Winter trail running doesn't have to be hard, cold, or scary.

Winter trail running doesn’t have to be hard, cold, or scary.

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I remember my first winter trail running experiences well. I was on the wrestling team in high school and during the season, we had practice six days a week for two hours on the mat and coach had us run at least three times a week. This was in January in Utah. In Utah, winter running meant running in the snow and ice. Since I hated running on pavement and had miles of trails out my front door, I learned how to trail run in the winter a long time ago. I’ve been happily refining my skills and abilities each year since including running outside in Minnesota for a few winters – yikes!

I have come to love winter trail running. The cold and silent air has a way of clearing my head and making me feel alive and strong. Running on unpaved trails in the winter isn’t for the uninitiated though. It can be treacherous if you fail to prepare. 

Winter trail running is still just trail running and comes with similar simplicities, but there are many ways to make it safer and more enjoyable so you don’t end up miserable, injured, or frozen. Let’s jump in.

What should I wear for winter trailrunning?

Clothing

This one will depend on several factors. What’s the outside air temperature? How long do you plan to be out? What intensity do you plan to run at? Is it snowing? Windy? Is it sunny or dark out? I’ll admit, dressing for any winter activity is a skill, but with some experience, you can get it right. Getting it right means you start out being a bit chilly and maybe being a bit chilly throughout the run, but not cold. The main danger in dressing isn’t comfort, it’s balancing being too hot and getting sweaty with being too cold. The way to find that sweet spot is to ask yourself the questions above and add or remove layers accordingly.

Top

I typically put on a thin breathable base layer long sleeve shirt like this one:

I typically put on a fleece sweater with a zipper in front. Fleece is great because it wicks away sweat really well and it also makes me feel really granola and adventurous whenever I put on fleece. 🙂 When I get too hot, I unzip the front to vent. Fleece is also lightweight so if I get too hot, I can take it off and wrap it around my waist pretty easily. 

If it’s wet out or really cold or windy, I also throw on a windbreaker, but you have to be really careful with this layer because you can quickly become very wet from sweat. (The first rule of winter adventures is to stay dry!)

Bottoms

I like to wear a pair of windproof cycling tights like these because they’re windproof in front and more breathable in back. This keeps me warm but also lets the heat vent out so I don’t get sweaty. I’ll put a pair of shorts on over that and if it’s really cold, wet, or I’m planning to run in deep snow, I’ll throw on a pair of waterproof snow pants like these:

Hands

Your hands and head are likely to get cold despite having a hot and sweaty core. I like to start out with a pair of thin stretch gloves on anytime the weather is cold and I have a pair of thicker ones for when it’s a bit colder. If it’s wet or very cold, I like to throw on my Gore-Tex Mittens. Mittens retain more heat than fingered gloves. 

Head

We’ll talk about frostbite in a bit, but protecting your ears and nose from extreme cold can be critical in winter trail running. I like to wear a fleece headband in moderately cold weather and a fleece or wool beany in colder weather.

On the coldest days, I’ll also throw on a thin neck gaiterlike this one to keep the cold air directly off my skin. This keeps my ears a bit more protected and I’ll pull it up over my nose if needed. I have one with a mouth hole cut out of it because running = hard breathing = lots of moisture exhaled = wet facemask = frozen icicle face. That’s not a fun place to be and a simple hole for your breath to escape can make a huge difference.

As a general rule, I like to dress in a way that will keep me warm enough to not be miserable, but not sweaty. Think what you’d feel like if you had to stop and rest for 10 minutes. Would you start to shiver and freeze? If you’re sweaty, you certainly will. Sweat is the enemy in the winter.

What about my feet? 

Winter trail running requires that you pay careful attention to what’s on your feet for several reasons. The first one we’ll discuss is warmth. It starts with your socks. I love these socks for just about anything I’m doing as wool is pretty good at regulating temperature in any weather. I love these ones for winter trail running, but they’re a bit thick for most my summertime runs.

I’ve been using these shoes for several years now and I love them! They’re warm and waterproof, but I don’t feel like I have a pair of snow boots on. They have great traction too, but we’ll get into that a bit later in this article. 

