I was bombing down a trail in the Columbia River Gorge at a tremendous rate of speed. The cool air blowing through the towering fir trees swept across my shirtless body drying my sweat and leaving streaks of powdery salt on my skin. The trail was cut into the side of the canyon and only a foot or so wide. Mossy rocks climbed so steeply off the side of the trail that they threatened to brush my shoulder. Off to the other side, the earth plummeted away, undergrowth clinging to the land with tenacity and hope. I often had to slow down on washed out or muddy parts of the trail in fear of arcing into the void. But here the trail was solid; I was feeling great and confident and strong. . . until the tiny stick grabbed my foot.
I was suddenly airborne flying over the trail with my arms stretched forward like Superman. My right hand was the first to succumb to inevitable gravity and the water bottle in my grasp exploded in slow motion. Next my shoulder hit, then head, hip, and finally my knee. I slid to a stop on a thin landing strip between cliff up and cliff down. The forest was silent. I began assessing my pain and decided I could sit up. There were scrapes leaking blood and bruises already forming deep in my muscles. I knew this one would hurt more tomorrow, but what about tomorrow? I was still a long way from any trailhead; I had not seen another person for hours. I sat there thinking about my situation. I only had shoes on, short running shorts, a watch displaying the lateness of the afternoon, and a now destroyed and empty water bottle. The realization became clear that if I can’t run, I have a long walk into the darkness to get to my car. If I can’t walk, I have a long night to survive with basically no gear or even clothing and no one looking for me.
After some time recovering, I was able to get up and continue my run to my car, albeit much slower. It gave me plenty of time to think about what could have been. I had made some significant mistakes. It is even more amazing that with my history in criminal justice, emergency medical support, and even a wilderness guide, I would be caught so unprepared. Thankfully this was a warning that was listened too and I would not put myself in this position again.
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
I had become lax in my years as a recreational runner. I often trained in extremely safe environments like the local high school track and I had fallen into some habits that opened me up to unnecessary risk. I never carried ID. I rarely told anyone where I was going. Heck, I didn’t always know where I was going myself. I had no money, water, food, or even clothing to adapt to circumstances that I had not anticipated. Running was so free of cares. I needed to keep that freedom, but lose the recklessness and that is very easy to do.
Of course I don’t always prepare for every run in the same way. If I am heading down to the track for some speedwork, all I have to do to provide a reasonable margin of safety is to let someone know where I am going and when to expect me back.
The other thing I advocate for simple, safe, runs is to carry some form of ID. For years I have been running and cycling without any ID; if something were to happen to me, it would take a tremendously long search from my family to find me. Also, medical treatment would be done without any information about who I am or my medical history.
Road ID produces simple and elegant wristbands and ankle bracelets. Medical staff are trained to look for them like medic alert tags. The band has my name and a serial number on it and a phone number and website to go to. This way anyone can get my medical history and emergency contact information, even if I am unconscious. Road ID makes several products that attach to shoes or other places, however I don’t believe in these as much. A tag on your shoe might very easily go unnoticed by a hospital. Stick to the bracelets, ankle straps, or dog tags.
If your run is taking you farther from home or safety there is more to think about in addition to the previous suggestions. The best thing you can do is run with a partner. Another person provides safety in numbers in case you are running through tough neighborhoods but that other runner can also be a great resource if there is an accident. Just because you are running on a sidewalk and not ripping down a trail does not mean you are immune to tripping and twisting an ankle.
I also like to plan my long routes a bit more thoroughly. Things I am looking for are places to get water, bathrooms, safe areas, and interesting locations. If you are going long enough to require food, you may want to bring a gel or two in a pocket, but an easy solution is just to roll up a few dollars and plan to stop at a store.
Another great tool is to carry a handheld water bottle like an Amphipod. There are also some waste band systems but I generally don’t like them as much and if you really need to carry that much stuff there are better options (see below). Whatever way you go, this is a great way to carry water, a gel or two, money, and ID. I like running with my bottle, even though I hate things in my hands, the strap allows me to relax totally and not really have to carry it. After just a few miles, you will never notice the bottle again. It is a simple and effective way to increase your range and adaptability during your runs.
Once you head off road there is more to consider. Even a short run in the wilderness can get you far enough away from help that you should plan to be as self-sufficient as possible. I have found tremendous freedom in running with a pack that is designed for ultra runners. I use the Nathan Endurance Race Vest, but I know there are other products out there from Camelbak and others. I do find it telling that if you show up at an ultra trail race, most of the runners are using the Nathan vest.
