August 1, 2019
by Nick whitbread
Trail running, especially long runs, offer us benefits not usually offered on the road: beautiful vistas, interactions with flora and fauna, solitude, quiet and peace. With these benefits comes some added risk. Getting lost, suffering an injury far from aid, a run in with the local fauna or lora (poison oak/ivy), running out of fuel or water and/or minimal assistance should something go wrong. This shouldn’t discourage anyone. Greater risk equals greater reward. We just have to be smart and plan ahead.
First things first, if you are running alone, tell someone where you are going. Let them know your route, the time you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. If you are traveling or forget to tell someone before you go, send them a text or write it on a piece of paper and leave it on the dash of your vehicle. If something goes wrong and you don’t return by your due time that way at least after some investigation someone will know. Also carry some ID. You may have your phone but most are locked. Road ID ( ROAD iD )is a great company that offers very affordable ID bracelets, anklets and more. Being easy to identify in an emergency situation may not mean much to you, but think of your family. If you go missing you want your family to be contacted as quick as possible so they don’t worry or can come to your aid.
What’s safer than running alone? Running with a friend or in a group. Not only will you have someone to chat to, but someone to rely on if things go wrong. Groups of multiple people also tend to discourage attention from the local fauna (bears specifically). Just as a tip though, the more your talk the less you see. Running a lot by myself I have had some pretty amazing animal interactions as I move through the trails fairly quietly. Being too quiet can also have it’s downsides as far as scaring an animal in close proximity to you. If you want the animals to stay away, bring a friend and chat it up or consider wearing a bear bell.
The Boyscouts got it right, be prepared. If you are going on a long run or running somewhere more remote, think through the whole run. Know the route, run time, fuel and water needs. Do this the night before and have everything ready to go. I have a tendency to pack the morning of and I usually forget something and as I’m usually only taking the bare necessities, it’s usually important. I have a mantra I try to employ “Shackleton didn’t pack the morning of”. If you are not familiar with Ernest Shackelton and want to read a purely amazing book about the power of the human spirit, check out the book “Endurance”. It’s a story of an expedition to the south pole gone wrong… then right. Easily in the top 5 best books I’ve ever read.
Pack extra. None of us wants to carry something we don’t need. It’s usually better to be safe, than sorry. If you are going to be in a situation where water is scarce or you’re not planning on carrying a water filter, carry extra water. I hear Antonio “Fail to plan, Plan to fail”. If you are carrying a powdered fuel like Tailwind also carry some fuel that doesn’t require water. I have been in a situation where my water filter clogged, I could not filter more water and all the calories I had were in powder form and I still had a long ways to go.
Check the weather. It sounds like a no brainer but don’t just check the weather for the day check the overnight low and also the weather for the following day. If something goes wrong and you are forced to bivouac overnight you want to make sure you have the necessary clothing and possible shelter you may need. I usually carry a thin silver emergency blanket in my pack in case I get hurt and am unable to move. We often dress for the temperature when running, not if we were forced to sit static. I have recently switched out or added a thin, silver bivy bag. I have used the bag to sleep in post race and I have also used it to lay down in by the highway while I waited for rescue (thanks Kelly and Mike :). A Buff is a great thing to have in your pack. It has so many uses warmth on the head, neck or a hand, sweat band, towel, emergency bandage or tube top or toilet paper if nature not providing. They aren’t heavy, take up no room and can be really handy. My dog once sliced one of his pads almost completely off. It was winter and thankfully the cold snow pressing into the wound while we ran kept the wound mostly closed until we reached the parking lot. Once we stopped though it was like a scene from a horror movie. I ended up wrapping his paw several times with a buff to hold the pad on and to absorb the flow of blood. It did the trick until we got to the vet.
The Sun is also a factor we sometimes overlook. If you aren’t planing on slathering yourself in sunscreen then covering up is incredibly important. You may have noticed what some say is a large silly hat that I’ve been running in lately. I’m doing a long race that is fairly exposed and I wanted to make sure I was cool and protected. Keeping your body cooler even by a degree or two makes and incredible difference to your ability to perform and enjoy a run. I also like to wear a bandanna that I stop and wet with cold water at every opportunity on a hot run. Sun sleeves are also something that I always thought was a little silly and once I started using them they are now one of my favourite pieces of gear. My arm sleeves are from Outdoor Research and I thought they were going to be really hot, they uses a technology called “Activeice” and they actually feel cool when you wear them (This is not a paid endorsement, It’s just that the sales rep. for OR is a friend and a total Boss, thought we’d give her some love :).
With your arms covered, you can still wear your favourite running shirt, slap on a big hat and there’s no need for suncream, unless you’re going all day. If you go the sunscreen route make sure you bring some along to reapply during a longer run. Even the most sweat resistant suncream wears off.
