Friday, June 18, 2010

The Dangers of Trail Racing – Part 3

To celebrate what normally would have been an evening on the trails, I present to you the third (I’m sure your hoping the last) in my series on the dangers of trail racing.

I started by checking the mission log of a local Search and Rescue organization, the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit to see how often they had to respond to assistance calls. Most of them read like these:

6/5/2010: At approximately 10:15am RMRU was called to aid a woman who had been hiking the Skyline Trail and who had run out of water at approximately 5,000 ft. elevation.

In fact, looking back through all of the archives, I couldn’t find one where RMRU was called out for a medical evacuation due to snake bite, animal attack, etc. Here’s another:

12/26/2009: At 16:25 on December 26, 2009 Mount San Jacinto Ranger Station at Long Valley was contacted by Riverside County Sheriff's office reporting that two hikers had telephoned in by cell phone that they were stranded on the Skyline Trail between Palm Springs and Long Valley. They reported being unable to move up or down due to bad snow and ice conditions. The two hikers were reached after two hours at about 1,400 feet of elevation below Long Valley. The temperature was in the mid 20 degrees F. One hiker was wearing shorts and the other was in cotton jeans and tennis shoes.

Are you getting the drift here? No mountain lion attacks. No snakebites. But, a great deal of not being prepared for the trail and weather conditions.

This really points out what I feel is the #1 danger to us on the trail. OURSELVES! Running out of water? Dressed in shorts and tennis shoes in December? iPod blaring and not hearing the mountain biker coming up from behind? I would bet that if you talk to anyone in search and rescue, the theme that you see in the posts above are repeated over and over.

It’s because as runners we tend to be minimalists. We cringe at the thought of carrying a water/fuel belt. We worry about where to stuff a cell phone. We try to get away wearing as little clothing as comfortably possible. All of these (along with the ever present mp3 player) are the type of things that can get us in big time trouble on the trails. Many of you won’t like what I am going to say next – but to be a safe trail runner, we *have to* carry a few essential items:

  1. Water. Three to four times what you think you’ll need. We need to stay hydrated. You might be surprised how much water we lose just through perspiration.
  2. Compass/GPS and map. Yes. Even if you are just out for a quick stroll. Grab a map from the interpretive kiosk. Or print one before you get there. It won’t be funny if you take a wrong turn. All those ridge tops look the same when you’re at the bottom of some canyon.
  3. Food. Carry an energy bar or two. If you need to hunker down for the night, an energy bar can provide a little bit of energy to help keep you warm
  4. Emergency blanket. Honestly. Just like the ones they hand out at the end of a marathon. They weigh a few ounces, but provide a huge benefit in the middle of the night at the bottom on a canyon. Until you’ve been there* you don’t realize how cold air actually does flow downhill to low points. Along with any moisture. The emergency blanket can be the difference between an uncomfortable night of terror, and being able to look back at your uncomfortable night of terror.
  5. Firestarter/matches. Can be the difference as well on a cold cold night. Always grab the strike anywhere kind of matches.
  6. Whistle. Unless you are a hermit with absolutely no redeeming social qualities, someone will be out looking for you. They *will* find your car at the trailhead, and they *will* start looking. Have you ever tried to see much further than three feet off a trail though? Pretty tough. And if you’ve been out a day or two, you may not have a whole lot of energy left to yell. But that whistle? They’ll hear that from a mile away.

I *did* leave one item in particular off this list – cell phone. If you are plodding around town, then there is no harm throwing it in. BUT (and a big but) – you should not rely on having cell phone service if you are not in an urban area. Heck – I can take you places less than 3 miles from the Bommer Ridge trailhead that has no cell service.

Before you get all uppity and start complaining about how you’re going to carry all this stuff, let me show you how I do it. Matches, compass, whistle ($2.95):


Emergency blanket (out of the box, $3.95):

blanketAll fits into the top pocket of my trail running buddy (70 ounce water bladder, $85):

nathanI either pick up a map or print one out of the area that I’m running. I throw in a couple of Clif bars, and I’m good to go.

