How to Approach Trail Running as an Explorer

While on a recent trip to Iceland with my adventure sister and BFF Anita Ortiz – a trip with an emphasis on trail running – I contemplated the nexus of our sport in terms of training and exploring and how these two very different approaches to a trail run intertwine and create a healthy synergy.

Training runs typically involve an agenda with stated goals. These may include distance, time, or a specific workout – intervals, tempo run, fartlek, hills, or ladders – some examples of which can be found on this website. A training run contains structure. You know how long, or how far you’ll run and you plan accordingly. You carry the amount of fuel needed to complete your run and you typically know your route.

ATRA executive director Nancy Hobbs (left) with Anita Ortiz (right) in Iceland.

Exploration runs are rather different. They are looser in terms of structure, and don’t involve the same kind of planning as that of a training run (but they do involve planning). Sure, you’re “training,” and adding miles to your weekly regimen, but the miles have a different approach and the fun factor is elevated to a higher level and contains an element of spontaneity.

All of the runs in Iceland I did with Anita had a heavy emphasis on exploration. We were in a different country on trails we had never set foot on. So, in advance of our trip, we did some research and came up with a vague idea of where we wanted to go and even identified some sites we wanted to visit. The most important aspect was to be flexible. We didn’t know what kind of weather would befall us, how tired we might be from the flights, how trails would be marked, or how close the trailheads would be to parking.

Here are eight tips to share for the explorer in you are as follows with the number one tip to be prepared.

Carry your phone. Not only to be used as a navigation aid, but also for photos.

Carry a map of the area. This could be an actual paper map (encased in a plastic bag in case of rain, snow, sleet, or sweat destroying the paper), a screen shot of a map at the trailhead, or an app on your phone (know that you may lose a signal, or battery life, so always have a backup plan.)

Carry supplies. A versatile hydration vest is suggested. Include extra clothing, hat, gloves, wind/rain gear. Pack fuel to include water, electrolytes, bars or gels. Bring a credit card, or money. Take more supplies than you think you’ll need. You may come to an intersection and decide to go further than you had initially planned, so you need to be prepared for that eventuality.

Wear a GPS watch and make sure it is charged. It’s always a good idea to know how far you’ve gone and what time it is. If your phone dies, Strava will too.

Pay attention to the course markings. Way-finding varies from trail to trail and some trails are better marked than others. Markings may include posts affixed in the ground, hash marks on rocks, directional signage, and/or color-coded signage. Stop at sign posts along the way to verify you are on the right path.

Go with a like-minded buddy. It’s important to explore with someone who has your back and whose approach to the exploration is similar to yours. If you don’t run side-by-side, stay in visual contact throughout the run and consult one another at trail junctures and throughout the route to be sure you are on the same wavelength, which includes coming to an agreement about continuing further, or shortening the run and turning back if one of you is tired. Be honest about your fitness, and how you are feeling on the run. A rescue is not something you want to experience.

Stop to enjoy the scenery. Periodically stop to take photos, or take in the view. It’s tough to enjoy the view when the terrain underfoot requires attention.

And, last of all…be sure to have so much fun, you’re ready to plan your next “trail-cation.”

Looking for trails to explore near you? Check out our “Find a Trail” tool powered by Trail Run Project. Find over 96,134 miles in over 21,063 trails added by runners like you. Great for trail running, ultrarunning, mountain running, snowshoe or any off-road adventure.

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