Gear-obsessed editors choose every product we review. We may earn commission if you buy from a link. How we test gear.

Everything You Need to Start Trail Running

With the right gear and technique, anyone can become a trail runner. The co-founder of a trail running tour company shares his tips and recommends gear to get you going.

two people running on a trail in the fall
Trevor Raab
The Expert: A competitive trail runner since 1994 and co-owner of the trail running tour company Adventure Running Co., Andy Holak has been running trails for nearly three decades. Through their company, Andy and his wife, Kim, help runners of all abilities venture out onto trails confidently and enthusiastically.

So, you’d like to take your running off-road and onto the trails? It’s a lot less complicated and intimidating than you might think. Although trail running is natural and intuitive—it’s something humans have been doing for millennia—there are tips and tricks to help make it easier to start.

Trail running is simply running on any unpaved surface, and it combines the physical act of running with the enjoyment of your natural surroundings. As a former road runner, I was drawn to trails nearly 30 years ago because while I really liked to run, I liked getting out in the woods and enjoying nature’s beauty just as much. When you’re running trails, you’re forced to be agile. Navigating around and bouncing past rocks and roots is less repetitive than road running, but you still get in a great workout.

If you’re new to the sport, find yourself a pair of trail shoes that fit your feet and match your anticipated conditions (for a few recommendations from our gear team, check out the 2022 RW Shoe Awards). I began trail running before there were trail running–specific shoes, and lacing up my highly cushioned road shoes often resulted in a sprained ankle. When I finally found a good pair of low-profile trail shoes with less cushion, allowing me to feel the ground, I found my stride and flew down the trails with abandon. Trail-running shoes have larger lugs for improved grip, toe bumpers for when you inevitably kick a rock, and sometimes a rock plate to protect against sharp pokes underfoot. It’s important to find a shoe that can lock your foot into place with a solid lacing system or grippier footbed. This increases your agility while keeping your toes from smashing into the front of your shoe on downhills.

More Trail Running Advice: Prepare Your Body and Mind for Your First Trail RaceAsk The Gear Team: Should I Upgrade My Trail Shoes?A Runner’s Guide to Animal Encounters

Ankle stability is also crucial for increasing agility. Although you can’t strengthen your ankles (there aren’t muscles in them), you can improve proprioception. Proprioception is basically the signal your nerves send to your brain that your ankle is turning or unstable on uneven terrain. I’ve used balancing exercises like single-​leg squats (try them with your eyes closed) to help improve my proprioception. This can help you reduce ankle sprains, as well as run with speed, stability, and confidence in rough terrain.

Trails don’t have to be steep and rugged; they can be as simple as the dirt path in your local park. In fact, that local park is a great place to start. Practice picking up your feet a bit more to avoid ground obstacles. I generally think of it as lifting my heel toward my butt in rougher terrain while striding forward. Although it might feel different at first, with time, you won’t be thinking about it all. And be prepared to walk more. I tell myself when trail running or racing, “Walk where you have to and run when you can.” This might mean walking steep uphills and really technical sections, where a strong power-walking stride can be more efficient than running, and then running where the trail flattens out or tips downhill.

Most importantly, take time to enjoy the views. Whenever I get tired, focusing on the scenery is a welcome reminder that there’s likely not a better place I could be at that moment than on a trail enjoying a run.

Build Your Own Trail-Running Kit

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Best Rain Jacket for Trail Running
Gorewear
R7 Gore-Tex Shakedry Trail Hooded Jacket
Best Men’s Trail Running Shirt
Kitsbow
Superflow Cooling Tee
Best Trail Running Socks
Fox River
Run Inyanka Medium Weight Quarter Crew Socks
Best Trail Running Vest
Ultimate Direction
Ultra Vest 6.0 Running Vest
Best Navigation App
Gaia
GPS App
Best Headlamp for Trail Running
Black Diamond
Storm 450 Headlamp
Best Trail Running Nutrition
Honey Stinger
Waffle
Pre-Run Checklist
hr

Trail running is for everyone. For shorter runs, you just need your shoes, some moisture-wicking clothing, and a thirst for adventure. If you’re going a little longer, here are some tips to make your run more enjoyable and get you home safe:

➥ Run with someone else, if possible, before venturing out onto more remote trails alone.

Especially if you venture out alone, share your planned route and expected return time with family or friends.

➥ Carry a water bottle and some salty snacks to stay hydrated and maintain your electrolytes. Having a couple of your favorite snacks can help you avoid the dreaded bonk.

➥ Know your route. Use a mapping app on your phone, but bring a paper map as backup and learn how to read it.

➥ Bring a cellphone, or satellite communicator in remote areas, in case of emergency.

➥ Dress for the expected weather conditions, and carry rain gear and some extra clothes if you’re going long in remote areas.

➥ When venturing further afield, carry the 10 essentials: matches and a firestarter, a space blanket or shelter, a map and compass, a headlamp, a small first aid kit, sun protection, a small knife, extra clothes, extra food, and extra water.

➥ Learn how to fall. Inevitably, we’ll all take a tumble on the trail. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is try to catch yourself. Just go with it, tuck, and roll!

Related: Even More Trail Running Gear

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Running Gear