The Gear You Need for Your First Trail Race

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From pack to shoes, meet your race essentials

My first trail race was the Orcas Island 25K, a tough race over small but rugged mountains in Washington’s scenic San Juan Islands. I have that race to thank for falling in love with trail running, despite making at least a half-dozen rookie errors during it. I didn’t drink enough water. I relied too much on aid-station food my stomach wasn’t used to. I failed to properly manage some unexpected chafing.

Luckily, one of the joys of this sport is learning from past mistakes and applying that wisdom to future workouts or races. But I wrote this piece to help you avoid a few common pitfalls of first-time trail racers.

Your exact gear selection will no doubt depend on the particular climate, terrain, and distance of your chosen race, but here are a few key gear considerations to keep in mind—especially things that prove more crucial in a racing environment than in typical training sessions.

A Lightweight Hydration Pack

Photo Courtesy of Yitka Winn

A race may have frequent enough aid stations that you can get away with handheld bottles or a light fuel belt. However, I run most of my races with a full hydration pack, simply because I like to (a) keep my hands free when I run, (b) bring a camera with me, and (c) have a place to stow a lightweight jacket in case of bad weather. Especially in the event that aid stations don’t carry the foods that work best for me, it’s nice to have a place to tote those as well.

The key to a good racing pack? Tons of storage capacity that’s accessible without taking the pack off. If I can’t reach something, I’m unlikely to pull over in the middle of a race to access it unless I really, really need it. I often opt to take my Nathan Zeal pack ($125; the men’s equivalent is called the Zelos) for races because it has room to store plenty of easy-access necessities along the front straps, including a designated “pill pocket” for extra electrolyte tabs.

Due to the higher level of exertion at races (and, thus, often higher level of perspiration), I really like to have access to plain water and some kind of electrolyte drink. Most race aid stations will supply both. Rather than sporting a single reservoir that requires choosing between water and electrolyte drink, the Zeal/Zelos has a way to carry both on the go—plain water in the pack’s two-liter reservoir, easily accessed on the go with the drink tube, and an electrolyte beverage in the 18-ounce bottle that sits up front on the right side.

Comparable options: Ultraspire Revolt, Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0 (or women-specific Ultra Vesta)

The Perfect Pair of Running Shorts

Photo Courtesy of Yitka Winn

I’ve run in my fair share of running shorts that just didn’t fit quite right for one reason or another—a loose waistband that slides off my hips, fabric that rides up between my thighs and causes chafing. This is definitely a piece of gear you want to test out adequately in training. Ideally, you’ll want to do so at the same distance you’ll be tackling on race day, in roughly the same temperature and weather, at the same pace.

A go-to favorite of mine are the Swix Action 3-in-1 Shorts ($50), which sport discrete liner shorts underneath that stay far better put than any other shorts I’ve tried, thereby guarding against unwelcome inner-thigh chafing. They also have a nice zip pocket at the right hip—perfect for stashing trash like empty energy gel wrappers in a secure way.

Comparable options: Pearl Izumi Fly Endurance Shorts, Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts

Versatile Trail-Running Shoes

Photo Courtesy of Yitka Winn

Of course, your shoe choice will depend largely on the kind of trail race you’re running—a desert run on slickrock? A mudfest? A race with lots of gravel and scree?

One thing to keep in mind about most races is that many traverse a broad variety of terrain. Some trail races may even sport some sections of pavement or hardpack, in addition to more technical singletrack. Do your research ahead of time, and look for a comfortable shoe that can handle all of that without feeling slippery on the trail sections, nor like soccer cleats on any possible stretches of pavement.

When I worked in the footwear department at the Seattle REI flagship store, one of the shoes most popular with first-time trail runners was the Brooks Cascadia ($120). For runners who’ve come from a road-running background, the Cascadia tends to feel familiar, comparable to a plush road shoe—yet it comes outfitted with a rugged outsole and ballistic rock shield to protect feet from stones and roots on the trail.

Comparable options: Saucony Peregrine, New Balance Vazee Summit

An Anti-Chafe Product

Photo Courtesy of Yitka Winn

Chafing tends to be a bigger concern during races when both pace and sweat output are higher than on training runs. Nothing puts the kibosh on a joyful race faster than skin rubbing raw! Over the years, I’ve learned to carry a small tube of anti-chafe product like BodyGlide ($6) with me during races. A little dab of it in a few key vulnerable areas—inner thighs, underneath the back clasp on my sports bra, in between my toes—has prevented much unnecessary suffering at races.

Comparable options: 2Toms Sport Shield, Chamois Butt’r

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