Explore off the Beaten Path: 8 Tips for Running Off-Trail

Some trail runners are perfectly satisfied with sticking to single-track and dirt roads, but some of us are drawn to the remote wilderness. The next level of trail running is basically running anywhere you want. Is there a mountain you want to summit that doesn't have a trail? A cool ridge line that you want to traverse? A secluded lake you want to explore? Just because there isn't a road or trail that leads there, doesn't mean you can't go. 

Going off-trail can be very rewarding, but can be very different than traditional running on maintained trails. There is a risk-benefit ratio with every off-trail adventure and you must use your own discretion when choosing to leave the beaten path. Below are some tips if you're new to this concept, so that you can have a fun, successful, and safe off-trail adventure run.

Prepare for Uneven Terrain

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Have you ever tried running over scree and talus? Scree and talus are masses of broken rock fragments along the slope of a mountain. This type of terrain is very hard to run over due to the constant sliding and tipping of irregular shaped rocks and lack of flat-ground to land on. The ankles are highly challenged in this situation. One wrong turn of the ankle, and you might need an organized rescue due to a broken leg or foot.

Single-leg balance exercises are very effective at strengthening the muscles that stabilize the ankle. Try hopping on one leg, aiming to land as softly as you can on that same leg. Once you've got that down, start hopping faster, but just as controlled, hopping slightly to each side, front and back. Try brushing your teeth on one foot, watching commercials on one foot, or even cooking. Single-leg exercises also strengthen the hip stabilizers, so you will likely feel burning here too; that's okay though, because most runners need to strengthen their hips too, and the hips can be valuable drivers for stable ankles as well.

Start Strengthening Your Legs

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Off-trail terrain can vary greatly and is obviously not constrained by the "standards of trail construction" that trail-builders use to make safe pathways through the wilderness. You can experience very steep and sustained terrain depending on where you are heading. Steeper terrain strains different muscles, and in different ways. If these muscles are not strong, it can lead to injury, from overuse or even trauma. 

A simple start to a runner-specific strengthening program are lunges and single-leg squats. These exercises stress the lower extremity muscles in a similar fashion to running and power-hiking. Try multi-directional lunges, starting with about 5 reps each direction (per leg) and progressing to 10 reps each as you get stronger. Single-leg squats can be difficult but are one of the most beneficial exercises for runners. Start your squats over a higher sitting surface, and gradually lower the sitting surface as you get stronger. Remember to do all strengthening exercises in a slow and controlled manner, emphasizing quality of movement, over quantity. 

Know When to Hike vs. Run

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One of the hardest skills to develop as a trail runner is learning when to run and when to hike. Until we start running on steep trails, most people don't think to walk purposefully unless we're tired or resting. The truth is that hiking can be more advantageous if the slope is steeper, and yes, even elite mountain runners hike. A study that was published in 2016 in the Journal of Applied Physiology found hiking to be more ergonomic when the slope was more than 15.8 degrees. It is assumed that for longer distance runs and races, the angle at which you start to hike should be lower to preserve even more energy.

Learn How to Scramble

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Scrambling is the act of using your hands to climb over a rock that could not have been otherwise negotiated without the use of your hands. With a more formal climbing definition, this is most commonly referred to as "class III climbing" or harder. Scrambling can sometimes be required on a certain path, or you may find yourself forced to scramble at any time when exploring unknown territory. Scrambling can be dangerous, and with a slip, you could fall as little as only a few feet and suffer major injuries. It is very important that you are careful and don't get in over your head.

To increase your safety with scrambling, always have three points of solid contact with the rock. That means, only advance one limb at a time, and only when all three other limbs have solid placement on the rock. Lastly, always take your time. Rock climbing is a great zero-impact cross-training sport that can greatly increase your skill and confidence when you encounter these types of obstacles in your mountain adventures.

