How to Find the Best Areas for Trail Running
When you're first getting into trail running it can be hard to know where to go! Below are a few ideas of where to look to find your next trail running route.
If you are a new trail runner, you are likely either looking for somewhere to run or you have been running on a few familiar trails but haven’t branched out a ton yet. As you are first getting into trail running, it's nice to go to areas that you are familiar with so that you know what to expect in terms of terrain, elevation, distance, etc. However, after a few laps on the same trail, many runners seek out new spots to explore. Below are a few ideas of how to find new places to trail run!
Favorite Hiking Areas
For your very first trail runs, you will want to choose somewhere you have gone before. You will feel more comfortable and know what to expect. There won’t be an extra component of worrying about getting lost if it's somewhere you are familiar with. For that reason, I would suggest you take a look at your favorite hiking areas. Are those runnable? Chances are that the answer is yes!
Ideally, these first few runs would be on a flatter, dirt path without too much elevation gain or loose rock/dirt sections. This will give your muscles a chance to ease into the sport without tossing too many new variables, such as changing elevation and extremely uneven ground into the mix.
Another great option for newer runners is to look up trail races that occur in your area. In cities where trail running is easily accessible, there will likely be a good amount of trail races throughout the year. That said, I wouldn’t recommend signing up for one of these as a means to find new trail systems. Rather, it’s best to find a shorter trail race such as a 5K and look at the map of the route. Then, try out that route on your own during a day when the race is not being held.
Trail races generally offer beginner-friendly terrain since, during a trail race, aid stations with water and medical staff need to be able to get up and down quickly. It’s not usually very technical terrain in order to spare the race staff from trekking through anything too tough. An online search, such as “trail races near Las Vegas” for example, should yield quite a few results and give you some ideas!
Trail Run Project
Next is one of my personal favorites: Trail Run Project. If you are familiar with Hiking Project (hiking), Mountain Bike Project (biking), or Mountain Project (climbing), this free app is in the same family. You can search an area and it shows you different options of trails, their difficulty, distance, elevation, and percentage of the terrain that's runnable. It also gives you coordinates to the trailhead, along with a description of where it starts and any noteworthy turns to make sure you follow!
This has been one of my favorite apps since it allows people to leave comments if a certain trail is muddy or anything else important to note about current conditions. A few years back, my dog was throwing up after a run so I checked the comments on this particular trail on Trail Run Project to see if other people's dogs had been having the same issue. Turns out, it was due to an algal bloom in one of the water sources along the trail. It spared me some anxiety of wondering what was wrong with my dog, and I was able to get her some meds sooner!
Strava is basically social media for workouts. You can upload your runs, bikes, swims, paddles, you name it. It shows distance, time, and several other metrics. You can even add photos, notes, and captions, and other people who follow you can “like” it or comment on it. There are a few friends I have who are constantly doing awesome runs and on occasion, I will look at their Strava to get inspiration for a new spot to run!
If there are any local semi-pro trail runners in your area, you can also follow or look them up on Strava to see where they have been going. A few years ago while in Boulder, Colo., I looked up a professional athlete who lived there to see if she had any easier routes she’d recently done and ended up finding a really fun, mellow trail!
Note: There is a paid version of this app but there is also a free version. I have only ever used the free version and it works great!
If you don't mind running with people, going with friends who trail run is a great way to find new trails! Just make sure you communicate your goals and expectations beforehand as I have found myself on “trail runs” with people who don’t actually want to run at all, as well as having found myself on trail runs with people who are trying to do something a bit more intense than I am.
Most people have no problem toning it down for the day if you are looking to do something a bit easier, but it can be hard to adjust this mid-run so over-communication is key! It’s also a great idea to ask them how long, how steep, and what they are bringing in terms of water, just to make sure you are on the same page in that regard as well.
Books and Websites
Hiking books and websites as well as trail running books/websites are always a great option as well. I have a few “Hiking with Dogs” books that I have used to find trail systems that I can bring my pup on. They generally have a lot of good info on what to expect and conditions throughout the year, though I sometimes find when I try to use a book or a website I get a bit overwhelmed with all the options available.
Local Clubs and Groups
In most areas where trail running is accessible, there are several running groups and clubs that you could join in order to get some more ideas of where to go. Even if you’re not looking to run with others, Facebook groups are still a great place to look since most trail-running groups tend to have a few people asking where they should go. You can read through these posts or inquire yourself since people in these groups are generally stoked that you are getting outside and happy to help you find areas.
If you are looking for people to run with, Facebook groups are also a great option, as well as calling local running shops to ask if they know of any local run clubs. There are a lot of rad women’s groups near where I live that are thrilled to have newcomers to share local running spots with. These groups are also usually organized by intensity, having separate groups for people who are leisure runners and those who are training for intense objectives, so just make sure that if you are looking for a beginner running group that's the kind of group you will be going running with!
This one may sound obvious and impossible, but I have found some of my favorite routes by looking at topographic maps. I’ve usually done this after a run I’ve already completed that I’m either bored with or curious about what else is around. After I’m done with a workout, my GPS watch uploads the info to my phone and computer so I can zoom in and see other nearby trail systems that connect to where I was. This can be a bit of a hit and miss; I have found some awesome trails this way, but also found some areas that are marked as trails and are in fact just overgrown trees that get impassable quickly, so keep an open mind with these ones! The times that this does work out feel like much more of an adventure than going somewhere I found in a book and get me excited to explore new areas. Just make sure you don’t go anywhere that gets incredibly steep incredibly quickly and make sure you are in public areas as opposed to on private land.
Things to Avoid
There are also a few things I try to avoid in areas that I am trail running.
Mountain-Bike Specific Trails
These trails can be difficult to decipher unless you are actually on them, but if somewhere is designated as a mountain-bike-specific trail or has a significant amount of mountain-bike traffic, that’s a place I would avoid. I usually run with a dog in areas where she can be off-leash, so it can be a safety issue for both her and me to have a mountain biker come ripping around a corner. I end up having to dive out of the way and narrowly avoid being hit. It’s dangerous, and it’s also not fun because I constantly have to stop to wait for bikers to pass by.
Really Rocky Areas
This type of terrain can also be a bit hard to tell in advance, but it’s often listed in the trail description if there is a large section with loose rock or scree. I will avoid trails like this if possible because it’s harder to run, more likely to hurt an ankle, and just generally more unstable terrain to travel fast over. I end up walking more than I want to and have higher anxiety about getting hurt.
If you notice that an area is exceptionally muddy or there are some comments on Trail Running Project that the trail is muddy, skip it. Running in an area that's exceptionally muddy is dangerous and bad for Leave No Trace principles. Muddy trails that are trekked through stay muddy for longer and erode quicker than that same trail when it’s dry. If you do find yourself on a muddy trail, you should trek through the mud as opposed to stepping on the foliage on the side of the trail. If you step on the foliage you will likely kill it, and it also makes the trail wider, and in turn muddier. It's just easier to find somewhere dry!
Now that you know where to go, get out there on those trails! Once you have figured out where to go, trail running is an awesome way to explore new outdoor areas around your home at a faster pace than hiking and with a bit more of an exercise component. If you have any other questions on gear or advice, reach out to myself or another Hiking and Camping Expert here on Curated and we would be happy to get you all set up for getting on the trails this season!