What to bring trail running when you’re just starting out

I had a complex for a long time that I wasn’t running far enough to justify packing a backpack when I went trail running. Eventually, I realized I was getting really thirsty and hungry and I just stopped caring. If you find yourself wanting to bring a hydration vest or pack along with you, don’t be shy! Here are some beginner tips for what to bring with you.

The basics

Bring your phone. Even if you don’t take it out at all for pictures and running is your time to unplug, bring your phone with you so you can get help if you need it.

I would not recommend bringing headphones. I know there are companies out there that say you can still be aware of your surroundings with their specially designed headphones, but honestly if you’re trail running, I don’t think you should be wearing headphones.

You aren’t the only other person out on a trail, and a mountain biker or other trail user might need to get by you. You don’t want to startle any equestrians, either. Also, even though you’re unlikely to have a wildlife encounter, you should be aware of what’s going on around you just in case. You can’t do that with headphones in.

Bring your id and health insurance card. In case something happens to you and you need medical assistance. If you have any health conditions that medical professionals need to know about in an emergency, make sure that’s also stored with your insurance card and id (or wear a bracelet with the information on it).

First aid

Pack a few simple first aid supplies, even if you’re not going very far. It can be really handy to have things in a pinch (especially if that pinch is poop-related). I just pack a couple of each things (1-2 doses, a handful of Band-Aids, etc) and put it all in a little Ziploc bag.

  • Benadryl (Billy found out the hard way he was allergic to something in a park we ran in. This was a lifesaver for making it back to the car!)
  • Immodium or Tums/ginger pills/digestion aid of choice
  • Band-Aids
  • Antiseptic wipes

I also bring a little travel-size hand sanitizer since most bathrooms at trailheads don’t have running water and soap. Also helpful if you’re eating gels and you get them on your hands – those bad boys are sticky!

Water and electrolytes

It can be a tricky balance between packing plenty of water and then having to cart around said water. Water is heavy, but I recommend over-packing the first few times until you can dial in how much you’ll need.

I’m not a nutrition expert by any means, so I Googled how much water you “should” bring. Most guidelines I found online for water and food were based on mileage, but when you’re first starting out it can take you a lot longer to do “only a few” miles. Pack your water based on how long you’ll be out and your own level of thirst.

Depending on your pack, you may have space for a reservoir in the back or water bottles up front on your chest. It’s personal preference which way you pack your water. If you do bring bottles, or if you have an extra bottle, it can be nice to fill one with electrolytes if you’re sweating a lot or going to be out for an hour or more.

My first few trail runs on my own were on a 3.8-mile loop that took me about 45 minutes. I get really really thirsty, so I always packed a half-liter of water. When I was training for a half marathon and my long road runs were about an hour or longer, I started packing electrolytes and it made a big difference in how fatigued I felt. I got this small 250mL soft bottle since I didn’t need *that* much.

Food and snacks

Have a little something with you in case you have a tough day and are out longer than you thought you would be. Again, I am not a nutrition or medical professional, but I never leave home with out some sort of sustenance.

My go-to is Clif Shot Bloks (without caffeine). I always make sure to have at least half a sleeve with me. If I’m out for less than an hour, I typically don’t need to eat anything, but listen to your body! There’s no shame in packing plenty of snacks.

Gels are easy to digest, which is why they are very popular. But be prepared for trial and error with flavors and brands. I discovered the hard way that I can only tolerate citrus flavors with minimal or no caffeine, and I stuck with Clif because they were cheaper than other brands.

You can also bring normal human food with you. Fig Newtons, applesauce, and PB&J sandwiches are all great options (you could also just keep these back in the car). I’ve also heard of people packing baby food/purees. I haven’t personally tried this, but Billy did get some purees that weren’t much different from applesauce and he liked them. Baby food is weirdly expensive, though, so keep that in mind.

Eating while running is unfortunately one giant experiment to find out what works the best for you. It took me five or six times of running more than an hour to figure out what wouldn’t give me a terrible stomachache (or what wasn’t enough to fill my stomach). Try running snacks, try regular food, and find out what you like! Personally, the running snacks are a fun treat that make me look forward to running. You don’t always need a scientific reason to do one or the other!

Other equipment

Depending on the terrain and time of year, you may want to bring microspikes or another traction option. Obviously, these cost money, so I consider them an optional upgrade (aka great Christmas gift) to help you get outside year-round.

The trail running world tends to debate over whether using hiking poles makes you a “real” runner or not. Some people hate them, some people love them. They are also expensive, so I don’t consider them required equipment either.

Poles make hills easier, but are another thing to tote around, so it also depends on how much stuff you want to bring with you. I like having them for longer runs, especially as a beginner on very hilly Colorado trails. But I was also doing just fine before I got them for Christmas!

I also like to bring an extra layer with me (or leave room to stash one) during fall/spring/winter when the temperature can fluctuate wildly. Throwing a pair of gloves into your pack is never a bad idea if you’re on the fence!

The bottom line

Pack based on how long you think you’ll be out (worst case scenario), not how many miles you’re running. Overpack at first while you figure out how much you need. Experiment with what your stomach likes. Don’t forget a few Band-Aids.

And as always, have fun!

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