I always try to encourage more people to venture off road and give trail or ultra running a try, but after headlines in the past few weeks about a man suffering from hypothermia after trying to climb Snowdon wearing nothing but his underpants, and a group having to be rescued from Scafell Pike after consuming so much cannabis they were unable to walk, inevitably questions are raised about the preparedness of those venturing out into our beautiful countryside.
Thankfully though, with only a small amount of thought, anyone can safely enjoy getting away from the roads and onto the trails. Here are a few areas to consider to help you stay safe in your trail running:
1. Have the right kit
You don’t need to take the kitchen sink with you, but you might need to take a few more items of kit than when you run on the roads. Above all, remember that you will be running in more remote areas and consider what might happen if anything went wrong.
- Survival bag – small and light, this can live in the bottom of your bag. It will hopefully never be needed, but could be a literal lifesaver if you injure yourself and have to wait for help
- Warm layer, hat and gloves – think not just about what you might need while you are running, but what will keep you warm if you pick up an injury and have to stop or move slowly
- Waterproof jacket (and possibly waterproof trousers depending on the weather forecast and where you are running)
- Whistle – for alerting people nearby in an emergency. The recognised emergency distress signal is six loud blasts, but frankly any loud whistle blowing is likely to alert others that something is wrong!
- Torch – if there is a possibility that you might be out for a run as darkness approaches, then consider taking a torch in case your run takes longer than planned
- Map and compass (and the ability to use them)
- First Aid kit – no need for a whole medicine cabinet, but a few wound dressings, tape and some Paracetamol will allow you to deal with most minor injuries while you get to safety
- Phone – make sure you don’t take so many selfies that the battery has died when you need to call for help!
2. Consider the weather
Before you set out, check the weather forecast and consider its impact on your run. If you are running in lower level areas then this may be as simple as choosing to run your loop in an anticlockwise direction so that the wind is behind you when crossing an exposed section.
If you are venturing into mountainous areas, then the weather becomes a more significant consideration. The weather in the mountains can change very rapidly and can regularly throw four seasons at you in a day, so even if you start your run under a beautiful blue sky, make sure that you have sufficient kit with you to be comfortable and protected if the weather turns.
Make sure you check the weather forecast; in the UK my favourite source of weather information is the Mountain Weather Information Service, which provides detailed forecasts for the UK’s upland areas.
One of the biggest threats to runners in bad weather is hypothermia; make sure you know the signs to watch out for and remember that getting wet is a big contributing factor to getting too cold. This article provides some very useful information on hypothermia.
3. Learn how to navigate
Make sure you take a map with you and learn how to use it. Navigation is an easy and rewarding skill to learn and will open up a whole wealth of areas to explore once you are confident with a map. This post will help you get started with learning to navigate if you are unsure.
4. Be honest about your own capabilities
When you first venture off road it can come as quite a surprise how slowly you will be travelling for the equivalent effort to road running, particularly once you start heading into hillier areas. Moving uphill and across many different sorts of terrain results in you moving a lot more slowly than you are used to (and technical downhill terrain is not always any faster!). Remember to factor this in when planning routes and estimating how long you will be out (although devised for walkers, a good guide is Naismith’s rule, which suggests estimating an extra 10 minutes per 100 metres of ascent).
When you are having your first outings on trails, make sure that you are honest with yourself about your own abilities. If you are not a very confident navigator or not used to different types of terrain then start off with good trails on well-trodden routes; as you become more experienced you can start to venture further off the beaten track.
Most importantly, make sure that you have a back-up plan in case things go wrong and let someone know where you are going and what time to expect you back before setting out.
5. Keep fuelled up
Not only do your body and muscles need lots of energy to power you across the difficult terrain, but your brain needs a supply of quick energy to retain the ability to make good decisions about navigation and safety.
The digestive system does not work as well while running, due to blood from the gut being diverted to supply the hard working muscles, so eat little and often and try to use slower moving uphills as opportunities to eat.
6. Put safety first
When running off road you need to respect that it is potentially a more hazardous environment and you need to be more cautious than when you are going for a straightforward road run with lots of people around.
If at any time you feel that things are going wrong, remember that discretion is the better part of valour and that trail or mountain will still be there to explore another day.
If you are running in lowland areas, make sure that you think through what you would do should the worst case scenario happen and you have an accident on an isolated trail. Is there someone who could come to your help without needing the emergency services, or might you need to call 999 for an ambulance? Think about how you will let people know where you are; are you able to provide a grid reference so that other people can find you or can you use your phone for emergency location.
If you are running in upland areas of the UK, then should things go wrong you are able to call on the services of Mountain Rescue. Remember that they are a volunteer service and should only be called upon in a true emergency. If you do need Mountain Rescue then dial 999 and ask for Police, then Mountain Rescue. If you are running in the mountains, or in areas where the phone signal is patchy, then it is a good idea to register for text 999 services before setting out; a text can often get through when there is not enough signal for a call (but you need to pre-register to use the service).
7. Enjoy yourself
That’s enough doom and gloom though! Above all, remember to enjoy yourself! Trail running provides a far more stimulating, beautiful and exciting environment than running on a road and has massive benefits for your physical and mental health. With just a few small considerations for safety, anyone can get out and enjoy our fabulous trails and countryside.