Not all trails are created equal when it comes to trail running, and all trail runners have their favorite routes. Some like super technical trails filled with roots and rocks, while others (for some reason) really love uphill running. Then, there are yet others looking for flat, smooth trails where they can concentrate on being outside, taking in the views, and enjoying a run without the fear of tripping every other step. But by in large, there are a few trail characteristics that most trail runners—be they hardened ultramarathoners, harriers looking for softer surfaces as they rebound from injuries, or joggers eager to explore a local park—can agree are always welcome.
So whether you prefer running in the hoof prints of mountain goats or dashing on the dirt of well-groomed trails, here are four trail attributes that usually bring a smile to to every runner.
What trail runners may come closest to agreeing upon is their love for singletrack. While doubletrack does have its perks, like being able to run side-by-side with your running partner, singletrack wins the overall popularity vote. The best of these narrow dirt trails—often built slowly and painstakingly by hand—snake and flow through woodlands, prairies, and mountain ranges. And they all usually meander under canopies that protect runners from the sun, wind, and rain. To run singletrack requires trusting in your own momentum, making split-second decisions about where to plant your feet, and embracing whatever pops up around the next blind turn.
The only downsides to singletrack are the occasional downed tree and congestion. Victims of their own success, singletrack can attract traffic. And it’s inherently difficult for the most spry gazelles on the trail to pass the slower members of the herd. Whichever you are, courtesy requires an audible “Passing on your left!” to be uttered and answered to avoid aggravation for either party.
Overall, there's something about weaving along a thin slice of singletrack that can't be beat.
2. SOMEWHERE WORTH GOING
Surely Karl Meltzer, despite having his own entourage, appreciated some singletrack solitude even as he set a new speed record on the Appalachian Trail in September 2016. He covered the 2,190-mile course across 14 states, from Maine to Georgia, in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes—averaging 50 miles a day on that famously diverse and difficult trail. The 48-year-old’s feat was 10 hours faster than the previous record, set by another American ultrarunning legend, Scott Jurek, in July 2015.
These accomplishments inspire awe, at least among the few people who pay attention to such things. But the idea taps into the broader desire among trail runners to see how they measure up against one another or, more commonly, against the trails themselves. To get from point to point—even if the trail conditions, weather, or the route itself is subject to change—under your own power and determination is a tangible and, sometimes, life-altering goal.
Even a short trail through a local park can lead somewhere cool and can be inspiring—that awesome overlook that showcases the brilliance of fall colors or a lake where you can jump in and cool off before heading back the way you came.
Loop trails are always desirable. Starting and stopping in the same place is great for self-sufficient solo runs because it doesn’t require shuttle service—a way back to the starting point of the run, which usually means being picked up by a friend or family member or dropping off a car ahead of time.
Well-designed trail systems tend to have multiple options or loops of different distances and degrees of difficulty. For instance, the Bluff Trail on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, TN, consists of five-, eight-, and nine-mile loops as well as spur trails to explore. With several views of Lookout Valley en route to Sunset Rock, the Bluff Trail is a good example of a trail that loops, but also leads somewhere worth going.
Loop trails are also attractive because they don’t require runners to retrace their steps. Unlike an out-and-back run, the scenery is new the entire distance of a loop—lovers of out and back routes like Boulder’s Mesa Trail may have a strong argument as to why out and backs can be amazing too, but in general, loops tend to be preferred.
Ah, relief from the uphill. What runner doesn’t live to reap the reward of the long climb? While some runners relish in unleashing themselves at break-neck speed downhill, there are others who prefer the gradual downhill. Taking your foot off the brakes down a precipitous drop with uncertain footing can be adrenaline rush or a reason to start praying you don’t crash and burn. Whereas heading downhill on a lesser grade makes it easy to let loose and get moving faster than at any other point during the run.
It is important to note here that running downhill can be as difficult as running uphill. Downhill running is brutal on the knees and quads, and good form is essential. It’s no doubt that crazy fast or cautiously paced, downhills are fun.
If you are in the market for a gradual descent Chattanooga’s Bluff Trail, once again fits the bill. So too does the Pipe Dream Trail amidst the slickrock of Moab, Utah.
It might be a truer statement to say that trail runners have a love-hate relationship with everything mentioned here that makes a trail great (or diabolical). But these are the features that keep us diving into the woods and up mountains.