But, even though I’m pretty well geared up, I still consider myself guilty of taking undue risk. Why? Because I violate rule #1 – NEVER GO ALONE!!! The best way to stay out of trouble and to insure that help will be nearby should something happen is to have a buddy! Remember back in Part 1 of this series? The mountain lion that attacked two people in a local wilderness park? The reason one person lived and one person didn’t? The person who lived had a buddy. And how do you make sure you’re going to survive that rattlesnake bite that happened when you had your iPod blasting? Why – your buddy is going to head for help while you lay down and relax. And how are you going to avoid being abducted or attacked by others of our species? By having someone with you. Safety in numbers! If you are thinking about trail running as a serious sideline, look up a local trail running club. I belong to the So Cal TrailHeadz. A calendar is maintained for the benefit of its members. Looking for a partner? Post a run. Someone will answer!

The bottom line is every outdoor activity involves some risk. Even road running. Take a few precautions though, and you can enjoy the outdoors in a way that no road runner can!

Oh. ETP Day 4: Ran 7.4 miles at Crystal Cove. Kept it slow and easy at 10:50 per mile, average heart rate of 74% of MHR. BMR of 1979 plus 1133 activity allowance for a total of 3112 calories allowed. 2721 eaten for a deficit of 391.

  • Training budget week to date: 0 variance
  • Calorie budget week to date: - 1100 calories (one third a pound).

* Note: I was lucky enough to spend a night out lost in the wilderness back when I was a teen. My hiking buddy and I found our way out the next day. It certainly added to a sense of adventure!


  1. Great advice, Glenn! I know when I run in the mts, I try to never run alone as there are mountain lions and bears and they scare the crap out of me....but I do run the trails at the state park alone many times and run into coyote, but they have always kept their distance...still, I wish at the those times I had a cell phone :/. Whew, so glad you were found when you were a kiddo... am I sure I can entrust you with my son next summer??? ;)

  2. Re: the iPod...the only time I run with both earbuds in is when I'm in the gym or on the 'mill...other than that, I listen to music in one ear and tuck the other one in my shirt. I've never missed the "stereo" sound :-)

    This has been a great series Glenn...even if the bug report still leaves me queasy... :-)

  3. Love this series too. I used to be a pretty serious alpine climber (before I was married, had a kid, and realized I was a mortal). You might get a kick out of this -

  4. This is a great post ! I never thought of taking one of those blankets with me, even though i keep one in my car. Thanks for the info!

  5. Do you leave a note on the dashboard of your car giving an idea where you're going? Good for stalkers coming after you, too, but if you someone finds your car before they find you, it can help. Or write ROUTE on upside of paper, then actual route on the underside.

  6. This has been a great series! Thanks so much for writing it. Good advice about the iPod - I never use any gadgets - no iPod, iPhone, GPS, HR monitor. The most I wear is a road ID. Well, and running clothes ofcourse. But I meant to say I have seen a lot of folks with both and not aware of what is around them, so the one ear idea was a great one.

  7. Thanks for the dangers of trail running part 3 Glenn, Can't wait till part 4 man. I love how you put that we are the dangers to ourselves by improper planning and doing stupid things to ourselves. Water is crucial. I just bought, yesterday, a camelbak 1.5 liter for just little hikes up through the woods. I love being hands free, cuz you never know when you might need them free, and it can carry some cool stuff, like the stuff you mentioned. Thanks again man. Take care, and awesome run.

  8. I'm always frustrated when I hear of people who run trails and who aren't prepared.

    Although, I will admit that going out alone has been VERY tempting before. I'm sure I'll do it, but I just won't wear jeans.

  9. i like this one better than the snakes one! the whole time i was just thinking about how i would 'carry' my space blanket - like a cape :) dorky, i know.

    sorry for being mia. i'm still 4 days behind on my reader even though i "just-read" the ones that were 5+ days old... good lord people post a lot! :)