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What Not To Wear: Trail Running Apparel

Or Say Yes To The Vest


4 Steps To Gear Up For The Perfect Trail Run

Last month we discussed trail running shoes (...and then some). This month we’ll cover what you should use to cover the rest of your body. 


You might have a billion ideas of what to wear for a given day’s trail run. All you have to do is open your social media of choice and get pelted with recommendations from pro athletes and other paid influencers telling you “THIS IS THE BEST AND ONLY THING TO RUN IN ALWAYS!” 


Thankfully, it’s easier than picking an influencer and emptying your bank account. We’ll give you 4 things to consider for a simplified trail running apparel experience. At the end we’ve got some vignettes to further explain why you might wear what you should wear.


But first, here’s what trail running apparel NOT to wear. 


  • Don’t do camouflage, stand out! It’s tacky and dangerous. Visibility is safety: what if there’s a biker or hiker you don’t see who can’t see you? *crash* Not good. This is especially important in more remote areas, where being visible can save your life.


  • Don’t run without any clothes. If a tree gets passed by a naked runner in the forest and no one sees it… Just don’t. Also, there are tons of things that will scrape and cut you–not to mention the sun, which can cause you all sorts of issues from sunburn to melanoma. There’s also windburn and bugs, remember the murder hornets? Just think about running through a spider web you didn’t see. Where did the spider go? 


  • Don’t wear a weighted vest. Please don’t be THAT person. It’s called trail running, not rucking. Get over yourself. Puh-lease.*


  • Don’t wear microspikes. Unless the trail is a sheet of ice. Those grippy little shoe goblins will rip a nice muddy trail to smithereens. Run/slip/slide through the mud, save your spikes for ice. Or, avoid using the trail if it’s too muddy, let the dirt recover instead of eroding it–the road isn’t so bad every once in a while.


  • Don’t wear noise-canceling headphones! Oh that is just the WORST. One time I yelled, “ON YOUR LEFT!” about 7 times before passing someone with studio headphones on and they about drop-kicked me out of fear. 


*That list got longer as I went and maybe I unveiled a little bias… Who’s to say. The weighted vest thing is more of a pet-peeve, I’ll admit. Plus, even ruckers need good trail shoes!


Now that we’ve covered what NOT to wear, let’s help you decide what TO wear for your trail run today. This list only has 4 items and probably less sass.


1. Check The Darn Weather App

Oops. Still sassy. The weather can always change, but taking a quick peek at the forecast is a great starting point. Look at these weather markers to know how to dress:


  • Temperature/real feel

  • Wind

  • Precipitation

  • Humidity


The temperature on its own might be enough most days of the year. But if you also know the “feels like” temperature you’ll have a better idea of how to dress. Wind makes everything worse (except for certain plants that rely on it to spread their seeds, but that’s irrelevant), and will definitely make you feel colder. 


Is it going to rain? Check the chances of precipitation before you head out so you know whether or not you need a water-resistant jacket. Knowing the humidity will give you a better idea of just how hot or how cold it’s going to feel–if it’s more humid, both hot and cold temps will feel amplified. 


Here’s a quick tip in case you can’t read the rest of this article. Seriously, if you get nothing else, get this!


You will warm up 10 to 20 degrees just from running! Mental math is the worst, but add 10 to 20 degrees to the listed temperature and dress accordingly. Another rule of thumb is “under 30 degrees, cover the knees!”


2. Look Outside

Does what you see on the weather forecast line up with what your eyes see? As we all know, the weather is unpredictable. If the forecast calls for clear skies and no rain but it’s actually cloudy and condensation is covering your water bottles, maybe you should bring that jacket. 


This culmination of weather forecasting and making visually-educated guesses is more art than science. I’ve learned this the hard way since moving to Tulsa last summer. What I should wear for 35 degrees and windy is very different from what I should wear for 35 degrees, sunny, and not windy. 


Sometimes you get it wrong, and that’s okay! As long as you get back home safely, enduring some levels of discomfort will only make you more physically and mentally strong. And, worst-case scenario, you’ll have a hard time forgetting your mistake. 


