A guide for beginner trail runners to confidently explore fall and winter trail running
Written by Laura M. Brenner
As summer and fall racing wind down, athletes might consider adding trail miles to their off-season maintenance routine.
Imagine this: It’s Wednesday morning and you’re about you start your run. You click your watch “on” to begin connecting to satellites, tie your shoes, double check your route and the location of your car keys. Finally, you depart the gravel parking lot – leaving behind the stress of life – and head towards a narrow strip of dirt carved out between a blanket of ferns and rhododendrons and shaded by towering pines, poplars, and oaks. It’s beautiful enough for an Instagram post, and you indulge in a selfie.
The scene described above is the picture of trail running in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is home to beautiful and diverse forests that serve up challenging terrain and elevation before offering breath-taking vistas as a reward. The allure of car-less routes and nature therapy is enough to draw some 9 million Americans to trail running in 2017. However, for many other runners, the idea of running in the woods can seem intimidating enough to avoid entirely during their running careers. Here are some tips to help you prepare for your first trail run.
Things to Know Before You Go
No bad weather, just bad clothing choices (including shoes!).
The old saying “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing choices” probably came from a trail runner. Ensure you have the right gear for the weather, including layers if it’s cold at the start and might warm-up (or vice versa). Proper footwear is essential; trail running sneakers offer deeper tread for gripping dirt, mud, rocks, etc. If you’re heading out in your retired road sneakers, be prepared for some foot slips, especially in wet conditions. If you’re running in the snow or ice, consider using YakTrax or MicroSpikes to increase stability on frozen surfaces.
Part of proper attire on the trail may also include your cell phone in case of emergency or if you’re relying on it for navigation. Bonus points for downloading a map of the area (hi, AllTrails)!
Hike it before you run it.
If your physical ability to run on a particular trail is what’s keeping you from exploring trails, try hiking the route before you plan to run it. Hiking a trail allows you to explore the terrain at a slower pace and sketch out a plan of attack, so to speak, for running the same route. It can reduce stress during your trail run if you know what to expect around each curve and hill. It can also be easier to convince friends or family to join you for a leisurely hike, which may also help you gain confidence about the area you plan to run. Finally, don’t be afraid to cross a trail off your list if it isn’t a fit for you or doesn’t feel safe.
Plan ahead; run prepared.
Being “prepared” for a trail run depends on the length of the run, proximity to civilized resources, and your personal preferences. To start, find out if your trail is open to hunters and when hunting seasons begin and end. In Pennsylvania, hunting season takes place in the fall, and recreationalists must wear “safety orange” any time they are in the woods. You can find exact dates for each season at the PA Game Commission’s website or by clicking here. It’s also a good idea to know what kind of wildlife you might encounter and how to protect yourself if you do.
My disclosure here is only experiential – I’ve been trail running in PA and beyond for more than five years. At worst, I’ve heard a few rattlesnakes off-trail.
On the trail, runners should carry a map of the area, and a strong understanding of that trail’s marking system is a good start. Beyond that, a communication device (cell phone) might be sufficient for a short romp around the local park. If it helps, let someone know about your run in advance – where you’re running and how long you plan to be out.
If you will be in the woods for more than an hour, consider bringing a modest first aid kit (vaseline for blisters, a few bandaids, and some medical tape are a good start). This website offers suggestions for a more robust kit if you’re the “always be prepared” type. If you want to carry water or nutrition with you, consider a hydration vest or running belt instead of a handheld water bottle. You’ll want your hands free to catch yourself if you trip, without sacrificing your only source of drinking water.
Lastly – ditch the headphones. I’ll climb on a bit of a soapbox here, but… trails are no place for headphones or music. You should be able to hear someone approaching from behind you, the scamper of squirrels, deer, and whathaveyou just off trail, and the sound of a tree branch snapping free from its trunk. So for safety, leave your ears open to the sounds of nature. (Whistling a tune of your own can make the miles move faster and provide entertainment for the aforementioned mountain biker looking to pass by.)
The shared mile is the shortest mile.
If all of these safety precautions have you ready to close the browser and retreat to the pavement, take care. The best way to explore trails is to do it in good company. Bonus points for connecting with a veteran trail runner friend or acquaintance for a few runs to boost your trail confidence and tap into their knowledge. If you’re in the Lancaster area, Lancaster Road Runners Club offers weekly group trail runs.
5 Best Beginner Running Trails in Lancaster County
This public park ranks first because of its central location, the ability to create routes from 3-15 miles, and its gently rolling terrain. Many trails are considered non-technical and non-mountainous. This park is also well-trafficked, so if you get lost or need help, you’ll likely see another recreationalist. Much of the park is open to mountain bikers, and some trails are off-leash dog friendly.
This municipal park is a favorite of locals but might be unknown if you don’t live nearby. Just off Route 501, you will find 3+ miles of dirt, grass, and gravel trails. The terrain is gently sloped and offers a few loop options to keep things interesting.
This trail network is one part cross country course and one part nature preserve. The Natural Area offers rolling terrain and primarily grassy or gravel trails that tend to be a bit wider. The trails are not well marked, but running here in the fall/winter – sans-foliage – helps when navigating. Add the Turkey Hill Trail just north of the Natural Area for more climbing and rocky terrain if you want to up the ante at this one.
These nature preserves offer shorter trails – a ~4-mile loop if you combine both – but they offer additional climbing and technical trails for those looking for a challenge. Unfortunately, these trails are also limited in cell service. You can access both trails from the Steinman Run Nature Preserve parking lot on Trout Road.
While Welsh Mountain offers a short, ADA accessible trail, most trails in the Nature Preserve, and the adjacent County Park, are a mix of singletrack dirt, rocks, and sand. Hunting is permitted in part of the Nature Preserve and the County Park.
While this park isn’t technically in Lancaster County, it’s just across our northern border and close enough to warrant a bonus entry. Governor Dick uses unique trail markers, so be sure to look at their map online before you go. The trails vary from technical singletrack to rolling gravel to downright steep. But the observation tower at the top is worth the climb. This park is open to hunting, mountain biking, and bouldering.