Mountain running takes the best of trail running and ultrarunning but adds adventure, some mystery, and a lot of variety. Mountain running is a game for your imagination — you can find inspiring places, dream up routes, and discover ways you might navigate them.
The skyline of a local range can be just as exciting and inspiring as running in beautiful mountains in far-off places. Many Americans have been lured to the Chamonix Valley of France by mountain running dreams, while non-Americans prize U.S. mountain running ranges like the Teton Range of Wyoming and the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Travel and adventure go together with mountain running, and physiology and tactical considerations can be elevated beyond that of routine trail running. Higher elevations, volatile weather, route-finding, often spotty cell service, and many more factors make mountain running more gear-specific.
This guide offers a selection of the best gear from the iRunFar team’s broad and diverse mountain running experience in many locations across several continents.
What Is Mountain Running?
Despite an obvious crossover with trail running, mountain running is a sport of its own. In the late 1980s, the World Mountain Running Association was formed and mountain running became an official designation to distinguish the sport as a separate discipline. Since then, the annual international series draws top runners (and often crossover athletes like ski mountaineers) to its events.
This racing tradition has morphed into what most of us think of as mountain running today: variable terrain, often off-trail, and far from where the road ends. These events can be short, steep efforts or multiday adventures.
Though many mountain runners will incorporate scrambling or easy rock climbing into their route, this guide is intended for runners who might only encounter basic scrambling, such as using your hands to pull up over some rock sections, and not advanced scrambling or climbing, where steepness and exposure add consequence.
You might also encounter hazards and conditions that require specific knowledge while adventuring in the mountains, like glaciated terrain or avalanche conditions. This guide doesn’t recommend gear for these more specific circumstances.
What You Can Find in This Guide
In terms of gear requirements, mountain running can be relatively involved. Along a mountain run, one might encounter a range of terrain, from singletrack and talus fields, to snow fields and glaciers, to third-class rock, and more.
Additionally, mountain weather can be fickle, requiring a range of gear to provide safety and comfort. Mountain running often requires being prepared for winter, even in the middle of summer!
You may check a mountain forecast beforehand and feel confident bringing just shoes, shorts, and a jacket. But, in most cases, you’ll have a much better (and safer) experience by incorporating some of the products we’ve selected here.
iRunFar’s Mountain Running Experience
I am extremely fortunate to have mountain access close to home. As such, I’ve run in all of the most prominent mountain areas in Colorado: the San Juan Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and more. I’ve run 54 of the 58 Colorado 14ers and spent considerable time running abroad in the Alps, Dolomites, and Argentinian Patagonia.
I’ve learned many lessons the hard way about showing up unprepared for mountain running. I’ve regretted many decisions I’ve made, particularly starting runs in bad or windy weather and not paying enough attention to forecasts. Thankfully, I’ve become smarter and better prepared over the years.
The rest of the iRunFar editorial team has nearly 30 collective years of mountain running experience. We’ve climbed as high as 19,000 feet into the mountains and trekked as far as 200 mountain miles in a single adventure. We’ve completed the Nolan’s 14 line in Colorado — an iconic mountain running line — in under 60 hours. We’ve summited peaks in all seasons and weather conditions.
Together, we’ve learned lessons through our successes and failures up high, and we hope this guide equips you for what I believe to be the best style of running!
Best Shoes: La Sportiva Cyklon ($160)
In 2002, La Sportiva trademarked the term “mountain running,” so it’s fitting that the La Sportiva Cyklon makes the cut in this guide. It is snappy enough for fast ascents and has a lug configuration that shines on loose descents.
Taking the Cyklon to the mountains, the focus is on footwork and agility. Despite the aggressive lug pattern, the Cyklon lacks a rock plate and provides a lot of ground feel. The shoe feels very snappy and downright springy when jumping and landing over jagged rock and other obstacles. The incredible ground feel helps ensure solid footing over loose terrain in the mountains.
The Cyklon is a burly shoe indeed and its upper is more durable than meets the eye, but it’s worth considering the duration and type of mountain running you expect. It’s not a cruiser for long runs, nor is it the most comfortable on hard ground. But when it comes to picking a short line to ascend and descend with reckless abandon, it is incredibly secure and confident.
If you love technical trails but have been put off by too-narrow La Sportiva shoe models in the past, you’ll be happy to know the Cyklon is very accommodating in the midsole, and the shoe works for many different foot shapes. The BOA Fit System dial works expertly to lock in the fit but may come detached from the shoe if jammed against a rock. It’s happened to me a few times, but the BOA reattaches easily with little issue.
