty Level.”]

Before you start looking for trails to run, let’s get familiar with the sport’s jargon. There are three levels of trail orientation, and each is a little more detailed than the previous.

First is the trail system or area. Think of this as the bird’s-eye view. Often this is referred to as something like “Corner Canyon” or “South Bay” or the name of a whole park. This is an entire network that is probably comprised of multiple trailheads and even more trails. Most trail systems contain trails of varying levels of difficulty within them so if you can identify an area you should also be able to identify a run that matches your challenge level within the area.

Next, a trailhead, by definition, is ‘the place where a trail begins.’ It can be identified as the place where one would go from being on road to being on the trail. Typically there is some parking there and they are generally named. For example, the “Coyote Hollow Trailhead in Corner Canyon.”

Finally, you’ll need to find the actual route—the trail or trails—on which you want to run. Just because a particular trail starts at a particular trailhead doesn’t mean that you won’t intersect with other trails that can take you in new directions. Planning the trails you intend to run on is known as routefinding. Instructions for a particular route which incorporates multiple trails within a single trail system could sound, for example, something like this:

“Go to Corner Canyon and find the Coyote Hollow Trailhead. Start on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail until you intersect with the Gas Line Trail. Take a hard right onto that trail and stay on it until you come upon the Ghost Falls Trail. Take a left there until you get to the Canyon Hollow Trail. Take a right there and descend down a rocky path until you get to the Rush Trail. The Rush Trail will be smooth and have some big, arcing turns before you get to about five switchbacks. From there, take a left to hop back on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and descend until you get back to the trailhead parking lot.”

Determining a Trail’s Difficulty Level
Picking your route will also determine your challenge level. Some trail maps have a difficulty rating system. Ratings are generally based on a trail’s elevation change and technicality. For example, a rocky trail with a lot of switchbacks, some vegetation overgrowth, and a lot of elevation gain/loss will be rated with a high difficulty rating. A trail that is ‘buffed out,’ well maintained for vegetation growth, has relatively few pot holes, and has little elevation gain/loss will be rated with a low difficulty rating.

Keep in mind that most difficulty ratings are subject to a region’s general characteristics. For example, if you live in the Rocky Mountains in the western United States where all the trails are generally, well, rocky, then having rocks in the trail may not contribute to a more difficult trail rating. Similarly, if you are used to trail running in a place where the trails have less elevation change, then a locally curated map may rate the trail with a 700-foot elevation change with a high difficulty rating. That same 700-foot elevation change may be considered beginner friendly in a place like the Wasatch Mountains of Utah where the difficult trails have elevation changes measured in thousands instead of hundreds of feet.

If your map doesn’t have difficulty ratings, you can determine the challenge level of a trail via other details on the map. One way is to check the map’s topographical lines. Those lines show how much elevation change there is in an area and added up can determine exactly the vertical gain and loss of your route. The closer together the lines are, the steeper the area is. If a trail you want to run intersects a lot of topographical lines, then the trail is significantly changing elevation. Another way is to check for switchbacks on the route. Switchbacks are hairpin turns where the trail changes direction by about 180 degrees in a short distance. These switchbacks are generally created by trail builders to help you traverse steep terrain at a more moderate grade. Switchbacks are generally a great way to determine elevation gain and loss as they are designed to help you cover a great amount of elevation in a short distance. The more switchbacks in an area, the higher the elevation change is likely to be, potentially increasing the difficulty level.

Other things to check for on the map include single-direction trails, pet-friendly trails, multi-use trails, and trails with varying conditions. For example, some trails in urban or suburban areas which are used frequently are organized so that all users travel clockwise on even days and counterclockwise on odd days. Going against the grain can cause confusion and be dangerous in areas with high traffic. Bear in mind that some trails are pet friendly and others are not. Furthermore, some trails may permit off-leash pet traffic or may allow off-leash pet traffic only on even or odd days. On multi-use trails, be aware of local right-of-way regulations and yield with courtesy to other users as required. Even of you have the right of way, you should still count on high-speed bike traffic on multi-use trails and need to stay alert for safety.

