The Right Stuff: Alpine Running

When I first moved from the mild, mossy forests of Seattle to a tiny town nestled at 7,200 feet in western Colorado’s Elk Mountains, my new environs required some adjustment.

A gorgeous trail out my door in Colorado climbed a stout 5,000 feet in just a few miles—straight up above tree line to a virtually unknown 12,800-foot peak in the dazzling Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, surrounded by miles of high basins and uninterrupted ridgelines.

Eye-popping as the scenery was, my new backyard playground introduced new challenges—intense sunlight, high wind, and rapidly changing weather, especially during Colorado’s summer “monsoon season” in which thunderstorms frequently materialize in the afternoons. I quickly learned that my gear selection could make or break my run.

Here are a few of the essentials I carry with me when I venture above tree line


Windproof Jacket

While the temperature in town might be in the 80s, it often drops precipitously the higher I climb. Above tree line and subject to the fickle whims of mountain weather, I’m far more likely to encounter chilling winds. Without a decent windshell, such cool temperatures, strong winds and unexpected storms can be a recipe for hypothermia.

Such jackets are lighter, tougher, and more packable than ever, so I always stash one in my pack, even if the weather forecast is crystal clear. Most windshells can withstand light rain or snow, and breathe much better than a fully waterproof jacket—an important concern for a highly aerobic activity like running. (If it’s pouring hard and long enough that a fully waterproof jacket seems necessary, it’s probably not a great day to go running in the high alpine; summer storms are frequently accompanied by lightning, which can prove fatal if it catches you above tree line.)

I love my Ultimate Direction Marathon Shell ($100), as it breathes especially well. (I tend to run warm and sweat a lot, especially in direct sunlight, so I’m picky about these things.) While many jackets in this category don’t offer much in the way of venting, Ultimate Direction has designed a giant mesh vent that spans the entire upper back to help dump excess heat and prevent the inside of the jacket from feeling clammy. I also love the partially elasticized cuffs and hem, which stay put and prevent any internal billowing in heavy winds.

Like many comparable windshells, it fends off wind and light precipitation admirably, and packs down into its own zip pocket for easy toting. Featuring a full-zip on the women’s version and a half-zip on the men’s, the Marathon Shell weighs in around 3 ounces.

Comparable options: Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie, Outdoor Research Tantrum Hooded Jacket


Hydration Pack

Another key piece of equipment for alpine running is a lightweight pack to carry your water, food, layers and other supplies. For a long day in the alpine, I prefer a pack with 6-10 liters of storage capacity. No two bodies are alike, so spend some time in a specialty shop trying on different packs—ideally, loaded up with some gear—and finding one that fits you well and does not bounce excessively when you run.

When deciding how much water to bring, take into consideration how frequent water sources are available along your planned route. Do keep in mind that high-alpine routes often mean moving much slower than you might lower down, due to altitude or steepness or ruggedness of terrain, so don’t skimp on water. A 2-liter reservoir is usually a good starting point.

The Osprey Rev 6 ($100; 1.5-liter reservoir), or its larger, hipbelt-outfitted companion, the Rev 12 ($110; 2.5-liter reservoir), is my personal favorite for such runs. Designed specifically with trail running in mind, the Rev line comes outfitted with a cozy harness system and ample storage space for a couple bars and gels, a windshell, and emergency gear. A built-in flip pocket along the shoulder strap even keeps your smartphone handy.

Comparable options: CamelBak Ultra 4, Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin3 12

Rugged Trail-Running Shoes

In the high country, you’re likely to encounter a variety of technical trails, ranging from scree to snow to mud to rocky, off-camber terrain. Look for shoes outfitted with more prominent lugs to handle such variety, a rock plate to help protect your feet from bruising, and some lateral support in the upper to aid with uneven terrain.

My favorites are the ($120), which boasts all of the above on a cushy, albeit nimble, platform. I’ve worn them for a variety of mountainous races including Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Patagonia’s Ultra Fiord—not to mention the majority of my backyard runs here in southwest Colorado’s famed San Juan Mountains.

My favorites are the Pearl Izumi E:MOTION Trail N2V2 ($120), which boasts all of the above on a cushy, albeit nimble, platform. I’ve worn them for a variety of mountainous races including Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Patagonia’s Ultra Fiord—not to mention the majority of my backyard runs here in southwest Colorado’s famed San Juan Mountains.

Comparable options: Scarpa Neutron, La Sportiva Akasha

Water Filter

Thanks to summer snowmelt, though, many mountainous routes feature ample water sources along the way, be they creeks, waterfalls or sparkling alpine lakes. If this is the case for your chosen route, you can carry less weight (or just buy some peace of mind) by bringing along a lightweight, portable water filter.

The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter ($20) weighs just two ounces and lets you drink directly from natural water sources along the trail without worrying about getting Giardia, E.coli, or other parasites or bacteria.

Comparable options: Sawyer Mini Water Filter, SteriPEN Ultra 

Other Things to Bring: Sunscreen, sunglasses, gloves, light neck gaiter, brimmed cap (if a sudden squall does blow in with some rain or hail, a cap does wonders to prevent it from pelting you in the face), topographic trail map and a small first-aid kit.

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