All trail runners are explorers to me. Whether you're genuinely chasing unforgettable vistas with each run or simply imagining extraordinary adventures as you tick off the miles in the nearest state forest – we're all after a little more excitement than regular road running. That's what I thought when a fellow traveler in Arctic Norway suggested a trail run along a nearby mountain ridge. "Sounds exciting," I said as I grabbed my running backpack.
We hitchhiked a boat ride to the trailhead on the mainland – living in an island community off the coast was an unforgettable adventure on its own – and my heart started pounding almost immediately, but not from the thrill of adventure. Look at that front-end elevation gain!
I suppose my logic didn't take me as far as actually climbing the mountain before we got to the ridge-running stage. So up we went, part running, part scrambling, and all parts sweating. But it was worth it.
When we finally reached the ridge, the views alone immediately turned this trail run into one of the most extraordinary adventures of my life. The Norwegian Sea stood crisp turquoise to our left. At the same time, the rugged Lofoten Mountains dominated the horizon, sharply contrasting with seas of green fields and hills on the nearby island of Engeløya.
I silently congratulated myself as I unzipped my pack and pulled out some much-needed granola. The climb up had drained us, but we weren't ready to turn around, not by a long shot – and the running backpack was going to prove to be the critical factor in keeping us from turning around prematurely.
After a quick recharge and a few pictures, we took off at a trot down the ridge trail. Red T's painted on rocks marked the path, and we truly felt like explorers on the edge of the known world as our eyes devoured stunning fjords and endless mountains.
We gazed in all directions at every stop – as rubbernecking at the views while running along a mountain trail is a recipe for catastrophe – and it was sometimes hard to tell if it was the running or the views that were responsible for my gasping breath. But my sweat-streaked face hinted that the running was at least partly to blame, and we often took advantage of the water reservoir stashed in my running backpack to keep us hydrated enough to continue chasing those vistas.
After the sharp climb in the first stage of our adventure, the ridge offered a very gentle descent as we slowly got closer and closer to the deep blue fjord below us. With each step, it seemed that the water to our right was becoming more and more inviting to my sunbaked and sweat-streaked body. At the same time, the once green field to our left was becoming – oddly – more and more yellow.
Had I not been drinking enough water? My mind tried to grapple with this strange color change as our run took us through a short boulder field. As we hopped from rock to rock, I glanced down at the field, and it was indeed changing color. A quick sprint down the last section of the trail finally revealed the cause. I was right in that the field was simply grass – but left untamed, dandelions had taken over to provide a beautiful spectacle as our trail petered out back at ground level.
Huffing and puffing from almost 10 kilometers of trail and infinite adventures, we again dove into my running backpack to find what my pre-run self had thought to bring. Three granola bars materialized next to my emergency tape, and every single crumb they had to offer provided the energy we needed to jog to the official end of the trail.
That end was a sandy beach – in sharp contrast to the rugged and rocky mountains all around us. No need to turn around at all, it seemed. We came by boat and here was a sandy beach – perfect serendipity as we called back home for a ride.
As we waited, I remembered one last item I had stashed in my running backpack. A 'just in case' item that I threw in at the last moment as I knew we were running near the ocean – a lightweight cotton towel. A quick rinse in the chilly arctic cemented this adventure as one of my favorite trail runs to date, and in no small part because I'd brought a backpack for running.
The Running Backpack – Go Further
I'm an avid proponent of running packs; I used one on this adventure, and I often bring one for almost any trail run, anywhere. So, let's take a look at the different kinds and what they have to offer.
For my Norway adventure, I was toting a Camelbak Mule. This type of hydration backpack falls into a more general-use variety where the secure straps make it perfectly comfortable for running. But you can also use it for general hiking and adventuring.
These larger, and admittedly bulkier, packs are my bread-and-butter for running – especially if I'm heading out for a trail run – because of the space they offer.
Room for my water reservoir, that's a given. Space for my snacks of choice? Check. Room for essential medical gear in case I twist an ankle? Absolutely. Space for a lightweight layer in case the weather turns? You bet.
Put all these points together, and you have a running backpack that can keep you fueled and hydrated on your run while also offering space for a little extra gear in case the unexpected occurs. However, I've experimented with plenty of other types of running backpacks that offer a much smaller footprint.
Hydration-Only Running Backpacks
In their basic form, a backpack for running will focus solely on hydration. They are slim, designed to minimize bulk, and can typically hold a two-liter water bladder.
While not my first choice, we've already established that I'm a chronic over-packer and need extra space, I still recognize their usefulness for both trail and road running. These running hydration packs offer easy access to water on the go – no need to carry bottles in your hands or plan your run around water sources. Plus, you can also stash your keys and wallet inside if needed.
If you're on the fence about a larger running backpack or a minimal hydration-only pack, you still have plenty of mid-weight options.
These middle-of-the-road packs still have space for a water bladder but typically include one or two extra pockets for additional gear. Check out this Water Buffalo Pack as an example. It still has a smaller footprint than my CamelBak but offers two additional pockets for some miscellaneous gear and snacks to keep you going.
What to Look For
Regardless of your running backpack size, there is one crucial feature that will make or break a pack for me.
That feature is the strap system. I'm sure we've all run with a poorly-secured backpack at some point – maybe trying to catch the bus back at school – and it's not pretty. The pack bounces all over the place, obliterating your running rhythm.
So, I never try running with a pack that doesn't have a chest buckle/strap to keep the pack nice and snug on my back. Better yet, I prefer running backpacks that have both a chest and waist strap (remember, I like slightly larger packs).
In addition to securing the pack, make sure you consider the following features so you can pick out one that will suit you best.
-Hydration reservoir capacity – some are smaller than others
-Strap and back padding for comfort
-Mesh straps or webbing on the back for securing gear
And that's all I have for you! If you've never tried trail running, I can't overstate how fun and exhilarating it can be. Get out there, grab a handy running backpack, and chase those adventures.