Finding Your Local Trails
All that information is really useful if you know where to start. But how does one go about finding said trail areas? Great question! First, let me explain that as you search out trails in your local area, don’t discount them if they aren’t full of vistas and peaks like what you see in a magazine. Most of our day-to-day trail running is simply done in open space on unpaved surfaces.

Trail running may look different depending on where you are and that is perfectly okay. For example, if you are running on the singletrack that circumnavigates your local park, you are still trail running. I visited my sister one Thanksgiving in San Antonio, Texas. She had been training for a turkey trot, her very first 10k. We drove to the local park that was full of playgrounds and parking lots. I was blown away when, within the first mile, we were running in fully wooded areas on dirt trails and we stayed on them until the last quarter mile of the race. I looked at her and said, “This park is great; it is full of trails for trail running!” If you don’t live in a place with mountains or big tracts of public land, just look for open space. I have trail run on a powerline-access road in Los Angeles, California, a canal trail with strip malls and business parks on either side of it, and the singletrack of New York City’s Central Park. All this stuff counts as trail running. The goal is to get your feet off of pavement!

Google is a great resource for finding trail information. Every time I visit a new place and have a chance to explore a new trail system, Google has been a trusted guide. Start with a search like “trail run San Francisco.” If the area is large enough to have a trail running population, then you will find an abundance of resources that are designed for trail running. Bonus! Finding resources specific to trail running, as opposed to hiking or mountain biking, is preferable because the distances, difficulty ratings, and estimated time for the trail will be relative to the sport of trail running. If the area doesn’t have a large trail running population but has an abundance of trails, you will likely find them by searching for hiking trails or mountain-biking trails. Information for mountain biking and hiking will be related to those sports and with some practice you will become accustomed to interpreting these descriptions based on your ability level.

Another trusted online resource is Trail Run Project. This crowdsourced site gives you information about individual trails as well as “Featured Runs,” which are complete routes and may include several trails and are designed to get you from start to finish. The site may also have up-to-date, user-generated comments on recent trail conditions as well as photos of the trail, giving you a preview of that gorgeous vista and the other things you will encounter. If your area isn’t listed, it is because there has not been any content generated in your area yet. If this is the case, try one of the sister sites, MTB Project or Hiking Project, for information about your area. Then be proud to be the trail running pioneer in your area. Congrats! This website can also be downloaded as a free app which can be useful if you are venturing off the grid, as some of the data can be accessed offline.

Perhaps your best resource will be your local running store. This is always one of my first stops when I visit a new place and it can be a great resource for you in your local area, too. I will often pop in to purchase a trail map and ask the resident trail running associate–there seems to be at least one trail lover at every running store these days–to mark out on the map his or her favorite loop. Often I will glean the ‘local’s perspective’ and get extra tidbits of information like where to stop for a sip from a freshwater spring or whether or not it is worth it to climb the extra 500 vertical feet to the second summit. Plus, they will be able to give you up-to-date information about trail conditions. There is nothing like getting a recommendation firsthand and making a purchase of any size supports the people who make running of all kinds in that area possible.

If there isn’t a local running store, see if there is a local running club or a local race going on while you are there. While visiting Maui, Hawaii, a place without a local shop, I joined in on the local charity 5k and met some great folks who gave me trail recommendations. These trails weren’t listed on any website or in a guidebook. When in doubt, ask the people who run in the area. If the locals don’t know, they will at least know who to ask.

Look for running groups that might meet through other social networks. Groups might be found on Facebook or MeetUp. The bonus of trail running with a group is that there are likely people in the group who have run the route before. The downside is that you might be so busy socializing that you may not be able to return to the trail and navigate independently. Many times I have followed a friend on a run and returned to the same place weeks later to find myself pondering the very same course at trail intersections.

Getting ‘Lost’
The idea of going to a place where we may be alone and out of cell-phone signal and then not knowing our way around can be intimidating and scary. Many of my own runs have concluded with me turning around and retracing my steps back to the trailhead because I ultimately couldn’t follow my intended route. Anticipation of that experience can be intimidating and frightening. In order to wipe that fear out of your mind, I am officially giving you permission to do exactly what I do when I don’t know how or where to go in order to continue moving forward. That is, it’s perfectly all right to turn around and hightail it back to the trailhead. In the event that permission isn’t convincing enough, here are a few ways to prevent getting off your intended route.