Best Shoes: Saucony Peregrine 12 ($130)
One of our testers called the Saucony Peregrine 12 a “simple” shoe. But this is not a criticism; it’s a compliment! Compared to many modern trail running shoes, it’s missing some things. The Peregrine 12 doesn’t have a carbon plate, maximum cushion, or a rocker. Refreshingly, it’s just a trail shoe. It’s targeting a corner of the market that’s lacking a lot of other options.
What makes this shoe one of our picks for mountain running is its versatility and ability to take whatever terrain you can throw at it. Saucony has put a lot of time and effort into improvements for this 12th edition. In the last couple of iterations, the Peregrine has returned to the initial model — a trail running shoe that is kind of light, kind of fast, kind of luggy, and serves a large market by working for a variety of conditions.
The Peregrine 12’s improved tread compound, which is much stickier than the Peregrine 11, excels on and off-trail, and through muddy or sloppy conditions. The shoe weighs less than 10 ounces and boasts some “fast” characteristics but provides enough cushion for long-distance.
Best Hydration Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 ($160)
The Salomon Adv Skin 12 is one of Salomon’s larger vests, with 12 liters of space to fit many layers and all the essential gear you need for long days in the mountains. It even includes loops on the base of the pack so you can stash a pair of collapsible trekking poles. However, despite the capacity, it remains a light and low-profile pack that fits the body well even when it’s nearly empty. This low-profile design allows you to wear the pack both over or under a shell jacket in the winter to keep your water, food, and phone from freezing. Salomon does a great job at keeping its hydration packs light, even those that have ample storage like this one.Shop the Salomon Adv Skin 12
Best Waistbelt: Naked Running Band ($50)
The stretchy, breathable, tube-style running waistpack has three deep pockets encircling the entire belt, with the largest one in the back, suitable to fit even a full-size soft flask. The Naked Running Band has large elastic bands in which to conveniently slip your running poles, though you might be able to feel them on the small of your back.
We have found the Naked Running Band to have the most precise fit of all the tube-style running waistpacks out there, thanks to its 12 available sizes. Some, but not all testers found the tall height of the band caused it to scrunch up around the abdomen. This depends on your body shape and how little you may be carrying in the belt.Shop the Naked Running Band
Best Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking/Running Poles ($180)
Collapsible, adaptable, and durable, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking /Running Poles have become a ubiquitous piece of equipment for mountain runners. These poles come in sizes that accommodate a broad range of heights and boast a relatively light weight — the carbon-fiber construction amounts to 9-10.5 ounces per pair, depending on size. These are an excellent investment for runners tired of pushing on their knees with their hands to power up the steeps.
Some people hate using poles and others swear by them. While most terrain doesn’t necessitate their use, if you’re going out for a multiday mountain adventure or just a very steep one, using poles can provide some energy preservation by reducing strain on your legs and by keeping your body in better posture while moving uphill.Shop the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking/Running Poles
Best Rain Jacket: Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket ($249)
A neighborhood running rain jacket this ain’t. The Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket is designed for the unpredictability of the mountains when it’s not only uncomfortable to be caught out by wind, rain, and snow, but also potentially dangerous.
Designed to be worn over your running vest, the entire front panel of the jacket can be zipped down and folded over to provide both breathability, as well as access to your hydration pack. This brilliant design does what virtually no other running rain jacket does: allow a runner to keep moving without having to stop to put it on or away. This is particularly important in the mountains when conditions can turn quickly and when body heat and safety are at a premium.
The jacket weighs 7 ounces, and in Colorado where we tested it in rainstorms and blowing snowstorms, we found the jacket impenetrable to the elements. It’s as protective as a Patagonia ski jacket, but made for a mountain runner.
To learn more, check out our Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket review.
Best Wind Jacket: Montbell Tachyon Parka ($119)
With lots of features, an ultralight weight of 2.6 ounces (73 grams), and an affordable price, the iRunFar team named the Montbell Tachyon Parka the best overall wind jacket in our Best Running Wind Jackets guide. It’s no doubt that it’s the one wind jacket we bring to the mountains then, too.
For a wind jacket this light, it has an array of features, including a full-length zipper, two zippered hand pockets, a hidden inner pocket with a Velcro closure, a bit of elastic at the waist, tiny underarm vents, and a drawstring hood with front pull tabs for adjustment.
The wind jacket also features microfiber material on the elastic wrists for comfort, additional length in the back for increased coverage and warmth, and reflective panels. And, it’s treated with a DWR finish for water resistance.
Best Wind or Rain Pants: Arc’teryx Trino SL Tight ($150)
The Arc’teryx Trino SL Tight is the most mountain-oriented running tight we’ve found, able to withstand not just cold, but also wind, rain, snow, and abrasion from rocks and trees. While the fabric is not very soft against the skin, it offers a level of protection that standard polyester-based tights cannot.
