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Everyone Trail Runs Alone — Here’s How to Stay Safe

Lots of people warn against trail running by yourself — but realistically, runners are going to get out there and do it anyway. Here are a few easy tips to keep it safe.
Woman running on grass(Photo/Johanna Flashman)
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Eight miles into a nearly 13-mile run in England, I was scrambling up 1,116 feet of scree and brush. Toward the top, I found myself traversing along the side of the rock with a steep drop on the left. It was the first time I’d done this route and I had no idea there was going to be any scrambling. I was by myself, at least a few miles from a road, and no one else was on the trail.

I oscillated between the mantras, “Don’t fall, don’t fall,” and, “You’ve got this,” as I ran. I trusted my feet. But it hit me that if I fell and went unconscious or hurt myself badly, I would be in trouble. Especially without any cell service.

I made it back to my car safely. But, I decided it was time to change some habits.

Trail running alone is something I do a lot. And every time I do, I know I’m accepting the risk of something going wrong and not having help nearby. That said, I love running trails by myself. It’s peaceful and meditative. I get to be alone with my thoughts, listen to the birds, stop whenever I want, and sing obnoxiously off-key without bothering anyone.

Plus, I don’t have to navigate the logistics of coordinating with other people. It’s easier. But it’s also far riskier. And there is an extra level of precaution that everyone should take when they hit the trails by themselves.

If You’re Going to Break the ‘Rules,’ Know How to Do It Safely

In almost any trail running or hiking safety guide, “don’t go alone” is inevitably in there. It generally is safer to run with someone else. If you get injured, you have someone who will call emergency services and help you. If you’re somewhere with large animals, they’re less likely to go after a group than one person. Not to mention the human variety of threats where simply being a woman running alone can make me a target.

But, let’s be real — it would be foolish to expect everyone to follow that rule all the time. Sometimes your friends aren’t available when you want to hit the trails. Sometimes you just want to be alone with nature. And other times, you just want to solo run 118 miles in 50 hours because it sounds like fun.

However, going solo doesn’t mean you have to throw any concept of safety out the window. There are lots of ways to reduce risks and get out on the trails alone as safely as possible. Here are a few I’ve adopted.

hiking downhill
(Photo/Johanna Flashman)

Tell Someone Where You’re Going, When You’ll Be Back

It’s the easiest way to not get lost forever and never found. Send a quick text to a friend or family member with your hiking or running plans before you set out for the trail. If possible, give them your planned route (AllTrails is great for this) and an estimated time you’ll get back.

I also like to give a “panic time” — when that person should call for help if they haven’t heard any updates. I like to give myself a fairly wide margin with panic times to leave room for mishaps that don’t need rescue or just in case I extend my run.

Choosing your time expectations should depend on your skill and comfort level, the particular trail, and the weather conditions. For example, if I set out at 2 p.m. for what I expect to be a 4-hour, moderate hike in the summer, I’d give the hike plans, an expected return time of 6 p.m., and a panic time of 9 p.m. 

How to trail run alone safely; (photo/Johanna Flashman)
(Photo/Johanna Flashman)

Bring a GPS Device or Paper Map

Yes, they can be expensive. But GPS devices also track your whereabouts and make it possible to call for help when you’re out of cell service. Some devices, like SPOT, have rescue functions that enable users to send out an SOS along with their exact location for search and rescue teams.

Others even allow people to track you while you’re out on the trail — so friends or loved ones can check in on your status. A lot of modern GPS devices also have map displays so you can check your own location, in case you get lost.

Many of the best GPS devices are handheld and could be a little bulky for a trail runner. But there are now a lot of great GPS watches made by brands like Suunto, Coros, and Amazfit that are easy to run with.

In addition to a GPS device, a compass and a paper map of the area is a good idea if headed to very remote areas or off trail. A phone or GPS device can lose signal or run out of charge. Anyone heading deep into the backcountry alone should be confident using a map and an old-fashioned compass for navigation.

