A beginner’s guide to the trail running gear you actually need

Remember that time someone said to you running is great because it’s free and then you laughed and laughed and laughed (and then cried a little bit when you saw your credit card statement with all the shoes, and gels and race entries)?


Sure, running can be free. Lace up your shoes, any shoes, put on a shirt and shorts, any shirt and shorts, and head out the door. But once you get the bug, you know you’re going to want to step it up a few notches.


That’s the beauty of running: it can be as cheap or as costly as you want it to be. Once you start running races, some expenses are unavoidable (but they’re also great investments in your health so we’re all for promoting that kind of spending).


And let’s face it, who doesn’t love some shiny new gear?


With so much great stuff on offer, it is easy to get a bit overwhelmed, especially if you’re relatively new to trail running. Companies will be telling you you “need” this and that and referring to certain things as “essentials” when, really, they’re just another shiny toy.


Fear not, we’re here to tell you what the actual essential stuff you need to get started on this trail running thing and not ending up out there on the trail trying to work out why your gaiters are caught up in your poles and your spikes don’t seem to work on these gravel paths.



Figure out what you NEED (a quick lecture on mandatory race gear)


Some races have mandatory gear, for safety reasons. Whenever you sign up for a race, any race, check if there is any list of mandatory gear. If there is, that’s your shopping list right there. Tick off what you’ve got already and get the rest. Mandatory gear is no joke: it can actually save your life.


There is a myth that only long ultramarathons require mandatory gear. That is no true and it is a dangerous assumption. The difficulty level of a trail run, by the nature of the sport, cannot be measured in kilometres or miles. Short trail runs can have mandatory gear requirements too and it’s important to abide by those rules.


For your outing at the Waitomo Trail Run there are 3 levels of mandatory gear. Weather changes quickly so take the lot with you just so you aren’t spending your pre-race buildup driving all over the North Island trying to beg, borrow or steal that essential piece of kit that is needed at the last moment.


There are three compulsory gear levels for Waitomo Trail Run:

– A. No compulsory equipment.

– B. Waterproof jacket.

– C. Base Layer Long Top Wool/Polypropylene, Base Layer Long Pants Wool/Polypropylene, Waterproof Jacket (seam-sealed), Thermal Hat (Buff accepted), Thermal Gloves.


Keep an eye on our social media channels in the few days before the event – an official announcement will come out about what level of gear is needed. And then take it all anyway because, well, you’ve got it anyways so why not?


The items listed in level C are items that are common gear requirements for any race. We strongly recommend you invest in each of these as you will be using them a lot.


So buy that seam-sealed jacket and that base layer top. Get some nice thermal gloves. Get a whistle – seriously, go to the $2 shop now and get a whistle. Anything can happen out in a trail run, however short, and you don’t want to get into serious trouble because you assumed you wouldn’t need a jacket or a whistle.


We suggest creating a cool little area in your home that is your little shrine to trail running and fill it with this gear for whenever you need it. This is your trail running/adventure/exploring little corner, your escape from the mundane.


This gear will be needed, I guarantee you. It’ll be needed when you least expected it and you’ll be so freaking happy you’ve got it. In my last race, the mandatory 2 metres of self adhesive bandage that I thought of as a nuisance when I had to pack it helped my blistered and bloodied feet keep going. The seam sealed jacket I thought would just be taking up room in my pack? I ran two thirds of the run with it (and escaped hypothermia). The Buff that seems like a mere fashion accessory? I used it countless times and would have had a much worse race without it.


Race directors have your ass (and the rest of you) covered so read the list and keep apprised right up to race start.

Right, jumping down from the soapbox. Let’s list out the absolute basics.



Eight things you actually need when you head out on the trails


Shoes – of course shoes. But what kind of shoes should you get?.


As a newbie to trail running the world of trail shoes can be VERY confusing – Hokas or Five Fingers? Need loads of tread or something more akin to a road shoe?


