Make Trails Safe Again

From Pam:
Runners head to the trails to get away from life’s problems and to escape from the responsibilities of modern life. But trail running can present some problems of its own, particularly if one gets a little too carefree when heading out into nature. Many of the problems in trail running stem from poor preparation or safeguards against the most common problems. But other issues can arise–such as injuries or animal encounters–and it behooves you to have some general knowledge of what to do in these situations.

As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The most common things that happen to trail runners are getting lost, getting stuck out in bad weather, and not having enough food and water. All of these problems can be mitigated or avoided by bringing a few basic items. And while this may seem like beginner-level advice, I’ve heard countless stories from very experienced runners who have run into trouble by being under-prepared.

Just recently, a friend of mine who was crewing at Western States set out for what she thought was an easy eight-mile run on some unfamiliar trails at Squaw Valley, California without any food or water. She ran into deep snow at high elevations and had to retrace her steps, turning her eight-mile run into 12. To make matters worse, it was a lot hotter than she expected. By the time she was finished, she was severely dehydrated and laid up all afternoon from exhaustion and vomiting.

Earlier this spring, I went for a run with some friends in nearby McDonald Forest, a place where we all knew the trails well. Or, at least we knew the trails we always run on well! When the main connector road was impassable due to logging, we decided to take a spur that none of us had ever done before. It turns out the road did NOT go where a few people assumed it did, and we ended up in a valley on the wrong side of the mountain 18 miles into a planned 20-mile run and still at least 12 miles from the car. To make matters worse, it had started to pour and none of us had jackets. Fortunately, one person knew someone who lived nearby and we sheepishly knocked on the door and got a ride back to our cars!

If you aren’t super familiar with the trails you are on, you should bring a map. I like to print maps that I find online and put them in a plastic Ziploc in my pack. This takes minimal investment on my part, but ensures that I’ll have a reference to double check when I come to a junction. For most trail systems a simple printout is sufficient, but if you are headed out into more remote areas, it is a good idea to pick up a topographic map of the area and learn how to use a compass.

Always bring more food and water than you think you’ll need. Even if you don’t get lost, trail conditions can make things a lot slower than you expect, natural water sources can be unreliable, or the weather conditions can make you need more than usual. I find I like to eat more than usual when it is cold and I drink more than usual when it is hot. Plan accordingly. Two or three hundred extra calories only weighs a couple ounces, but it may prevent that bonk when you are the most desperate! Similarly, there are many lightweight jackets and rain shells that weigh only a couple ounces and fit in a small pocket. Weather in the mountains can change quickly, even if it looks like a beautiful bluebird day.

Despite the best preparations, things can still go wrong–usually in the form of an injury. Fortunately, we have Liza on our team, an instructor for the Wilderness Medicine Institute and the National Outdoor Leadership School, to help us out here!

From Liza:
Okay, I’ve got to break the fourth wall à la Harvey Korman for a moment. Pam writes so well, and is always on point, and when she sent me what she’d written this month, I just couldn’t come up with anything to add besides: You all should go take a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid course.

The truth is, while I’ve run and worked in the mountains and other wild places, I’ve spent the majority of the last 10 years running trails in San Antonio, Texas. Our trails are beautiful and plentiful, but they don’t lend themselves to memorable trail-safety stories. Our snakes are disinterested, and while you can get lost for a while, it’s impossible to stay lost. Certainly heat emergencies are a safety hazard here, but the heat is really the last thing to inspire memorable writing at the end of July in Texas.

I decided to circle my neighborhood until I came up with a good angle–or a story that might drive home an important point, or at least something amusing. It was 9:30 p.m., and the Fiesta Texas fireworks were reaching their climax. (I always pretend the fireworks are celebrating my decision to run. Nice job, Liza!) But six miles of slow looping didn’t help, and I’d started to despair. My two year-old gets up at 5 a.m, and she frowns on computer time for anyone but herself.

Then the giant raccoon rushed out from behind a garbage can. It froze when it saw me and stared with his big glowing eyes. I could smell the rabies on its breath. I turned, sprinted down the road, up my driveway, tripped, twisted my ankle, skinned my knee, and sliced my finger open. I got up and hobbled into the house… inspired.

So, listen, you really should take a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course. It’s the best investment after shoes and socks you’ll make as a trail runner. ‘Cuz chances are you’re going to get hurt.

Knee Injury

Photo: Brian Austin four miles into a 50 miler

Or your good friend is going to get hurt.

Hand Injury

Photo: Eric Jenkins after tripping and landing on his hand. The avulsion got infected.

Or some nice stranger is going to get hurt.

Ankle Injury

Photo: Alan Velazco after slipping on a root on trails in Grapevine, Texas.

