So you want to start trail running? Let’s have a yarn about the basics.

Department of Conservation —  04/01/2022

It’s that time of the year… “new year, new me” season. Whether you believe in New Year’s resolutions or not, this blog caters to those keen enough to pick up trail running in 2022 – as a genuine resolution, occasional hobby, or as a way to see more of the beautiful tracks and trails around the country.

By Lo Hughes, DOC staffer and avid trail runner.

It’s me! I was definitely singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music” in this photo – stoked to be running through such a beautiful part of the country.
📍 Tongariro National Park. 📷: Danny Clarke.

I want to preface this blog by saying, I am no elite trail runner or run at a lightning pace like the legendary Ruth Croft. For those who don’t know her, she’s a kiwi trail runner who ran a record-breaking 102km in 9 hours. Gnarly! Can you tell i’m a fan?

To give myself a little credit – I’ve run a fair amount of ultra marathons on trail, and have slogged running on track non-stop for almost 24 hours.

I’ve also run through a variety of different terrain, from flat rooty forest floors, up alpine and mountainous tracks, in unpredictable weather and through the most stunning trails on public conservation land. I’ve also lost several toe-nails after many “big days out” on the trails – I know you didn’t want to read that. Sorry.

Me meeting the finish line after running 102km. Your classic “thank the heavens this is over” photo. Flattering, I know…
📷: FinisherPix.

It’s safe to say that I’ve experienced a lot and I no longer feel like a spring-chicken!

Without a doubt, a summer-favourite of mine is tying up my trail shoes and hitting the track!

Sound appealing?

If it does, then here are my top three trail running lessons if you’re looking to take up the sport.

1- Respect the track

Would you say you’re pretty fit and can conquer most physical challenges? Awesome, the track doesn’t care.

Okay, so that sounds a bit harsh but it’s true. Depending on where you live around the country, there are some steep, rooty, rocky, winding, slippery, and dusty tracks – no different to what you would experience on a tramp. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, you won’t be hooning through a track if you haven’t done your research.

For starters, decide on an achievable distance for a first trail run and do a virtual recce of the track. You might find it safer (and easier) to do a shorter section of the track, or run a few kms in and back.

If you’re looking at running through a track administered by us then check out some of our short walks, or other tracks closest to your region. Once you’re set on a track, make sure you assess the following:

Description of the track – From how easily accessible the start of the track is, to how technical the terrain is. Ask yourself – Is it easy to drive up and access the entrance of the track? Are my trail shoes sturdy enough for technical terrain? How long will this realistically take me? Which leads me to…

Elevation – Check how high you’re expected to climb. Yes, I said climb. Unlike road-running, what might take 10 minutes will actually take 30 on trail. Our website offers elevation profiles for some of our tracks, which will save you a painful reality check. Anywhere between 200 – 500m of climbing is a decent slog, but be realistic about your fitness levels, you can always get better and improve on this over time.

Check the weather – It’s simple but in short – running on a steep track while it’s raining for your first trail run isn’t the best idea. Once you do your research on track description and elevation, check the weather or call the closest DOC office if you’re running on a track administered by us. Our staff can give you a run down on weather safety. Another smart tool to use when preparing for the weather is your common sense. If the answer is “YES, I will likely slip down a bank because there is low visibility due to rain or mist”… then you probably should take a rain-check. It’s seriously important to understand the difference in weather from light rain on your road run around the bays, to freezing, dangerous weather through alpine terrain.

Me trying to convince myself I like running up hill. Aslo, note to self – bring extra hair ties in case yours breaks 10 minutes into your run! 📍 Wanaka Area.
📷: Danny Clarke.

2- “My road running shoes and a bag of jet planes should be all good eh?” a.k.a bring the right gear!

A quote from 20-year-old me.

And no. The answer is not all good.

I joke, but in all seriousness, you have to have the right gear, nutrition, and emergency kit when running. Similar to tramping – trail running can be off-gird, through tough terrain, and sometimes done solo. You won’t be carrying a tramping bag on your back – you will be moving quicker, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or won’t need gear.

Even a 6 km trail run requires lots of water, snacks, and maybe some jam setting powder. Jam setting powder? Let me explain.

What I would usually pack on a summer trail run.
📷: Lo Hughes.

Above is a visual on what I would take if I was heading out for a summer trail run. Not all of this is necessary for short distances, but it’s important to know what you should take for safety.

Trail shoes: It’s a no-brainer, but good, sturdy trail shoes that give your feet and toes enough space, have great grip for a variety of terrain, are water-proof, and feel comfortable are a must! Road running shoes on trail won’t give your feet the right support and a lack of grip will be a safety risk. You could also rip through your road-running shoes, so invest in the right footwear.

Camelbak vest / bag: Camelbak vests, bags, or supportive bigger day bags are essential to carry all of the above. Just make sure you’ve got a bag that’s comfortable on your back and shoulders, and has capacity to carry a litre of water.

Survival kit: You never know what could happen in the middle of a track, but let’s say you’ve hurt yourself and you’re waiting on help – it always pays to have something to keep you warm in an emergency. I carry this on every run, no matter the distance.

