Winter Trail Running: 6 Snow-Day Essentials Every Runner Needs

If your world is buried in snow, what's stopping you from heading outside for some winter trail running?

  • Are you a trail runner who dreads winter days on the treadmill or road? 
  • Have you thought about venturing outside for some winter trail running, but not sure if you've got what it takes?

If you're willing to work a bit harder than you would on the treadmill or road, it's time to give winter trail running a try.

Here's what you need to know...

The tricky thing about winter trail running...

Winter trail running on snow-covered ground presents unique challenges. 

First and foremost, snow takes on many characteristics, all of which alter the ability to run in different ways. It can be...

❄ Crunchy and thin
❄ Powdery and thick
❄ Thin and icy
❄ Deep and slushy
❄ Ice-crusted
❄ Melting
❄ Hard-packed… and the list goes on. 

The snow’s ever-changing constitution can make the decision to set forth on a trail run daunting.

But over time, if you get to know your local trail’s tendencies, you can quite accurately predict what type of snow lies where and when. 

Either way, accepting winter trail running as an adventure and letting go of expectations surrounding the run is key to getting out there when conditions are against you.

In addition to the constantly metamorphosing terrain, winter trail running challenges include:

  • Gaining enough traction to actually run
  • Maintaining natural form while running (sometimes it can feel like high-kneeing or marching)
  • Navigating trails whose blazes are covered and direction of the path obscured
  • Freezing hydration
  • Fear of slipping
  • Wet socks and shoes

👉What would you add to this list?

The right gear for a positive winter trail running experience

It goes without saying, winter trail running is a dramatically different experience than running on clear trails. 

Yet, the right gear can get you on the trails year-round, as long as you’re willing to change your perspective and accept the tough parts with open arms. 

You’ll be happy you did once your eyes behold the beauty and magic of the wintry woods.

Here are SIX things to make running on snow-packed trails possible:

Author Cunningham powering up a hill with poles, which bring more stability and drive when snow is involved. (Photo/ Kristen Muscaro)

1. Poles

The winters in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania can maintain a one to two foot base, plus fresh snow continually falling, for two or three months.

Rather than forgo the trails, I grab poles, even on the less steep and technical single track.

Why? Poles stabilize the landing of the feet exceptionally well. 

Poles are one piece of gear that has made a world of difference when running on snow-covered trails. 

  • They recruit the upper body, doubling the grip, integrating a total-body experience...
  • Which is paramount for managing the resistance created by winter conditions.

To make it through particularly deep sections...

  • I aggressively plunge the poles into the snow, dig my toes into the pretty powder and push myself forward. 
  • When I attempt snow runs without the assistance of the poles, I slide backward down hills and ultimately surrender to hiking, slogging through snow, something quite frustrating when in the mood to run.

Winter trail running: Descending downhill with poles

Likewise, when descending, bracing with the poles prevents careening down slick embankments, and, again, keeps me standing firmly on two feet with minimal side-to-side slippage. 

No real reasoning exists behind choosing one over the other.

Most of the time I grab the ski poles out of convenience, as they remain in my vehicle during ski season, although, without a doubt, I prefer the Lekis.

👉You can read more about the Leki Micro Trail Pro here. 

Yes, it’s possible to get some winter trail running without poles, but once you’ve tried running through snow with poles, it seems senseless to go without them.

Author Cunningham navigating slick rocks with the Kahtoola Micro Spikes + Poles + Gaiters for safer and more comfortable running upon snow and ice. (Photo/ Kristen Muscaro)

2. Traction devices

Combine poles with traction devices, and winter trail running is taken to a whole new level. 

Traction devices slip over the toe and heel of your shoe and provide grip for ice and snow. 

  • For years, I used Yaktrax, until the coils rusted and broke. 
  • Then I got a pair of Kahtoola Micro Spikes, which suit the conditions where I live better. They have tooth-like traction as opposed to coils and grasp the local single track very well. 