Start Easy and Know Your Trail

If you’re new to running alone on trails, start easy. And, ideally, start on trails you’ve hiked before. This keeps the risk level relatively low as you get used to being alone. You won’t get too far from your car and you’ll reduce the likelihood of getting lost.

And as you get more comfortable, you can start testing what feels right for you and take on longer, more challenging adventures.

Choose Higher Trafficked Trails

While there’s nothing quite like having a trail all to yourself, it also means there won’t be anyone around if you need help.

Going on popular trails can be a great way to keep the security of trail running with people while still having the independence and “me time” of going alone. Because if shit does hit the fan, someone will usually be able to offer help. 

How to trail run alone safely; (photo/Johanna Flashman)
(Photo/Johanna Flashman)

Check the Weather Before You Go

This is an obvious, but important step. In groups as well, but even more so alone because you can’t rely on anyone else in the group to do it for you. Nor can you rely on others for extra layers or supplies if you do get stuck in a nasty storm, or stranded in 110-degree heat without shade or water.

Bring the Essentials

So, you’ve checked the weather. Now, make sure you’re prepared for the conditions you’ll be dealing with. Check out GearJunkie’s overview of the 10 Essentials for Trail Running. If it’s going to rain, bring a good rain jacket. If it’s going to snow, check out some winter running shoes. If it’s going to be hot, bring the necessary gear to stay cool.

And, if your run takes you into the mountains, bring an extra layer anyway, no matter what. Mountain weather is unpredictable, and you’re better off being overprepared than under.

Always bring snacks and water, too. Sure, you probably can go on a short trail run by yourself without them and get back to your car safely. But unexpected calorie crashes, dehydration, or even Rhabdo are risks you take in doing so.

Shorter runs will require less gear and fewer safety precautions. Longer, more treacherous runs will need a bit more equipment and forethought. It’s really not that much different from planning a hike. And the 10 Essentials for Hiking works as a decent checklist to follow as well with one notable difference — weight and bulk matter much more when you’re running.

How to trail run alone safely; (photo/Johanna Flashman)
(Photo/Johanna Flashman)

Know Potential Dangers (Wildlife, Terrain, Etc.)

Different trails and locations come with different risks. Are you in an area with rattlesnakes? Lions? Tigers? Bears? Other potentially dangerous wildlife? Will there be scrambling? Are there any potentially dangerous river crossings?

Know what you’ll be dealing with and be prepared — or at least, be aware. Especially if you’re running in an unfamiliar area, it’s important not to be taken by surprise. That’s how accidents happen.

If you’re running in bear country (or in an area where other people might present a threat) bring a can of bear spray with you. You can get them at Walmart, REI, or other outdoor outlets for between $25-50. It’s a worthy investment for self-defense on the running trail — against predators of all shapes and sizes.

Don’t Run Wearing Headphones

Running on roads with headphones is common practice. Everybody does it. But using headphones while trail running puts you at a disadvantage. You’re quite literally plugging your ears and limiting your senses. Stay alert! Be listening to your surroundings so you can hear potential dangers like a rattlesnake rattle, bikers, other runners and hikers, or other wildlife.

If you absolutely need to listen to music, opt for bone-conduction headphones that keep your ears free to hear everything going on around you. Or check out these Revo Sonic 1 sunglasses that can play music only you can hear, without plugging your ears.

How to trail run alone safely; (photo/Johanna Flashman)
(Photo/Johanna Flashman)

Be Smart and Have Fun

At the end of the day, I can’t tell you what to do — you’re in control of your own safety and risk management. If it feels unsafe, there’s a high probability it is or, at the very least, it may be out of your comfort zone. Recognize when something doesn’t feel right. And be smart enough to turn back if you need to. Know that when you’re alone, the risk is greater so it’s completely valid to err on the side of being too cautious.

Lastly, have fun! You’re out here to have a good time in nature, so once you’ve done your prep work, just get out and enjoy your run.

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