Take a map with you. Sounds crazy, right? Who has room in their split shorts for a map? You should always carry a map when running in unfamiliar trail systems, and here are a few ways to do so conveniently. If you run with a phone, take a picture of the area on the map that represents where you plan to run. The great thing about a photo is that you can zoom in to a tiny part of the map in the event you come to a three- or four-way intersection and just can’t remember which trail to choose. But if you are like me and still love the feel of paper in your hands or don’t like to run with your phone, taking a small photocopy of the section of the map you need works too. If it is possible to tear the section you want to run out of your map (from a national-park brochure, for example) that can be a great way to carry the map with you. I did this once while trail running in southern Arizona on a trail that took me to the Mexico border. I was nervous that taking a wrong turn could lead me into international trouble but a piece of a map folded up easily to fit great in the zipper pocket of my shorts and I was glad I had it when I referred to it a couple times.

Navigation via landmarks is an important skill that you’ll need to be a trail runner. Take a nice, long look at the map before you head out and look for potential cues that you’ll be able to identify in real life like prolonged climbs or descents, expected mileage at intersections, general directions (north, south, east, and west), and topographic landmarks such as peaks and valleys. Then create a mental chain of cues based on that. See if you can draw your own map for a hypothetical run using your memory of the landmarks on the map. Then, take the knowledge you’ve collected from the map out into the real world, and relate the landmarks you find there with what is on your map. It is in doing this, in being able to relate the real-life circumstances of what’s around you on the trail to your map, that you are acquiring the skills to make you a successful trail runner.

Once I was running outside of Pocatello, Idaho, in a place that had been touted as a great trail running destination. However, I couldn’t locate a useful paper map and the trails were poorly marked. My phone ran out of battery on the run (airplane mode, people, don’t make my mistake!) so I lost access to my electronic map. Luckily I had estimated that the run would be about 12 miles and that we would start our descent about seven miles into the run. At mile 10, based upon looking at the map before the run, I expected a trail intersection on the left that would give us a shortcut back to the campsite and spare us from running two miles of uphill on the road to get back. I knew that I was in for an adventure when my GPS watch ran out of battery around mile eight. (Seriously, keep your GPS devices charged!) I felt a bit crippled without a timer, a mileage tracker, or a map. Yet, I knew that even if I missed the turn, I would continue to descend to the road. From there I could run back up the road to camp. I ended up missing the turn at mile 10 and hiking back up the road for those extra two miles. I had some great company with me and we laughed about it later that night when a little perspective made the chain of errors a laughable comedy.

I tell you this story because, out in the elements, anything can happen, so a little planning up front can be a benefit in the end. You may fall while your phone is in your hand and completely shatter the screen (been there, too) or you may go out in the late afternoon feeling confident that you will make it back before dark but then stay too long at the waterfall, forcing you to run back in the dark. (I’ve done that as well!) The bottom line is that if you do a little prep on the front side, you will be prepared to adapt when the unexpected comes your way.

This skill sounds simple on paper but I can assure you, people spend their whole lives honing their navigation abilities. My recommendation is to practice it even when you are in a familiar area. Before you venture out, practice by looking at the map and identifying which direction you are heading as you start. Then pay attention to where you will start changing directions. Is there a trail intersection, mileage marker, or landmark such as a meadow or a peak there? Honing your sense of direction and ability to match map to real life when you aren’t under stress will help you be prepared to pick the right direction or correct trail when you are in an unexpected situation.

Getting Familiar With Your Trails
When I visit a new place, I usually try out as many different trail areas as possible. However, when I return to the same system of trails repeatedly, I generally pick one part of that system with which I want to become more familiar. Generally my goal is to learn the area well enough that I can navigate independently. Whether you just moved to a new place, are visiting somewhere regularly, or are taking the first steps onto the trails in your hometown, navigating independently is an empowering way to trail run and a great first goal for places you visit often.

