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Heading out on a mountain run ill-prepared is a bit like showing up to football practice without a helmet. You might be able to play, but it’s sure going to hurt.

Minimal required gear is part of what makes running so attractive. A pair of shoes (and that’s even debatable) and your own legs are all you need to log a few miles.

But as we start running longer or in more rugged terrain, additional gear becomes essential not only to keep things enjoyable, but for your safety. There are 5 pieces of gear I believe are necessary to keep you moving effectively and safely during mountain trail running adventures.

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Gear for Mountain Trail Runners

1) Trail Running Shoes

Trail specific shoes are designed for the rugged terrain and varied surfaces that you don’t find on the road. The main differences between road and trail shoes are:

  • Larger lugs on the bottom of the shoe to better grip the dirt, mud, or rock
  • A thin rock plate below your insole to protect the foot against sharp rocks or sticks
  • A tougher upper built to withstand the additional beating from rugged trails

The more technical, or challenging the trail is, the more important a trail running specific shoe becomes.

2) Upper Body Layers

Mountain weather is variable and unpredictable, especially as you climb in elevation. While it might be sunny and warm at the base of the mountain, wind or rain could be waiting for you on the summit.

Always prepare for the worst and pack upper body layers to protect yourself against changing temperature and weather.

3) Hydration System

As road runners switch to trails, they often have to worry about a water source for the first time. No longer will you find water fountains or public bathrooms along your route.

When headed out on a trail run, plan to carry all the water you’ll need with you. Popular options include handheld bottles and hydration packs.

Packs are also a good way to carry and store additional layers or fuel for longer trail runs.

4) Reliable Headlamp

If a remote trail or ultramarathon is on your bucket list, it will often require a pre-dawn start to allow for enough time. Night running is also a great way to enhance your training with the additional variables that come with darkness.

When running in the dark, most trail runners choose to arm themselves with a headlamp to illuminate the trail. And don’t forget to pack an extra set of batteries just in case.

5) Map

Too often I come across reports of an emergency rescue or a runner narrowly escaping a dangerous situation because they got lost. Even if you think you know where you’re going, pack a map or have one handy (that doesn’t require a signal) on your phone or GPS.

There’s no shame in stopping at a trail intersection to confirm you’re headed in the right direction.

Essential Gear is Relative

Not all trails are created equal. What’s essential for one run may be entirely different than the next, so being prepared is what’s most important.

Take the time to plan out your route and research what gear will be needed for the trail, weather conditions, and time of year.

You never want to be the one that over packs or is stuck carrying too much gear, but when you’re far from home and the weather turns sour, you’ll be glad you packed that extra layer or fuel.