As trail runners, we move swiftly through the trails. That’s the magic of trail running, isn’t it? We move quickly through the tough stuff, cherish more time at viewpoints, and soar through descents. Our speed and dexterity provide an undeniable rush of intoxicating endorphins.
But our speed and dexterity can also provide a false sense of security. Our large amount of time spent on the trails often leads to more experience, but our speed and long hours makes us even more vulnerable to emergencies than other trail users: we’re more likely to fall, more likely to accidentally head off trail, more likely to experience changes in weather, and more likely to be fatigued from pushing our physical limits.
As a result, what we choose to bring along in our trail running pack should be carefully contemplated.
Through your research you may have already stumbled upon a list of gear called “The Ten Essentials”. This is a well-known and standard list of the basic safety gear that you should never leave home without.
What you’ll find below is different. It is a list that covers The Ten Essentials AND more. The “and more” is intended to shift your packing mindset away from only “survival” and toward “practical” – it veers away from “just enough” and instead presents gear that would make an unintended overnighter or stormy day more comfortable. Its intent is to allow you to answer “yes” to the following questions:
- Could I stay overnight, relatively comfortably?
- Could I help someone else in need on the trail?
- If I needed Search and Rescue, would I be proud when they saw what I brought along?
- Do I have enough gear to stay warm, dry, and well-fed – even if conditions change?
This list includes everything I carry as well as what I am wearing while trail running solo or with a friend or larger group. It is geared toward late spring, summertime, or early autumn days on the trail – it is not intended to be used for wintertime adventures.
You’ll notice that on paper, it looks like a lot of gear. But it all fits into a relatively lightweight, 15L pack. There’s a lot of conversation around trimming back pounds and ounces until your pack is “barely there” – but this often comes at the expense of safety and comfort, especially if weather conditions become inclement. There are two thoughts I use to remind myself to always choose safety first and lightweight second: (1) better safe than sorry, and (2) if I’m training with a heavier pack, I’ll be stronger on race day.
This article is organized into five sections to help you navigate the different categories of gear: where to put it all, staying warm, staying dry, staying well fed, and staying safe.
If you’d like to get your hands on this detailed packing list, but in a checklist format, you can download your copy of my Complete Backcountry Trail Running Packing List, here.
Psssst… as you read, you’ll notice I share several brands in this blog. You’ll also notice that one of those brands is lululemon. It’s important for you to know that I work at lululemon—but even though lululemon products are often the first ones I try, I don’t settle until I find the most effective gear. My commitment to you is that you can count on me to be honest about what works and what doesn’t, no matter the brand.
WHERE TO PUT IT ALL
For a quick jaunt on frontcountry trails:
At the start of my trail running adventures, I was quickly enamoured by the Salomon vest system — with my choice running pack being the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set. Like other running vests (the language “running vest” indicates that it is designed specifically for running versus hiking) it provides space for a 1.5L back water bladder and two front bottles, as well as ample pockets and bungees so that your gear and snacks are easily accessible. But the real win for me with Salomon’s vests is the vest system itself—easily cinchable, it is designed to hug your body snugly and reduce movement. This means I’m never having to adjust it, and even better, I can run for an entire day with only a sports bra or tank top underneath and can come away unscathed and un-chafed.
But before you add this one to your cart, it’s important to note that the ADV Skin 12 Set is unisex—for flat-chested women like me this works. Curvier ladies, though, may find that a women’s-specific pack like this one is more comfortable.
For any distance in the backcountry:
The downside with the Salomon ADV Skin 12 Set is that on backcountry days, I find myself pressed for space to carry my safety gear. Although it is designed as a 12-litre pack, it can stretch into an awkward shape when it’s filled to maximum capacity.
This is where the Salomon XA 15 Hiking Bag comes onto the scene. The vest system on this one is a hybrid vest/pack solution. It has the classic Salomon front bottle storage, and only a limited version of the form-fitting sides of the traditional running vest. But what it lacks in huggability, it makes up for in capacity and ease of use. It has a barrel roll-top system—in comparison to the zipper system on the running vest (which became completely rusted on mine after a soggy bout in the Pacific Ocean!).
