Attention backcountry junkies and alpine trail runners: the high country season is finally here. At long last, it’s time to venture above tree-line and explore mountain running at its finest.
But as glorious as alpine trail running is, it’s far from easy. In the thin air, you have to contend with intense, high altitude sun, winds that can knock you on your feet, aggressive wildlife and volatile weather, especially during the Rockies summer monsoon season. All of that risk occurs far out of cell service on a trail that’s only accessible by dirt roads.
Luckily, by planning ahead, you can mitigate some of the risk. Here are a few bare-bones gear essentials you should bring anytime your summer trail run takes you above tree line.
Lightweight Running Pack
Eight miles in the high country can take hours longer than it would at home due to lack of oxygen, steepness or ruggedness of the terrain. Plus, you’re on your own out there. If something happens, it’s up to you and your gear to survive. That’s why I always recommend bringing a running pack for high country adventures, no matter how short.
On short days, your lightweight pack can hold your water, food, layers and other supplies. For a long day in the alpine, consider a pack with 6-10 liters of storage capacity. No two bodies are alike, so spend some time in a running or outdoor specialty shop trying on different packs.
Don’t let worries about thirst needlessly weigh you down. When deciding how much water to bring, consider whether water sources are available along your planned route.
Thanks to summer snowmelt, many mountainous routes feature abundant water sources along the way, be they creeks, waterfalls or sparkling alpine lakes. If this is the case for your route, you can carry less weight and be confident you’ll have water in emergencies by bringing a portable water filter.
The lightweight LifeStraw Personal Water Filter lets you drink directly from natural water sources without having to worry about Giardia, E.coli or other parasites and bacteria. If you prefer water to be filtered directly in your bottle (like I do), the Katadyn BeFree Collapsible Water Filter Bottle lets you drink the freshest high alpine water right out of the bottle.
While the temperature in town might be in the 80s, it will drop the higher you climb.
Without a decent windbreaker, cold temperatures, harsh winds and sudden storms can be a recipe for hypothermia. Windbreakers tend to be lighter, tougher and more packable than other jackets. I always stash one in my pack, even if the weather forecast is crystal clear. Most windbreakers can withstand light rain or snow, and breathe much better than a fully waterproof jacket, which is essential for a highly aerobic activity like running. If the rain is heavy enough to warrant a fully waterproof jacket, it’s probably not a great day to go running in the high alpine. Summer storms are often accompanied by lightning, which can be fatal if it catches you above treeline.
Communication and Navigation
My first rule of communication in the backcountry is to plan for being unable to communicate. My second rule is to stay put if you become disoriented.
That said, alpine runners are increasingly embracing satellite navigation and communication tools, and for good reason. Since my partner and I got the Garmin InReach satellite communication device, we can’t believe we ever left for a backcountry run without it. They can send text messages, track your location and, in emergencies, trigger an SOS to reach a 24-hour-a-day search and monitoring center (you need a satellite subscription for this service).
And Don’t Forget…
High tech gear’s great but don’t overlook basic necessities. Always bring more than enough food, sunscreen, sunglasses, gloves, brimmed cap, topographic trail map and a small first-aid kit.