Knoxville’s Guide to Winter Trail Running

Doug Kerr
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For many runners, the coming of winter represents a depressing transition from the exhilarating freedom of the trail to the hamster-wheel boredom of the treadmill—but it doesn’t have to be so. With a little extra planning and a few helpful tips, you can forego the gym and tackle mountain trails well into hibernation season. Here’s our guide to staying safe and warm while enjoying winter trail running this season.

Choose a Familiar Trail

If possible, run on a trail you know really well or go with a friend who does. Bare trees, thick fog, and the whitewash of snow blankets can disorient someone who isn’t intimately familiar with a specific route. Instead of relying on landmarks like streams or trees that may or may not be visible or distinct in winter, pay attention to those reference points that are discernible in any season, such as elevation (“Did I start at the bottom of the mountain or at the top?”) and rock outcroppings. To be totally on the safe side, you might want to bring along a map and compass, too. The trailheads in  Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness  are accessible year round and the trails themselves are well marked and easily navigable in most weather. But if you’re going deep into the mountains somewhere like Charlies Bunion  or Joyce Kilmer , take extra precautions.

Check the Weather and Road Conditions

One of the most important things to do is check the weather the day of your run . It can change rapidly, and you don’t want to go out unprepared for the inclement weather that might be suddenly moving into the mountains. Weather can also affect road conditions and access. If you’re headed into the Great Smoky Mountains, check their twitter feed  for up-to-date road closings and travel hazards within the park.

Dress Appropriately

Know that you'll get hot quickly when dressing for a trail run.
Know that you'll get hot quickly when dressing for a trail run. Dawn

Running generates a lot of heat, so you don’t need to pack on the layers like you would if going for a low exertion hike, but you do want some protection from the elements in case the weather turns on you before you can get back to your car. We suggest a lightweight, waterproof, wind-breaking jacket. It won’t hold in too much heat (especially if it has unzippable armpits!) but will give a good protective barrier from any unexpected precipitation. In the same vein, a pair of waterproof pants can be really handy. And did we mention it’s also a great time to run in the Buff.... We’re of course talking about the insulative, versatile sleeve  that can warm and protect your neck and head on a chilly run. These little guys are lightweight, easily adjustable, and will make you love as hardcore as you feel.

Know Your Limits

Know your route and the upcoming weather when taking to the trails—and be prepared for the worst.
Know your route and the upcoming weather when taking to the trails—and be prepared for the worst. Kathy Smith

We’re all about athletes pushing themselves as far as they can go, but when you’re alone in the mountains with cold, wet, and unpredictable weather, it might not be the best time to try a new trail or attempt a PR. Stick to lower elevation trails as they tend to have more gradual inclines, fewer rocks, and less black ice. And speaking of ice, you’ll want to be really careful of slick patches along the trail. Whether walking or running, We recommend you bring hiking poles for notoriously icy trails so you can test out slick spots and gain a little more stability.

All of these tips should help you avoid...

The Worst-Case Scenario

In the rare-but-possible event that you do get caught out alone in the mountains, bringing along a bivy sack or other lightweight emergency shelter can be a literal lifesaver—as can a small, simple first aid kit. Even though these extra items will probably require you to wear a small backpack, it’s worth the peace of mind, especially if you’re running along a particularly isolated trail. It all ultimately comes down to personal preference and experience, but know that a lot the people that get in weather-related trouble in the colder months are not backcountry hikers, but day hikers and runners who aren’t prepared for the possibility of getting lost.

We hope with these tips you feel more confident to extend your training well into the winter months. As long as you’re prepared, you can set out with confidence into East Tennessee’s winter wilderness.

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