How to Prepare and Pack for Running Off the Grid

A guide to running in the backcountry

By: Sarah Seads
September 16, 2016

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More trail runners are discovering the joy of exploring pristine areas of wilderness and many hikers are tackling backcountry terrain with a 'fast and light' approach, instead of (or in addition to) the traditional multi-day backpacking adventure. These two types of journey's cannot really be compared as they are different experiences simply sharing the same terrain. I appreciate both fastpacking and backpacking adventures for very different reasons. Fastpacking a traverse or a mountain summit over one long day is challenging, rewarding and allows me to sleep in my bed at the end of the day. If I can get there in a single day, I won't be taking an over night pack. And depending how you define 'a single day', you can cover a heck of a lot of ground with an alpine start, a late return and a light load on your back. Backpacking over multiple days creates a journey that cannot be replicated on a fast and light day trip. The joy of setting down your pack, taking off your boots and soaking your feet in mountain tarns (small ponds) after a long day moving in the mountains, is like no other. Eating dinner in paradise, the sun setting into starlight, sleeping over in the wild, awakening to the magic of a mountain sunrise and a starting your day with a hot drink from your camp stove can't be beat. 

Fastpacking is all about the moments- the start, the landmarks, the destination, the hi-5s, the satisfaction of the finish. Backpacking is more about the moments between-pausing to listen to the birdsong, stopping to wash in a mountain stream, sitting in the shade of a mountain hemlock to share lunch, pouring over the map and dreaming up new adventures with friends. Both journey's are soul satisfying and I would never be able to choose one over the other. I'll take both, please.

Travelling in the backcountry, provides us with new and exciting experiences, but it takes additional preparation and precautions to ensure we return home safe and happy at the end of the day. By 'backcountry', I mean terrain that is further away from roads and typically does not allow for communication via cell service. These two simple variables change the risk equation of a trail run in town significantly and should always be considered when planning a run in the backcountry. Taking a few steps in advance can make all of the difference in the event of an accident or injury during your adventure. Below you will find my tips for preparing and packing for backcountry running adventures.

Before You Go

Navigation 101 

Get a topographic map of the area (shows elevation) and learn how to read it. Any time you are venturing off the beaten path, it is critical that you do so with adequate skills to allow for navigation using a map and terrain features. Even better, get a compass, and learn how to use it to orient your map and take and follow a bearing. Learning how to navigate using a map and compass are base skills that all back country adventurers should have, in addition to knowing how to operate a GPS. GPS is a great tool for confirming your navigation is on track and locating your position on the map. However, without prior navigation skills, a GPS can be a very false sense of security- and most people do not even know how to use the ones they pack on the trail with them! Sign up for a navigation or orienteering course if you need help with your map reading and route finding skills. Read my 'Navigation in 3 Easy Steps' post so you know what to do with these!

Plan Your Route

Identify your route along with landmarks to track your progress along the way. Identify potential hazards and how you will avoid these or manage the risk, before you head out on your adventure. Determine your approximate travel time, using the distance and elevation profile of your route. Use this information to help you pack your gear, food and water for the adventure.

Take The Gear You Need - and Don't Need  

Hopefully, everything will go smoothly and you won't need to sleep over night. But what if you do have to? What if you get injured and need to walk out? What if you can't walk out? What if your friend is injured and can't walk out? Are you in the mountains? Is it cold at night? Dark? Yup. Don't pack solely for what you need on your adventure. Pack for what you might need, if things do not go as planned. See the gear list below for my suggestions and what I like to take in my backcountry running pack.

Leave Word of Your Plan

This can be as simple as a piece of paper on your dash, listing your name, the trail you are on, when you left and your estimated return time. It is an even better idea to give your trip plan to a friend before you go and check in with them when you return safe and sound. The important thing is that someone knows where you are, and when you are planning to come home.

Manage Risk

Pushing your endurance limits or hammering a technical descent may seem harmless while running in town, but any moderately risky activities become elevated to higher risk levels when you are travelling in more remote areas. A sprained ankle at your local trail network would be frustrating and delay your return by an hour. The same sprain in the backcountry could land you a very uncomfortable and very cold over night adventure you would likely prefer to avoid. Be smart. Be cautious. Be thorough. Take your time and run within your limits, avoiding excess risk. It's not worth it. Ever.

Review Backcountry Etiquette

Do you know how to Leave No Trace in the wild? Travelling through pristine wilderness and alpine terrain areas require additional considerations to keep them pure and wild for future adventurers. Pack out what you pack in. Take only pictures. Burry your human waste in a hole 15-20cm deep and 70m from water, and burn (not during fire bans) or pack out your TP. Stay on main trails and avoid 'braids' (around roots/water etc) - do not create new ones. Share your knowledge of 'leave no trace' etiquette with those you travel with and help spread the word. It is up to each and every one of us to ensure our favourite wild spaces stay truly wild.

Backcountry Running Gear List

What do I take when I run off the grid? The answer is 'it depends'. It depends on the distance, the terrain, the weather and other factors. But, in general, you will find these items in my pack on big adventures.

  • 2 litre water capacity
  • Water purification tabs
  • Food for the planned time plus 2-4 hours. Read my 'Snack Attack' story for some ideas!
  • Delorme inReach satelite communication device. I don't go far off the grid without it. The inReach is preferable to other devices (spot etc) because it is capable of sending and receiving text messages. Update your contact on your status, send them for assistance, or contact emergency services directly in the event of a serious incident.
  • First aid kit- tensor, white tape, duct tape (wrap it around something) body glide, antiseptic wipes, antihistamines, aspirin, anti inflammatories, electrolyte tabs
  • Big knife and big bearspray (Vancouver Island has the highest density of cougars anywhere in the world- better be prepared!).
  • Lightweight wind breaker - an extra layer that you don't plan on wearing.
  • Toque and gloves
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Space blanket
  • Whistle
  • Waterproof matches and something to burn (old bike tire tubes, firestarter etc)
  • Map and compass. 
  • Lightweight Poles are optional but can be very useful on long ascents and for extra stability on technical descents. The longer the day, the more you you will love your poles.  
  • A pack to carry all of your stuff in. Pack fit is very personal but I swear by the vest style packs, specifically the Salomon Skin designs. A pack should fit close to your body, not rub where it shouldn't and give you easy access to everything that you need to reach while on the move. Choose the lightest pack that you can fit everything that you need.

Other items I may take for longer adventures more than a few hours or starting after mid day:

  • Additional long sleeve wool shirt/leggings
  • Emergency Bivy
  • Happy Food:)

Happy Trails! And please remember, it is up to us to ensure that the backcountry remains beautiful...practice and teach Leave No Trace.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.