One caveat here is a destination trail run, for which you have to travel and can’t put eyes on the weather until you’re at the trailhead. In this case, just bring your entire closet. I’m kidding, but do plan to arrive prepared for colder and warmer weather than you expect!


3. Know The Trail Environment

Sometimes trail running is more comfortable than road running. If your route takes you through a forest you might not feel that piercing wind. Trees’ leaves can protect you from the onslaught of rain and snow.


But you might end up running completely exposed, vulnerable to the elements, with nowhere to go but forward. 


With the mass of websites and other online platforms for people to brag about their runs on, it’s pretty easy to know what to expect–even on trails that are completely new to you. When necessary, do your homework and know the environment in which you plan to run. 


4. Plan Your Type of Trail Run 

What kind of run are you going on? For example, are you trying to stay in zone 2 and just ultra-shuffle ‘till the cows come home? Or are you looking to do some heart-pounding hill repeats? 


In any run, your effort will influence your body temperature. If you’re working harder, you’ll be warmer, so dress according to your plan. You might even wear different layers and remove/add them according to your planned effort. Just remember, when you stop working as hard you may have trouble staying warm. Especially if you aren’t fueling appropriately!


Get It Together And Get Dressed For Your Trail Run

Now that you’ve 1) checked the weather forecast, 2) looked outside (or packed your closet), 3) considered the trail system, and 4) know what kind of run you plan to do, it's time to make some decisions. Let’s go over some hypothetical trail runs and what you might wear for them.


The Rainy Day Trail Slog

Picture it, Sunday morning (“...rain is falling” in Adam Levine’s voice), you’ve just finished sipping your coffee and reading Born To Run for the third time as the rain gently taps the windows. You’ve got an “easy, long run over hilly terrain” scheduled today and it’s been raining on and off all night with no signs of stopping. 


Isn’t that dreamy! You better get off of the couch though, before the trails get too soggy. 


To justify a few more seconds of cozy couch time, you pull out your phone and open the weather app. Looks like it’s 40 degrees right now and going up to 48 over the next 3 hours. The real feel is 34 ‘cause wind (when is it not windy in Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plains?) and the humidity is slightly above average, decreasing throughout the time period you’ll be running. The rain, as mentioned previously, has a good chance of continuing throughout the rest of the day. 


Knowing that your run will be low effort, you’ll want to avoid being so cold that you need to run faster to get done. While it is raining, you’re going to be on the fairly tree-heavy trails of Turkey Mountain. You’ll definitely get warmer as you go, and the temperatures will be rising along with a decreasing humidity, so you’ll want to avoid over-dressing too! Over-dressing and the subsequent increase in body temperature can really mess with your heart rate zone training.


Here’s a hypothetical kit for the rainy day trail slog:


  • Quarter or crew-height running socks

  • Your longer pair of shorts 

  • Short-sleeve running shirt

  • Hooded, packable shell/jacket

  • A wide-brimmed running hat


Explanation

As the trail gets a little more sludgy you’ll appreciate some ankle coverage to keep your feet warm and make sure the mud stays on not in your trail running shoes. Pants or tights might be a bit too much for this run, since the temperature is on the rise and you’ll be in a good amount of tree coverage. It’s tempting to wear a long-sleeve, but knowing that a water-repellent/proof shell will trap some heat, you should go with the short-sleeve. 


The jacket is packable so you can comfortably hang on to it  in case you want to “feel the rain on yoo-oourrr skin” for that last couple of miles. It’s still raining in those last miles, though, and you need to see! Thankfully your wide-brim hat keeps your vision clear and your feet on the path.


The Windy Trails Vert Session

Now let’s take it to the summit! Or whatever feels like a summit around Northeastern Oklahoma… Say you found a really awesome route with gradual, grueling climbs about 2 hours away (Cavanal Hill, anyone?). It’s early Saturday morning and you’ve been looking forward to a peaceful drive with your training partner and doing some strenuous trail running so you can chill the rest of the weekend. 


What a perfect start to the weekend! The only thing, though, is that it’s supposed to be pretty windy–up to 20-mile per hour gusts around Tulsa–so you can probably assume it’s going to be a little more breezy out there since hills are usually more exposed. Sounds like a less-than-ideal day for your planned hill workout (which is 5 x 10 minutes hill repeats at moderate effort followed by 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 x 1 minute hard, 2 minutes easy). 


