The right trail running gear can make a huge difference to the outcome of your day. Don’t let poor gear be the subject of the stories you tell. Your memories should be about sunrises and sunsets, summit views and the feeling of running wild, not about blisters, an abraded back, poor stitching or leaky rain jackets.

Get to know what works for you, what it can do, and make it prove its worth on easier runs before you rely on it for big days out in remote places.

Trail Running Gear

Part warmth, part wind block and part sun protection – choose your layers wisely


Just the right amount of not too much clothing is key. More clothing is more weight and a bulkier pack. Less clothing is potentially going to lead to a cold and miserable day. The right clothing is just that, and in the Sierra, fairly easy to determine.

During the summer trail running season, June through October, Sierra weather is primarily sunny and warm. July and August often include daily thunderstorm cycles and must be considered when studying the forecast.

Remember, a long sleeve hooded shirt can be both a layering piece and sun protection, which will surely be necessary beneath the hot Sierra sun.

Summer trail running kit:

  • Shorts
  • T-Shirt
  • Long sleeve sunshirt with hood
  • Wind jacket
  • Beanie or headband
  • Light gloves
  • Sun hat

If thunderstorms are forecast, a light rain jacket might replace that wind jacket. And when temps are not soaring, or the high peaks have some wind, a super light puffy might be necessary along with either thin tights or wind pants.

Gear Tip: Size up your wind shell for easy on and off over your vest, and long enough sleeves for wind protection for your hands too. Go tall on your socks for a little cushion for bouncing off talus and plowing through snow

A well fitted running vest is more like a piece of clothing than a backpack


A well fitting running pack with the right amount of front storage is key for allowing you to move through the mountains as a runner.

There should be no bouncing, pitching, yawing, or any movement. A trail running pack must be bound to your torso, but bound comfortably.  Get it right and you are free to run. If possible, try before you buy.

In front, you’ll need to carry one or two soft flasks, food, probably your phone, lip balm, sun screen and maybe a thin pair of gloves. What’s in front is what needs quick access and the weight you can keep off your back.

While a quiver of packs is nice, especially between 4 and 15 liters, an 8 liter pack is probably the most versatile size. Black Diamond’s Distance packs and Patagonia’s Slope Runners are our go to models.


Which shoes you lace up and blast off with is a subject all its own. We’ll leave the tech talk to the experienced voices you’ll find at the better running shops, like Bishop’s Sage to Summit. Here, we’ll give an overview of what sort of shoe works in the Sierra.

Like so many sports with custom footwear, the ideal shoe for you is the one that fits you best and has proven to not cause problems; blisters, hot spots, knee pain, top of foot pain, heel pain, etc… Shoes are critical, get this one right.

In the Sierra, besides having a comfortable shoe you can be in all day, you’ll need some serious durability. The Sierra are tough on footwear. Talus hopping, scree descents, scrambling and cross country travel all take a toll on both the uppers and soles. The same shoes I wear in the Alps for 500 miles are only good for 300-400 in the Sierra.

Pay attention to what’s in the front of the shoe where your toes and ball of the foot take impact. You’ll appreciate a good toe cap to cushion your digits and a rock plate to prevent a beating on the soles of your feet when they’re bouncing off rocks. Also, using a wide forefoot shoe may be the best decision you ever make when it comes to big vert days. Bounding down a 5000′ descent on a hot day is often accompanied by swollen feet. Fit your shoes accordingly. If comfort is your thing, consider sizing up a half size. 

Big vert assistance poling

Miscellaneous Gear

Poles : They take a bit of getting used to, but poles can be a big help. For long, steep uphills, use your arms and take some weight off each step. For the super rocky descents, they can help stabilize and keep the knees from getting pounded with big steps. And for snow, they provide much needed traction to prevent hitting your bum and accelerating away. We recommend Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles. 

Traction : For running shoes, there are micro-spikes and ultralight crampons. How steep and how hard the snow is that you’ll cross dictates what you take. For the Sierra, micro-spikes are often enough. But if you’re going to stomp your way up some big steep couloir or snowfield early in the morning, consider something with a bigger bite, like the Kahtoola KTS crampon which will fit a running shoe. Not all crampons will work on running shoes, be sure to confirm that what you have will work on a flexible shoe before pulling them out of your pack in the backcountry. For smaller jobs, consider Kahtoola’s Microspikes or Black Diamond’s Distance Spike.

