Get Dirty with Trail Running This Off-Season

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.
Make sure your friends and furry companions are dressed in orange, too!

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

  1. Lancaster County Central Park

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. 

  1. Landis Woods Park

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.

  1. Chestnut Grove Natural Area

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.

  1. Steinman Run / Trout Run Nature Preserves

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.

  1. Welsh Mountain Nature Preserve / Money Rocks County Park

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. 

  1. BONUS: Governor Dick 

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.

Running in the snow – Don’t let the snow stop you from running!

Winter is here in Pennsylvania! We are having our first “messy” day. Will you run outside?

Here are four options for your shoes to help you stay safe: trail shoes, screwed shoes, yak tracks, and ICEBUG shoes. All 4 are great options for icy or snowy conditions.

Trail shoes speak for themselves. You probably have a pair anyway and if areas aren’t too slick, these could be your best option. This is what I use of I am going to run on lightly snow covered roads. They provide a bit more traction than my regular running shoes.

The screwed shoes are another inexpensive option. Maybe you aren’t a trail runner but you have extra trainers around. I took a used pair of shoes, and attached a few screws. The downside to this is that I had to donate a pair of shoes for the cause. You shouldn’t have any issues with screws poking through or water entering, but be sure your screws aren’t too long. So if you have a spare set of shoes, this may be the option for you!

The middle option are yak tracks (I have used a generic version in the past…I don’t recommend that because the nobs on mine fell out). This is a great option if you race frequently or if you are unsure of conditions. I personally don’t like using these because I find that snow collects on the bottom and creates extra weight. If you are running a shorter run it wouldn’t be as bad.

I haven’t had the opportunity to try these ICEBUG shoes yet, but I can’t wait! (The benefit of being a sub elite runner is that I often get freebies to try!) These shoes are used in SWEDEN, where they obviously know how to keep active outside. They have a tread like sole and metal studs that are built in. They are pretty easy to find online, and are competitively prices compared to other running shoes.Don’t make the weather an excuse not to run, but stay safe. Do you have another option you use?

RUN717 COVID-19 Virtual Run

COVID-19 Virtual Run – UPDATE June 1, 2020

A big thank you to everyone who donated and took time out of their busy schedules to be a part of this fundraiser. 33 people participated and $777 was raised. My contribution made it an even $800. While it may not seem like a large amount, I know that every little bit helps.

RUN717 hosted a virtual run to raise money for people impacted by COVID-19. The two organizations that received these funds are the Lancaster Cares COVID-19 Response Fund and York County COVID-19 Response Fund. Sometimes by helping others, we bring joy to ourselves. This unique 7.17-mile race distance nearly insured an automatic PR!

How to get involved:

  • Register by donating a minimum of $7.17 to the PayPal Pool. Larger donations accepted! If you don’t have PayPal or if you prefer to donate using a different method, email me at and we can work something out.
  • You can designate your dollars to go to either foundation.
  • Run, bike, hike or walk for 7.17 miles anytime between now and 5/17. Share your results on the RUN717 Facebook page.
  • 7.17 miles a bit far? No worries – aim for 7.17 km (4.5 miles) or split the 7.17 miles into multiple activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much of the collected funds will go to the Foundations?

100% of the collected funds will be given to the two foundations.

I live in York, can I make sure my donation is applied there?

Certainly! Make a note when you donate via PayPal, or send me a message.

What swag is included for this race?

I am trying to keep the cost down so that all funds go to people in need. There will be no shirts or real medals for this race.

I don’t run, can I still participate?

Yes! Feel free to cycle, hike, Elliptigo, or walk; Any activity works.

I’m not a runner, how do I get started?

Check out my free Beginner Training Plan. It is a great way to get started.

virtual run runners
Make someone smile today!

About Lancaster Cares

Lancaster Cares is designed to provide essential support for Lancaster’s families during the COVID-19 Crisis.  A response from the Lancaster County Community Foundation and the United Way of Lancaster County, this fund will support Lancaster residents with food, housing, and rapid response dollars to address emerging issues.

About the York County Fund

In times of need, York Countians step up to support each other. Right now, our community is seeing unprecedented needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By working together, York County Community Foundation, the United Way of York County and generous donors across our community can make sure our neighbors don’t go without food or shelter because of the vast economic impact of this outbreak.

