Head for the Hills for Your Next Run
Here’s your complete how-to for planning (and enjoying) a run in the mountains.
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Maybe you’ve seen a friend’s amazing photos of weekend runs in the mountains or dreamed of running in high alpine environments, but just don’t know where to start. How do you choose where to go, or know what to bring? What do you need to know once you’re there?
Don’t sweat it. Here’s our primer for how to have a successful run in the mountains.
This guide is intended for runnable terrain in mild weather (late spring, summer, early fall). More rugged routes that border mountaineering or mountain runs during colder months require much more planning, equipment, and knowledge for safety. But for mild-weather mountain runs, start here.
Days Before Your Mountain Run
Choose your company.
Who you plan on running with in the mountains will greatly determine the kind of route — difficulty and distance — you’ll be running. If you’re the novice, try to find a friend who’s experienced. If you’re experienced, choose either someone who has a similar comfort and experience-level as you for a distance/difficulty-level run you’re looking to do. Or, invite a less experienced friend, but plan accordingly.
Plan your route.
Mountain runs require more planning than regular runs. Do your research. Either go online to sites and apps like Trail Run Project or All Trails to find suggested routes, or look at detailed maps that show elevation gain and distance. Know that 5 miles in the mountains can take two or three (or even more!) times as long as 5 miles on a flat road.
Research the weather forecast.
Check the weather forecast for the day you plan on running. If it looks suspect — with thunderstorms, in particular — consider rescheduling the run for day with a clear forecast. Alternatively, plan your start time (and run time) within a window with clear weather.
Depending on the weather, where you’re running, and for how long, here’s a general list of what to pack for a mountain run (based on wearing shorts and a tank or short-sleeved shirt): lightweight, long-sleeve top of some sort (windproof/water-resistant recommended); small, lightweight running backpack that holds either a water bladder or water bottles; sunglasses; hat; nutrition to fuel you for the duration of your run (bring more than you think necessary); cell phone; small, lightweight First Aid items; neck gaiter (which can double as a mask, beanie, sweatband, tourniquet, etc.).
In cold weather and on runs with high-mountain passes add the following: lightweight gloves; beanie; lightweight shell pants; lightweight rain shell.
On particularly long, rugged mountain adventures, add: trekking poles; water filtration system/tabs; gaiters. See our list of mountain running gear reviewed here.
Morning of Your Mountain Run
Re-check the weather.
Since weather reports change (especially in the mountains), check the weather again the morning of your planned run. If unfavorable weather is in the forecast, consider shortening the run or changing the location. Avoid being caught on mountain terrain in a thunderstorm: Lightning can be deadly at high altitude.
Tell someone where you’re going.
It’s imperative to tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return anytime you go into the mountains. It’s a good idea to put a note on your car with your route and estimated return time. Even if you’re running with others, tell someone else — someone you’re not running with — where you’re going and your estimated return time.
Use the facilities.
To minimize the potential for having to dig a hole and do your thing in the wilderness, make time to use the facilities in your own home, or at the trailhead, before starting your run. For information on how to properly deal with waste in the woods with minimum impact on the environment, read this story.
Drink and eat early and often.
It’s easy to get distracted by scenery, company, or sheer effort while running in the mountains — so much so that you can forget to eat or drink. But fueling and hydrating early and often can help mitigate the effects of running at altitude and avoid a bonk, which is more critical when far from a trailhead and civilization.
Mountain environments deserve respect, and that means doing what you can to stay safe. Pay attention to your footing to minimize accidents. Pay attention to the signs of altitude sickness: headache, dizziness, nausea, and immediately descend to a lower altitude if experiencing them. Pay attention to your surroundings and the presence of wildlife (to know what to do during animal encounters, read here). And pay attention to changing weather, especially storm clouds.
Take your time.
Enjoy you surroundings! Take time to soak it all in and snap a few photos. Try to not worry about how long a mile takes in the mountains. Don’t compare your road and easy trail running pace to your pace running in the mountains. Your pace will be much slower on mountain terrain and at altitude… embrace it!
After Your Mountain Run
Once you’re back at the car, start refueling and rehydrating. Getting protein, carbs, and electrolytes into your system immediately will help you recover for your next adventure. Also, consider kicking off your running shoes and stepping into recovery sandals and/or compression socks, or just old-fashioned flip-flops that let your feet breathe during the drive home.