If you’re aiming for backcountry or alpine days, I’d recommend grabbing the XA 15 instead of the ADV 12 – or another similar, larger running pack that can comfortably hold all your gear (another one I am trying out right now is the lululemon Active Backpack 14L but can’t comment on it until I’ve had the opportunity to thrash it around on the trails a bit more!).
The additional three litres of capacity means that you’ll be able to comfortably carry all the gear that will keep you warm, dry, and well fed for your one-day adventures (AND unexpected overnighters).
Did you know that alpine weather is 10 degrees Celsius colder on average for every 1000m of elevation you climb? And that doesn’t even include the wind chill you can experience while standing atop an exposed mountain or pass – which is oftentimes the destination for trail runners and hikers alike. Many of our local Vancouver mountains sit between 1000m and 2000m — all but promising that it’ll be much chillier at the top than what we feel in the parking lot. For this reason, even in the depths of summer, I always pack the following items:
01. Long Sleeve (Base Layer)
A base layer is the article of clothing that is closest to your skin. Its purpose is to “wick” moisture away from your body. Without the proper base layer, moisture from your sweat can make you feel cold when you stop to rest. There are two good options for base layer material: synthetic or wool. Synthetic materials are durable and dry quick but can build up an odour after a day or two on the trail. Wool will keep you warmer and will be less smelly but is more difficult to care for.
The thickness of your base layer should reflect the temperature you’re travelling in and your own personal preference for warmth: for warmer summer days I typically wear or bring along the lululemon Swiftly Relaxed Long Sleeve and for colder days, I typically bring the lululemon It’s Rulu Run Long Sleeve Shirt. And I know what you’re thinking “Maddie, in all your pictures you’re in short sleeves or your sports bra.” Yes, you’re right. But I still pack one of these long sleeve base layers, so that I have full, arm’s length coverage and “wicking” if it gets cold enough to need my insulated jacket (see below!).
02. Insulated Jacket (Mid Layer)
There’s two options when selecting an insulated jacket for the trails: down or synthetic. If you’ve bought a sleeping bag, it’s a similar down vs. synthetic conversation for a jacket.
A down jacket will provide the best warmth-to-weight ratio, but once it gets wet, won’t provide great insulation. A synthetic jacket will be bulkier and heavier but will be more affordable and will dry quicker and provide some warmth if it becomes wet.
But which one is right for you? Well, it depends. If you’re headed into a rainy or humid day out on the trail, you may prefer synthetic. BUT, if you’re headed into dry, cold weather and/or you’re confident you can keep the jacket dry, down may be the best option.
And remember, you’re running pack is likely not waterproof – so to help keep any insulated jacket dry amidst unexpected downpours, I’d recommend investing in a small dry bag like this one to store it in.
To learn more about down and synthetic materials, check out this article by Outdoor Research.
My go-to-choice for running gloves are the Run For It All Hooded Gloves. They are lightweight and water resistant. The hooded mitten cover provides an extra layer of warmth, while also giving the option to switch to glove-mode when additional dexterity is required. However, they are not waterproof. I needed to spend only one day shivering in cold, rainy trails, to know that these are simply not enough in inclement weather — but I’ve yet to find a waterproof pair that I love. If you have a suggestion, please let me know in the comments so I can fill this gap in my kit!
Nothing says “take the edge off a sunny-turned-cold day” than saving your ears and neck from the frigid air with a toque. Selection of this item is almost all preference, and in most cases, something is better than nothing. You can simply bring along your favourite toque, or splurge for something ultra-lightweight like the Run For It All Beanie. If you’d like something more versatile, you could also check out Buff Neckwear – which can be worn in 12 different ways for both cold and sun protection.