[Editor’s Note: The Trail Sisters have provided two more images of more severe trail injuries. Click to the links provided here to view them but be forewarned that they are graphic. Both individuals recovered. This head-injury image is of Kevin Jones after a fall running along the bluffs in Carlsbad, California. This finger-injury image is from John Fritchey after he fell and rolled over his hand at a trail race in Kansas.]

And it will happen somewhere along a trail where help won’t be quick in coming–somewhere you won’t be able to just walk into your house, call it a day, and lie on the couch with a bag of frozen peas on your ankle watching this season’s Salomon Running TV videos.

And what you’re able to do at the scene can be critical. As valuable as the first-aid skills you’ll learn on a these short courses are (taping rolled ankles, supporting twisted knees, wound care, and more), WFA’s also teach a system for gathering information. You can’t make good decisions or exercise good judgment without good information.

The runner you’re pacing runs into a low-hanging tree branch, gets knocked down, and sees black for a few eye blinks. Should they keep running if they feel up to it? Should they seek medical attention later? Should they seek it now?

Your friend comes into the Twin Lakes aid station at the Leadville 100 Mile. She’s complaining of a splitting headache, nausea, and lightheadedness. Should she continue up and over 12,600-foot Hope Pass? What if she’s coughing a bit?

You stumble into a cactus and one-inch spine punctures your calf. How do you clean the wound so it doesn’t get infected?

Snake bites, allergic reactions, blisters, hyponatremia, immersion foot… It’s wonderful to have skills and knowledge that allow you to help other people–especially other people who are runners. Wilderness First Aid training puts you in that position. And if you’re running or racing in remote wilderness areas, and you don’t have these basic skills…well, I think you should get them.

Three of the most widely recognized organizations in the United States that offer wilderness medicine training are: The Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA), and Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO). A Wilderness First Aid course is 16 hours long and taught over two days–and it’s more fun than any standard first-aid class you’ve ever taken. Prices vary, but are often in the $200 range. There are also some wonderful resources WMI has online and a great free app you can use to record information. Please let me know if you have any questions (or want to share scary raccoon stories.)

From Gina:
I have to say, Pam and Liza have nailed just about everything I could have suggested. Map, extra food and water, lightweight rain shell, and a course in wilderness first aid, but the one thing that I would like to add is the simple task of telling a friend or loved one where you plan on running and an approximate time you will return. Sure, your plans may change a bit when you are out on the trail, but alerting someone to your proposed route or trailhead can be a life saver.

A friend of mine from Carbondale, Colorado–let’s call him ‘Ted’–went for what he thought would be a 10-mile run in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. He wanted to link up a few trails but would need to do some bushwhacking to connect them. Ted told me he’d be out for approximately two to 2.5 hours. Four hours rolled by along with a nasty storm and I hadn’t heard from him. We planned on grabbing a bite after his effort, so I was expecting his call. Five hours went by and I was now worried that something had gone wrong. With knots of worry in my stomach, I hopped in my car and drove to the trailhead from which Ted was starting. Sure enough, his car was still in the parking lot. I brought some extra food, water, and an extra rain jacket since it had just stormed (and since they weigh next to nothing). I ran for about five miles following his route and found the area he had planned to bushwhack. I made my way through the brush and up to the scree field where Ted planned on trekking. About 30 minutes in, I heard him yelling my name. I looked up the scree field and about a quarter of the way down from the top was Ted curled up in a ball, drenched, and shivering. He severely rolled his ankle and was forced to take cover (the best he could) during the storm. By the time the storm passed, his ankle was so swollen that he was practically crawling down the scree field.

I worked my way up to Ted, and gave him the jacket, food, and water. We decided to wrap his ankle with my Buff to provide it with some support, and then made our way down the scree field and eventually back to the car.

Since Ted had alerted me to his route I was able to find him and provide help. A few more hours out would have put him in the chilly temps of the nighttime mountain air. He easily could have become hypothermic, which would have led to larger problems, and even possible death. So, always, always, always, tell someone where you are going!

From Liza:
The most unsafe I’ve probably ever been on a trail run was coming off Mount Elbert in Colorado in a lightning storm. I’d hiked up there to do some acclimatization before the Leadville 100. I’d started later than I’d planned, and it had taken me a bit longer than I thought it would, and low black clouds moved in quickly over the summit while I was eating a PB&J sandwich. I packed up and was halfway to treeline when the thunder started. Lightning followed quickly. Then hail.

And still more thunder. I sprinted, eyes on treeline, thinking about how no one would feel sorry for me if I got hit by lightning running off the top of Mount Elbert in a storm. “Well, of course she got struck by lightning. Why didn’t she descend earlier? It’s not like afternoon thunderstorms are a surprise in the Colorado mountains.” And I knew better. I’d just really wanted the time up high before the race. Flashes of lightning followed me into the trees and kept me moving fast for another 15 minutes–long enough to be sore the following day.

