Is Trail Running Dangerous? Stay Safe on the Trails

“Aren’t you worried about something bad happening?” This is a question I often hear when I say that I love trail running and that I spend many hours each week out in the middle of the forest/jungle (depending on where I am in the world). Is trail running dangerous? Yes, it can be.

However, in my opinion, trail running isn’t any more dangerous than road running. If you take the right precautions, that is. Begin to go on your runs without the proper gear or the correct amount of hydration/nutrition, and it’s a matter of when, not if, you put yourself into a precarious situation.

So, I’ve written this post. This is to help you avoid making mistakes that could hurt you or worse. This won’t help avoid all potential hazards, but it will save you from making some mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

Take more water than you need

Bring enough water and then some

It’s simple. Having more water is better than not having enough. Take it from someone who’s been there.

I’ve learned this valuable lesson through multiple instances of trial and error. Being out on a trail, hot or cold, and not having water while you’re miles away from the nearest source is not a pleasant experience. And it can be a quite dangerous situation depending on your circumstances, especially with the possibility of dehydration lurking.

So the best decision here is just take more than you think you’ll need. Sure, this will lead to an increase in weight at the start of your run. But, as you drink it, your pack gets noticeably lighter. It’s a nice double-whammy! You’re hydrating yourself, and your run is getting easier as it gets longer.

By keeping yourself hydrated, your body can regulate its temperature better, remove any created waste, and helps energizes our cells, organs, and muscles. Water is a critical component in that if you want your run to go smoothly.

But don’t drink too much

This may sound like I’m telling a story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but it is important to try and keep a good balance during your run. Not too much, but not too little. We need it to be just right.

Taking in too much water can also lead to negative effects, such as upset stomach, bloating, or worse. When you’re running and sweating, you’re not just sweating out water—you’re losing sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes. These need to be replenished, just like water.

“But it has electrolytes”

Kudos if you got the above reference. But it does hint at something important. Your body does need electrolytes. It just isn’t the only thing it needs as they believed in Idiocracy.

Drink too much water and don’t take in enough sodium, you risk having an imbalance that can lead to serious health consequences. So it’s best to have a mixture of water and something that contains electrolytes. Although it contains a lot of sugar, Gatorade or Powerade are not bad options. I’ve found that mixing them with some water helps balance out the stomach problems you may get from the high amounts of sugar all at once.

Tips


Stash it

This is great if you’re doing a loop or multiple loops. If you can store extra water in your vehicle and have the ability to stop back to refill after each loop, this really lightens the load you’ll be carrying. And, if you have the storage space of your vehicle, you can take even more water just to be on the safe side.

Here’s what I do. If my run is going to be two hours or longer and I know that I will be passing by my motorbike again, I will fill two 250mL soft flasks to take with me. This is often more than enough for me as I don’t usually require a lot of water. However, it’s also nice to know that I can drink more water without worrying about running out.

When I loop back around to my bike, I will have one or two 1.5L bottles waiting in my bike storage. I’ll simply refill to the amount I need and carry on my way.

Don’t have a bike or vehicle you can use? That’s fine, too. If you can find a place on the trail—a log, some overgrowth, etc.—where you can hide it, then you’re equally set. Usually, I’ll just find some overgrowth. I put my pack down, cover it up, and I’m on my way until the next loop, when I’ll stop and refill. Just be sure to know exactly where it is, or maybe put some type of marker so that you know. The only thing worse than being dehydrated is being dehydrated and unable to find your hydration.

This will usually result in me having leftover water, but it’s always a good thing to replace the water you may have lost post-run (even if you don’t feel dehydrated). Having the peace of mind to know that you’ve got yourself covered takes one less worry out of your run.

Water bottles/packs

There are loads of different options for water bottles, especially as running becomes more popular. Here are some popular ones:

  • Handheld water bottle
  • Waist pack
  • Vest

Each of these are great for different circumstances and different distances. The choice will ultimately come down to your personal hydration needs and what you feel comfortable with.

For me, if my run is going to be 90 minutes or less, I will usually take a handheld water bottle or a waist pack that holds two smaller water bottles of 150mL. This will take care of my hydration and stay mostly out of my way during my run. In addition, the waist pack will often include a small pouch where you can stash any nutrition you need or your phone (which I strongly recommend having on all trail runs).

I’ll opt for my vest if it’s a longer run. This will give me a lot more storage space and allow me to take any additional things to keep me safe/healthy (phone, nutrition, poles, first aid, etc.). Most vests will usually come with a water bladder that can usually hold around 1.5L to 3L of water/sports drink. Depending on the distance, I may take the soft flasks I mentioned above just to be on the safe side.

Check the weather

Check the weather before you leave

No way to get around it. When you’re running in a forest or any type of nature, you’re a slave to the elements. There’s usually no cover you can retreat to, and most weather-wear is only going to keep you protected for so long before nature wins out. This is true for rain, sun, snow, or extreme winds. And, depending on where you live, this can change fast.

