Two trail running on a mountain path.

Blaze a Trail:
Tips for Getting Started Trail Running

Tired of pounding the pavement? Bored with running on a treadmill? You've come to the right place. And while trail running may seem intimidating at first, just think of it as hiking with some extra pep in your step. However, there are a few things to know before you go.

Going off road

A good trail run can't be replicated by darting through city streets or hoofing it on the hamster wheel. The crunch of earth underfoot, the quiet of the air overhead…you get the picture.

Finding your happy place takes some advance scouting. Search online for options near you and tap into the tight-knit trail running community by asking around at running events and your local running/outdoor store. In addition, runner-friendly social networks like Strava allow you to post, follow, and get insights from like-minded locals.

Trail finders like the AllTrails app and the American Hiking Society's "Hikes Near You" search feature can also help. Just know that while many hiking trails double as running trails, not all are created equal and a modest hike can easily translate into a difficult run.

It is always a good idea to prepare your body for a new running regimen. You can check out Columbia’s guide to training for trail running to get started.

Time travel

Unlike road, track, or treadmill, a trail run is more about how long you want to go, not how far, so be prepared to trade miles for minutes. Here's a quick primer to choose the run for you:

  • Short burst (30 minutes): A brisk run of about 1.5-3.5 miles round trip with some elevation gain/decline on mostly groomed trails.

  • In the zone (30-60 minutes): Roughly 3-6 miles round trip with moderate elevation gain/decline across varied terrain with some obstacles (rocks, trees, etc.).

  • Around the bend (60-90 minutes): This could be a longer run (say, 6-10 miles round trip) on moderate terrain or a run/hike mix for shorter but more rugged routes.

Give pace a chance

Depending on conditions, terrain, fitness, and other factors, it generally takes longer to run a mile on the trail. While some trails are groomed and sedate, others are uneven and wild. Adjust your stride to the conditions and your comfort level knowing that you may need to power hike more than run at times.

Look out ahead

While you don't want to run looking directly at your feet, you do want to continually assess what's a stride or three ahead. While some find trail running more forgiving on ankles, knees, and joints, it can require dynamic movement to navigate obstacles and uneven ground. Keep your ambitions in check as you're likely to discover you're using some muscles while trail running that you didn't even realize you had.

Unplug for real

You're getting out into nature for a reason. Embrace it. The Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," has an application in trail running whether you're scampering among trees or not. Let the setting around you be your motivation in place of watching a cooking show on the treadmill screen or having headphones thumping to your Maximum Effort Playlist. Plus, there's a safety benefit to being tuned in to what's around you on the trail.

Essential gear

Less is more when it comes to what you carry with you on a trail run. But while traveling as light as possible is the goal, you'll still want essentials for the type of run you're on. With the right gear and planning trail running is a year-round activity. Whether you want to stay cool while trail running in summer, beat the winter blues with a winter trail run, or get muddy trail running in the rain, preparation is key.

  • Shoes. The differences between a trail shoe and a road shoe vary by the type of runner you are and the conditions you're running in but trail running shoes are typically designed for enhanced stability, traction, and performance on variable terrain.

  • Running tops. Opt for a lightweight running shirt that allows for freedom of movement and has features like sweat-wicking fabric and built-in sun protection. For cooler and windy weather, a light running jacket provides extra utility and coverage.

  • Running bottoms. You're not going to move particularly fast and light in jeans. Running shorts and/or tights are designed for a purpose and often include convenient features like a zip security pocket to stash small essentials like your keys, ID, etc.

  • Water. For short outings (see Short Burst), you can go without or use lightweight hand-grip water bottles. For longer excursions (see In the Zone and Around the Bend) a hydration belt or backpack can keep you from running dry without weighing you down.

  • Running pack. Running-specific packs are built for snug and secure lightweight storage and often feature built-in compartments for a hydration bladder.

  • Nutrition. Lightweight energy gels, granola bars, and small snacks are all good fuel to keep you moving, particularly on longer runs.

  • Navigation. Plan out your route in advance whenever possible. Trail markers can help up to a point but a physical trail map, the AllTrails app, or a GPS-equipped device can be particularly useful. Just remember a smartphone can get dumb quickly without a signal.

  • Stash and dash. If you're parking at a trailhead, stow fresh clothes, extra water, and food—along with just-in-case items like a first aid kit—to greet you upon your return.
Want more outdoors? Connect with @Columbia1938 on Instagram. Or sprint over to our trail running page.