I sat in my car afterward, relieved my family wouldn’t have to apologize for my stupidity to a search-and-rescue team.

The whole thing was such a tired example of letting a plan or an important goal or time pressure supersede thoughtful hazard evaluation and decision making. I promised myself I’d think about setting turnaround times before I headed out on a run in the mountains in the future–when thunderstorms were likely.

From Pam:
Most trail runners have a good story of something gone wrong or disaster nearly averted. When you are on a trail there are plenty of things to trip you up, both literally and figuratively. A little extra forethought and some basic first-aid training will go a long way to help you battle all the ‘trail trolls’ that might be there to thwart a great run.

From Liza:
Or at least give them the finger. ;)

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What is your ‘close-call’ story, where you took a tumble, came across an accident on the trail, got stuck out in storms, or temporarily lost your way?
  • More importantly, can you articulate the lessons you learned from your close call and what you regularly do differently now to prevent something similar from happening again in the future?
Trail Sisters

is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.

There are 14 comments

  1. Luke

    After reading a blog post from a local runner who broke his pelvis on a fairly routine trail I frequent I got a satellite GPS messenger. My wife and I agree that the $50 up front (after rebate) and a modest monthly fee is probably the best investment I’ve made. I can check in hourly, let her know that I’m fine but will be later than expected, and of course get emergency help. Plus it’s pretty fun to have my family follow progress in ultras by having my location sent to a webpage every 10 minutes. It’s about the size of a clif bar.

    Things happen, I almost always choose to do my long runs solo, and really don’t want my family to worry every time I’m an hour late coming back. This is what worked for me.

  2. Markus

    Bad judgement is not the trails fault.

    While I was living in the mountains in Colorado, I saw it a lot of times. Runners don’t take the mountains serious enough. While they can be a nice playground if you know what you are doing, they are not a playground.

    For runs in mountains you should always carry more stuff than you actually need. Water, clothes, food. If something happens you will be happy that you have it.
    People also don’t realize how far away help would be, if something happens. At a normal 14er in Colorado that could be 12 -24 hours before mountain rescue arrives. These are not the European Alps where they can helicopter you out from almost everywhere.

    A race story:
    A couple years back it started snowing at the Continental divide during the San Juan Solstice 50 miler end of June. A lot of runners had to turn around because they had just a water bottle and a singlet on. No rain jacket or additional clothes. That’s what I call irresponsible.

  3. Marco Santa

    I run alone frequently and carry a small ACRLink PLB each time. My wife and emergency contact know where I am headed and the plan every time. I ensure the battery is tip top, self-test before the outing, make sure it is registered every 2 years with, and keep up with my SAR insurance card. Great article Trail Sisters. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Knowing about wilderness first aid is paramount to keep you from panicking when the shit hits the fan. Panic does nothing for nobody. We cover a a ton of ground and sometimes it can take 2-4 hours for a SAR ground team to get to you and assess if a chopper is needed, etc. Stemming blood flow (quick clot, tourniquet), extra clothing for shock, wrapping something that is broken (sam splint), having a mirror or bright colored bandana to tie around a stick or something. Regardless of when I run, always bring an extra light,s-caps, small buck knife, matches, and chemicals for water treatment. In addition, I wear one of those paracord bracelets. Leaving bread crumbs with you phone is also a good idea. Even if you do not retrieve a signal, technology can see when/where you tried.

  4. Robyn

    I took the Wilderness First Aid course this spring and agree that it’s a fantastic way to spend a weekend if you spend time outdoors. One of the best things about it is that it gives you a simple toolkit for *mentally* approaching a wilderness medical emergency, no matter what physical tools you are/aren’t carrying.

    Two weeks after taking the course, I was out on a group trail run at a local park. Coming up a deer trail, the runner behind me fell over a log and dislocated his elbow. He was in a great deal of pain and we were concerned for a displaced fracture.

    A quick exam indicated he was otherwise uninjured and I thought he could walk out. A runner pointed out we weren’t too far from a small trailhead in a residential neighborhood. The group problem-solved beautifully. Three faster runners took off to get to the parking lot (2-3 miles away) and move a car to the nearby trailhead. Meanwhile, three of us used jackets to immobilize his arm against his body and to keep him warm. Then we helped him walk out with support, reaching the trailhead shortly after the car did. Two of us accompanied him to the emergency room, where his family met him and he was treated.

    What did I learn from this not-very-wilderness-y wilderness medical situation?
    1. As the WMI folks say, “Spread calmness.” Good decision making happens when people are not panicked and not unnecessarily hurries.
    2. Following the airway/breathing/circulation-CNS/secondary survey protocol works, and doing something you’ve practiced is calming both to the patient and to the rescuer.
    3. If you’re going to get injured, do it with a bunch of trail runners. Everyone rose to the occasion with incredible, levelheaded teamwork. I’m proud to know such a selfless and hardworking bunch of people.

