Beyond the occasional rolled ankle or knee pain, trail running doesn’t feel like a very threatening sport. But for everyone from beginners to the very experienced, there are numerous objective hazards to consider. In just the last few years, I have lost a couple of friends and known of many others who didn’t make it home from their daily run. Variables pop up in the mountains and experience is what allows you to manage them. Trail running should be taken seriously. 

Understanding your capabilities and being able to honestly assess your skill set comes with experience. Until you amass some serious mileage in different Sierra terrain, what you know will be greatly limited. If it’s all new to you, you have some points to consider.

  • Distance: A road ten mile run is not nearly the same as a Sierra ten mile day. Mountain terrain can be slow, require all different muscles and coordination, and be mentally taxing. All this equals more time out, and more time equates to more stress on the system.
  • Vertical: Never underestimate what big vert does to the body. You are more tired and your muscles may be destroyed. Coordination may be compromised leading to some wobbly descents. Exhaustion leads to poor decision making and increases the potential for injury. Build up to big vert and consider runs with only one big up and down instead of committing to multiple climbs and descents in one day.
  • Elevation: Many Sierra trail runs start near 10,000 feet and can go to over 12,000, or of course much higher. Without proper acclimatization, or an understanding of the symptoms of high altitude medical conditions, a fun day out can quickly get derailed or even turn into a life threatening situation.

Runners getting high in early summer.

  • Bailouts: Before venturing out on a big loop, study your maps for possible bail out options and be 100% clear about what you’d be getting yourself into. If you’re bailing things may not be going well, so that bailout plan better be solid and not a worse option than the original plan. Consider out and back runs as you develop your mountain travel skills.
  • Water: The Sierra can feel like a desert. It’s hot, dry, high, and quick to make you feel parched. Thankfully, there is a pretty abundant water supply. But, it needs to be in the right place at the right time. Study your maps for resupplying empty soft flasks and have a back up plan for the possibility that your source may be dry.
  • Terrain: Trails aren’t always the friendly little dotted lines as they appear on the map. They can be endless miles of talus, barely visible, overgrown, or so rocky you can’t run a step. They can also be perfect, cushy lines you can open it up on. If you don’t know what you’re getting into, be ready for anything. And remember, what’s known to be a great hiking trail may not be a great running trail.

What goes up high might have to go down something very steep.

  • Talus and Scree: Moving through rocky landscapes is not the same for everyone and comes with a certain amount of risk. Talus fields require hopping, balancing, and carefully maneuvering through larger boulders that may or may not move unexpectedly. Scree is somewhat less threatening and might actually be fun. Getting comfortable with both takes time. While learning, we recommend you move slowly and cautiously.

Talus, and lots of it.

  • Snow: Lingering winter snow is the source of a love hate relationship. Bashing your shins through penitentes, sliding around on frozen north facing slopes, and moving at a snail pace are all reasons to be generally aggravated. But occasionally, snow does provide a source of happiness when you hit that perfect line of not too soft and not too hard allowing you to glissade in a fun few minutes what might have taken much longer on trail. The deal with snow is… be careful. If you go early in the summer and encounter snow, always assume it won’t support your weight, until you know it does, and even then continue on high alert. How will you know if there is snow on your route? You probably won’t until you are tuned into the conditions. If you think you’ll encounter snow, consider taking poles, traction, and gaiters.

Perfect conditions for a rapid descent of the Lamarck Col.

  • Navigation: Sierra navigation skills are critical to avoid problems. Unlike many mountain ranges that can quickly cloud up or turn stormy, the Sierra has some navigation factors beyond weather. Many tours require some cross country travel, forcing runners to navigate off trail and potentially over unmarked passes. Choosing the wrong pass, or the wrong way to approach a pass, can place you in risky situations. Navigation skills are often about assessing terrain for the best line of travel and that skill only comes with experience or through education/mentoring.

Pay attention, make responsible decisions, go into the mountains intending to learn, and of course have fun out there.

By Dan Patitucci

Nailing the right trail when the goal is smooth running.