Using Gore-Tex Infinium fabric, the Trino SL Tight is completely windproof. The tights lack a zippered pocket, but we love the dual hip pockets, which are discrete but deep enough to hold an iPhone and other similar-sized items. With the higher-than-average price, the Arc’teryx Trino SL Tight could be your singular tight for running, as well as other high-energy sports like cross-country skiing.
You can also read more about the Arc’teryx Trino SL Tight in our Best Men’s Running Tights guide.
Best Shirt: Rab Sonic LS Zip ($60)
Rab is the traditional alpine climbing company from the U.K. In recent years, they have opened their line to trail running specific pieces, no doubt to capture some of the magic of the rounds and fells running scene found in their own backyard. Their effort to create ultra-lightweight shirts with the latest, lightest fabrics comes by way of the Rab Sonic LS Zip, a lightweight half-zip shirt with features specific to mountain running.
First, the long sleeve allows for thermoregulation. Roll the sleeves up when it’s warm on ascents and pull them back down again for descending. Second, the front zip adds a massive amount of breathability and sweat control that you don’t get from a crew neck.
The shirt has open-knit mesh panels under the arms, at the cuffs, and in the lower back to create exceptional moisture management and airflow right where you need it. Despite feeling notably lighter than most other long-sleeve shirts, it’s been warm enough for us on runs in the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit.
We reviewed the Rab Sonic LS Zip in greater detail in this Rab trail running apparel review.
Best Gloves: Black Diamond Wind Hood GridTech Gloves ($50)
For many of us in the mountains, happiness starts and ends with our hands. There’s little that can disrupt the pleasure of a beautiful run in the mountains more than cold or numb fingers. It’s important even on days forecasted to be mild to keep a pair of high-performing gloves in your pack.
Black Diamond is a glove specialist with numerous options, but our go-to is the Black Diamond Wind Hood GridTech Gloves. They are windproof and water-resistant, and the high-performance overmitt covers all your fingers and thumbs. Even in ferocious wind conditions, the inside of the mitt is a calm and warm haven.
For mountain running, it’s also important that gloves not hinder the use of other important gear, such as the wrist straps on your trekking poles. The sleek profile of these gloves works very efficiently, allowing us to fit through the straps of our favorite poles, the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking/Running Poles, without requiring us to take the gloves off and put them back on.
To learn more about why we chose the Black Diamond Wind Hood GridTech Gloves as one of our favorite convertible gloves, read our Best Running Gloves guide.Shop the Black Diamond Wind Hood GridTech Gloves
Best Insulated Jacket: Dynafit Radical Down Hooded Jacket ($280)
The Dynafit Radical Down Hooded Jacket has one of the best warmth-to-weight ratios on the market, making it an ideal warm layer for mountain running that packs away quite small when not in use.
The outer layer is water-resistant, but the shape of the jacket is streamlined enough to fit underneath a dedicated waterproof jacket. With 800-fill goose down, the jacket should provide adequate warmth in a range of temperatures.
Extras include zippered side pockets and a hood shape that fits closely to your head, minimizing movement in the wind, while also comfortably accommodating a hat or a headlamp. The horizontal shape of the baffles helps keep the down from moving or migrating around. The high-use areas, such as the armpits, feature a soft shell fabric to minimize abrasions or wear from your pack.
Best Headband: Crazy Idea Fast Cut Thermo Band ($24)
“Crazy” is the shorthand way fans of this brand refer to it. The full name “Crazy Idea” is accurate; they do things differently — much differently! From the incredible environmentally focused packaging to the prints and patterns of the fabric — check out their jeans for ski mountaineering! — this Italian brand offers a fresh perspective for mountain runners.
A headband, as opposed to a Buff-style tube, is great for sun protection, hair control, and as a sweat absorber or ear warmer — all the things you might require during a single day in the mountains. The 14-gram Crazy Idea Fast Cut Thermo Band is even bacteriostatic, meaning it is soft, moisture-wicking, and bacteria-resistant. It’s available in many different patterns, and you’ll certainly find one that suits your style.Shop the Crazy Idea Fast Cut Thermo Band
Best Headlamp: Black Diamond Sprinter 275 Headlamp ($75)
The Black Diamond Sprinter 275 Headlamp has been a longtime staple in Black Diamond’s line and for good reason. We love the exceptional field of view that minimizes the bounce that can occur when running. But we also love the red blinking light on the back of the lamp. This small feature might be more commonly used for making runners more visible to cars while running on the roads at night, but it also serves as a useful emergency location tool if an incident were to occur deep in the mountains.
Our testers have used the newest version of the Sprinter as well as ones 12 years old, and the reliability has been consistently exceptional.