    1. Liza

      Going to share that with the folks at WMI, Robyn. I’m so very glad you found the course useful and did such a great job helping someone afterwards.

  5. Jackie

    I am a newish ultra runner so take this for what it is worth. One thing I do is take pictures of my maps with my phone. Then when I am out I can quickly pull out the phone to check where I am on the trail. It is easier for me to do this than unfold and then fold up a map. I also don’t ruin the map with sweaty hands. I have also printed out race course or training run maps with the aid station locations, milage to the next aide, etc., and carried that in a baggie as well. Seems simple but this info has come in handy. I think once you have been running in the wilderness a while and nothing bad happens to you you might tend to get a little careless. I try and stay humble.

    1. Markus

      once your phone runs out of power you wish you had a map to unfold again. To rely on technology is not a good idea in the mountains.

        1. Gina Lucrezi

          Hey Jackie!
          You are absolutely right that people begin to feel confident and too safe. Sure no one wants to envision the worst, but the second you start believing your invincible…is the second things go downhill. Like you, I usually take photos of my maps, but Markus has a good point that eventually that phone battery will/could die.

  6. Megan

    I appreciate all these good reminders. I had an experience recently where I met up with a new running group and I followed them into the hills- in 90 degree weather- for a 4 mile run. I’m from the valley and never take water with me on a 4 mile run, it just isn’t hot enough or strenuous enough running on flat neighborhood roads. So, in all my naiveté , I assumed I wouldnt need water for this hill/trail run either. We hadn’t gone a mile when I realized my huge mistake. Now, I know 4 miles isn’t a massive distance however, it started to mess with my head, knowing that I didn’t have water and didn’t really know anyone I’d feel comfortable asking for a drink. I was running in a panicked state which was scary and it kept my eyes distracted from the dirt trail I was running on. Potentially hazardous. (I’m shaking my head at myself as I recount this story. So. so. dumb.) One trail leader ended up taking a shorter route and I followed her back. All’s well that ends well. But I feel I learned a valuable lesson about never underestimating the value of being prepared. I had a tiny uncomfortable experience that taugh me a BIG lesson and I have changed my running preparations since.
    It’s like my gear/maps/preparation should be equal to or exceed the potential demand of anything out there in the wild. Then I can run without fear. And that’s running free.

  7. Andy M

    For those of us who have been running for a long time — and running long — there are probably too many close calls to count!

    The most memorable for me, early in my ultrarunning “career,” was a late afternoon, late spring exploration at Bear Mtn, NY — had never been there before, had no map, and one water bottle with maybe one gel. It was intended to be a 90-min outing.

    But what were pretty good conditions at the parking lot turned into knee deep post-holing thru spring snowpack as I ascended. I completely lost my way (if you know the park you’d know that it’s a crazy labyrinth of trails), was running out of fluids (at least there was snow-pack), and dusk was rapidly approaching. Then I slid down a large rock and gashed my leg. Now blood is flowing and I have nothing to use as a tourniquet — wearing shorts and a t-shirt!

    As the sun started to set, I came across a large, ice-choked stream and drew on some very basic backwoods knowledge and followed it downstream. I knew the general direction and was pretty sure it was heading down the correct ridge. Eventually I intersected the trail back and arrived at the car just as the sun was setting. More than an hour later than anticipated.

    Lessons learned:

    1. Always bring more fluid and calories than you think you’ll need
    2. If it’s difficult and/or unfamiliar terrain, bring some basic first aid stuff
    3. Never run in the later part of the day without a headlamp/flashlight on hand
    4. Bring a map (yeah, the plastic baggie thing is my go-to in unfamiliar places)
    5. Bring a compass or, at the very least, know a bit about back-country nav

  8. Rob Sargeant

    When trail running I usually carry my Camel Pack with extra gels and salt tabs. If it’s steep, rocky, terrain, I often wear gloves. I’m looking into getting a tracking device called “Trackimo”. This allows friends and family to track my movements in the wilderness by GPS on a computer application and also has an “SOS” button that I can press if I really get into trouble. I haven’t met any runners yet who use a Trackimo.

  9. Thierry

    When looking at coverage for big runs like hard rock, etc.. It seems to me the top of the pack runners sre the ones being too confident/careless (as mentioned by jacki). They only bring pack for some parts of the race ( usually the night) some even seem to carry no or little water… No jacket.
    In her interview about last year, Anna Frost mentions she was cold during the night, you would think that with all their expetience, they would bring too much rather than too little, but from pics we see, it seems to be the opposite. Especially since they all can have free top tech gear that weighs nothing and takes little room.
    I always have a long sleeve shirt plus a weather jacket, no matter how hot it is, plus about 50% more food/water than i think i’ll need, and i live in europe where there is a village or a hut everywhere, well except scandinavia.

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