Everything You Need to Get Started Trail Running

Buying Guide

Trail running is a sport that anyone can get into quickly, but it helps to have the right clothing, footwear and gear that support running in an outdoor environment. Here are the essentials.

Last updated: September 29, 2021
7 min read
Everything You Need to Get Started Trail Running

There’s nothing quite like ditching the stuffy gym to run on the open trail. Enjoying the great outdoors while getting a good workout is multitasking at its finest. You’ll encounter hills and different types of terrain, allowing you to burn calories and rapidly develop your strength. Trail running can also improve your mental focus and balance.

But before you run off into the sunset, there are a few trail running essentials you should pick up. You'll want to have clothing and footwear that support running in an outdoor environment, as well as trail running gear to ensure you stay safe and hydrated during your run. Consider this list a starter pack for every athlete looking to get the most out of their time on the trail.

Must-Have Clothing for Trail Runs

The type of clothing you’ll need will depend somewhat on geography and weather conditions on the trail. In general, you’ll want to wear something that is breathable and will keep you dry while you sweat. Moisture wicking shirts and shorts are a good starting point. Nike Dri-FIT fabric features a microfiber construction designed to wick away moisture from your skin. Many Nike Dri-FIT styles are made with recycled polyester, which reduces waste and carbon emissions, so you can feel good about protecting the environment that brings you joy on the trail.

You’ll also want clothing that moves with you. Choose shorts or pants with stretch and a comfortable waistband. You may even opt for compression tights or shorts with a compression liner for more support and less chafing.

In case you encounter rain or chilly weather, you’ll also need a lightweight, weather-resistant trail running jacket that protects you from both wind and water. And if you’re running during colder months, you may need a long-sleeve, wool base-layer to keep you warm, or even an insulating fleece.

Trail Clothing Checklist

  • Moisture-wicking ankle socks and underwear
  • Stretchy running pants or shorts that don’t chafe
  • Dri-FIT or wool base layer top
  • Weather-resistant running jacket
  • Fleece layer for colder weather
  • Hat/visor and/or sunglasses
  • Supportive sports bra for women

Trail Running Shoes

If there is one item you absolutely should not leave home without, a durable pair of trail runners is probably it. After all, you can’t tear up the trail in sandals. You’ll need a pair of all weather shoes with rugged traction to keep you safe and comfortable while you’re running or hiking.

There are a couple of important questions to ask when choosing a pair of trail running shoes:

  • Would you rather have extra cushioning underfoot or a shoe that’s lightweight and responsive? Barefoot shoes are lighter in weight and allow you to feel the trail, while other shoes have plenty of midsole cushioning to keep you comfy on longer runs.
  • Where will your run take you? If you’re running on especially rocky terrain, you may need a pair of shoes with toe guards and a stiffer, more durable construction. If you’re running in muddy conditions, you’ll need shoes with slip-resistant rubber, waterproof materials, an instep with plenty of support and wide spacing between the lugs.

Trail Running Backpack or Vest

When you’re moving at full speed, carrying a water bottle just isn’t practical. A soft flask is an option, but a hydration pack will allow you to stay hydrated without slowing down. You can get a backpack with a water bladder and drinking tube or a hydration vest. Both provide similar features, but a hydration backpack typically has more room for other gear, such as food or extra layers of clothing.

Hydration packs come with water bladders in different sizes, so choose a capacity that will accommodate your longest trail run. If you’re just going for a shorter hike, you can partially fill the pack to avoid unnecessary weight. You’ll also want to make sure the torso length and hip belt make for a comfortable and secure fit. A women-specific backpack can sometimes provide a better fit for female athletes. Look for backpacks with a chest or sternum strap to help distribute weight evenly.

If you're trying to stay as light as possible, consider a trail-friendly fanny pack or running belt. These low profile items will give you extra space to hold a snack, smartphone or wallet without weighing your down.

GPS Fitness Tracker

You can survive a trail run without a gadget on your wrist, but a GPS watch or fitness tracker will allow you to track your runs and ensure that you don’t get lost in the wilderness. When choosing a device, look for something durable and weather-resistant with a long battery life. A watch with a “return to start” feature can be a lifesaver if you lose track of the trail, and you’ll also want one that can track your distance, steps, and altitude climbed.


If you want to be able to run freely on the trail no matter the time of day, you’ll need a running headlamp to light your way. Make sure you get one that’s bright enough and also able to withstand the elements. And pay attention to the weight and fit when choosing the right headlamp for you.

Wireless Earphones

All athletes should have the option of listening to the theme from Rocky while pushing themselves to the limits. If you’re motivated by music, a pair of wireless earphones will be essential to getting the best results. You should opt for a waterproof pair that will be both secure and comfortable to wear for long periods.

Emergency Gear

Running off-the-beaten-path comes with some safety risks, so you should come prepared with the right emergency gear. You’ll need:

  • A first aid kit
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Blister pads
  • An emergency whistle
  • A foil blanket
  • Emergency contact and medical information
  • A backup charger for your phone and GPS watch


For longer runs, you may need to take a snack break. Choose nutrient-dense, protein-packed foods that won’t take up too much space in your pack. In addition, you may want to bring a drink mix with electrolytes to add to your water reservoir or soft flask.

Sunglasses, Hats and Hiking Poles

You'll also want to think about gear that protects you from the sun. A hat and pair of polarized sunglasses are paramount, especially if you're running in high altitudes in direct sunlight. Finally, if your trail run will take you to a steep uphill climb, you might need a little extra support. A pair of foldable hiking poles will help you navigate steep hills with greater ease.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trail Running Gear

Are Trail Running Shoes Necessary to Run Off-Road?
While you can wear your everyday running shoes on the trail, they’re not likely to hold up as well as a pair specifically designed for trail running. Furthermore, trail running shoes help protect your feet from rocks and roots, provide more traction on uneven terrain, and stabilize your feet and ankles. If you’re planning to hit the trail regularly, you should invest in a good pair of trail running shoes.
Can You Wear Trail Running Shoes on a Road?
Yes. While trail running shoes are designed for a variety of terrain, you can safely wear them on the road as well, as long as they provide enough cushioning and support to keep you comfortable on a harder surface. However, bear in mind that running long distances on pavement may wear out the shoe’s outsole faster. If you frequently run on a road or a treadmill in addition to trail running, you may want to get a separate pair of shoes for road running.
What Is the Best Trail Running Vest?
The best trail running vest for you will depend on your individual needs. You’ll want one with enough capacity to carry all your trail running gear, but not so large that it’s heavy or uncomfortable. The best trail running vests come with a water reservoir or water bottle to help you stay hydrated.
What Kind of Shorts Should I Get for Trail Running?
You should buy shorts with a slightly longer inseam for more coverage. They should be lightweight and move with you while also providing protection from the elements. You may also want to choose a pair with compression liners to prevent chafing. Lastly, if you’re foregoing a backpack, make sure the shorts you choose have plenty of pockets.
What Size Trail Running Pack Do I Need?
You should choose a trail running pack with a large enough water reservoir to accommodate your longest run as well as enough pockets to carry food, emergency gear, clothing and other essentials. Most athletes require a 2-liter pack for a 1-2 hour run or a 6-liter pack for a trail run longer than 6 hours. If you aren't looking to bring water on your run, you might consider a lightweight fanny pack or waist pack.

Originally published: August 13, 2021

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