Battery pack and distress beacon: You might plan on a longer run, or perhaps you want to take your time in nature. Run time plus travel to your destination will add up. If you’ve run out of battery on your phone, a battery pack will come in handy to contact your family or friends. I always message my family or partner to let them know where i’m going, when i’m expected to be back, and if they haven’t heard from me that they’ll need to call 111. It’s not captured above, but another item that could save your life is a distress beacon. If you’ve broken your leg or are lost and don’t have any signal on your phone, a distress beacon will alert emergency services to come for help. I’m sure your family will endorse taking both of these items!

Dry bag: Store your electronics, snacks, car keys, or any medical items in this bag and stuff it into your pack. It will come in handy when you least expect it.

Poles: If you need some assistance climbing up a steep hill then poles are an awesome item to have with you – just make sure you’ve got space in your bag for them to fit. You might end up carrying them the whole journey if not. I may or may not have done this… The poles I have were an investment for higher elevation trails. Luckily they are lightweight and easy to collapse if I want to chuck them in my bag.

Who loves a big day out on the trails when it’s raining? Obviously I do! And yes, it rains in summer. Remember to bring a jacket, gloves, a beanie, waterproof pants and other warm and waterproof clothing – i’m not kidding when I say you can fit it all in your camelbak if you try. 📍 Wanaka Area.
📷: Danny Clarke.

Water bottles: It’s so essential you have water with you! I carry two 500ml bottles which fit snug into my camelbak vest. If I’m running a shorter distance I’ll only fill up one bottle, but always have more than needed just in case. The summer heat and humidity can hit you like a train if you’re not prepared.

Electrolytes: I don’t ever bring a whole tub with me, but I do put half a tsb of electrolytes into my water. It’s so important you’re able to hydrate quickly and replenish your body during the summer months on the trails. Dehydration mid-run can be horrible, so it’s definitely worth buying electrolytes.

Food: Snacks of course! And jet planes are a big yes if you like them. In short – make sure you’ve brought enough nutritious food that will help keep you going and feel fueled no matter the mileage.

Whistle: It might seem like a strange item to take, but having a whistle on you can be a life saver. If you fall over, slip down a bank, or even take a wrong turn, blow your whistle to alert other runners or walkers. They could help get you out of a dangerous situation!

Jam setting powder: This is definitely a strange item to take but hear me out. Running in summer often means running in heat and humidity. It’s really common for runners in general to get dehydration and heat exhaustion, especially if this is over a long distance. If you suddenly feel like you need to puke (on either ends) eating a tsb of jam setting powder can help set everything in place. An old sports therapist gave me this advice after I repeatedly experienced
dehydration from sweating so much in the heat.

Items not featured: A few other items worth taking is sun screen, toilet paper and a head torch if you’re planning on an early morning run. Although, I’d recommend building up momentum on the trails during day light before you chuck on a head lamp. I once went for a solo run through the early hours of the morning, only to be accompanied by moths charging at my headlamp like mini bulls. Learn the art of running through winding terrain in the day before you learn the art of doing it in the dark with moths. On sun screen – make sure you’re applying sun screen before your run, even if it’s a cloudy day. It’s also useful to carry a little bottle of this in your camelbak. Finally, toilet paper – If you need to go, make sure you use the loo before you set off! But if you need to nervous pee 10 minutes in (I feel ya!) then make sure you’re prepared with a bit of toilet paper. Need to poo? Here’s a poo in a loo 101.

Me at a 58km aid station with my family and support crew who usually help me fuss over my gear during a race. Can you spot my poles? 📍 Bay of Plenty.
📷: Carmelita Hughes.

3- Slow down, look where you’re going, and take it all in

So you’ve done research on your chosen track, you’ve let your partner know where you’re running, and you’ve packed all the right gear, ready to go. My advice from here is slow things down, look where you’re placing your feet, and take in your surroundings.

One of my favourite things about a solo trail run in the summer is that it’s not a race and no one cares about how fast you’re running. It’s all about moving your body and being in nature.

I’ve run through jaw-dropping terrain, to the point where I’ve stopped and actually said “wow” out loud. I would have completely missed these views if I was too focused on thrashing my legs just to be 30 seconds faster.

I also love bumping into other trail runners at the top of a hill, near a waterfall, or in dense bush just taking photos – stoked to be where they are. I’m not ashamed to say I do this during races! I once stopped and took off my gear to just sit, relax, and take photos. It’s not unusual, so don’t put pressure on yourself to fly through your run.

Me practising what I preach. Taken by a fellow trail runner mid-race. I obviously took his photo after too! 📍 Bay of Plenty.

To all trail runners – whether you’re new to the sport or you’re an absolute veteran (I see you, I commend you) – stay safe out there and enjoy yourself this summer!

Know before you go.

2 responses to So you want to start trail running? Let’s have a yarn about the basics.


    Great article, really enjoyed it and spot-on advice. But what quantity is “a tsb of jam setting powder”? Tbs or tbsp is tablespoon, tsp is teaspoon. Maybe edit the abbreviation into the full word, so that it’s clear.


    This is a really good read with lots of practical advice Lo. And I love the jam setting tip – I’ve never tried that. I started doing some trail running in local parks this summer for the first time since I had a child and I love listening to the birds and being out in nature. But yes it takes a whole lot longer to cover what seems a short distance and I have to watch my feet alot so I don’t trip over tree roots. Look forward to reading more from you Lo. Thank you