Have you ever fallen hard on ice? It hurts.

The Kahtoola Micro Spikes have completely diminished any fear of this happening, or of sliding down slippery hillsides.

They also make climbing easier, taking away that two steps forward, one step back feeling associated with ascending a snow-covered hill. 

  • Even more, they make running down a steep, snowy trail extra fun.
  • For thinner snow that is six inches or less, with no base, or if running on ice, the micro spikes are my go-to. 
Author running in Gore-tex trail running shoes, the La Sportiva Lycan GTX, Kahtoola Micro Spikes and Kahtoola gaiters on Meadow Run Trail, Ohiopyle, Pa. (Photo/Rachel McFall-Jeffries)

3. Gaiters

While Gore-tex trail running shoes keep the feet dry, they do not keep snow from getting into your socks. This is where gaiters come into play.

The pair I use are the Kahtoola CONNECT Gaiters - Mid, which are compatible with the Kahtoola Micro Spikes. 

So, when donning the spikes, I always attach the gaiters. 

If you want an all-around waterproof experience, gaiters paired with Gore-tex shoes are a must. 

4. Trail running snowshoes

When the snow is so deep that traction devices provide little assistance, it’s time to step it up. 

Enter trail running snowshoes. 

For those who live in the mountains with easy access to trails, investing in a set of trail running snowshoes makes it possible to get out every day, no matter the quality of snow. 

Trail running snowshoes are:

❄ Perfect for when the snow is not great for backcountry skiing.
❄ The best piece of gear when traction devices aren’t cut out for the job.
❄Ideal for exploring the higher elevation, more remote areas with the deepest snow, where very few people venture in wintertime.
❄ An excellent addition to the snow sport quiver: backcountry skis, traction devices and trail running snowshoes, creating a plethora of winter adventuring options.

The first day I took out the Atlas Race Snowshoes, the snow was deep but quickly melting, creating crumbly, sinking conditions. 

  • Rather than running, I spent an hour fighting my way through atrocious, mid-thigh deep snow...
  • Sinking with each step...
  • Picking up my knee to what felt like my armpit to take the next step...
  • Trying to get used to the contraptions awkwardly strapped to my feet

Don’t get me wrong—the Atlas Race Snowshoes are comfortable

  • They do not require a wide stance like snowshoes from the old days.
  • They are lightweight enough that the strength to lift them requires minimal effort. 

Still, I was disappointed on the first try. 

Instead of writing them off as useless, I attributed the letdown to poor conditions and overly warm temperatures and waited for the next snow.

Atlas Race Snowshoes: Part II

Sure enough, when I took them out again, they proved their worthiness. 

On fresh powder, they move forward unencumbered. 

At times, running feels natural, even playful, as you cascade down a steep slope, snow spraying up all around you. 

On hard-packed snow, they perform the most efficiently and easily, making running less strenuous than when traveling through the deep stuff. 

Winter single-track trail running vs. running on cross country ski trails

Thus, if you’re a runner set on maintaining a solid stride throughout with very few hiking breaks, taking snowshoes to groomed cross country ski trails may be the best option for you (just stay out of the ski tracks). 

If, like me, you prefer to set first tracks and are more interested in being out in the wilderness than maintaining a certain pace, then single-track trails are the ticket. 

A combination of both provides the best of two wonderful, wintry worlds. 

Author running on the single-track McCune Trail in the Atlas Race Snowshoes (Photo/Eric Harder)

Snowshoeing vs. running: How hard can it really be?

Now, to be clear, as wonderful as trail running snowshoes are for getting avid trail lovers outside in their most beloved places, the running is not easy, even on groomed tracks.

Perhaps it takes years of practice to become proficient, but having a carbon oval-ish shaped device strapped to your shoe is obviously less natural than simply a running shoe. 