Gaiters : It’s incredible how such tiny pieces of material can make such a big difference. When shoes fill with dirt, sand and grit, feet become very unhappy. Prevent that from happening by wearing gaiters. Several footwear brands have systems built into the shoe that’ll take a custom gaiter. Or, go with something like Black Diamond’s Distance Gaiter that’ll wrap around most any shoe.

Trailside refueling with Trail Butter & sandwiches, real food makes a big difference

Hydration & Nutrition

What you put in your body for a day in the Sierra is your fuel. Without this fuel you are potentially putting yourself at a great disadvantage to deal with the many factors that come with mountain running.

Getting to know what your body needs at high elevation and in a harsh environment is critical. Maybe that bar and gel isn’t enough in the Sierra like it is for your local trails. 

I carry real food, and quite a bit of it. More is better. I have come to learn that regular calories keep me stable. Big hits of sugar don’t work as well. Instead, they make me just want another hit of sugar a half hour later. I regularly fill my tank with my favorite fuel source, Trail Butter and have been known to take entire burritos for big days out. 

Hydration is equally important but probably easier to forget about until dehydration sneaks up on you with all its nasty symptoms; headache, cramping, stomach pain, and dizziness. Drink when you can, refill when you can, and keep a count on your intake. We always carry a small waterfilter that’s both easy to access and use. MSR’s Trail Shot and Katadyn’s BeFree are great.

If a run is longer than a couple of hours, I always use a hydration drink that I know works for me without stomach issues. If I go longer than about four hours, I’ll switch to a higher calorie drink with some caffeine. 

Hydrating on the fly with a MSR Trail Shot filter


A prerequisite for going into the Sierra is a certain level of self reliance. Help is not necessarily a phone call away because more often than not, you have no service. 

If you’ll be using your phone all day for navigation, communication, photos, and data, consider packing a small battery pack to top off a dying internal battery.

Personal responsibility is a fundamental part of the experience. It’s not just for your own safety but for the safety of anyone activated to come assist you. Aim to get out of whatever it is you get into.

Many backcountry travelers are choosing to use Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) which allow the ability to get an SOS Emergency call out no matter where you are. This is a personal decision.

Am I on route? Yes, actually you are

Cross Country Navigation

For the most part, most of the trail running you do in the Sierra Nevada will be just that, on trail. But, in our book Sierra Trail Runs: A Guide to the East Side, there are several routes that require both cross country travel and identifying key passages in steeper terrain and ridges. Sure, you can follow a GPX track, but you must understand the terrain well enough to get yourself out of trouble, or better yet, avoid getting into trouble. A GPX track is going to put you in the right place, but you’ll need to rely on your own navigation skillset to dial in exactly what you move through.

Another common scenario while out is the sudden desire to add on an extra peak. A scan of the peak is necessary to identify the best line, any potential hazards, and to store in your memory any bail out or option for descending. The ability to do this comes from experience and having studied maps while in the terrain. 

Understanding terrain comes with experience and there are a few games to play to help you learn.

  • Estimating times: While on the trail or beneath a pass, estimate how much time will be needed to reach various points in the distance. 
  • Study the terrain before moving up a pass, identify the cleanest line and see what happens when you stick to it. Did the route unfold as you predicted?
  • Study descent lines before starting down, identify the cleanest and most direct way to exit a steep slope.

It’s only by paying careful attention to the terrain you move through that you can begin to understand how best to navigate off trail.

Gaia has been our go to map source for running in the Sierra. We use the Gaia Topo (feet) but will occasionally switch to other map layers like the various satellite views.

It was sunny when we left the car


If there is one thing the Sierra is known for, it’s sun. But while keeping the sun from scorching you may be your biggest concern, you absolutely must take weather changes seriously. There are monsoon cycles complete with thunder and lightening, it will occasionally snow in the summer, and high winds are very common up high. 

The joy of trail running is being light and fast, but if you go too light and get hit with some weather, things can turn serious very quickly.

Study the forecast, be prepared and always keep an eye out for the unexpected.


Everything we do in the Sierra has an impact on the environment. Everything.

We, as runners, have the ability to tread lightly and leave minimal impact. It’s something we should all strive for.

Stay on trails, try to connect rocks when traveling cross country, leave nothing behind, don’t build useless cairns, and keep water sources clean.

The Sierra have been inhabited for countless generations and overall, they are in great shape, let’s all keep it that way. 

By Dan Patitucci

Our final Tip: There are few things as wonderful as unwrapping the foil from a massive burrito in the backcountry