Trail Safety is an often neglected aspect of trail running.
If you have been trail running for at least a year or so you would have come across a race that has quite a long and to the novice, highly complicated, list of compulsory equipment that you will need in order to run the event you are entering. These lists can be frustrating and seem so trivial but in fact they are there for your safety and to ensure you enjoy yourself while completing the route as safely as possible.
The earliest memory I have of the kit that I was carrying helping to save my life was when I was about 13 years old in my first year of High School in the Natal Midlands. One weekend a few of us with a teacher decided to the tackle the Two Passes and Cleft Peak Escarpment Hike in the Central Drakensberg. Since we were in a boarding school in the Drakensberg we had plenty experience in the mountains as we would often complete 1 or 2 day hikes over the weekend. This time we chose to get up to the escarpment via Mlambonja Pass, traverse along the escarpment and descend via Mikes Pass. The plan was to camp on the escarpment and complete the hike in a more relaxed time of 5 days instead of the usual 3. Being winter we knew were in for a cold time and there was a strong possibility of some snow falling up on the escarpment. We made sure we had adequate warm clothing as well space blankets and a few other items we thought might come in handy. We started off excited and ready to tackle the 5 days out in some of the most beautiful mountains in South Africa. We made camp at the end of day 1 at the base of the pass and settled in for the night.
The next morning we awoke feeling super excited to get to the top of the escarpment and enjoy the views. As we began to make our way up the pass we were greeted with some light rain, as we got higher the rain turned to snow which began to fall, light at first but by the time we were 3/4 of the way up the snow was bucketing down so thick and so fast I could barely see 3m in front of me. The ‘light snow on the escarpment’ had turned into a full blown snow storm that was now reaching all the way down the pass. We quickly realised that pitching tents on the escarpment was now a bad idea, we were in a race for time to find some safe shelter. Freezing we made our way for the Twin Caves, not really knowing if we were even on the right trail because at this stage the path was completely covered with snow. Thankfully we eventually found shelter in the cave, after working our way through the snow, sopping wet we set up camp inside a small cave and tried to ride out the storm.The snow fell for 5 straight days and continued to fall on the 6th day, albeit a little lighter. The hike was only supposed to be 5 days so we were out of food and had no choice but to hike out. Descending back down the pass was probably the most surreal experience of my life, the little stream that ran alongside the path was no where to be seen. Everything was completely covered in snow. Using poles to test for level ground we made our way down the pass in hip high snow.
We made it back safe and if it wasn’t for my space blanket, my thermal base layer, thermal beanie and waterproof hooded jacket hypothermia would have come very quickly. In fact one of my friends unfortunately developed hypothermia before we made it to the cave but thankfully we were able to warm him up. Just how you do that is another story.. if you don’t feel like being mostly naked in a sleeping bag with a friend till your body recovers take this list seriously. Most trail races aren’t 5 day hikes but when you are on the mountain, even the smallest, the weather can turn so suddenly and so fast you will be caught in a serious situation before you can even say, “But the sun was just shining!!”
It has been recorded that since 1920 there has been more deaths on Table Mountain (a seemingly easy climb of only 1080m asl in the city of Cape Town, South Africa) than there has been on Mount Everest. 219 recorded deaths on Everest and 225 for Table Mountain. There could be many different contributing factors but for me it boils down preparation. The average person attempting an Everest summit is far more prepared than the average person attempting a Table Mountain summit. These compulsory lists ensure that you are prepared, even if the weather forecast is for “light snow on the escarpment.”
Compulsory Equipment List
- Trail running shoes. (Pretty self-explanatory, I have tried running trail with road shoes and I was subsequently awarded the ‘Sailing-Sarah’ award with my local club for my spectacular falls, trail shoes have grip for a reason.)
- Backpack or suitable mountain running equipment carrier. (Unless you like carrying your stuff in a shopping bag, this one is pretty self-explanatory as well See our review of the CamelBak Circuit Hydration Pack here: CamelBak Circuit Hydration Pack review)
- Waterproof jacket with a hood (NO wind proof shells, no apple jackets, no ponchos – MUST carry a label that reads “waterproof“). (This is where it gets serious, water resistant is not going to keep you dry. Being wet with a wind chill factor of below zero, which is easily achievable even on Lions Head, and a pumping NE with heavy rain slapping you in the face things can get very hairy, very quickly. Being dry can save your life. Someone once said there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.)