01. Weatherproof Jacket & Pants
There are a lot of mountain-worthy options for weather protection. Notable brands include MEC, Arc’Teryx, lululemon, Salomon, Helly Hansen, North Face, Fjallraven, and Marmot. What do I wear? A six-year-old, no longer stocked Mountain Equipment Co-op Jacket and Pants combo with GoreTex technology. And I’m determined to hold onto them as long as I can! Rather than provide a specific recommendation, my goal is to equip you with some key terminology so that you can get out there, try a few options on for size, and know exactly what you’re getting:
- Waterproof. When a garment is “waterproof” it is designed to keep water out during heavy rains — this is in contrast to a garment that is “water resistant” which will keep out light rain only. What you’ll likely notice on a waterproof item? It’ll likely have taped seams, rubberized zippers, ventilation zippers, hood, wrist, and waist adjustments, and less flexible fabric.
- Breathable. A breathable jacket allows for “moisture vapour transfer”. This means that it allows sweat to escape while still blocking out rainy weather. It keeps you dry, from the inside-out. Without it, your clothes will become (and stay) damp — even if there’s not a cloud in the sky.
- Windproof. One of the most common times I use my waterproof jacket is on sunny days while eating my lunch on windy, exposed peaks or passes. Your waterproof jacket will already be windproof — but the reverse is not always true. Windproof technology can be added to a water-resistantgarment. This is more typical with ultra lightweight, pocket-sized garments.
- Shell. This relates to the feel or makeup of the fabric itself and is noticeable to the touch. Hard Shell is the classic, inflexible, slick, non-insulated material we most often associate with weatherproof. It will keep you dry, but not warm. If you purchase a hard shell, you’ll need an insulated mid-layer as well. Soft Shell is more breathable, has some insulation, but is only water resistant – not great in our rainy coastal mountains. Another option is an Insulated Shell. This is the best of both worlds — insulated and waterproof but is often bulkier and heavier.
The most ubiquitous waterproof, windproof, breathable technology is GoreTex. You can think of it as the “Kleenex” of weatherproof technology. It is a tried-and-true, trademarked brand that partners with clothing manufacturers to include its technology in their garments. What this means is that you really can’t go wrong with it. BUT what it also means is that it’s not the only option—there are many other companies that have developed comparable weatherproof technology (e.g., lululemon’s is called “Glyde”). So, rest easy knowing you can expand your search beyond garments with the GoreTex tag.
A final consideration in your search for weatherproof jacket and pants is colour. There’s currently a semi-heated discourse on “colour pollution” in the outdoors. Some would argue that you should select earthy tones so as not to disturb other trail goers’ enjoyment. But the reality is that choosing vibrant colours for key pieces of your gear is safer—they allow you to be more visible, to your friends, yes, but also to Search and Rescue—this makes it an obvious choice for me. As a bonus, brighter colours are most often the first ones that go on sale (AND have the potential to make your outdoor photos pop!).
And yes, get the pants, too. Your future self, standing on a trail in a torrential downpour, will thank you.
02. Extra Socks
You could get away without this one. BUT on a cold day (or a day where you’ve accidentally stepped into a puddle) there are few things as comforting as slipping on a dry pair of socks. The socks I typically leave the house with are my lululemon Power Stride Crews. Lululemon has really nailed the performance sock game, creating a line of socks that provide just-enough cushy thickness while also staying in place all day long. The ones I keep in my pack, though? Those would have to be a pair of Smartwool socks —made of Merino wool, these are all-natural, warm, and quick dry.If you are prone to blisters or are expecting to have wet feet all day (hellooooo river crossings), you may also want to experiment with Injinji toe socks. They’ll likely feel strange at first but do an effective job of preventing between-the-toe blisters—and if you’re into natural running, they also support better toe “splay”.
STAYING WELL FED
Picture this: you’re standing on a picturesque peak, prehistoric marvels of the universe spread out before you. You’d been dreaming of this moment all week while you were hidden away at your corporate 9-5. But here it is and yet all you can think about is the grumbling in your stomach. Now in a serious “bonk”, you cut your losses and turn around early, leaving the peak behind. There’s nothing like “Hanger” to put a damper on an adventure, right? The items below are intended to provide a foundation for proper fuelling on the trail.