In addition to the high winds, the temperature is going to be 30 with a 60% chance of precipitation during your scheduled run. Knowing this, and that your chronically unprepared training buddy will barely bring enough for themself, you bring:


  • Crew-height socks

  • Shorts and a pair of running pants or tights. 

  • Short-sleeve shirt or super lightweight long-sleeve

  • Midweight zip-up

  • Wind and water-resistant jacket

  • Running gloves

  • Running beanie

  • Comfy hoodie for the ride home!

Explanation

This scenario is tricky! You have a difficult workout (this hill workout is insane, please consult your healthcare provider before attempting) on a pretty unsavory day weather-wise. The saving grace here will be warming up in as many layers as possible and then returning to the car and dropping whatever doesn’t feel right.


After a couple warm-up miles, you would probably only wear the shorts, short-sleeve and zip-up, gloves, and beanie unless it was really rainy/snowy. Then you can toss on your backup layers and keep demolishing your legs. 


Especially on this kind of run (bad weather and far from home) you need to bring dry, warm layers for the ride home. Your body may need some help keeping warm after working so hard to complete the workout and stay warm while moving. Also, thinking about your coffee, gas station pastry, and RunnersWorld Tulsa hoodie might just be what gets you through this workout…


The Everyday Unexpected Trail Run (Cold-Weather)

It’s Tuesday and you somehow managed to get up in time to do your Tuesday Trail Run on real life trails instead of settling for neighborhood sidewalks and taking the stairs to your office (it’s not the same). Still, time is short and you barely take a cursory glance at the weather while you toss some coffee in a thermos for later. There’s 5 minutes before you need to get in the car, what do you put on?


All you know is that it’s cold and dark out. Here’s what you grab!


  • Whatever socks you can find

  • Running tights

  • Zip-up long-sleeve

  • Running vest

  • Running gloves

  • Running beanie

Explanation

Because this isn’t your long run, you can get away with a little discomfort. Any socks will work, but you’ll want something on the thicker side if possible. Running tights will keep you warm and, again, since this isn’t a long run or workout, you shouldn’t overheat. Your running zip-up has been used as a midlayer in other circumstances, but it’s also fine on its own–especially when paired with a running vest.


In my opinion, the running vest is the most luxurious, versatile piece of a runner’s kit. It’s cold? Wear a vest. I have to run in a blizzard? Wear a vest. I’m being a baby about the barely 50 degrees pre-race temperature? Yep, vest it up. You can’t go wrong with a running vest because, even if it is a little warmer than expected, you’ll be able to vent that heat through your arms or just unzip and fly down the trail in your new cape.


Summary: What To Wear For Trail Running

I should have to, but I’ll say this just in case, these are theoretical situations that won’t apply to everyone. For example, consider your local “shorts guy” who wears shorts no matter what. Here in Tulsa, we have the shirtless, American flag-bearing unicycle guy. He rode past the store on one particularly icy day last year. Everyone’s different!


Takeaways For Every Trail Runner

Here’s what is applicable to everyone when it comes to trail running apparel.


  • Some basic advice for any run is to dress as if it’s 10-20 degrees warmer than the forecast says.

  • Trail running usually involves more hills, and overall more work, so you’ll need to avoid overheating when you trail run more than when you run on roads.

  • Trail running generally pits you against the elements more than road running, so always be prepared for warmer, colder, or wetter conditions than you think.

  • Stay visible! If all of your cold-weather gear is dark you should get some reflective or blinking clip-on accessories. Better yet, buy some brighter gear! It’s for your own good.

One Last Thing…

Though not technically “apparel,” a running pack may be just as important as your running apparel. Having a running hydration vest with at least 3-5L of storage will allow you to carry that water-resistant jacket, your gloves, a buff, and even those microspikes you didn’t need today. It’ll also have room for the extra snacks you’ll need to keep you cruising on those hill strides!


Come shop our selection of awesome running gear so you can trail run no matter the weather!

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