So it’s best to always be prepared for the unexpected. Doesn’t look like it’s going to rain? Not a bad idea to have some type of protection just in case.

Eh, it’s a bit cloudy outside, I don’t think the sun will be a factor today. Why risk it? All you have to do is take some extra water, apply some sunscreen, and take a hat.

That’s not a lot to do just to keep yourself safe.

Tips


Forecast

As a trail runner, you should pay special attention to the weather forecast and what experts predict. Keeping a close eye on this will help you avoid many potential problems. And adjust your gear for any changes you see.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made before was going out on my run when it was a beautiful day at the start and not taking anything but a water bottle, my shoes, and the clothes on my back.

Well, half an hour into my run, a storm descended. And I’m not just talking about some rain that feels like a child spits on you. This was a full-on deluge. The wind was ripping the tall trees surrounding me back and forth. The trail had turned to a small river. And the temperature had gone down, and I was only wearing a pair of running shorts and a running tank top. I didn’t even have my phone on me—it was on my bike —in case anything happened. You know, like one of these massive trees falling on my head.

I was not properly equipped. At all.

Luckily, nothing serious happened. Some slipping and sliding, some tree cracks that almost made my lunch eject from my body, but I was fine. And I learned from that instance.

Now, I pay closer attention to the weather and the forecast before heading out on my run, just in case.

Know your route

Know your route like the back of your hand

It will help greatly if you’re also familiar with the route you’re heading out on. By knowing the danger spots and any safe spots you can get to if needed, you significantly reduce the opportunity for a mishap.

This is difficult if you’re heading out on a route you’ve never run before. However, there are many resources available that can help.

Tips


Maps

Check the maps of the route that you’re heading out on. You can see a decent amount of the terrain by simply looking at the terrain map and knowing the terrain you will be running in. You can potentially spot some areas that could be more troublesome and others where you will be fine.

Some great apps and websites have been created with trail runners specifically in mind. Some worth noting:

  • Google Maps
    • Well, Google Maps isn’t specifically for trail runners, but it’s a tool I have used countless times to look at the route I have planned and to analyze the terrain I will be running through. A bit limited, largely because it’s built for actual roads, it can still be a useful tool.
  • Strava Heat Maps
    • This is my favorite resource on this list. I use Strava Heat Maps regularly, which is the primary tool I use when mapping out a run. By aggregating GPS data from the routes that Strava’s users run, it forms a gold mine of route planning options for trail runners.
  • AllTrails
    • AllTrails is one I have used on a few occasions and has helped me find some nice trails. You will find a lot of “trail runs” on here that are not actual trail runs. Sometimes they are even concrete paths. It is also limited to trails that are listed by people. So if it’s a trail that someone never bothered to add, then it won’t be listed.
  • Gaia GPS
    • Not necessarily a trail running app, but more a great complement to your route planning. The other downside is that this is largely limited to the United States. So any international runners will be left hanging using this.
  • Trail Run Project
    • If you couldn’t tell by the obvious-sounding name, this app is a fantastic option for trail runners. Run by REI, the outdoors company, this app is slowly aggregating as much trail information as it can into one giant resource. This app also offers many features that others don’t—reviews, photos, detailed descriptions, elevation maps, conditions, and also about any plants or wildlife you may find. Largely dependent on people reporting it, it does have its limitations.

Or, you can get really brave and read a paper map. But let’s not get too crazy here. Wouldn’t wanna burn up our brains.

Reviews

If it’s a more popular route, you will have more options. Read reviews people wrote about the route. They may mention anything that you should be wary of. You can find many of these reviews using the map resources listed above, but you can also just Google the trail name (depending on its popularity, of course), and you will find reviews, forums, etc. that can give you information to help.

Pictures

Look up pictures to get an idea of what the terrain is like. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that large amounts of the Earth were still undiscovered. Nowadays, it seems like there isn’t a part of the world that hasn’t been Instagrammed, Facebooked, or blogged about. We live in the golden age of information—use it to your advantage.

Insects and wildlife

Be careful of dangerous wildlife

Let’s be real here. If you’re trail running, you better be comfortable with the possibility of insects (and their biting/stinging) and wildlife. It’s inevitable.

As I mentioned in my post, How are Road Running and Trail Running Different? A Helpful Guide, you’re essentially running through their home. It’s a matter of when, not if, you will encounter something you don’t want to.

For me, this has consistently been stray dogs that are roaming the trails. However, there are much larger and more dangerous animals you may see. You should prepare for this because it’s definitely not something you want to just pop up on you, and you’re ill-equipped.

With that said, one of the most common things I hear when I mention I am a trail runner is, “But, what about wild animals?!”

Wildlife encounters are not that common on the trail. Most animals are going to hear/smell/see you coming, and they’re going to get away as fast as possible. The old adage of “they’re more scared of you than you are of them” is often true.

Knowing the types of insects is important, too. It’s much easier to see that giant bear walking across the trail, but you don’t see that little green insect that just bit you—setting off an allergic reaction. Know your allergies and how you can deal with any potential issues.