When I moved to the neighborhood I live in now, I took a photo of the map of the five-mile loop I wanted to do and referred to the photo at every single trail intersection. The next time I ran, I only looked at that image once or twice. The third time, I ran without the map at all. Once I was confident in my ability to navigate the loop on my own, it was time to change up the loop. This doesn’t mean that I added more distance; in fact, by changing it up a bit, I actually decreased the distance on my first try. The goal was to pick an intersection and go a different way, familiarizing myself with navigating one more trail in the area. Sometimes this will cut the loop shorter, sometimes it will add a finger onto the loop, or sometimes the only option is to run out-and-back on a different trail. Bottom line: familiarize yourself with one additional trail. Once you feel confident with that addition, it is time to add on or change up the addition. Continue doing this until you have a mental map of the area’s trails, trailheads, and intersections. This could take months or even years depending on how vast and developed your trail network is.

If you have a paper map of the local trail area, it might be fun and fulfilling to return home and highlight the trails on which you ran. This will give you an opportunity to review your course, further cementing it in your brain, as well as give you a physical reminder of how much area you have explored. If you find yourself feeling like the distance required to venture out to farther reaches is beyond your current capability, see if there is another trailhead from which you can start that will allow you to tie into some of the old, familiar trails as well as become familiar with some new ones. The key here is to tie some new in with the old each and every time. In the event you are starting with all new trails, don’t be afraid to use the map.

Taking the First Steps
Now it is up to you! You are armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get out on the trail. It is amazing to think that a simple search on the internet could be the catalyst for life-changing experiences. You are reading this so I know you are online! Open up a new tab in your internet browser and type in the search-engine box. Try to learn something new about a trail near you.

Still reading? Maybe you need a little inspiration. There is a section of trail near my local trailhead that I run about three or four times each week. Years after it happened, I find myself recalling the time I came around the bend on a quiet, snowy morning and was greeted by a fox and her three pups scurrying up the trail in front of me. They ran about 200 meters ahead of me for about a half a mile before heading off the trail and up the mountain. Some spots will just become like that for you, a happy place.

Go out there and take the first steps because you just never know what you will find. You may crash and burn, literally, by taking a wrong turn or mistepping on a slippery rock. Or you might just come across a quiet creek that only flows as the moisture of winter melts into the plushness of spring and if you hadn’t chosen this trail on this day, you would have missed it. Chances are, you’ll do some of both. The only guarantee is that upon your return home, you won’t regret one step of that run. Sometimes that is all the satisfaction we need.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What tips do you have for getting familiar with a new-to-you trail network?
  • Do you have any stories from your early adventures on a new-to-you trail on how you learned to navigate them?
Rhielle Widders

is passionate about introducing her favorite sport to newcomers. She created and directed the Park City Trail Series, a four-race series designed to get people running on dirt, from 2010 to 2014. When she isn’t in Park City, Utah, where she lives, you will find her traveling to try out new dirt. Follow her on Instagram.

There are 4 comments

  1. Andy M

    I couldn’t agree more about taking a map along. Folding it into a Ziploc bag (to keep the sweat and elements from turning it into a Rorschach inkblot) and stuffing it into a vest pocket or zipper pouch on your handheld is well worth it. I’m set to explore a new (for me) vast state forest for my long training run this weekend and will have the map on board for sure.

    I would also recommend some training in basics of outdoor navigation like using a compass, navigating by the sun, and understanding the general terrain of the area. Do the ridges and valleys run in a particular direction? What are the water sources and where do they flow relative to where you parked? This basic knowledge has saved my ass more than once when lost in remote areas with night falling!

    And thanks for the “Project” links. I did not know they even existed! Great idea and resource!

  2. Barry Young

    I’ve not really used it for running, but when hiking I often pack a battery pack which I could use to charge my phone several times over if necessary. It does add a bit of weight, but it’s probably worth it. Also, an offline map app is useful. Google Maps isn’t bad, but I prefer something based on OpenStreetMap, such as Osmand on Android phones.

  3. nevtrik

    Find new route: go to strava -> activity search -> enter nearest town name, desired length -> boom!
    GPS -> Gaia GPS on the phone, it also has route planning tools.

  4. Garth A

    Anyone new to hiking or trail running should learn how to read trail blazes. Especially in dense woods where lots of small trails criss-cross one another it’s important to know how to read turns, straight confirmation blazes, trail beginning/end, etc. It’s also important to know when to stop and retrace your steps, like when you stop seeing your color markings on the trees.

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