Is Trail Running Dangerous – How to Stay Safe

man falling over in mud whilst running

I get asked a lot if I find trail running dangerous or not? I guess there are many factors to consider before answering a question like that. The main one being it depends on where you live.

By this I mean that I won’t be encountering a grizzly bear any time soon here in the UK, but in Canada that might be a different issue depending on where you are.

There are a number of categories around the question of trail running being dangerous – anything from wildlife to hydration is a potential concern for someone new to the sport.

Over the course of this post I will try and outline those categories and hopefully help you to see that trail running really isn’t dangerous as long as you use one thing – common sense!

Common Hazards on the Trails

I won’t start with the common question about dangerous animals on the trails because quite honestly, it’s more of a rarity than a common thing. Whilst it will be covered later down the article, I thought it would be more prudent to cover the really common stuff in the first instance.

As you might start to realise as you read on, the most common danger if you could call it that, is yourself and the decisions you make. Lets take a look.

Tripping or Falling

This is the number one issue for me without a doubt and it really doesn’t matter what part of the world you are from, you might agree.

You see, the issue with tripping or falling can be down to a number of factors:

  • The terrain – it could be rocky, it could be wet, or there could be tree roots
  • Lack of concentration
  • Tiredness

I can tell you now, I have experienced all 3 of these issues during a run and paid the price.

Once I was running a hilly 10k and kicked a tree root which broke my toe. All because I wasn’t looking.

I have fallen over because I wasn’t concentrating and embarrassed myself in front of about 10 teenagers on a hike – stupid thing was I don’t even know what I tripped over.

Then, during an 86 mile race I tripped on a tree root at around mile 40 because I was probably getting tired – I seem to have a thing about tripping on tree roots right?

The point is, trail running requires a certain amount of concentration as opposed to running on the road. Mainly due to the fact that the terrain can vary so much over a very short distance – for me, this isn’t a negative, actually, it’s a huge positive because it makes the running so much more fun and enjoyable.

The Weather – Both Good & Bad

storm clouds brewing

It’s not all about bad weather when you are out on the trails for long periods. As well as the cold, rain and wind, you need to consider the heat as well. Each one can be a problem all on it’s own for sure.

You need to consider your environment and where about in the world you are running. As an example, I ran the snowdonia trail marathon a couple of years ago where the race started in very warm conditions but changed rapidly to much colder, windy weather as we ascended the mountains, and these aren’t that high compared to some.

The point being you have to be prepared for any and all situations as the weather is a funny thing and can catch you out when you least expect it.

Rain

The biggest issue with this is just not being prepared with the right gear. It’s one thing to get wet on a fairly mild or warm day, although chafing can become an issue, it’s another thing to get wet when it’s cold. The downside to being wet and cold is that it’s incredibly difficult to get dry again so in worst cases hypothermia could set in.

Sun & Heat

I think this should go without saying but the heat and the sun is something that catches people out a lot on their runs.

There is nothing better than getting out on a lovely day, but you need to be very mindful of a number of things, especially your hydration, and also protecting your skin from the sun (especially if you are out for long periods). So make sure you use the right skin protection.

Dehydration and Running Out of Fluids

cracked ground in dry desert

It’s no joke becoming dehydrated and it’s dangerous for sure. You always need to ensure you have plenty of fluids to keep you going on your run. If need be, take more than you need.

On a short run of an hour or less I tend to carry a running bottle, but anything longer than that I will choose a hydration pack to wear – it also helps carry any other essential gear I might need.

As a top tip, I would recommend having some sort of fast-absorbing salts/electrolytes. These can help you quickly recover from dehydration.

My go-to fuel for my long runs is Tailwind. I just pop it in my water and it offers all the calories and electrolytes I need. I’ve been using for close on 3 years now and I wouldn’t use anything else.

Getting Lost on New Trails

Don’t be fooled, this is serious stuff. Getting lost is no joke and can be very serious depending on your environment. There would be nothing worse than losing your direction in a place you don’t know, with the light fading or bad weather is starting to close in.

Always try to be alert of your surroundings and even do your research on the new trail upfront. I will always tell my wife where I am going and how long I plan to be out – at least that way she has an idea of when I should return in case there are any problems.

If I’m ever running a new trail in an unfamiliar place, I might decide to do an out and back type run. This way I can always retrace my steps and be fairly familiar with the surroundings after having just run it in one direction already.

To be honest, if you want to really take trail running seriously, it’s always worth investing in a good GPS watch. Not only are they great for training, but the good ones also have the ability to download routes you will be running, as well as the ability to retrace what you have just run on the watch face.

Large Wildlife and Snakes

bear in road approaching hiker

Ok, so I’m in the UK so we aren’t going to come across the most dangerous of wildlife on a run, although I was chased by a Bull once before – very scary!!

However, if you are in a large country like the US for example, there is a real chance that you might be running somewhere that could have snakes, bears, or even mountain lions. It would most certainly pay to do a bit of research upfront and assess the area you are going to be running.

Let’s be honest, these animals will absolutely stay away from you if they hear you coming. None of them want an encounter with you to be fair, but it would be wise not to run at dawn or dusk if you can help it.

I remember years ago, when I was in the military, I spent 5 weeks in Tucson, Arizona, and went on may hikes and runs during this time. One reptile I do remember coming across was the rattlesnake, so I tried to stay away from areas that they may be hiding so I didn’t startle them if I ran past too closely.

Other People

Yep! more scary than anything else on this list is other human beings. Most are great but now and again you might just come across someone that is plain rude and has no trail etiquette at all. There is many a time when I have had to run past someone who wouldn’t move and I have nearly come a cropper by tripping over something.

However, if it was a choice between meeting someone on the trails or someone in the city on a run, I would take the trail every time.

What’s the Chances

Whilst all of the above are potential issues, the reality is that something serious is unlikely to happen. I’ve come home with knocks and bruises due to falls, or maybe a sting from an insect, but that’s generally it.

As long as you are sensible and plan ahead you should be absolutely fine.

A Safety Checklist

Here is a brief checklist of what to do prior to or during your run. It’s certainly what I do whenever I am out and about on the trails.

  1. Tell someone where you are going – As I said previously, I always tell my wife where I am going and how long I plan to be.
  2. Take a Phone – I never go on a run without my phone. Whether I need to contact someone, they need to contact me, or I just want to listen to a podcast or music, the phone is the first thing in my bag.
  3. Plan & Prepare – If you are trying a new route, do some research upfront so you know what to expect. Check the latest weather forecast so you don’t get caught out by the severe weather you didn’t know about. Also, plan your run so you start and complete in the light. At the very least, if it’s going to get dark make sure you’re carrying a headtorch.
  4. Be Alert – Understand the terrain and watch what you are doing. If it’s rocky or wet underfoot then keep an eye on your steps – you don’t want to fall. Although I listen to music on familiar trails, it is something I won’t do in a new area, the trail is technical, or I might interact with a road – it’s just not worth it.

So is Trail Running Dangerous

In my honest and humble opinion no it isn’t. I you stick to the points outlined in this post and just be sensible then you will have the greatest time out on the trails believe me.

I am actually far more worried about running in a town or city environment where I believe the hazards are real and the likelihood of an incident is greater than that on the trails.

My advice is to start off slowly and find your feet on the trails. Once you start to adapt then begin to do newer more technical routes over longer distances, and above all just love the freedom it brings.

Mark Emmerson

Mark loves everything outdoors, especially trail and ultra running. He has competed in many events ranging from half marathon up to an 86 mile ultra. He also follows a primarily plant-based diet.

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