Managing Risk in Mountain and Trail Running

Whether you are training for a race or simply indulging in all the wilderness has to offer, there are a variety of factors, some constant, and some changing, that are likely to have an impact on your journey. Knowing these factors can help ensure your safety and get you back to the trailhead safely.


The athlete’s interpretation of how the cumulative factors of the adventure will affect them.

  • An athlete without mountain experience will find more risk in basic terrain as compared to a seasoned mountain athlete.

  • An athlete that is heat trained/heat adapted will find less risk in the desert than an athlete from a cooler climate.

  • An athlete that has proper climbing experience will find less risk interpreting Class 3/4 terrain than an athlete that doesn’t climb.


A measurable description of the route.

A common way of measuring the difficulty of a mountain is through the Yosemite Decimal System, which uses a variety of classes to describe the terrain.

Class 1: General hiking.
Class 2: General hiking, though, hands may be used to navigate some features.
Class 3: Scrambling, using both hands. Some athletes may prefer a rope to navigate this terrain. Falls could lead to serious injury.
Class 4: Simple climbing. Both hands and feet will be used. Rope is likely needed, though, natural features allow the athlete to navigate the route without a rope if the athlete prefers. Falls likely will lead to serious injury or death.
Class 5: Proper climbing, where handholds and footholds are needed. A rope is needed to prevent death in the event of a fall.

Difficulty can be subjective as well, inferred through distance, elevation gain/loss, % grade, altitude, and time.

When deciding what route to take, distance, terrain, and time, and their effects on each other, all can change difficulty. For example, a ridge may cut a mile off from a route but require slower Class 4 movement, whereas a defined trail might be 2 miles longer but be runnable and get the athlete to the same place in the same time.


What happens as a result of actions you can and can’t control.

What if you get lost?
Getting lost in Downtown Metro, USA has much different consequences compared to the Alaskan backcountry.

What if you run out of [item]?

Should you pack lighter or heavier on that item? Running out of water in a rainforest has different consequences than in a desert. The same goes for sunscreen, bugspray, etc. If you run out of the item, could it threaten your wellbeing? A well travelled route affords you the ability to mooch food from other hikers, whereas a remote place does not.

What if your gear fails?

We live in a globalized retail world where you can find comparable gear for a wide range of prices online. Often, quality follows closely to the price.

Mountain gear worth spending the extra bucks on:

  • Helmets. You only get one chance to protect your head.

  • Anything for roped climbing. Again – you’ve got one chance for that gear to fail.

  • Waterproof jackets – Water accelerates hypothermia.

  • Down jackets – go for something that stays lofty when wet.

  • Waterproof maps – if you have to pull a map out, you don’t want it to disintegrate in the rain. We have experience with maps from KartaMaps and highly recommend their products.

  • Filters – good filters filter the bad stuff out effectively, but also do it quickly to keep you moving.

What if your crew/pacer/ride doesn’t show up?
Can you hitchhike? Will you have cell service for other arrangements? Can you continue to walk to shelter?


These are the fixed factors, and out of your control.

Some examples: Remoteness: How far from population and services are you? Paved roads vs dirt roads vs mining roads vs hike-only trail drastically effect the remoteness of the area. Also consider travel time based on thickness of forests, mountain terrain to cover, and level of skill needed to cross that terrain.

Weather conditions: Sun can lead to heat exposure and sunburn. Wind and precipitation can lead to hypothermia.

Weather variability: Mountains can be notorious for extreme swings in temperatures and fast-moving weather systems in all seasons.

Quality of terrain: Solid dirt vs. dry dusty dirt makes a difference, especially in steeper inclines. Loose rock vs. stable rock. Big boulders vs marbles. Defined trail vs. no trail. If traveling on rock, what changes if the rock gets wet or icy?

Width of route: Will you be walking on a mountain road, scooting across a knife edge, walking on a rocky ridge, or crimping a rock wall? If you step off the route, what about the fall?

Natural shelter: This could be shade cover like trees, rain shelter like rock overhangs or caves, and in some cases, packability of snow for creating shelter.

Wildlife: This could include the probability of encountering, or the density of, poisonous snakes or insects, aggressive game, or the chances of being startled by wildlife as it relates to the type of route you are on.

Communication Availabilty: 4G+ gives you ability to check and download maps, and ‘gram your buddies a video from the top. 2G might get a text message out. A Satellite Phone will send a message for a price, if the sky is clear. Walkie-talkie might get your voice a few miles, but scratch it if there is a mountain in the way. Whistles can be heard for a mile, but, what other natural sounds might interfere? How far are you away from being heard in the method that you prefer?


Factors that vary with time.

Weather- Heat, cold, rain, snow, wind.
Light and Dark – Dark can prevent visibility of dangers like cliffs, depth of water, speed of water, etc., even with headlamps or lanterns. Beware of tunnel-vision from prolonged travel by headlamp.
Cloud Cover – drastically affects the temperature.
Precipitation – and the immediate changes it may cause to the route.
Water Sources – and their ease of access. Some streams may be seasonal. Some lakes may be a climb down from a ridge. Water may require filtering or even time to allow sediment to settle.


A description of the personal abilities of an athlete to take on the given route. Different capacities can have a noticeable effect on how quickly a route may be completed in any condition.

Endurance: How long can the athlete maintain a given level of activity or stress?
Technical abilities: Does the athlete have the ability to run on rocky or loose terrain? Does the athlete have the technique required to safely scramble or navigate the terrain? Does the athlete have the technique needed to safely move themselves and assist others through the terrain? Can the athlete use the gear effectively and efficiently?
Knowledge of the route: Knowing a line of a map is different than knowing the route through visual and physical experience.
Orienteering: Can the athlete interpret the terrain and sky to guide them along the route, or, back onto the route if they become lost?
Experience: The cumulative skillsets gained from repetitive exposure to the activity.
Speed: The time in which a route can be reasonably completed effects what needs to be packed, need for resupply, crew, the effects of weather, and many other factors.


The promises an athlete makes to themselves both in training and execution, and their ability to hold true to those promises.

  • Did training go as planned?

  • Is the athlete physically and mentally prepared to take on the route?

  • What alternate plans may be taken to success if the first plan fails?

  • How will the athlete respond to external factors over time?

Mitigating Risk

Study your adventure before you leave.

  • Google Earth: This free program allows you to see 3D imagery and historical imagery of the area. If you have a GPX file of your route, you can overlay it on the map and study the terrain the route crosses.

  • Strava Heatmaps: In addition to tracking your own runs, you can see the paths that people take in the wilderness. This shows the route variances, where people may get lost, and routes that you may not have known existed.

  • Karta Custom Maps: After you’ve studied the route, create a custom map with your own notes on it to take along. You’ll never know when an LCD screen will flicker out.

Train and practice.

  • Have you trained to go the distance?

  • Do you have the technical know-how to cover the terrain, such as ability to scramble, self arrest with an axe, and interpret off-trail terrain?

  • Have you trained with the foods and gear you are planning to use?

Tell somebody your plans in writing.

Have a plan B.

Now Get Out There.

The mountains are a place of freedom. You can go anywhere you want, and the options for adventure are limited only by your imagination. With an understanding of the above items, you’ll be much more likely to have a safe and successful adventure.

What points would you add? Leave a comment below!

Inspiration from this article was taken from Kilian Jornet’s Instagram post on June 28, 2020. Other content regarding risks in this article was referenced from Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 7th edition, pgs 471-476


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