Forget the treadmill, pavement or high school track and hit the mountain trails instead.

Serious runners are a curious bunch of athletes. They are allowed to streak down Wasatch Boulevard wearing six-inch, fluorescent loincloths without anyone giving it a second thought, and they can say things like “fartlek” without being ostracized. They also happen to be sadists. As many a high school cross-country tee will remind you, what they do for fun, other sports utilize as a punishment.

As a sport, running is less of a religion and more a collection of pilgrims, each on a separate path to pavement-pounding nirvana. But among these souls, none are respected more than those who forsake paved roads for the hard-packed clay of the Wasatch Mountains. Within this world of self-torture and isolation, trail running is an exercise in hyperbole. 

For trail runners, the elevation gains are greater, the views more spectacular—almost hedonistic—and the rewards more rewarding. Despite the mysticism most of us attach to the juggernauts that sprint past us as we slog up Neff’s Canyon, joining the ranks of running’s elite isn’t as torturous as it sounds. To get you started on the path to athletic enlightenment, we’ve provided some motivation to get off the streets and into the mountains, including trails to start on, expert inspiration and the gear you’ll need for the journey.

Why Trail Running?

For starters, let’s explain why you want to be a trail runner. The simple answer: It’s like hiking but more awesome. 

The cardiovascular benefits associated with running are amplified when athletes take their treads to the mountains. The higher elevations improve blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, while the varied terrain increases balance and strengthens stabilizer muscles. Hitting dirt trails instead of the road also protects joints from the pounding they take on asphalt or concrete. Bonus: The mountain air you’re breathing in is way cleaner than Salt Lake’s infamous smog.

Getting Started

Whether you’re an avid runner wanting to take the road less traveled or an outdoor enthusiast craving more alpine architecture, getting into trail running is fairly simple. Finding good trails is easy—any place that’s popular for mountain biking or hiking will be perfect for trail running—and no special equipment is necessary for the amateur runner.

That’s not to say no preparation is required. The added danger of trail running over its urban counterpart is limited access to facilities, supplies or civilization should something go wrong. To prevent an accident, take time to plan out your route. If six miles is typical for you on the road, plan on cutting that distance on the trail. Make sure someone knows where you’re headed, and bring your cell phone along if you don’t mind the weight. Bring plenty of water, and toss in a few energy snacks to ensure you don’t bonk out on the return portion of your out and back. 

Click the links below for our recommended trails for these skill levels:

Beginner

Intermediate

Expert

>>>Click here for our profile on trail runner Craig Lloyd

>>>Click here for essential trail running gear