As the snow recedes from the high country, we trade boots for shoes and take to the single track. While we love skiing as much as anyone, there’s something remarkably freeing about moving through the mountains with just your own feet. Compared to backcountry skiing, trail running is as simple as it gets: all you need is a pair of shoes. In this simplicity is a freedom that is unmatched in the outdoor world. That being said, there are some key pieces of equipment that can make the difference between an epic mountain run and a soul-crushing slog.

Shoes

I currently have two pairs of trail shoes in my rotation, and the length of run and terrain I have to cross determines the shoe I use. I prefer to use a pair of Altra Lone Peak 5s for shorter distances. Altra made its name for making zero-drop shoes (shoes where your heel and toe are the same height from the ground) with a natural, almost barefoot, feel. I adore the Lone Peaks, and for anyone who likes a zero-drop shoe, they are an instant win. I’ve used mine for thru-hikes, trail running, and scrambling technical 14ers. I’m currently on my 3rd pair, and although they are light, I can generally get 300 rugged miles out of a pair.

For my second shoe option, I’ve jumped onto the Hoka bandwagon for longer distances and never looked back. I’ve been putting a pair of Speed Goat 4s through the wringer on long trail runs and have only positive things to say. They have a rockered sole that propels you forward and increases my efficiency. Coming from running exclusively in Lone Peaks, I was concerned with the higher stack height, but I haven’t had any stability issues, and for anything over 10 miles, the extra padding on the Speed Goats is a blessing.

Of course, a good trail running shoe is a bit like a ski boot; ultimately the way it fits is the most important part, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need more info on how to size and fit your shoe. You can also read our blog post on properly fitting a trail running shoe.
SHOP RUNNING SHOES

Clothing

Good running clothes, to me, are all about comfort. Everyone will have a different system they prefert. Up top, I like to run in a lightweight merino wool T-shirt. Merino resists odors better than most materials, is breathable and comfy, and doesn’t chafe. Sometimes I’ll forgo a T-shirt for a sun hoodie – the hood and long sleeves do a great job keeping the sun off adding a layer of protection from the elements. For shorts, I don’t really care about length or style; it’s all about the liner. While again, it’s all personal preference, I always run with shorts featuring a liner compared to wearing shorts over underwear. A good running short, in my opinion, has a liner that prevents chafing and keeps you comfy all day. I also look for shorts with secure pockets that don’t allow stashed items to bounce around. Usually, this takes the form of pockets built into the waist that holds tight to your body. My favorites are the North Face Sunriser 2-in-1 Short and the Crazy M Short Flash. Both have good pockets and great liners.

Storage

Mountain running is all about bringing only the essentials, but to safely and comfortably move through the mountains, you need a way to carry the essentials. A running vest is a critical way to hold all your essentials for longer missions. I use an Ultimate Direction vest that easily stores a liter of water, all my snacks, phone, extra layers, and emergency communication device. There are plenty of options, and you can select based on how much storage and water you want to carry. At the upper end, systems like the Black Diamond Distance 15 blend the boundaries of a running vest and technical mountaineering pack.
SHOP RUNNING PACKS

Hydration and Nutrition.

Having a dialed nutrition and hydration system is critical for longer mountain runs. It makes all the difference between a roiling stomach and catastrophic bonk and a pleasant jaunt through the hills. Everyone will have a different system, but the critical thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. Generally, the nutrition I carry with me is based on calories and electrolytes. I know if I keep my calorie intake steady and pair electrolytes with proper water intake I’ll be fine. To this end, Tailwind Endurance Fuel has become a critical part of my trail running kit. It’s a mix of sugars and critical electrolytes that go down easily and are amazing at keeping you moving. I like to pair electrolyte solution with some Spring Gels as well for an added boost, and I always toss a few bars in my vest so I can have something more substantive when I take a break.

For water storage, I use two 500ml soft flasks stashed in my vest pockets. Instead of carrying more than a liter total of water, I also bring a Katadyn Befree filter and an extra soft flask. This allows me to refill on the go easily and reduce my overall pack weight. For most runs in the mountains, I find there is enough available water to keep me well hydrated all day. With this in mind, if you are running in new-to-you terrain, check a map to determine possible water availability.

Layers

Packing layers is one of the trickiest parts of planning for a mountain adventure and involves the most uncertainty. You need to balance an ultralight mentality with safety. For instance, I know that if I can stay moving all day I’ll probably be okay with only a lightweight wind shell or waterproof shell, and often this is the only outeralyer I bring. But on burlier missions, especially those venturing into the alpine, it’s also worth considering potential emergency scenarios. What would happen, for example, if you twist an ankle and need to move slowly or even wait for rescue in inclement weather. For this reason, I think a bare minimum for extra layers is a lightweight, waterproof shell. Even on the hottest days, if you are caught above treeline in the rain, hypothermia can hit quickly; being dry can make all the difference. I often like to supplement this type of shell with a light fleece or other insulation if I know it’s going to be colder or I’m worried about the weather.

Emergency Gear

Self-reliance is critical in any backcountry adventure, so I always like to have a couple of essentials in case shit hits the fan. I like to bring a small emergency bivy like the Sol Emergency Bivy or a similar mylar blanket. Luckily, I’ve only spent one night in an emergency bivy, and while it was an unpleasant experience, it was vastly superior to being completely exposed. These bivys or blankets excel at blocking wind, will keep you dry, and reflect your heat back. Hopefully, you’ll never touch these items, but if you do, you’ll be grateful you have it.

A couple of first aid items can also go a long way. It’s personal preference, but I usually have something to help deal with blisters and minor cuts, as well as some athletic tape or duct tape, which can be incredibly useful for gear failures or first aid situations.

The unfortunate reality of big, remote runs in the mountains is that you can't prepare for everything. The best tool you have is your fitness and ability to keep moving, and if this fails due to injury or poor hydration, you can find yourself in a bad spot. You don't have the resources to spend the night like a backpacker, and you'll usually have far less gear than a hiker. To this end, if you sacrifice preparedness for an ultralight approach, you've got to have a way to call for help. The most important part of my emergency kit is my InReach Mini, although any other satellite communication system works. The InReach Mini acts as an emergency beacon and lets you text and email to coordinate with rescuers, friends, and family. Weighing only 100 grams, it's one of the best emergency communication systems on the market.
July 18, 2022 — Nick Penzel

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.