When the Trail's Gone Cold

A Keep-Safe Guide to Tackling Winter Trail Running

There’s not too many places in the world better suited to the dedicated trail runner than this very own country of ours. What that means, however, is that for at least a part of the year, Canadian trail runners must cope with cold, dark, and slippery conditions when heading up their favourite mountain loops.

Adam Ciuk is one of those runners. A Saucony ambassador, Adam can typically be found out on West Coast trails, particularly in and around Vancouver & Squamish, BC. In recent years, he's even travelled to the US and Europe to conquer a few more spectacular peaks. We asked him to talk us through how to get the most out of winter trail running.

1. Bring Layers
We all know when the external temperature drops, it’s good to have options. “Typically in winter I will layer up,” Adam says. “Where I run, it is a wet cold, so it is extremely important to wear base layers and thermal tights. Or at least bring extra thermals in a running bag.” It’s especially crucial when elevation is in the cards; not only will the temperature drop even further, but the weather can turn like a switchback. “If I know I’m going to gain some elevation, I’ll always bring a jacket or shell, thermal pants, and extra socks. Just in case.”

And while keeping your insides well-protected is Trail Running Rule #1, there are a number of external factors to consider that may not come to mind at other times of the year.

2. Get Traction
“I always forget about ice in the winter months,” Adam admits. “When you’re out on the trail and you start climbing into higher elevations you may be faced with a sheet of ice on well-packed trails. So having a good pair of microspikes or a good pair of shoes with soft rubber can make or break your run in the backcountry." Adam prefers the Saucony Koa ST, but if he anticipates the conditions to be extra slick, he'll strap on his Peregrine ICE+. "Also, having a pair of running poles could help with balance if you ever slip out.” 

Fortunately, inclement weather is nothing a little forethought can’t prepare you for. “Simply checking the mountain forecast or your local weather forecast is crucial in the winter months,” Adam says. “Also, knowing freezing levels. And if you don’t trust the mountain forecast, there are typically trail blogs where you can read up on conditions throughout the year.”

3. Stay in Touch
Safety is a big concern whenever you head out into the wilderness, and Adam stresses the importance of always knowing where you are, and staying easy-to-find should the worst occur. “If I'm running into the mountains, I’ll always bring an emergency beacon, like the InReach Explorer, which will call Search and Rescue if you ever get lost or injured on the trail. It's a last resort device.”

Besides that, it doesn’t hurt to call a friend. “Before you go out, contact an emergency person and let them know the trail you are running and when you expect to be done. Just to be safe.”

4. Keep it Light
As the days get shorter, a headlamp is a vital piece of equipment for navigating the trail. But a little light doesn’t reach far enough. Again, the smart runner knows to plan ahead. “I’ll only run trails at night that I've run during the day,” Adam says, “so I can recognize key intersections, and know the time that it should take to get back to my car. There’s nothing worse than trying a new trail in the dark and getting lost, but if you do get lost, a whistle or a cell phone can go a long way.”

With all the dos and don’ts around winter trail running, it’s easy to forget about the reason we all love to get out there in the first place – it’s damn fun. And Adam reminds us there’s always a little room to enjoy the spoils of a good uphill run in the snow.

“It may be considered cheating,” Adam says, “but if you run to the top of a mountain, typically you can do a little bit of bum-sliding back down.” But again, we must stress the importance of always, always, always being prepared before you set out. Adam advises, “just make sure to bring a garbage bag to sit on, or a change of clothes, since it may get pretty wet at the bottom.”

Now you’re ready for winter.