5 Trail Running Gear Essentials For New Runners
5 Trail Running Gear Essentials For New Runners
Three Kahtoola Associates—and seasoned trail runners—share what gear they would pick up first if they were just beginning their trail running journey
Trail running is everywhere. New races and clubs are popping up all over the place, and trails are buzzing with human-powered adventurers covering ground quickly with fast and light gear on their own two feet.
This trail running explosion means there’s never been a better time to get involved. Gear is easy to find and advances in design are continually improving safety, comfort and efficiency. Right now, if there’s a need, chances are you can find a piece of trail running gear to fill it. But for those new to the sport, narrowing down everything that’s out there to the bare essentials can be confusing. So to help you get started down the right path, we’ve called on three of our in-house trail runners to put together a list of the five pieces of gear they wouldn’t leave home without.
Meet Your Personal Trail Running Gear Guides
Our home base in Flagstaff, AZ is a trail runner’s paradise. Good weather, mountains and a thriving running community attract athletes from near and far. We’re lucky to have three active members of this flourishing community working with us here at Kahtoola, and they love helping others get involved in the sport that has given them so much. Say hello to Emily, Tyler and Austin!
Emily caught the trail running bug after moving to Flagstaff and seeing what a welcoming community and amazing athletes call this place home. Depending on the mood she’s in, Emily loves either the quiet, therapeutic aspects of trail running or the social experiences it provides. Since beginning her journey, she’s completed the epic TransRockies Run 6-day stage race three times.
A former semi-professional soccer player, Tyler turned his attention to trail running after moving to Flagstaff and hasn’t looked back. He loves being out in nature and the self-reliance that trail running builds and requires. One of his proudest moments on the trail came recently when he placed 9th in the 2022 Cocodona 250 (yes, the 250 stands for 250 miles)! You can read more about Tyler’s race experience here.
Austin got into trail running as a way to regain a healthy lifestyle. Of all the ways to be active, he picked it because it allows him to see much more of the outdoors by moving faster and more efficiently. An active member of the Flagstaff trail running community, Austin started a popular local running club. His biggest accomplishment to date was his finish at the Javelina Jundred 100-miler in October.
Trail Running Gear Essentials
Now that we’ve met our guides, it’s time to find out what they have to say. Of course, they each have personal gear preferences, but there are five basics that they all agree should be on everyone’s list—whether you’re just starting out or have been running for years. Let’s dig in.
#1 – Trail Running Shoes
Some of the main characteristics that set trail running shoes apart from road running shoes are a more aggressive tread that’s designed for off-road terrain, more durable construction and thicker soles, which provide the cushion needed for longer distances and protection from rocks, sticks and other trail debris.
For Austin, Emily and Tyler, shoes are a very personal thing, so they suggest visiting a local running store and discussing this all-important piece of gear with the experts. They’ll know what’s out there and will be able to help you find something that works for you. Things you’ll want to consider when picking out a new pair of shoes are what type of distances you plan to run—which will help determine weight the amount of cushion—the amount of drop you want them to have and how big of a toe box you’re looking for.
“Everyone’s built so differently, and we all have differently shaped feet,” notes Emily. “So I suggest going with what feels right for yourself. Go to a local running store and have them analyze your gait. That way they can help guide you in the right direction.”
For Tyler, good quality shoes are essential.
“I think shoes are super important. One rule of thumb that I’ve always had for running, backpacking or even camping is that anything that separates you from the ground is something you should spend money on, whether it’s a sleeping pad or your shoes or the tires on your car.”
What Shoes Do Our Guides Use?
Austin – The HOKA Speedgoat 5 is known as one of the most beloved trail running shoes because of its high cushion that provides a soft platform for your foot and as well as the durable Vibram sole. I’ve been switching between shoes a lot, so the Saucony Peregrine 12 and the Salomon Pulsar Trail Pro get an honorable mention.
Emily – Altra Superior 5 for its simple design, lightweight, a wide toe box and all-around comfort.
#2 – A Running Vest
Now that you’ve got some separation between yourself and the ground, you may want to consider picking up a running vest. They differ from regular backpacks in that they’re designed to not bounce around when you’re running, even when they’re full of all your essentials like food, water and extra clothing.
“A vest is one of my favorite pieces of gear,” says Austin. “Even if I’m going on a shorter run, it’s nice not to be carrying anything in my hands. And with a vest, I have a place to put my phone to put food, water, a jacket and a hat. Everything.”
It’s important to make sure you try different vests on so you get a proper fit as some are more adjustable than others.
“Once you have a vest, you’ll want to use it regularly on longer and shorter runs, so that when you go to do a race [or push your limits on a more difficult run] you’re comfortable in it,” adds Tyler. “Because there are vests that don’t work for some people and they can also change over time.”
What Vests Do Our Guides Use?
Emily – “I run in the Salomon Adv Skin 12 Set. It’s got amazing storage capacity with all sorts of options, as well as the ability to carry water in a bladder, bottles, or both. I notice this vest a lot on the trails and at races. Very popular, and for a good reason!”
Austin – Salomon Adv Skin 12 Set for its durability in the face of heavy use.
Tyler – Salomon Adv Skin 12 Set for its excellent fit and versatility on both longer and shorter runs.