This vest gives me a huge amount of freedom. I can easily carry up to 2 liters of water in the bladder. There is a spot on the front shoulder strap that I can carry a smaller water bottle, I usually put my mix of maltodextrin in there for calories. It also has places for basic gear, gels, pills, phone or ipod, and straps to store jackets or clothing.
Don’t think of this as a backpack though. It rides totally differently. Its design was running specific and the multiple straps are really adjustable. There is a lot of stretchy suspension integrated too. It may take some time and trial when you first get it to have it fit perfectly, but once you do, you will never notice the pack again.
So lets say I am planning on a run into the wilderness that is greater than 2 hrs, here is what I carry.
- Nathan Endurance Vest
- Watch (with medical tape around the wrist band)
- Road ID
- 12 oz water bottle on the front filled with energy drink
- Phone or Ipod
- Map (Green Trail Maps make good waterproof ones)
- At least two gels (these are emergency gels, not to be counted as normal nutrition on a run)
- Fire starting flint
- Thermal Blanket
- Chamois Butter (or other lube)
- Laminated copy of my driver’s license with insurance, medical history, and emergency contacts on the back.
- Paper towels (for toilet paper or fire starter)
- Medical tape
- Pills (2 Ibuprophen, 1 Vicoden, 6 electrolyte caps, 2 caffeine)
- Iodine tablets for water purification
- 2-liter water bladder (filled to an appropriate level according to my run)
The whole pack without water weighs 1.5 lbs and I could make it through a night in the wilderness without too much problem. It also has everything I need to adjust to any changing situations while on route. I have fuel, water (and the ability to make more), blister care, heat, shelter, communication gear, and self-rescue equipment. I also love that I am more likely to dress warmer because it is so easy to carry clothing if I over-dress.
The back pocket gets loaded with the equipment that is only for rare use. Other things that I want handy are all located up front. My energy drink bottle is on the lower right strap, there is a bite tube over the shoulder from the water bladder. I keep my gels in the left pocket. There is a small waterproof pocket that I keep caffeine pills in, other pills go in back. I can put my Ipod or phone up front for easy listing or GPS tracking. On the upper left shoulder strap I have a folding clip knife. I don’t have to stop running for any need during even really long runs of 4-5 hrs.
Let me talk about the knife for a second. It is very light and small with only a 3-inch blade that opens with one hand. Its primary use is or survival. The fire starter I carry requires a blade to make sparks, so if you don’t have a knife, a striker is needed, but a knife is more versatile. As useful as a knife is in the wilderness, it is nice to have in such close reach. I run with this vest in the city sometimes and having that knife quickly deployable is a comfort in rough neighborhoods. I would stress that if you are not comfortable or trained in self defense with a knife, a far better option would be to put a small lipstick stun gun or a can of pepper spray in this spot. I thankfully have never deployed this knife because of a bad guy and doubt I ever will, but I have on one occasion opened it and was very ready to use it when attacked by a dog.
I am not going to go into a ton of discussion here about clothing other than to say bright is better and cotton is rotten. Wearing bright clothes can increase your visibility whether you are lost in the wilderness or running on a road with cars. There are even many options with reflective stitching that are awesome. And make sure you are wearing synthetic material. There is nothing worse than cotton while working out and if you are caught wearing cotton in the wilderness it can be downright deadly. Cotton is a material that not only will absorb water and not dry out, but once wet, it will sap the heat out of you as well as increase chaffing and blisters. While we are discussing clothing, let me say that here is another place that the running pack excels. It takes years to figure out exactly what to wear in what weather, having the running pack along lets me err on the side of overdressing, because it is really easy to stuff a hat or gloves or even your jacket in the pack if you overheat.
Beyond the headlamp, which can be useful for just getting around, you may want to consider red blinking lights, especially if you are running on a road with cars. I personally like the Planet Bike Superflash that can clip right on the back of my backpack or the back of my hat or shorts. Another option I have been very impressed with is the Amphipod Xinglet reflective vest It has LEDs that blink on the front and back, and it is highly reflective and florescent yellow to boot. Very cool. Most of all, if running at night it is especially important to choose your route to keep you off roads with much traffic.
All this equipment is nothing without your head. I have quite a bit of training that will allow greater comfort and adaptability. I want to stress the importance of taking the time to learn some basic survival techniques, spend time with those who are more experienced than you are, and learn as much as you can. Your mental preparedness is the most valuable thing to have along. Keep aware of your surroundings, plan ahead, and have the right equipment.
It is also very easy to take this all way too far. Running is fun and free. Being prepared does not mean being paranoid or fearful. Everything you do to plan ahead should be done to reduce anxiety of the unknown. I have seen far too many examples of people who learn enough about the scary things in the world that it paralyzes them from being free. Bliss should not come from ignorance, but confidence to be ready to handle what happens.