If my plans will take me into deep snow, I also like to throw on a pair of gaiters. They can be annoying if you don’t need them, but they’re lifesavers if you’ll be in snow above the top of your shoe and can extend a run well beyond what I’d be able to do if I was getting snow in my shoes each step.

Being prepared for the worst

I like to live by being prepared for the worst but expecting the best. This lets me have a good time without being caught off guard. In winter trail running, this is definitely true. I hate running with excess gear, backpacks, or things bouncing around in my pockets. Depending on the time of day and expected duration of my run, I do make exceptions to my minimalist running style.

Light

If it’s anywhere near nightfall and I mean within 2 or three hours, I’ll pack my lightweight headlamp just in case I need it to get out of a sticky situation. If I plan to be running in the dark on purpose, I’ll bring more lumens. I always charge up or replace the batteries if I’ll be out for any significant period of time. Nothing like running out of juice five miles out.

Water

Insulated hydration tube to prevent freezing

I typically don’t pack water on my runs unless they’re over 10 miles or so, but if I know many people can’t go that long without water. If you’re not a camel like I am, you should definitely pack water on your runs. The trick to winter trail running is that your water will often freeze if you pack it in a bottle or a pack on your back. The trick I like to use is to wear the backpack under my outer layer and run the hose up to my collar inside my jacket. This is enough to keep everything flowing smoothly and doesn’t interfere too much with running mechanics. You can also get insulated bottles that will keep you hydrated, but I’ve never used one of these. I do use an insulated sleeve for my hydration pack – like this one:

Food

I normally pack food on my runs if I’ll be out for more than two or three hours, but when I’m winter trail running, I usually throw an energy bar or gel in somewhere so I have a few hundred calories on me if I get into a predicament.

The reason I take extra precautions with light, food, and water when winter trail running should be clear, but I’ll explain. When trail running, we typically head out into the woods, or up a mountain trail where there aren’t many people, and we may not be in cell range. Nightfall comes early in wintertime and a short trail run after work could quickly turn into an epic all-night freeze-fest if you run into any issues like twisting an ankle or blowing out a knee. Prepare for the worst. Don’t get caught without the gear that could save your life. The stakes go up in winter because exposure to the cold can kill you very quickly when you’re dressed for running, not walking, and already sweaty and wet. That’s why it’s so important to dress properly.

Additional winter trail running risks and how to prepare for them

Frostbite

Frostbite is a real risk in winter trail running. Don’t believe me? I have a friend who went on a winter trail run with her summer running shoes on and after several miles of enduring cold and then numb toes, she found out she would need some serious medical intervention to not lose two of her toes to frostbite. 

Many commonly believe that frostbite hurts and you’ll know when it’s happening, but it can sneak up on you in a hurry. It starts with just being cold and then being numb. Your skin will turn red and then white. When it’s white and numb you’re in trouble as it may already be frozen. The trick to avoiding frostbite is to keep the cold air off your skin. Even a thin layer can do a lot, but in really cold weather you’ll need a bit more protection. Cover up those ears and fingers and you should be okay, but pay attention to wind chill and factor in the wind chill from running. 

winter trail running

Hypothermia

You may not think hypothermia would be too big of a risk while winter trail running because you’re keeping your core temperature up, but again, you have to consider what will happen if you have to stop for more than a few minutes. Be prepared for that by bringing layers, staying dry, and bringing food and water. Hypothermia happens when you can’t maintain your core body temperature above 95 degrees.

A dehydrated body is much harder to keep warm than a well-hydrated one, so pack that extra water (and don’t plan on using snow to hydrate, it’s a bad idea. Read why here.). The same thing applies in calorie depletion. You’ve got to fuel up to generate heat and if you run into trouble, that extra few hundred calories could be the difference between a search and rescue call and a safe return home.

If you’re having trouble keeping warm while running despite your layers of protection, it’s likely cold enough that you’d be in trouble if you had to stop running. If what you brought isn’t keeping you warm enough, turn around and head back before it gets worse. This typically isn’t an issue, but keep it in mind as you head out into the wild.

Communication

This one’s a universal precaution for all adventures, but before you head out, let someone responsible know exactly where you plan to go and what time you plan to return. This is easily overlooked for a simple run up the canyon, but it’s an easy way to get help if you can’t get back under your own power.