#3 – Offline Maps
Being able to carry all the food and water you need for a backcountry running adventure is essential, but that’s not all you should have with you. To make sure you get out and back safely, you’ll also want to have access to offline maps. It’s easy to lose your sense of direction on a trail run and if you’re in an area where trails fork and criss-cross each other, it can happen in the blink of an eye.
Cell service can be spotty or non-existent on many trail runs, so our associates emphasize using offline maps. Old-fashioned paper maps will do in a pinch, but several smartphone apps have the option to download maps for offline use. Unlike paper maps, they’ll allow you to see where you are on the trail in real-time. And there’s a good chance you’ll be carrying a phone with you anyway to take photos and to use in case of an emergency.
Offline maps are something Austin takes with him on every trail run.
“Having offline map access on your phone is really important, whether it’s AllTrails, Trailforks, Gaia GPS or Trail Run Project. There are many different options, but offline maps have saved my butt a lot!”
What Offline Maps Do Our Guides Use?
Austin – “If you’re needing a simple app to use for offline map navigation, then Gaia is a great option. It’s free, easy to use, and has never failed me. If you’re looking for an app that you can discover new trails on and use for offline maps, then check out Trail Run Project.”
Tyler & Emily – Gaia GPS
#4 – Sun Protection
Even if you’re new to trail running and are beginning with short runs, sun protection is a must-have. It’s not the most exciting gear to shop for, but exposure to UV rays can cause irritating sunburns that can keep you indoors and off of the trail in the short term and can lead to much worse over the long term. And if you run at a higher elevation, this exposure is amplified.
“A good pair of sunglasses and a hat is important protection from the elements,” says Emily. “A hat can even act like an umbrella to keep the rain off of your head and out of your face.”
And sun protection isn’t limited to the three items above.
“Sun hoodies are very popular,” notes Austin. “Sun protection can also include a long-sleeved shirt or one of those hats with a flap in the back that protects your neck.”
What Kind of Sun Protection Do Our Guides Use?
Emily – “I tend to be an accessories gal, so I love the price and fun designs of both Goodr and Knockaround sunglasses. I don’t recommend any particular brand of sunscreen, but I try to lather up for anything over 45 minutes. And for hats, same thing, no recommendation…I just choose a favorite trucker hat for longer runs in the sun, rain, or snow.”
Tyler – Running performance trucker hats, Goodr sunglasses and sport-specific, sweat-resistant sunscreen.
Austin – Boco Gear hats because they’re light breathable and easy to clean; Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Sun Hoodie and Goodr sunglasses because they’re inexpensive, well-made and come in tons of styles and colors.
#5 – A Running Watch
A running-specific watch may seem like overkill to new trail runners, but it’s a piece of gear that our guides believe can improve the trail running experience for everyone. A running watch is equipped with GPS and—depending on the model—can help with pacing, tracking your speed, distance and progress over time and even carry maps for navigation.
“If you think you’ll use it, it’s really worthwhile investing in a good watch, and a good quality one will last you a long time,” says Austin, “They help you track a lot of different metrics and, for example, my watch has a GPS built in, so I can upload maps to it and use that as navigation on my runs.”
What Running Watches Do Our Guides Use?
Tyler – “I use the Coros Vertix 2 and it’s incredible. The useability is fantastic, the battery life is unreal (I may have to charge once every 1-2 months depending on usage), and the maps are awesome. My only complaint is that it’s a big watch. It’s big on my wrist, and I often bump the enter/start button and toggle if I don’t have it tight and far back on my wrist.”
Emily – Coros Apex because it’s easy to use, has excellent battery life and the customer service is superb.
Austin – Coros Apex because of its long battery life, GPS navigation and reasonable price.
BONUS: Nice-to-Have Trail Running Gear
That’s it for Emily, Tyler and Austin’s essential trail running gear picks, but as a bonus, they’ve included a few extras that can help make your time on the trail more comfortable and rewarding as you progress to longer runs on more varied terrain.
Chafing Aids are a long-distance runner’s best friend. Chafing caused by a vest or shirt rubbing against the skin can be uncomfortable, and in many cases painful. As your runs get longer, you might want to consider balms or sticks that can be applied to these problem areas. Squirrel’s Nut Butter is a favorite of ours—and a local Flagstaff company!
Footwear Traction will help keep you upright on slippery surfaces during the winter months and shoulder seasons. An example is our EXOspikes™ traction, which is designed specifically for trail running and can be used on mixed terrain.
Gaiters—like our ultra-lightweight INSTAgaiter™—will prevent dirt, debris and moisture from getting into your footwear. Because on a run, few things are as disruptive as having to stop and empty your shoes.
Running (hiking) Poles are like having an extra set of legs. They will help you stay balanced on uneven terrain and can take some pressure off your leg muscles and knees when running downhill.
Figuring Out What Works for You
We hope Tyler, Emily and Austin’s suggestions will inspire you to challenge yourself by giving trail running a try. It’s well worth the effort! And if you find that trail running is for you, don’t be afraid to experiment with different pieces of gear to find out what else works for you on a personal level. There is a lot out there that can go a long way toward making your runs as enjoyable as possible.