TEAM TSL running in the mountains

Trail running kit: a starter guide 

What do trail runners bring on a three-hour run? What about longer? What are those running back packs all about? Here, a practical guide on what to pack - for training and racing - to have a great day trail running in all conditions.

BY: MARK COHEN • run • updated on 11.04.2024


Trail running is on the ascent (small joke). According to Ultra Running, running in the mountains has been growing approximately 12% year-over-year globally for over a decade (2021). And there are no signs of that trend abating. The pandemic has only accelerated interest in the great outdoors. Trail running stands as one of several segments to benefit.


At the 2024 Odlo High Trail Vanoise, this trend was shown not only in the diversity of the events but of the participants. From seasoned runners who’d clearly took part in many like events before, to others who “didn’t look like runners,” but were just as keen to get a taste of running distances at altitude, the start lines were as mixed as the experience levels. 


And there lies the beauty of trail running. Not only does it expose you to scenery you’d otherwise miss, but it connects you to a community that’s diverse yet inextricably linked by sport. 


To run trails – whether it’s way up at altitude or simply your local hills – equipment choice is key and slightly more complex than running on the road. When road running, you generally have access to food, water and help, if needed, with a simple swipe of a card or a call. In the mountains circumstances can feel more isolated. How much food do you need for a long run? Should you be running with poles? If so, what kind? Which running bag is best? 


In talking with Team Odlo X-Alpi at the Odlo HTV and from our own prep for a 45km, 3400+m course, we answer some of these commonly asked questions for those just starting to run off road.  

TEAM TSL having a look at the view
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Women checking her gear

Getting started 

“Nature is the thing that really separates road from trail,” explains Emilien Bochet, team manager for French trail running team, Team Odlo X-Alpi, “and the landscapes and technical trail you get access to when you head into the mountains. The best place to begin – like many things if you’re just starting out, for route planning and inspiration – is online.” 


Sites like Alps Insight, Strava, and Fatmap are great places to get inspired by others running a lot, but also a great place to learn. Loads can be gleaned from images, activity notes and blogs about running in a specific area (if you’re new to it), what to pack and important parcours details like elevation, distance and timing that should help you plan your run, make a GPX file, upload to your watch and head out. But all that comes after some essentials get sorted out first.


First, let’s start with footwear. While running on cushioned, light tread shoes are ok for the road and some gravel surfaces, at altitude, in the mountains, traction takes on a different dimension. Less felt on ascents, this is particularly acute for descending on scree, dirt and lose rock. For that reason, you really want something with tread like the Scott Kinabalu or similar – especially if the run or events you’re doing feature sections with snow. 


Selecting the right shoe is a bit of trial and error but opting for the trail version of your preferred road shoe is a good place to start – particularly if you’re comfortable and accustomed to the fit. 


Similarly, traction type varies for more and less technical terrain, too (showed in the chunkiness of the tread), so give some thought on where you run most, and which shoes are best suited. Maybe even opt for two pairs, budget permitting, to allow for faster runs that go from city or town to trail and then when needed, something specifically geared to technical footing.      

Selecting a trail bag

If you’re still reading this, you’ll have noticed that one of the visual differences between road and trail runners is their pack. Road runners typically go without, but for running in the mountains, when water and other necessities are needed, having a snug fit trail running backpack is pure magic. When on, and when properly sized, the feeling of running with one is akin to taking flight, securely stowing what you need to have a great couple hours in the hills. But how do you select the right size and fit?


There are loads of brands producing very high end, very refined trail bags. Among them, Salomon, TSL, Camelbak, Inov8 and many others. All will offer different size variations (to allow for close-to -body fit and limit movement when running) and most will boast features like sizing adjustments, reflective detailing, whistles, zippered pockets and the possibility of carrying a litre or more of water in squeezy bottles or a hydration bladder. Yes, it’s a lot. 


The best criteria from which to select, in our opinion, is use type and fit. Are you training a lot in the mountains for a few hours on the weekends? You want something that will carry a jacket, fuel, water, keys and a headlamp. A four to six litre pack will probably suffice. Gearing up for an ultra? You’ll want to look at 8-litres and up (probably more) to account for the extra food, clothing and water you’ll need to complete the course. 


Like shoes, backpacks are one of those nice things to have more than one – a small training backpack for training and something perhaps larger, if needed, come event day.  

Women checking the view

Poles? Really?   

Depending on course length and where you’re running, you’ve probably asked yourself this question. Are poles necessary? And how do I run with them?


On descents and ascents, poles are astoundingly useful in engaging the entirety of your musculature, not just your legs. On long courses, with lots of ascent, I’d label them as indispensable, as they not only help to stabilize each step in either direction but preserve your legs when you’re planning a big day of 3 hours or more. 


TrainRight has a tidy breakdown of their pros and cons, the latter being what to do with them when you don’t need them. It’s something more to carry, but this job can be done with the right backpack or a waist belt and pole loops. I had some success with these from Black Diamond (also used for snow touring) but others exist that are trail-engineered to be collapsible and light.  


If in doubt, I say, bring ‘em on your next couple training runs. It takes a couple runs to get used to working with them and how to stow them on the run. Also consider how steep the mountains are where you’re running. These factors will likely determine whether they make it into your pack on weekends. 

What's in your pack?

With the added complexity of packs sorted, you’re now wondering what to put in them. It is not at once obvious, indeed, so let’s dig in. 


For runs of three hours or less (while that might sound like a lot, as you start working with elevation and climbs, you’ll be surprised at how fast the time moves), I always packed the following (May-October): 

 

  • An ISPO-award winning jacket that packs up like a pin. I love the Dual Dry waterproof jacket, and not because we make it. It is genuinely best-in-class. It is great at cutting wind but doesn’t overheat and game changer if it starts to rain. 
  • Food. Spelt cakes with palm oil free chocolate spread work for me, but others like gels, homemade granola bars or anything else you can tolerate while running. I always carry two gels just in case. They’re small and can really help if you start to hurt towards the end. 
  • Depending on time of day, a headlamp for the way home. 
  • One litre of water (minimum).
  • Some cash, a fully charged mobile and proof of insurance (just in case). 
  • For added peace of mind, I’d recommend investing in a watch that goes beyond heart rates and average paces, but something with routing and altimetre capabilities. I invested in the Garmin Fenix 7 at release. Having features like “return to start” and the ability to get back to the car park are invaluable once your routes start to get long.

Get running

The beauty of running is really in its simplicity. To start, on the road you don’t need much else other than a good pair of shoes and some layers. Trail running is only slightly more nuanced, but once embraced, the places it leads will inspire you to love running even more. Promise.  

HTV Odlo X-Alpi POW

High Trail Vanoise 

From July 5 to 7, 2024, Val d'Isère organises its Odlo High Trail Vanoise weekend. Over 3 days, 7 races of all levels will take place, from the 9km charity trail to the ultra-trail in stages over 2 days, offering its participants the possibility to cross the most beautiful panoramas of Haute Tarentaise Vanoise, Maurienne and Grand Paradis thanks to the new Trail des 5 Vals course. The following races earn UTMB index points to qualify for the UTMB World Series Events: High Trail Vanoise, Trail des 6 cols, Balcons of Val d'Isère, and Trail des 5 Vals.  


For full race details visit: www.high-trail-vanoise.com

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