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Trail Running in Shoulder Season: Tips on How Not To Die 

Running: an activity most avoid at all costs and a select few thrive on. Even on the best of days, runners have challenges to face; proper nutrition, sleep, sore muscles, and scheduling all find their own way to trip up our plans to log a few miles. But, the worst of all? Weather and conditions. And we’re not just talking about rain, or snow, or wind. We’re talking about shoulder season and what that means for the trails and your survival on them.

As this challenging time quickly approaches, we’ve laid out a few tips and tricks for shoulder season trail running along with some key pieces of gear you can find on Geartrade!

Traction Spikes, Slush, and Small Steps

The sun is good at doing its job when it’s out. This is generally a wonderful thing when coming out of that winter gloom. However, on most snowy trails, the longer you wait, the more snow starts to melt. Now, I know you’ve just read that and probably don’t see the problem, but hear me out. The sun may be shining and snow may be melting, but depending on how much your area has accumulated, there’s no way all of it will disappear over the course of, say, five hours.

The reality is, snow takes longer to melt than it does to build. These brief periods of warming will certainly get it there eventually, but in the meantime this means slush. Slush can vary, too. From a soft, slippery, underfoot experience to light powder over nasty ice, it makes maintaining your pace and stride technique difficult. Not to mention both of these can become hazardous when placed on thin ridgelines or switchbacks!

Using the Kahoola Microspikes on a spring mountain outing. Photo: iRunFar/ Meghan Hicks

To avoid the hazard and to keep your pace uninterrupted, traction spikes are a runner’s best friend. Whether it be YakTrax, Kathoola, or Black Diamond, these brands all have devices to help grip into slush and ice. They come in a variety of sizes to fit every foot, and the spike depth comes in different intensities to fit your trail needs.These work great for the unavoidable mud patches, too.

Pairing spikes with shorter strides will help keep you stable. It may mean going slower, but it’s a small price to pay when considering the alternative.

Running Vests and Poles

Nathan Hydration Vest Available on Geartrade

Next up are hydration vests.Trail runs don’t have to be long, but even so, elevation gain and textured terrain can be significantly higher than on the roads. This means more energy expenditure and more fuel necessary to keep you going especially when navigating snow and ice.

A hydration vest is an excellent, hands-free way to carry water, snacks/fuel, any extra layers you plan to bring or shed, your phone, keys, and some sort of identification. These vests should fit comfortably snug and come in traditional sizing. (We’ll talk more about the value of the vest in our last section, too!)

Leki running/trekking poles available on Geartrade

Something you might already have are trekking poles. These double as great tools to help you stabilize yourself on slippery uphills and decents. They’re also a total knee saver if you’re venturing into longer, more strenuous efforts!

Layers, Layers, Layers…Did We Mention Layers? 

Oh, the joys of winter layering do not stop in the shoulder season. Depending on the day or what time you choose to get out, layers will be crucial in keeping you going for your expected mileage (and maybe even beyond!)

Choosing moisture wicking fabrics for clothing (like polyester or merino wool) will help you shed sweat and keep your core temperature regulated as the environment changes throughout your run. Vests are another great option as they offer the warmth of a jacket but the ventilation of a tank top. Sometimes, a lightweight puffer or wind resistant jacket is more appropriate. Always check weather conditions beforehand to make sure you have what you need!

This brings us to the trade off with gear and time of day. Running in the early morning might mean less sun, but a firmer snowpack on the trail. This also means you might want an additional fleece, vest, gloves, and hat depending on how cold you typically get while moving. Your hydration vest will be key during these early morning runs to help you keep things together as you shed layers and gauge when to bring out the traction devices.

On the other hand, running in the afternoon can certainly be warmer, but so is the ground. Remember what we said about slush? This kind of run is where those traction spikes will be even more helpful. Here, you may only want a vest, a base layer shirt, and gloves. Sunglasses are essential, too; anything reflecting off of snow will be harsh on the eyes and you don’t need any more obstacles.

A Good Attitude and The Will To Keep Fighting

Trail running in general is difficult, and throwing weather into the mix doesn’t help, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time!

Conquering a trail with mud and leftover ice will test you and at times, it actually may not feel fun at all on different segments. You might question why you even thought it would be a good idea in the first place when there's a perfectly dry road right outside your door. But, it will ease up. There will be patches or solid dirt, and ways to avoid the mud. There will be opportunities to learn and to laugh at yourself. You did this for the love of challenge, maybe for the love of running, but definitely for getting out there and pushing yourself.

And, whatever happens throughout it, when you finish, you’ll know you’ve won - This time at least! We hope this gets you one step closer towards giving a shoulder season trail run a try or perfecting your current routine.

Happy Running!

Finola McDonald thinks bios are really hard but here is her best go: Finola is a runner, a writer, a climber, snack enthusiast, cat mom, and city lifer turned nature lover who loves getting people outside. She is a firm believer that time in Earth’s wild spaces is time best spent and we need it more than ever. She hopes by sharing her passion for our planet and outdoor recreation, she can convince others of the same. In her free time, you can find her touching cool rocks, running around SLC and the Wasatch, and trying her hardest to leave this earth better than when she entered it.