For moderate activity (on a non-scorcher day) on the trails,it is recommended to consume half a litre of water every hour. My maximum water capacity in my pack is 2.5L — inclusive of my water bladder (1.5L) and my flasks (500ml x 2). That’s two and a half hours’ worth. In most cases, its simply not enough to prevent dehydration. Cue: filling up on the trail. Prior to your adventure, it is prudent to check your route map to identify potential water sources or stretches where water will be unavailable. Keep in mind that in summer months, small streams often dry up.
In British Columbia, Giardia, Campylobacter, and Cryptosporidium are three parasites that are non-visible to the naked eye but can be present in mountain water sources. For this reason, it is recommended that you treat your water, even in the backcountry when it appears crystal clear. There are multiple solutions for water treatment, the most common being filters, tablets, and steri-pens. I bring along the Salomon XA Filter Cap which fits directly onto my front flask and Aquatabs purification tablets for when I need to fill up my back bladder (or lend water purification to a friend!).
If you’re out on the trail hydrating and eating properly, but start to feel fatigued, notice muscle cramps, or get a headache, it’s likely that your electrolytes are low. Electrolytes are minerals (including Sodium, Calcium, and Potassium) that improve water absorption, keeping you hydrated. But they leave your body through sweat (and urine) — which, of course, we do a lot out on the trail! Keeping your electrolytes at an appropriate level is as simple as incorporating an electrolyte source into your adventure-day nutrition plan. But you should select your source carefully: many sports drinks contain too much sugar and not enough electrolytes (Here’s looking at you, Gatorade! With ~30 grams of sugar per serving!). My go-to is Nuun: easy to pack, minimal on sugar (1 gram!), fizzy, and has a large menu of subtle fruity flavours to choose from. Other similar options are Skratch Labs and Xact Nutrition.
A good rule of thumb while out on the trail is to consume about 200-300 calories per hour, including 30-60g per hour of carbohydrates. But of course, this is a starting point and estimate—everyone’s bodies will need a slightly different equation. So you’ll need to experiment. I’m a big fan of whole foods, typically packing a sandwich, almonds and dates, chips, and fruits or veggies on my long days. I’ll also carry with me some sports-specific snacks to eat when I am having difficulty consuming whole foods. Some of my all-natural favourites are Trail Butter, Xact Fruit Bars, and Huma Energy Gels.
In my car, I leave a protein and carb-balanced snack to replenish glycogen stores and ward off any hunger on the drive home. For me, this is typically an Xact Nutrition protein bar and a banana or two.
If you’re looking for a nutritionist to follow, I’d highly recommend @flynutrition (Kylee Van Horn) on Instagram. She provides practical, easy to understand infographics about fueling for mountain running.
04. Emergency Extras
The last question I ask before I consider my food-packing complete, is: “if I needed to stay overnight, would I be hungry”? Most often, the answer is yes. So, I’ll throw in a few more lightweight food options, like extra nutrition bars or energy chews. Another item I keep in my pack is a package of Holos oatmeal. It’s a teeny-tiny package of cold-soak oats (i.e., add water and let it sit for an hour) that provides 370 calories and 19g of protein. A meal in a bag, perfect for an emergency.
On Vancouver’s North Shore, what we’d consider “backcountry” – i.e., sparsely inhabited wilderness – often begins within 10km of our trailheads. Its proximity is what makes this area of our province so special: solitude within a stone’s throw of the city. But the accessibility of our backcountry is a double-edged sword. Whether you’re going for a one- or two-hour jaunt or a full day adventure, you should be bringing along a robust kit of safety gear to support yourself (or another) in case of an emergency.
The golden rule is that you should always carry a map and magnetized compass and know how to use them. If you’re looking for maps of British Columbia (specifically North Shore), a friend recently recommended the waterproof, tearproof maps from Trail Ventures BC – which I am stoked to add to my kit this summer. For your compass, I’d recommend taking a read through this “How To Choose a Compass” guide by REI and then as a starting point, checking out this “Navigation Basics” guide which describes need-to-knows about compass usage.