  • Sometimes it feels like marching.
  • Other times you’re reduced to hiking.
  • Sometimes you can get in a few 100 yards of actual running, at least on the most technical and steep of single tracks. 
  • You may end your run having only run about 10 percent of the time if conditions were not up to your standard. 

Insider tips for runners who snowshoe

Also, take note, one funny thing that happens when the powder is deep is that snow tends to fly up and over the backside and head, falling down the back of the pants, back of the neck and the front of the jacket if it’s not fully zipped to the chin. 

  • This hasn’t happened long or often enough to mark it down as a major con, though. 

An additional note - poles are required to manage the deep terrain, and even give you a boost on groomed trails, making running more do-able in both situations.
 

  • Like I said above under the poles section, I prefer the Lekis but backcountry ski poles are good enough, too. 

If you are a runner desiring high mileage and fast splits, trail running snowshoes may not be the solution. 

If slowing down and enjoying the magical scenery and silent solitude of snow-covered trails is more important than your Garmin stats, I highly recommend trail running snowshoes, if you can use them often enough to justify the price tag. When winter is in its fullest glory, I take them out three to four times a week.

All in all, with backcountry skis, traction devices and the Atlas Race Snowshoes, not a winter day goes by where I sit feeling hindered by conditions, longing to get in the woods with no means. 

When skiing isn’t prime and traction devices are simply not enough, the Atlasses are my go-to, no fail method for enjoying the snow. 

5. Gore-tex trail running shoes

Winter trial running would be downright miserable without a pair of Gore-tex running shoes.

Why? Gore-tex trail running shoes keep the toes dry and even offer some warmth.

With that said, usually I wear the Salomon Vaya Powder boot with the trail running snowshoes. 

Interestingly enough, the boots work fine for running in this situation because I’m not covering high mileage in them.

Author Cunningham using the Hydrapak Force 3L hydration reservoir, which prevents the bite valve and straw from freezing as quickly as those without a cap or built-in insulation.

6. Hydration reservoir with bite valve cap and insulated straw

Long ago on winter long runs, I had issues with bite valves and reservoir straws freezing, which left me struggling along with zero water for hours, succumbing to scooping snow to quench my thirst. 

Some tricks, like tucking the straw up my jacket, or putting a jacket on top of the entire vest, worked, but it was cumbersome. 

Even carrying insulated coffee mugs like the ones Hydro Flask makes was a solution, but I still wanted to be able to run and not stop to unscrew the cap of a bottle in order to drink. 

Even more, I tried insulated bladder sleeves to no avail.

Finally, I discovered that the Hydrapak Force 3L (also available in 2L).

  • It's made to keep water cold in warm temperatures
  • It also keeps the bite valve and straw from freezing in below-freezing temperatures. 
  • The bladder itself is thicker than regular ones.
  • The straw is insulated with a cap covering the bite valve. 

Here’s how the Hydrapak Force behaves for various temperatures: 

  • Bite valve and straw both freeze in about 90 minutes in single-digit temperatures
  • Bite valve stays clear for two hours in mid-teen temperatures and begins to form ice after the two-hour mark; ice can be bitten to free the flow of water
  • Bite valve and straw both stay thawed and flow freely in 20 degrees or above for up to three hours

For outings lasting longer than the listed duration, I take hot tea in a Hydro Flask bottle just in case (with tea bag removed to avoid the explosion of herbs). 

Putting down fresh trail running snowshoe tracks on McCune Trail, Ohiopyle, Pa.

Beat cabin fever with winter trail running

Winter trail running gives cabin fever the boot and opens our eyes to the wonder of the ever-changing natural world. 

Running amongst a landscape of pristine white, glistening trees, robust streams and sparkling ice offers a peaceful stillness that can invoke introspection and serenity. 

So, grab some gear and get out there! 

Just be sure to choose trails you know like the back of your hand and can navigate even when snow obscures blazes and renders the path unreadable. 

Happy winter running! 

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

Comments

Marci McGuinness You certainly do your research! Great article!

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