Get to know the flora and fauna. Recently I was volunteering at an aid station at the Western Sates 100 in California. When we arrived at the aid station they said to put your packs in the bed of a pick up they had parked by the aid station. I wanted mine easily accessible so I placed mine on the ground next to the truck. Ten minutes later an older gentleman found me and kindly informed me that I had placed my pack right in some poison oak and that I had best be carful where I touched it and wash it asap. The more you know about the plants and animals in an area the safer you are. If there are bears, know what type and how to identify them so you know how to react in an encounter. If there are snakes in the area, be aware of which are poisonous and which aren’t and be careful where you put your hands and feet. Knowing more about your surroundings on a run not only makes it safer but makes the run more enjoyable.
GPS locators are a great piece of mind to have with you on any remote run or backcountry adventure especially if you are alone. Most work on a subscription plan. You purchase the device for a minimal cost and then pay a yearly fee for the service of monitoring your device. Friends or family can track you online, depending on the model you have you may be able to text them through the device or send pre-programmed messages. In the event of an emergency you can press the “I need rescue” button which means that you can’t get out of the situation you are in. A message is sent to a pre-programmed list by you and your people contact the necessary authorities to begin your rescue. The other option you can press the “SOS” button which means there is a life threatening situation and you need immediate rescue/help. This goes directly to a monitoring centre and is the equivalent of dialling 911. They can see exactly where you are and are able to relay that information to the folks who will orchestrate your rescue. These devices can seem expensive and a little overkill but as someone who has had to be rescued from the backcountry before using one, I can confirm that they offer a huge piece of mind and I wouldn’t do a remote long run/ backcountry trip alone without one (or the good friends and family to monitor it, Thanks Mum and Kelly :) .
First aid. Carrying a first aid kit or at least some supplies from is a no brainer on a long remote run. Knowing how to use the kit or improvise with other things you might have are also great skills to have. In the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, or seen the movie “127 Hours” the story of Aron Ralston getting his arm pinned by a boulder and is forced to amputate his own arm with a dull swiss army knife. He uses the tube from his Camelbak bladder as a tourniquet on that arm so he didn’t bleed to death. Thinking well on your feet could save you in an emergency situation.
Prepare your mind. This one might sound strange but it’s often the most valuable thing to have in a remote situation when something goes wrong. Having a positive attitude each day helps create the survivor mentality that you may one day need. If you want to read a great book on survival check out “Deep Survival” (also in my top 5 books I’ve ever read). Meditation can help give you the calm necessary to take that extra breath before making a vital decision in a situation gone wrong. Something as simple as getting lost can often be solved by calmly sitting down and thinking rationally.
Your fitness level can be a valuable tool in an emergency situation. I’ve been lost on a run before and knowing that if worse came to worst I could just keep running till morning to stay warm if need be, was a nice piece of mind. Know your fitness level and choose your runs appropriately. You can still go after it, just have a backup plan if something goes wrong or you’re not feeling it, adjust your route. Don’t let your ego get in the way of you safely getting home. If you’re lucky like me, you have good friends who always come to your rescue when things go awry (thanks guys).
The last thing to discuss about running safely and the one that probably deserves the most attention is the vulnerability of women running alone. We wish this risk didn’t exist but it does and it merits discussion. This is something that as a man has only hit my radar in the last 5 years or so. Trail Running, especially alone for women opens up some inherent risks from men. It’s a terrible reality, but it’s the truth. Many women face this issue on every run alone and it’s one that most men don’t even think about let alone are able to really understand. If you are a woman, running alone you need to be aware. We don’t want to create unnecessary fear, we also don’t want to be complacent. The easiest way to avoid this problem is not to run alone, being someone that does 95% of my running alone that’s not always possible or desirable. Carrying a cell phone so you can call for help is a small piece of mind but not a concrete solution. Carrying a small “wolf/dog” repellant spray offers a practical defence tactic in an emergency situation. Self defence training can also offer some piece of mind and another practical defence tactic. Having a varying routine as far as when and where you run can also be helpful. We would always recommend running without headphones as it gives you the greatest nature experience, it also gives you the greatest awareness of your surroundings. Being present and aware are incredibly important. Knowing the trail system is also very important. In an emergency situation when you need to get back to your vehicle as quickly as possible or you need to evade someone, local knowledge of the trail becomes paramount. If you are a Man and out there on the trail be aware of the women who are out there and if you see someone/something unusual please do something/say something. If you are a woman and you have had an encounter or have noticed something strange in our trails please share it. Awareness and action on this issue is incredibly important.
So as you can see there's lots we can do to ensure that we return safely from our wonderful long or remote runs in the trails. A little bit of forethought goes a long way when your are out on the trail a long way from assistance and resupply.