curious little bear in the forest

Last week, I found myself in a scary situation.

It’s around 11:00 on Tuesday morning, and I am a mile or so from my bike at the trailhead of a scarcely used trail not far from my home. This particular trail, which I often use as a connector to a larger trail loop, is just over 1 mile in length. And it’s steep.

To give you an idea of how steep, it usually takes me around 21 minutes to get to the top, and only 7 to get back down.

I’m just starting back down the steep stuff to round out a solid 6.5 mile effort, when all of a sudden I’m on the ground gasping for air.

I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but the combination of slippery leaves and my lack of attention have me flying off the trail and directly into a tree trunk.

My chest hits first, knocking my breath completely out. Leaving me searching for air.

As I sit up, it isn’t the scrapes and blood on my arms that have me worried, it’s the sharp pain in my ribs. It hurts. Bad.

A week later, I’m still unable to lay on my stomach or side without pain, and deep breaths and sneezing cause me to cringe. But each day is better, and I have no doubt I’ll be back to my normal self soon.

The experience shook me up. I’ve taken plenty of tumbles and finished runs with more than my share of bloody gashes, but I’ve never been injured to the point of being scared. I feel lucky this wasn’t any worse.

Fear and Trail Running

Fear is a big obstacle holding many runners back from running trails. And for those of us that aren’t fighting those fears on a daily basis, it’s experiences like this that remind us how quickly things can turn sour in the woods.

Just the other day I got an email from a woman asking my advice on how to address her fears:

I’m really scared of getting lost by myself! I don’t feel mentally prepared for it. I feel like I’d freak out.

Whether it’s fear of getting lost, injured, or mauled by a tiger, venturing out into the unknown of nature can be intimidating.

Fortunately, trail running doesn’t have to be scary. And it doesn’t have to be dangerous. We can take a number of safety precautions that all but eliminate those concerns.

Below I’ve outlined my 11 favorite. But they aren’t just my favorite. They’re also practical. These safety tips should be followed regularly, each and every time we hit the trail.

Safety Tips for Trail Runners

Tips for Running Smart

The first part of trail running safety is making sure that you remember basic running techniques.

1) Stay alert, even when you’re tired: It’s easy to get sloppy towards the end of a run. Your form goes, then your mind, and before you know it, you don’t even remember the last mile of trail. Stay alert and pay attention to the trail at all times.

2) Remember trail running basics: Lift your feet, be light in your step, take 3 steps when it could only take 2. These are the types of trail running basics that are easy to forget deep into a run.

3) Carry extra food and water: You never know how long a trail run is going to take you, and if you end up lost, injured, or stranded, a 2 hour run could turn into something much longer. Carry a little extra fuel and water or purification tablets just in case.

Tips for Safety for Running Alone

As much as I value running with a partner or group, the vast majority of my miles are logged by myself. When running alone, it’s important to take extra precautions that aren’t as necessary when you’re with another runner.

4) Know your route (or carry a map): Never head down a trail without knowing where you’re going or having some sort of directions on you. Trail systems can be tricky, so plan ahead before taking off.

5) Bring your cell phone: When out in the woods alone, carry your phone with you in case you need it.

If you don’t want to carry a pack, I recommend the UD Jurek Essentials belt or the SPIbelt for carrying small items like your phone and keys.

6) Tell someone where you’re going: Assuming you’ve planned ahead, leave a note for your husband, wife, or roommate, or even share where you plan to run ahead of time on social media. Let someone know where you’ll be and roughly when you plan to return.

So if you end up wrapped around a tree and unable to continue on, someone will know where to come looking.

7) Don’t run alone: I know, you like to run alone, but if you’re planning a big outing, especially if it’s on a new trail system, try not to go by yourself. Call up a friend or find someone from your running group to accompany you. It’ll probably be more fun anyway.

Tips for Wildlife and People

I’m often told that it isn’t the trails that scare runners the most, it’s the wildlife or other people that keep them from going out.

8) Know what the dangers are: Depending on where you live, you’ll face different dangers on the trails. Here in Western North Carolina, bears and snakes are our biggest wildlife predators. On D.C.’s trails of Rock Creek Park, other humans were probably a bigger concern than wildlife. Out west, you have mountain lions, bears, and all kinds of other rugged creatures.

Get to know what dangers your area faces, so you know what to keep an eye out for. Then prepare ahead of time by learning how to handle a wildlife (or human) encounter.

9) Wear bright colors during hunting season: Fall and winter often mean hunting season. Even though hunting is typically illegal in national parks, it’s often legal in national forests and other state land.

I’ve encountered enough hunters on the trail to now wear bright colors during hunting season. The last thing I want to do is find myself facing down a shotgun.

10) Stay alert and make noise: Wildlife typically attacks only when it feels threatened, and the quickest way to threaten an animal is to sneak up on it. Don’t be afraid to talk or make a little noise as you move down the trail, and stay alert enough to listen for noises yourself.

11) If you need to, carry protection: If you really don’t feel safe alone on your trails, or in extreme situations, don’t be afraid to carry protection. No, I’m not talking about a gun here. I’m talking about pepper spray or some other easily transportable form of protection you can stow away in your hydration pack or belt.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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5 thoughts on “11 Safety Tips All Trail Runners Need to Follow

  1. Great tips. Thx. I live in UK so the animal dangers are greatly minimised, but I do live in an area where military train (Dartmoor) . It is often desolate and prone to fog etc. Even in august I have found myself going up the same hill twice because I was disoriented. Cheers. Alen

  2. I would definitely stay away from private or national forests during hunting season. I just wouldn’t take the risk. I have heard of hunters getting hurt by other hunters, even though you are prancing around with color in the woods… your still prancing around… lol! Just do what you can to stay in the parks and on community trails if your going to trail run in hunting season!

  3. These tips work well of runners of obstacle course races, and most are trail uses on technical terrain. I have seen many runners hesitate and try and take hills and rocky terrain to carefully (or way too fast) only to slip or twist something. Trusting your training and these tips are a great way to stave off accidents, though they will eventually happen.

  4. Glad to hear you’re okay and on the mend.

    One other thing I’d recommend it getting a RoadID bracelet (notice there’s no affiliate links there 😉 ). A few months ago I was running in the dark and I crossed an intersection and a car almost hit me. Nothing happened, but it got me thinking about how someone would find me or how someone would contact me if something bad like that actually did happen.

    I know that when/if you’re trail running by yourself it’s less likely that someone will come upon you in an injured state, but if someone does find you, it would take A LOT less time for them to get in touch with someone you’d want them to get in touch with if that person’s (or persons’) numbers are easily accessible. The low end version of the bracelets cost around $25 – I think that estimate includes shipping.

    1. YES – Road ID or some other knock-off brand that does the same. You should also carry your phone, even if you don’t get reception, with a contact titled ICE – in case of emergency. EMS personnel look for this entry.

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