The other non-negotiable that I bring along is a Garmin InReach—a communication and navigation device that uses the iridium satellite network (rather than telephone networks, which do not provide dependable coverage in the backcountry). I chose the Explorer+ model, for its backlight, maps, and ability to type out and send text messages to family. It’s an upfront investment and requires a monthly subscription, but the bottom line is that it provides a direct line of communication to emergency response services. It’s at the top of my gear list, always.
Out here in coastal British Columbia, it’s important to be aware of what to do if you encounter a black bear, grizzly bear, or cougar on the trail while also bringing along the right tools to defend yourself in the off chance that an encounter escalates into an attack. To start, here are some resources:
- For BC Government-recommended, high-level resources about all types of animal encounters: Staying Safe Around Wildlife
- For more detailed information on how to handle different types of encounters with different types of animals (including bears, cougars, moose, and deer): Be Bear Aware – Bear Encounters
- For comprehensive details about bear safety and awareness from the BC Forest Safety Council: Bear Safety Resource Package
From a packing perspective, bear spray should be a non-negotiable – no matter the distance you’re planning to tackle. Unlike other deterrents for bear attacks (e.g., bells, flares, bear bangers) bear spray is scientifically proven to be effective at halting an in-progress attack. You can typically purchase bear spray at your local MEC or sporting goods retailer, after signing a waiver. You can learn how to deploy your bear spray, by reading the article and watching the highly informative video, here.
03. Emergency Shelter
Most “Ten Essentials” lists will detail the need for “Emergency Shelter” and then recommend you bring along a Space Blanket. The problem with these, however, is that for any overnight, rainy, or windy scenarios, they can be cumbersome and ineffective—think how chilly it would be to have wind whisping through the cracks as you’re sitting on the cold hard ground awaiting rescue. I’d recommend purchasing the SOL Outdoors Bivvy Sack — a lightweight, breathable, emergency sleeping bag that is a step up from the traditional space blanket.
In the trails it can feel darker, earlier-on in the day, given that we are behind mountains or between the trees – and there’s few things quite as stressful as racing against the sunset to get back to your car. For this reason, a headlamp is a must. There are many options available, but the best place to start in narrowing them down is by understanding what brightness and beam pattern will work for you.
Brightness is measured in lumens – and the number of lumens you require will depend on the speed of your travel (e.g., hike vs. run vs. ski, etc.). For trail running a brightness of at least 200 lumens is typically recommended, so that you do not “overrun” your light. For beam pattern, you can choose “spot” (which lights up things in the distance) or “wide” (which is a flood light of things in proximity). In many cases you can find headlamps that can flip between the two patterns, so that you’re able to adjust dependent on your needs at any given time.
I carry the Black Diamond Spot Lite 200 since it meets my trail running needs while also remaining affordable and lightweight. AND remember! It never hurts to bring along extra batteries or a portable battery so you’re able to recharge it, if needed.
05. Survival Essentials & First Aid Kit
I recently stumbled upon a build-your-own outdoors survival kit made by VSSL. VSSL is founded by a team of Canadians that have developed practical kits with essential safety and survival gear, all in a compact, durable, and waterproof, tube-shaped format. The build-your own option allows you to select essentials that best fit with the gear you already have and your desired level of emergency preparedness. To consider yourself well-equipped for an emergency, it’s recommended that you bring along a basic first aid kit, signaling device (whistle, mirror, flashlight), and fire-starting kit – all available to add to a VSSL kit. A few other items I’ve added into my kit are: leuko tape (for blisters and chafing), salt tablets (for dehydration and electrolytes), and tick tweezers (just in case!)
A FEW EXTRAS
These items don’t quite fit into the categories above but are equally as important!
01. Trekking Poles
Trail runners seem to have a love or hate relationship with trekking poles. I am in LOVE. When used correctly, they provide two primary benefits: (1) they can make your uphill/downhill movement more efficient by engaging your whole body, and (2) they can result in greater balance on uneven or rocky terrain by dispersing your weight across three touch points with the ground, instead of two. On flat trail though, they lose their effectiveness (and can slow you down!). When you see others using poles while walking on flat terrain, its likely due to a desire to improve posture, not efficiency.