Still have a question? Email me at

Running Tips for Beginners

Have you decided to take up running recently and need some running tips for beginners? Maybe you are taking advantage of the downtime because of the COVID-19 pandemic and you finally have the time to exercise. Good for you! Having a plan is the first step – check out my blog post for a great Running Program for Beginners.

Being a new runner can be difficult, but starting a training plan during a pandemic has some additional challenges. I am going to share with you some running tips for beginners to help you stay safe and on track.

road running tips
Don’t be afraid to try running in a new location.

Running Tips

  • Gear – The most important piece of gear you own are your shoes. Proper running shoes help prevent injury and will keep you running healthy. I encourage you to use your local running store to get properly fitted. I suggest Flying Feet in York, Inside Track in Lancaster, and Fleet Feet in Harrisburg. All three stores are offering either curbside pickup or they will ship your shoes to you.
  • Training Plan – Find a plan and stick to it! Having a training plan is like a road map – it can help you reach your goal.
  • Training Log – Track your progress. It can be motivating to see improvement. It also provides a way for you to learn what works for you. There are many ways to keep track of what you run. Find a way that works for you. Some people track their mileage on a paper calendar, others log their miles online. I use google spreadsheets to customize logs for my athletes. In addition to daily miles, we can track weekly mileage, pace, running routes, cross-training, and more.

Running Locations

Before the pandemic, it was easier to find running routes. Local parks, rail trails, tracks and nature areas were busy with runners of all levels and it was a physical and social activity. Things have certainly changed recently and we need to be a bit more creative to practice social distancing. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be out exercising. If you’re new to running, visit a local park or rail trail. If these seem too busy, then hit the roads from your front door.

  • Rail Trails – Rail trails can be a great place to start your running program. They are often flat and the softer surface can be a bit more forgiving. I have reviewed a few local rail trails in the RUN717 area in previous posts.
  • Trails – You can run anywhere that you hike. Running on trails can be more challenging because of the terrain – rocks, roots, and elevation changes. It can also be more rewarding because of these challenges. There are a few sites like Trail Run Project and All Trails that are great resources.
  • MapMyRun – This site allows you to map a route near you and you can search routes that others have done. It provides mileage as well as helpful elevation information.
  • Strava – Strava is my favorite running app – it is like Facebook, but for athletes. You can search up runners from your area and “follow” them. I recently moved to a new city and this helped me find new running routes. Segments are my favorite feature. These are portions of road or trail created by members that allow athletes to compare times to others and themselves. 
  • Track – If you are lucky enough to have an open track near you it can be a great place to start your training. Most runners run counter-clockwise, although when I do a longer workout I change directions. Every runner, no matter their pace, has a right to use a track. It is a common courtesy to leave the inner lanes to athletes who are running faster intervals.

Rules of Road Running

Hitting the road for the first time can be intimidating but with fewer people driving now is the perfect time to get comfortable running on the road. Although running on sidewalks is an option for some, running on a country road can be enjoyable. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Run AGAINST traffic, not with traffic. The only time you should run with traffic is if there is a blind spot due to hills or curves. If you can’t see the cars approaching you, they can’t see you.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Running with headphones is a hotly debated topic. I suggest you leave the headphones at home when road running.
  • Runners have some disgusting habits. It goes without saying that now is NOT the time to spit, blow a snot rocket, or share drinks with fellow runners.
  • MASK or NO MASK? Obviously, if it is mandated in your area you don’t have a choice. When I run in the city, I wear a mask. If I run on country roads, I don’t worry about it. Thankfully it is not mandated here, but staying healthy and keeping others safe is a priority.

What about running alone? I hate that I even have to bring this up but in the past, we’ve been told to avoid running alone, especially if we are female. During this pandemic, we’re told to run solo. So which is it? What’s a girl to do? Use common sense. If you live with a runner, you are fortunate in having a running partner. If you have to run solo, carry a phone, run in daylight, and be sure to tell someone your plans.

You have to decide what is right for you. Sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks. I believe in social distancing. I am avoiding groups, popular running routes and times, and I wear a mask if I am running somewhere that I might encounter others. If you are scared to run alone, run with a partner but do so safely. It isn’t ideal but running with someone while keeping your distance might be safer than running alone.

Have a question I didn’t address? Visit my RUN717 Facebook page and ask me there!