Bring a Map and know how to navigate

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Depending how far into the void you are heading, it becomes increasingly important to take a map or some sort of navigation device with you. There are a lot of watches now-a-days that allow you to follow way-points based on pre-uploaded routes, which can be extremely helpful. I use this feature every single time I enter the back-country on unfamiliar terrain. I also frequently use the "track back" feature, which allows me to trace back to where I came from.

There are also apps you can use to do this on your phone such as AllTrails, MyTrails, Trail Run Project, and Strava. Study your route before hand, and make sure you know where major landmarks are. You can never be too safe, and if you have it in your budget, investing in a Spot or a Garmin InReach satellite tracker can be life saving.

Know Where Water Is and How to Purify It

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Water is key. On longer routes, lack of a water source means you have to carry everything with you, and water is heavy. Depending on where you are, time of year, and your elevation, water may or may not be a problem. Knowing the details of how water availability changes with these variables can prevent a disaster. In late spring, water might be everywhere, and just a few dry weeks later, there might not be any. Using a map to determine the location and distance between water sources should be a vital part of your trip prep.

Once you find water, you need to purify it. The most common ways to do this is with iodine or chlorine, but these methods require a waiting period of 30 minutes to an hour, can have health effects with sensitive people, and also have a distinguishable taste. Filtration pumps are another option, but can be cumbersome to run with. My favorite option is UV light. With a Steripen you can have clean, good tasting water in as little as 45 seconds. These devices are relatively compact and weigh less than 5oz.

Bring a Friend

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One easy way to maximize fun and safety is to enjoy the wilderness with a friend. Going alone can be dangerous and there may be no one to save you if you need help. It's one thing to go alone when there's cell service, but if you're doing it right, typically there is not.

If you must go alone, give someone a detailed description or map of where you are planning on going, along with an estimated finish time and pre-determined "panic-window". For exmaple, if you plan on being back by 4pm and you want a 4 hour "panic-window", if you're not back by 8pm, that's when someone should alert authorities that you are missing.

Respect Nature and private property

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Footprint damage to biocrust

When we decide to take our running off-trail it is important that we respect nature and try to leave it as if we were never there. Try to avoid unnecessary erosion, don't move rocks or logs, bury your waste, and pack-out your trash. Also keep an eye out for rare and delicate fauna and flora, delicate alpine tundra crust, and biological soil crusts. One misstep can undo decades of progress to an ecosystem.

Knowing the difference between National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, public, and private land is important when leaving the trail. Trespassing on private land can result in a fine if you're caught, so make sure you know what lands you may be passing over and keep an eye out for signs. 


Try these Local Off-Trail Adventures:

Easy: Horsetooth Rock

There are a couple short off-trail areas that can be fun to do as short-cuts or for exploration around the Horsetooth Rock summit area. At the high-point of the Westridge Trail heading southbound, you can stay high on the ridge and connect it to the base of Horsetooth's South Summit. This is a short section, but is one of very few secluded routes to the summit of Horsetooth. 

Route Length: Varies depending on starting location, .GPX file (starting from Soderburg TH)

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Moderate: Flattop Mt to Andrew's Tarn

An all-time favorite and extremely fun adventure-run. This involves climbing the Flattop Mt trail in Rocky Mountain National Park to it's summit, then traversing the ridgeline south, bagging 12,713' Hallett Peak and 12,486' Otis Peak, followed by glissading down Andrew's Glacier, then returning to the Bear Lake trailhead via the Lake Haiyaha Cut-Off trail.

Route Length: 14 miles with 4,500' of ascent, .GPX file

Difficult: Tenmile Traverse

This "run" starts in Frisco, Colorado just off of I-70, and traverses the entire ridgeline, bagging 12 peaks overall, 10 of which are above 12,000' tall. This route requires advanced route-finding skills, scrambling, and can be quite exposed over cliffs in sections. There is no water along the entirety of this route which increases it's difficulty even further, by forcing you to carry all of your water.

Route Length: 15-18 miles depending on where you can get someone to pick you up, 26 miles if you return to the start via the Peaks Trail, 8,000'+ of ascent, .GPX file

Thanks for reading!

-Dr. AJ Cohen, PT, DPT


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