- Ultralight windbreaker – wind shell, apple jacket or similar. (These aren’t as warm as your waterproof jacket enabling you to stay pretty comfortable and not overheat while running in a chilly wind or even a light mist / drizzle.)
- Micro fleece (thin fleece) or equivalent (NOT a long sleeve running top). (Micro Fleece is one of my most favourite fabrics, it is a great base layer as it helps insulate and regulate your body temperature, allowing your skin to breathe and wicking sweat off the skin.)
- Buff AND beanie. (Some people think these are the same thing but they are not, a beanie will keep your head warm while the BUFF will keep your neck and face warm, in really cold weather I find it easier to breathe warmer air if I cover my mouth and nose with the BUFF. Very cold air going into your chest is also not good for infections. I find the Seal Skinz waterproof beanie’s are amazingly warm and keep your head dry. Your feet, hands and head are the most important parts on your body to keep dry and warm.)
- Emergency/space blanket (preferably a heavy duty emergency blanket or bag). (Space blankets are an incredible invention, they basically turn you into a human oven when you wrap yourself up. The reflective material sends your body heat back to your body instead of letting it escape. In an emergency situation this piece of kit will save your life, or someone else’s.)
- Whistle. (This is not so you can referee a social soccer match up in the mountains, it is to call for help, especially if you are out of sight because of a fall or the weather has turned bad. A person can only shout so loud for so long, the sound from the whistle will carry much further than your voice.)
- Cell phone, charged and with the numbers of the organisers on it. (If you find yourself in an emergency situation with cell reception, your chance of getting out after calling in for help are much higher.)
- Basic food, enough for anything from 3-7 hours in the mountains. (If you are stuck and waiting for assistance which could take a few hours, your planned nutrition for a 3 hour run will now not last you a 7 hour wait. This is not to make your pack heavier, again it is for emergency situations for either yourself or a fellow runner.)
- 1 litre of water (there’s lots of water on the course but you must carry a minimum of 1 litre from the start of the event). (If you get stranded and you aren’t close to a river or CP having at least 1 litre with you will enable you to hold out for help much longer than if you don’t have any. If you find yourself stranded without water on a hot day seek shelter if possible.)
- Basic first aid kit.
This can include the following: pain killers and anti-inflammatory tablets, stretch bandage, rigid strapping, safety pins x 2, super glue, tampon x2, cable ties x2, rehydrate sachet x1, “Grabber” hand warmers x2, and any personal medication. (Having these items with you are paramount, I try carry these even on basic training runs. you might carry them 99 times and never take them out but that 1 time you need it, they could save a life. If you are wondering what on earth the super glue is for it is an amazing tool to close wounds that need stitches, enabling you to not bleed out as you make your way to a CP)
- Either a dry bag to keep all of your dry stuff dry OR packaged individually in zip-lock bags. (Most of this stuff will be pretty useless if it’s wet, keep it dry.)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED IN BAD WEATHER
- 4x Grabber hand warmers. (I love these things, they are basically a mobile heater for your hands.. as soon as they are removed from the packaging they heat up. Warm hands will enable you to continue working with your hands, like strapping an injury, making a plinth, building a temporary shelter etc.)
- Polypropylene long sleeve running top – will still insulate when wet. (Layers equal insulation, having the correct layers at the correct position can mean staying warm while still staying light. Polypropylene is not like cotton or polyester, if it get’s wet it will still keep you warm if it’s layered with a mid and outer shell.)
- Polyproylene running gloves – keeps your hands warm enabling you to close/open zips … to get food or warm/dry clothes out. (Same as above.)
- Mohair socks – keep your feet warmer in wet shoes. (These wick moisture off the skin and breathe like a dream while still keeping you warm.. a wonder material!!)
- Cold weather running tights. (I usually don’t worry about these, even in severe cold weather but each person has their own preference, weigh up the terrain and what the weather usually does and plan accordingly.)
Other kit I would recommend
- Seal Skinz Waterproof socks.. dry feet for the win
- A head lamp in case you get stranded into the night
- A pocket Knife with a basic survival kit for the really gnarley routes
- A beard.. naturally Beard’s are scientifically proven to keep your face warm.. (ok maybe not scientifically proven but it is pretty obvious.)
So there you have it, a breakdown of a compulsory equipment list, the vary between races some being super strict and some less strict. It all depends on the terrain, altitude, time of year etc. As I mentioned earlier there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Rather be over-prepared than under-prepared.
It could save your life.