Information is power, and you want the power in your hands.

Tips


Know your route

I know I said this above, but it’s another element of planning that you should add. Knowing the types of wildlife that you may encounter will make you much more prepared to deal with the worst-case scenario.

For me, living in Thailand, this usually comes in the form of snakes. It is critical to know the types of snakes, how to identify them, and how dangerous they are. There are many venomous snakes in Thailand, so knowing how to deal with a potential bite is literally a life-or-death situation. As a result, I have a list on my phone of the types of snakes, what local hospitals have the correct anti-venom, and what emergency numbers to call in the event of a bite. I haven’t had to use it yet, and I hope it stays that way, but it’s better to have it just in case.

Have a plan

There are different ways to deal with wild animals. It is best to do your research to know the dos and don’ts. Is it better to stand your ground, make yourself as big as possible, and try to scare the animal off? Or is it better to back away slowly, maintain eye contact, and make no sudden movements? Animals will be different, and these actions won’t always work. But, knowing what generally works is better than anything you’re going to think of in the heat of the moment.

More than anything, do not be the fool trying to outrun a wild animal. Comparatively, we humans are slow, and we’re easy targets. Running away is only going to incite that animal to give chase. And that’s a race you probably won’t win.

Run with a friend

Find a buddy to run with

This is especially the case if you’re exploring trails that are unknown to you. Your chances of a successful trail run will be far higher if you have someone with you that can help make decisions, help if you (or they) get injured, or encounter wild animals. All of these things will be far easier if you have a partner.

Tips


Look online

Don’t have any friends or acquaintances that like to run trails? First, find new friends. Your current ones are missing out on the fun.

Only kidding. You can check online, though. There are people you can connect with through social media, forums, etc., that would be willing to join and are looking for someone to help keep them safe as well. I’ve seen countless Facebook and Strava groups where people regularly meet up for runs. Power in numbers here.

Obviously, this comes with its own set of risks, so you should always use your common sense and be careful. It may be a good idea to go on a few shorter, more well-known routes with the person to get to know them first.

Share your route

If you truly can’t find anyone to run with you, then be sure to share your route with family and friends. Ideally, someone who is reliable, responds quickly, and knows how to handle a bad situation.

You should let them know when you’re planning on running, where you’re going (including a route map would be great), how long it should generally take you, and how long they should wait before contacting help if they don’t hear from you.

Honestly, this is something that many people should do in their general life, but it takes on an added importance when you’re going to be out on a trail, far away from the nearest help.

Bring the right gear

Is Trail Running dangerous? not if you have the right gear!

This one sounds obvious, but it’s something I think that a lot of trail runners—inexperienced or experienced—often overlook. And it can result in a very dangerous situation.

There have been times when I’ve gone out for a run, fully expecting to be back before it’s dark. Well, then I took a few wrong turns, couldn’t get the GPS to work on my phone, and I’m a little confused about which way to go. That medium-length run I had planned just turned into a long run—at least in terms of time.

The sun starts to descend, and my sight (already not the best) gets worse as the trees block out the little light that’s making the trail easy to see. After stumbling over some rocks, almost tripping, and hurting myself a few times, I’d arrive back at my bike. By this time, it was completely dark, and I couldn’t imagine being on the trail.

All of this, and other situations, could have been easily avoided had I just brought the right gear—like a headlamp.

Tips


Prepare for the worst

Trail runners can be a confident bunch, especially once you have been trail running for a while. We start to leave out items to save some weight. “Ahh, I won’t need my headlamp; I’ll be back hours before the dark sets in,” we say.

But why risk it? A headlamp isn’t very heavy. And it’s literally a life-saver in the right conditions.

So it’s best to pack that gear, just in case. Your run could go longer, you may fall and need a bit of a rest before carrying on, or maybe a wild pack of dogs decided they were going to chase you for a kilometer—at which point you weren’t paying much attention to the trail, and now you have the faintest idea where you are.

Or, as mentioned above, a storm could set in and put you in a very bad position because you don’t have the right gear. Having done the work for you already, trust me on this one, and always be prepared.

Preparation for the worst will always be the best course of action.

Make a small checklist

This doesn’t have to be something that is hanging on your fridge or that you use religiously. But it is a great idea to have something you can reference to ensure you have everything you need for your run.

This will also help those moments where you arrive at the trail, pull out your pack, and realize, “Oh my, I’ve forgotten _______ again.” Just treat it like a packing list for a trip.

These small changes will result in fewer headaches and tirades against you for being stupid. Oh, is that last one just me?

Conclusion

I think trail running is one of the best activities you can do. The combination of exercise and being in nature provides a calming effect on my body and brain. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect as long as you set off.

You have to always be prepared for a worst-case scenario and what you will need to do. An injury, having no water, or being lost while you’re miles from your nearest destination is not a predicament you want to be in. Taking some small, easy steps will help lessen the chances of something bad happening and increases the chance that you’ll get to enjoy your run.

And that is the ultimate goal.


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