The idea of trail running freaks a lot of people out.  It’s not the actual running part, but the idea of being on a trail, in the woods, on the side of a mountain, away from people, where it’s human vs. nature or human vs. human–alone.

We’re conditioned from childhood to believe that being alone in nature is scary.  We’ve been taught to believe that trails are where trouble awaits and bad people lurk.  When a friend visited from the suburbs and I proposed a trail adventure, her immediate response to the idea was that a weapon, namely a gun, would be a prerequisite to any off-road excursion.

Anyone who has spent time running trails knows that trails can indeed be scary, particularly when you’re running alone.  But how reasonable are those fears?  Should we give into those fears and skip trail running altogether?  Or should we be a martyr, suck it up, and spend the whole time running worried?  Isn’t there some middle ground?

Wildlife, People, Injuries, Getting Lost:  The Things that Scare People on the Trails

I’m petrified of the idea of coming across a bear on a trail.  And I don’t even live where there are grizzly bears. Engrained in my brain are the handful of stories I’ve heard of runners getting attacked by bears, usually mama bears protecting their cubs.  Rational or not, everytime I head off-road and into the woods, the thought of seeing a bear is on my mind.

What scares me, however, is not necessarily what scares someone else.  Some people run where mountain lions, grizzly bears, tigers, wild dogs, or humans can be real threats.  Some people worry more about getting lost in the woods than about any animal or person attacking them.  Some people are so fearful of getting injured that they refuse to venture anywhere but on a crowded running route or trail.

But trail running doesn’t have to be freaky or dangerous.  If you keep your wits about trail running, plan ahead, and take safety precautions, you can increase your chances of a positive, happy, and safe running experience.

Tips for Staying Safe on Trails While Trail Running

1. Run prepared for whatever.  Run with food and water.  Maybe even a water purification tablet.  If you’re running with kids, run with a couple of cute, fun bandaids and wound cleaner wipes. Run with a heat-reflective emergency blanket.  Run with a safety whistle. Run with a cell phone. Run with an extra layer, such as a lightweight wind/water repellent shell. Run with whatever else makes you feel comfortable and is reasonable to safely carry while running. For me that is sometimes an annoying bear bell–sure, it’s loud, sometimes gives me a headache and annoys other people, but whether it would work or not, it gives me a bit of piece of mind thinking that I might not totally surprise a bear so I can enjoy a run.

2.  Stay alert.  Be aware of your surroundings, trust your gut, use common sense.  Remember that trips, falls, and injuries tend to happen when you’re feeling most tired, so take it easy as your run goes on or on your route return.  Stay light on your feet. Make noise so you don’t surprise wildlife.

3.  Be willing to turn back.  Be willing to turn back or cut your run short if you aren’t feeling it (you can always run tomorrow), are feeling uncomfortable with a situation or the surroundings, or if your kid has had enough. There’s no shame in taking care of yourself.

4.  Plan your route and share it with someone.  Pick your route and communicate it with someone. Let someone not running with you know when you will be back from a run. Ask a friend to track you on Strava. Text your mother and let her know when she should expect a text back from you. Tell your significant other, neighbor, someone you trust, etc. where you are headed–or at least leave a note with your plan.

5.  Consider going with someone.  If you’re trying a new route or somewhere off the beaten path, bring someone with you.

6,  Know what’s lurking out there.  If you’re running in the Northeast during hunting season, know what you should wear (bright colors) and where you should or shouldn’t be running to stay safe.  If you’re running in grizzly country, know your dangers and be prepared on how to handle an unexpected bear encounter.  If insects, ticks, or poisonious plants are a concern where you are running, be aware of potential risks.

7.  Carry protection if you think you need it.  Some people feel much safer packing protection of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a gun, as was my friend’s instinct, though some opt for such a weapon.  It could be easily accessible bear spray, mace, self-defense training, a whistle, a bear bell, a phone, a running buddy–really anything that gives you some piece of mind on the trail.

8.  Have a plan.  If you are running with your kids, talk to them in advance about how to handle emergency situations.  What if mom or dad falls and can’t get up?  What if a stranger on the trail makes them feel uncomfortable?  What will you all do if you come upon an unleashed or leashed, but aggressive dog (or other wild animal)?  What if the weather turns bad, but you can’t make it back to the trailhead, shelter, or car?  What if you accidentally get separated from each other?  Have a contingency plan and talk about it periodically.

What other advice do you have for other trail runners and runners with kids?  Did I miss something?  Share it below.