For trail runners, selection of poles is typically based on weight (i.e., carbon instead of aluminum) and compactability (i.e., can fold or collapse). For this reason, I use the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles. They are ultralightweight at 10oz for the pair, fold into three connected pieces, and have stood the test of time (and carelessness) of 4 years of me bashing them around on the trail. Other comparable options include the Leiki Micro Flash Carbon and Komperdell Carbon Ultralight Vario 4 Trekking Poles.
Important to note, is that most foldable poles do not provide the ability adjust the length of the poles on the go—that is, the size you buy is the size you get. If you need flexibility in the length of your pole (for example, if you and your partner both use the same pair) you’ll likely want to look for a pair that is collapsible or telescoping (like the Komperdell Carbons). The rule of thumb for selecting your pole length is that when you are holding the handles, your elbow should be at 90 degrees, with your forearm parallel to the ground (make sure your shoes are on when you test it!)
For videos on how to use your poles on the trail, check out this article on trailrunner.com
02. Toilet paper
The simplest solution for this is to take some of your toilet paper from home and put it in a waterproof bag. But to make your experience even grander and cleaner, I’d also recommend packing along sanitary wipes. For a biodegradable option, check out I Love My Muff wipes. One of the most common reasons for getting sick on the trail is from putting dirty hands into communal snacks (like trail mix or chips) and then putting your hand into your mouth – considering that, it doesn’t hurt to pack along some hand sanitizer, too!
03. Bug protection
There’s four options to consider when looking at bug protection: DEET Repellent, Picaridin Repellent, Natural Repellent, or Bug Net Hats. This article from MEC does a great job at laying out the pros and cons of each of the options.
I typically forgo any bug protection until I’m stopped for a snack or lunch, and most often choose a repellent over a net since it is easy to pack. The one exception to this is if I am travelling through bushy or grassy terrain, where I will pre-emptively apply repellent to ward off ticks. I typically reserve my bug net hat for camping – when I have a larger pack – to avoid constant reapplication and prolonged absorption of repellent into my skin. If you’re choosing to use repellent and sunscreen, the CDC recommends that you apply your sunscreen before your repellent, to avoid the increased absorption that may result from the repellent being trapped between your skin and the sunscreen.
04. Sun protection
Staying protected from the sun is equally as important across all seasons: from scorching hot summertime days to blue bird winter days. I carry along sunglasses (mine are non-slip, affordable, extra-durable pairs from Goodr), sunscreen (look for something lightweight, waterproof, and reef-safe like SunBum or ThinkSport and remember to reapply), lip balm, and a wide-brimmed hat. Lately I’ve been wearing this one from lululemon—it’s reversible so you can flip the long side to the front or back, depending on whether you’re walking away from or toward the sun.
There are many, many practical uses to bring a knife along with you out on the trail: first aid, preparing food, cutting rope or tape, repairing gear, and safety or defense (although hopefully that’s not what you need to use it for!). There’s a wide spectrum of options available, and most trail runners or hikers land on a multitool like a Leatherman (think of it as a souped up, extra robust Swiss Army knife with myriad functionality) or a 2-5” folding knife that locks into place when open and can, as a result, handle more aggressive tasks. I currently carry the Gerber Sharkbelly FE EFS Knife – it was an affordable, lightweight option to get started with. (Although I am currently eyeing a more expensive, versatile Leatherman for multi-day adventures, which I would likely swap out for this one, once its in my kit)
And that’s it! You’re ready to rock.
If you’d like to get your hands on this detailed packing list, but in a checklist format, you can download my Complete Backcountry Trail Running Packing List, here.
If you’re new to the backcountry and are looking for some guidance on how to be prepared and stay safe in the outdoors, check out my article on Easing Into Solo Trail Running, here.
AND if you’ve got a question or another must-have item that you always carry along, drop it in the comments below! I’m a sucker for trying out a new piece of gear, so would love to hear about any recommendations you have.