How To Stay Safe On The Trails

Written By Katie Hickling

Katie is an amateur ultra runner (emphasis on the word amateur -- her words, not ours!) who, when not running, tries to fit in a career in financial services technology. Other interests are also known to include dogs, cricket, and writing Ultra X articles.

25 May 2021

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Lockdown restrictions are lifting and the long days of summer are fast approaching. After being confined to our local areas for so long many of us are keen to get back to exploring further afield and spending long days out on the trails.

Running on the trails, alone or with friends, brings a hugely enjoyable sense of freedom. However, for those new to the sport or who have had an enforced time away from the trails over the past year, returning to the great outdoors and the hazards it presents can seem a bit daunting. The following provides some advice on how to stay safe, warm (dry might be a bit of stretch, particularly in the UK), and feel confident on the trails during your upcoming adventures.

Route planning

As with anything, success is all in the planning. Today there are a myriad of mapping tools available which allow you to explore and plot new route ideas from the comfort of your own home, such as AllTrails and Mapometer. However, the most accurate of which is the OS Maps. For £2-3/month this provides coverage of the whole of the UK’s ordnance survey grid system, detailing the public rights of way network, at both 1:25000 and the more detailed 1:50000 scale mapping.

Mapping tools are useful in the sense that they can provide you with a preview of the distance, elevation and type of terrain you may cover. Although, as part of the wider planning process it may be helpful to consider the following:

 

  • Does the route pass through any areas where it is possible to replenish food and water? Or will you need to carry everything you need on you?
    If only natural water sources are available it would be worth taking some water treatment tablets (a 50 tablet pack usually costs around £10 from any of the main outdoor shop brands). If you are planning on visiting shops/cafes/pubs on route to stock up then check the opening times of these places before you set off. There is nothing more demoralising then planning a much needed cake stop and finding the place is shut when you arrive. If you are planning on being out for a very long time or somewhere remote, as a general rule of thumb it is also advisable to carry around 400kcal of “emergency food” in case you end up being out longer than expected for any reason.
  • The “get out of jail free card”.
    Despite best planning, sometimes things don’t always work out. Therefore it is important, especially if you are running solo, to have options to cut short your route should the need arise. Being committed to a route when you are carrying an injury, ill or just absolutely exhausted is a recipe for an incident. This could be an option to circle back to where you started, take public transport or call someone for a lift.
  • Are you comfortable with the type of terrain?
    Many of us have been confined to city running or flat countryside over the previous few months. Therefore heading back into hilly terrain for the first time can be a bit of a shock to the system and it might be wise to perhaps reduce the distance compared to your usual long run if it is your first time back out in a while on unfamiliar terrain. Similarly, if you are running with friends it is always best practice to pick a route that is within the capabilities of the least experienced member of the group.
  • What is the expected weather forecast?
    Assessing the weather forecast against your chosen route for the day will be crucial in helping you decide what gear you need to carry. Anyone who has ever been to any popular trail running destinations in the UK will know that it is possible to experience all four seasons in a day. A run that starts in bright sunshine can quickly turn into a march through a thunderstorm. Elevation will also be a key factor as the impact of any wind or rain forecast will be amplified with height gained. Typically in the UK this will be as you get above 350m+. Therefore, it is important to make clothing choices which accommodate for the wind chill factor and subsequent temperature drop at height. As well as the weather on the day it is also useful to consider the forecast over the previous two weeks. For example, although it may be dry on the day of your run if it has been relentlessly raining over the past fortnight this will probably result in some tasty underfoot conditions (i.e. you are going to be getting wet feet so a couple of changes of socks would be advisable).
Ultra X Scotland Loch Views

Navigation

The route is plotted, now all you have to do is get round it. One of the biggest worries that makes runners hesitant about heading out onto the trails, especially solo, is the fear of getting lost.

Navigation is often incorrectly perceived as a complex skill that is unnecessarily over complicated. In fact, it simply comes down to the basic principles of the 5D’s listed below.

A common tactic in ultramarathon events is to break up the race checkpoint by checkpoint. A similar tactic can be applied when navigating a trail by breaking it down into sections using distinct landmarks or places, known as waypoints, which you pass on your route. Apply the 5D’s to each section and you can’t go too far wrong.

Distance – how far is the overall leg? A running watch can be a good tool in estimating how far through each leg you are.
Duration – how long will it take? The greater the elevation and technicality of the terrain the longer it will take.
Direction – the simple question to always ask is does the trail in front of me head in the same direction as indicated by the map/GPS track?
Description – What will I expect to see along the way? What sort of landscape is indicated by the route map? (e.g. forests, open moorland etc)
Destination – What should I see at the end of the leg that will tell me I have navigated that leg successfully?

Runner with headtorch checking Garmin

Navigation aids

A brief note on navigation aids. There are two main choices for navigation aids: a paper map and compass, or a digital GPS system. Traditionalists will tell you that the paper map should always be the primary navigation system. However, with the advancements in technology choosing which one to use as your primary method of navigation simply comes down to personal preference as both choices have drawbacks.

However, it is important that if you are using a handheld GPS device or watch to navigate on unfamiliar trails that you have an appropriate back-up method. From personal experience it will be when you most need to rely on the device for directions that the batteries pack in. Caution should also be taken on relying on smartphone mapping apps. Whilst these are great tools, GPS devices and waterproof maps have been designed with the idea that they will potentially need to be used in biblical weather and survive being dropped on rocky terrain… whilst an iPhone generally hasn’t.

Keeping warm… a word on hypothermia

Hypothermia comes in two main forms. Immersion hypothermia, such as falling into a large body of water, and exhaustion hypothermia. The latter of which is either the primary or secondary factor in many ultramarathon DNF’s and mountain rescue callouts and the one that we will discuss here.

A common misconception around hypothermia is that it is caused by being exposed to freezing temperatures. Whilst that is true to a certain extent the main culprit is usually moisture. The reason being is that moisture acts as very good convector of heat. When you are out on the trails there are two main ways you can be exposed to excess moisture: externally, through rain, sleet, hail; or internally, generated through sweat that gets trapped in poorly ventilated clothing.

Moisture that collects on the surface of your skin or clothing will soon be evaporated off into the air, acting as a convector drawing heat away from the body. Without adequate insulation or replenishment of energy reserves to generate heat then your core temperature can drop slowly overtime. This is particularly important to pay attention to on long runs where attrition of energy reserves can put runners in a vulnerable position.

One of the best ways to think about maintaining core temperature is to think about keeping a fire ignited. It needs both fuel and insulation. Insulation generally shouldn’t be too hard to sort out providing you have packed kit that doesn’t disintegrate the moment it comes into contact with water, and fuel can be provided by making sure you eat little and often.

It is also worth planning on taking spare clothing to wear should you need to stop for any reason. A t-shirt and shorts may be ideal when working your way up a climb but your core temperature can drop very quickly the moment you stop generating heat through movement. On routes that are particularly exposed or isolated, a survival bag (such as Lifesystems) is recommended and can be bought from any major retailer for about £15.

On a final note, whilst preparation and confidence is key to an enjoyable and safe day out. Part of the fun of being in the outdoors is learning as you go along and adapting to small mishaps that may happen along the way. This is how you improve your skillset which makes you competent to tackle longer and more challenging routes as you progress. Sometimes getting a bit lost and being caught out in a downpour is part of what makes the experience of trail running enjoyable – if we wanted to mitigate against that entirely then we would stick to road running. So get out there and enjoy!

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