First of all identify, the kind of trails you are running on in your training. I live in Auckland and until recently could get up into the Waitakeres on the regular. I prefer (through years of trying shoes) a shoe with minimal drop and tonnes of tread to take on those technical muddy trails. For a recent race, though, in Rotorua I knew the trails were way less technical so got a pair of shoes that had less tread and grip but were a bit more cushioned to take on a long day on the trails.


Shoes, as you can see, are very personal – you have to find your way and what works for you.


If you are running a shorter distance at Waitomo then you can easily get away with good road shoes so, again, if you’re new and starting out then stick with what you know. For longer distances at Waitomo, you’ll probably need some proper trail shoes and of course ensure you keep an eye on the weather… a storm blowing through can mean those road shoes suddenly turn into skis.


Socks – well that’s easy right? No, of course not. You have time – go and try a few technical socks – you’ll be delighted with the results if you’ve been training in just regular sports socks. Smartwool and similar products are great at keeping your feet dry, however wet it gets out there. Injinji are those freaky toe socks that you have seen – they are amazing at preventing blisters and keeping your feet in good shape on those runs. As I said – explore and get educated and try try try.


Shorts/Skirts – starting to get very down to what you favour here. The more technical and free moving the better. Some folks like big long gear to keep them warm and loose, other snug as you like so not much moves around. Experiment and find your preference but whatever you try, please, think of the chafing. Remember you can be out there for hours in wet gear and those delicate parts of your anatomy can really ruin your race day if they are agony every time you move. Find out what works for you and then lubricate like a mad person!


Tops – Short sleeve, long, technical, skin-tight, loose-fitting. So many choices. Try them out in conditions right now – how is it where you are running? Here we have warmth and rain with some windy days. Can get cold if you are suddenly forced to walk – so a thermal top like an Icebreaker is a great idea. If sheep can run all over the hills wearing merino wool –so can you! Practice and experiment and of course don’t forget those all important nipples, my friends! They can chafe like a mofo… which leads us to


Glide – the wonders of glide. There are plenty of products out there. Find the one that works for you – it could be simple vaseline or Gurney Goo or Glide of something else. Apply liberally – no one is judging you. Don’t look down at your chest to wonder what those new red lines are on your top half way through the race.


Hydration packs – We’re pretty proud of our race aid stations, true buffets of all the things us runners love eating. However, you should never rely solely on an aid station for a race. A good hydration pack means you can always carry your water (or drink of choice) for your run. You probably will be ok without it but, what if you’re not? You’ll wish you had it.


Packs are again a very personal item so it pays to shop around for a while and try different fits. Whatever you choose make sure you shop around as prices and styles and amount of gear you can carry in a pack vary widely. In general I would say look at the bigger trail running brands – like Ultimate Direction. You’ll need to be able to carry at least 1 litre but maybe 2 in an easy to access and change bladder.  That’s your basic. Try it on for fit jump around in it. Find what works for you and start training on those longer runs with it.


Headwear – caps, buffs, visors. Yes you live in New Zealand and yes that sun can be a scorcher and suddenly 2 hours into a run you realise you didn’t put suncream on and you have no cap and is that meat you smell grilling? Get serious about protecting your face and neck and, heck, if it then gets cold and you are sat there with a twisted ankle you retain some heat as you wait for help.


First aid – This is not essential for the Waitomo race but it is always worth carrying a few things that may help. Antihistamine tablets are always worth having on hand if you are allergic to stings but also if you come across someone else on the trail who is allergic and has nothing on hand. You can be that life saving hero! Carry your inhaler! Bandages, balms and that kind of thing. Again – what would you think you need in an absolute emergency? An adhesive bandage? It weighs nothing. Some strapping tape? Ditto. Work out what makes you feel like a cross between a medic and Iron Man and get yourself sorted.


So that’s it. It’s not a complete list and it’s only scratching the surface of the bazillion things you could carry but these are some of the things I think with a bit of thought will turn a good day into a brilliant one or a crappy day in a “Thank the heavens I had blah blah” on me story as you impress friends and family alike with tales of your daring.


See you out there!


List compiled by Steven Blackburn.

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