The Sprinter 275 Headlamp was also included in our winter running gear guide.Shop the Black Diamond Sprinter 275 Headlamp
Best GPS Watch: Garmin fēnix 6 Pro (begins at $550)
When you’re in the mountains on unfamiliar terrain, you can benefit greatly from sophisticated location information and mapping. The most standout feature of the Garmin fēnix 6 Pro for mountain runners who really like to get into the backcountry is its built-in mapping and navigation capabilities.
The Garmin fēnix 6 Pro is the best navigation system we’ve ever used. The watch comes preloaded with topographic maps, which isn’t a feature you’ll find with competitors like Suunto or Coros.
The watch has a rugged look and feel. It’s not the lightest or most streamlined watch, but it’ll stand up to abrasion against rock or if you take an unfortunate fall.
The watch boasts an impressive combination of battery life, connectivity to apps, and special features. It is one of Garmin’s most expensive devices, but if you want a watch that functions as the one and only mountain running watch you’ll ever need, this is our most highly recommended piece.Shop the Garmin fēnix 6 Pro
Best Brimmed Hat: Black Diamond Dash Cap ($38)
Shielding your face, eyes, and lips from the sun saves energy over a full day in the mountains and prevents a tough recovery later. Beyond overall comfort, the Black Diamond Dash Cap has a full-coverage bill that is slightly wider and longer than other hats designed for running. We’ve found this subtle detail means a lot.
The material is a lightweight polyester dobby weave, which adds texture without losing flexibility — and provides airy and breathable comfort. Some effective sun-blocking hacks like tucking the tops of your ears into the sides of your hat help reduce your sun exposure, and the Dash Cap allows this with robust material and a sweatband that is smooth without any itchiness or abrasive seams.
We love this hat so much that we named it the best overall in our best running hats guide.Shop the Black Diamond Dash Cap
Best Sunglasses: Julbo Aero With Reactiv 0-3 Lens ($220)
Photochromic lenses get darker or lighter to match changing light conditions, and the Julbo Aero With Reactiv 0-3 Lens sunglasses are our preferred model. Because the weather in the mountains is fickle, a pair of photochromic sunglasses is particularly useful for mountain running where you often encounter a range of light conditions — for days that begin with alpine starts, progress through sunny conditions, and end with alpine finishes. Sunglasses also provide excellent protection in variable conditions, like wind.
At their darkest, the lens is dark enough for bright days in the sun, even with glare from snow, and they’ll transition to absolutely clear during the dark of night (we tested this during many early starts over the past year). The super-lightweight Julbo Aero Reactiv really sticks to your face and the breathability of the Aero frame shines during long and slow uphill slogs when we’ve had other glasses fog up.
We also named the Julbo Aero With Reactiv 0-3 Lens the best photochromic lens sunglasses in our Best Running Sunglasses guide.Shop the Julbo Aero With Reactiv 0-3 Lens
Best Water Filter: Katadyn BeFree ($38)
When the Katadyn BeFree launched five or six years ago, I called it the most innovative new product released over my entire running career. Its release happened during the most productive mountain running period of my life and the overlap could not be more poignant: carrying all of your water for an entire day stinks! The BeFree let me run wild in the mountains with just a bottle and filter, luxuriously filling up from that oh-so-satisfying summer snow melt, creeks, and alpine lakes.
Using the filter is simple and speedy: you fill up the soft flask with water in the backcountry and drink straight from the attached nozzle, only stopping for as long as it takes to fill the soft flask with water.
Our Katadyn BeFree review has more details about this great product.Shop the Katadyn BeFree
Best Traction Device: Black Diamond Distance Spike ($100)
You might find snow and ice while mountain running, either traversing or ascending steep snow fields and snow gullies (or even moderate couloirs) or crossing glaciated terrain. Even a summer run in the high mountains might require a traction device to make movement more efficient and safer.
Our best-rated device, used by many on the iRunFar test team, is the Black Diamond Distance Spike, a crampon-like, chain-and-metal-spike style of traction device. Unlike most other traction devices with such a stout description, the Distance Spike cuts the weight of a traditional crampon roughly in half without losing any grip.
This is an easy-on, easy-off traction device built for mountain running. It stores easily in your pack — perfect for the moments you need it and not very noticeable when stowed.Shop the Black Diamond Distance Spike
Other Mountain Running Tools
Because of the more technical terrain and often variable and potentially dangerous weather, the risks of mountain running are often greater and the ability to access help and/or medical attention is more challenging. Anytime you find yourself going into more rugged terrain without easy access to services, it’s also worth considering packing some of the following items.
- Navigation app for phone
- Compass when needed
- Paper maps when needed
- Emergency blanket
- Wound dressing
- Medications (such as Benadryl or an EpiPen)
- Bathroom kit (includes 2 ziplocks and a couple of pieces of paper towels)
Call for Comments
- Calling all mountain running experts to add expertise to this guide!