In winter It can be hard to predict your pace and what time you’ll be back, so I like to give myself a deadline. “If I’m not back by10:00 pm, you can worry and take action.” That gives me a safety net if I need it, but also keeps me from pushing beyond what I should (which sometimes I’m tempted to do).

Also, pack a charged cell phone… That’s all I need to say about that.

Navigation

Some trails can be much harder to navigate in winter because the snow covering the ground can hide trail markers and the trail itself. Prepare yourself beforehand to know where you’re going and have the tools you need if you get disoriented.

Read more about navigation skills here (learn outdoor navigation skills), here (learn how to use a map and compass), and here (natural navigation techniques),

Moving through ice and snow

Okay, so you’re all geared up and ready to go run, but isn’t trail running in winter different than running on dirt different because it’s slippery? Yes, it is, and there are ways to approach the snow and ice that will help make it fun and safe to run on.

Traction

Getting the right kind of shoe designed for running in snow and ice will make all the difference. These ones are my current favorites. They grip like my Michelin snow tires, without feeling like bricks. 

Microspikes

Sometimes the traction from my shoes is all I need, but often, I want something more grippy. That’s when I break out my microspikes. I love these ones.

Often, the trails I run start out as dirt and then turn to ice or snow as I gain elevation or switch aspects. These spikes are great because they’re easy to strap to my pack and then throw on when I need them. They make a huge difference on the ice. They aren’t as great over soft snow, but I’m usually pretty steady over snow. I’ll get into that next.

Quick steps

It’s not just what’s on your feet that will give you confidence on snow and ice, it’s your technique. Good technique on slick surfaces is a quick and short stride that keeps you balanced over your center of gravity. If your legs land too far out from your center of balance , you’ll surely slip. Keep those steps choppy and quick and keep yourself as low to the ground as you can. Actively use your hands and arms to counterbalance as you move through the terrain and keep both hands free so you can quickly catch a fall if you need to.

Good technique on ice includes increased focus; taking shorter, faster, lighter strides with a wider stance for better balance; having your hands as free as possible; and slowing your pace appropriately for the conditions.

Read my article about moving quickly over varied terrain for more tips. 

Reasons To Love Winter Trail Running

So now that I’ve painted a picture that winter trail running can be cold, slippery, dangerous, and lead to death if not prepared, let me tell you why I love it!

It can be faster

I run on several trails here in the Wasatch that look more like rock gardens than trails. These rough and rocky trails can be technically challenging in dry summer conditions, but after a good layer of snow fills in all the gaps, all that’s left is a smooth surface perfect for cruising. I’ve clocked several PRs on snow-covered trails. Snowy trails aren’t always faster, but sometimes the stars align and you can get your zen on.

Winter running builds technique

Winter trail running demands that you increase your awareness, nimbleness, balance, and overall technique. Consistent winter trail running strengthens your core and enhances your response time when the ground and your feet don’t connect the way you intend. As a good example of this, I spent the past weekend in Phoenix where I got to run on dry trails. After months of running on snow, I felt like a roadrunner down in the desert where things were flat and stable.

The views…

winter trail running

Need I say more? The light show put on by white snow, low clouds, and clear skies mean winter views can be spectacular and unique compared to summertime views.

Less crowded

With everyone hanging out at the ski resorts or staying athome, trails that look like Disneyland in the summertime often see minimaltraffic in the wintertime. If you brave the elements, the solitude of the wildis easier had in the winter than any other time.

Confidence

After spending time winter trail running, you’ll be more confident in your own abilities to move efficiently and safely in snow and ice. This confidence that comes with experience will help move you forward to plenty of other wintertime fun as I explained in this article:Why hiking is the gateway adventure

Not only that, but just getting out on adventures of any sort during cold or crappy weather makes me feel like I can conquer the world.

Summary

Ihope this article has inspired you to put on your stretch gloves and headlampand get out there on the trial – no matter the weather. You may not want to leaveyour cozy pillow and blanket, but if you get out there, you’ll not regret it.

As always, adventure confidently, smartly, and safely.

Chris

Winter trail running doesn't have to be cold, hard, or scary. Learn how to make it warm, fun, and safe.

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