8 Essential Tips for Trail-Running Travel
Here are the most important things to know before catching a flight for your next trail-running adventure
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Running a trail running race overseas can be a fun experience both for what’s the same about trail running everywhere—the spirit of community and the ability to run through awe-inspiring places—and everything that is wonderfully different—different languages, aid station provisions, course markings, and wildlife.
“I think there are a lot of things that are different, especially the little nuances,” says Mike Wardian, a Hoka-sponsored runner who has run in 42 different countries. “A lot of the things are the same, too. I mean, it’s still running, it’s still endurance, it’s just navigating the little things.”
I’ve been fortunate to run trail running races all over the world—including events in the majestic Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, the lush forests of the Korean Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, and the rugged splendor of the Alps in and around Chamonix, France. While running through wild, natural places in each of those races certainly brought plenty of thrills, ultimately what makes trail running in an international destination special is interacting with the people—both the locals organizing and running the race and the other tourist runners.
In every one of my experiences, I’ve encountered a common universal pattern among runners who come from different cultures and languages. We’re all pursuing shared passions, all doing the same thing for similar reasons, no matter where we come from. (And yes, just like it is back home in the U.S., there are the non-runners who just don’t get it, shake their heads in disbelief, or simply don’t care enough to pay attention.)
“Obviously, when you’re racing, you want to have your best possible race, but it’s also a great way to embrace the culture,” says Wardian. “It’s great to engage with the people, but it’s also about getting a chance to see people in a place that’s not necessarily a tourist destination. You could be in the middle of a little village in China, or on an island off the coast of Africa, and the locals might not speak your language, but they appreciate what you’re doing.”
With recreational running booming globally, new trail races are popping up all over the place. This rising trend of destination trail running trips is making the world a much smaller place for runners. If you’re a runner with a passport, a sense of adventure, and eager to experience new places, here are eight essential tips to know before chasing mountain trails around the world.
1. Expect the Unexpected
No matter what race you plan to run—a race along the Great Wall of China, jungle trail running in Costa Rica, or running across Iceland—treat your trip like the unique international experience that it is. Prepare to race to your heart’s desire, but be realistic and know that you’ll encounter dozens of quirky details that could impact your racing performance.
Aside from dealing with jet lag, race logistics, and challenging weather conditions, you might find yourself running through fields with livestock and sharing the trails with local villagers or long-distance hiking tourists. Try to maintain a good attitude, take lots of pictures, and enjoy every moment. Years from now, you won’t remember where you placed or what your time was, but you’ll remember the local people, the views, the local culture, and the post-race celebration.
“One time when I was doing a race across the Gobi Desert in China, we encountered these long-haul truckers, and they couldn’t believe that we were running across the desert,” Wardian says. “They stopped and kind of forced us to have tea with them. And it wasn’t part of the race plan, but when you’re there, you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m going to have this experience because I might never have this kind of thing happen ever again.”
2. Respect the Local Environment
One of the beautiful aspects of trail running around the world is the exposure to wild and fragile landscape features that make our planet such a beautiful place. And while traveling in airplanes to faraway destinations isn’t necessarily an eco-friendly pursuit, gaining a greater appreciation for the environmental challenges of each region can be impactful.
Be sure to be as delicate as possible as you enjoy the privilege of tramping through forests, over mountains, and alongside waterfalls, lakes, and rivers, and do your best to follow sustainable tourism guidelines. Consider offsetting your carbon footprint, limit your use of water and energy on your trip, and learn about and respect the Indigenous cultures of the places you are headed.
3. Take Carry-on Luggage
Last year, Tara Savage, an American trail runner who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, arrived in Chamonix, France, a week before the CCC 100K race, but her luggage did not. She purposely planned her travels so she’d have plenty of time to get rest and get acclimated to the local scene. After five stressful days of calling the airline and tracking her bag—as well as borrowing gear and buying new stuff—her luggage finally arrived the day before the race.
Even if you check a bag, be sure to carry your running and racing essentials—trail running shoes, race-day kit, hydration pack, and the items on the race’s mandatory gear list—in a carry-on bag that never leaves your sight.
4. Pack Your Own Fuel
Just as you would with a domestic race, it’s wise to travel with your own energy gels, sports drink mixes, and other race-day nutritional needs. You’re not likely to find the same brands or flavors on aid station tables or in the local shops of your race destination. And if you’re someone known to suffer from gastrointestinal distress, trying something new during a race can be a recipe for disaster.
The first time I ever tried Science in Sport (SiS) Go Isotonic Energy Gel was during a trail race in Switzerland I had picked up at the pre-race expo. Although they didn’t bother my stomach, the flavor and consistency were different than what I was used to, and as a result, I only consumed one during the race and paid the price when my glycogen stores got depleted and I bonked during the second half of the race.
“Sometimes what’s promised by a race director isn’t what you actually get at an aid station,” Wardian warns. “Like UTMB, there’s a full pasta meal available with hot tea and sugar. Other times, you show up to an aid station at a race in a jungle and they don’t have anything to drink but, instead, show you where you can drink from a waterfall. It’s really a matter of being prepared and being able to take care of yourself.”
5. Rehydrate, Refuel, Rest
Flying on an airplane can push you into dehydration and fatigue, and if you’re not careful, you might not catch up in the days before your race. Do your best to keep drinking fluids and electrolytes on your flight (just don’t overdo the alcohol!) and continue as soon as you land at your destination.
Even if you loathe airline food, don’t skimp on meals during your trip, even if that means eating a healthy meal in an airport during a layover or as soon as you land in your destination.
As for sleeping, the best way to avoid jet lag is to sleep as much as possible on overnight flights and then immediately adapt to the new time zone of your destination without mid-day naps. In other words, fight off sleepiness and stay awake until after your evening meal so you can fall asleep the first night in the new destination and begin the next day on the new schedule. Compression socks are also essential for wearing post-race on a long-haul flight.
6. Carry Local Currency
I once bought a candy bar and a Coke from a small trail-side pub during a 50K race in the English Lakes District and it helped rejuvenate me during a big gap between aid stations. The cafe was a cash–only operation that didn’t accept credit cards, so if I hadn’t packed a few British pounds in my pack, I would have been out of luck and bonked even harder. While you can rely on your credit card or a payment app on your phone in many countries, it’s wise to take at least some cash in the local currency for unexpected situations—especially during a race.
7. Pack Trekking Poles
Even if you don’t run with trekking poles in the U.S., it’s wise to take them on your international races. While most domestic races are generally set on runnable trails, overseas races almost always have very steep uphills and descents. Running-specific collapsible poles—such as the Leki Cross Trail FX Superlite or Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z—usually aren’t on the mandatory gear list of a race but I’ve found them to be essential. Running poles can reduce the impact of your feet and lower legs and help you run more efficiently on steeper terrain. Just make sure you add them to your checked bag, as you cannot carry-on trekking poles.
8. Other Important Travel Tips
Don’t forget international power converters that will allow you to power-up your phone, watch and other electronics in your hotel. Consider taking a small power bank in your race pack so you can charge your phone when it runs low on juice. Pack a rain jacket and a large black garbage bag, even if you don’t think it’s going to rain. Carry your passport during your race, have a digital copy on your phone and email a version to yourself. Most of all, maintain a good attitude and keep a good sense of humor because things can (and will) ultimately go sideways in ways you didn’t anticipate. And, always, always carry some toilet paper in a plastic bag in your pack.