For many of us who live in mountain towns, trail running in the surrounding hills is a big part of why we live where we do. Each spring when the trails dry out, we look forward to days striding over forested singletrack or up mountainside herd paths. But the awesomeness of trail running—soaking in the solitude, the scenery, the smells and sounds—can happen anywhere, from the ruggedest mountain trail to a wood-chip path in a city park. Through summer and into fall, we runners watch the subtle transformation of maturing leaves while the days click by until, suddenly, they fall. That's when most mountain people start thinking about powder snow, schussing skis and cozy down jackets.
But there are some of us who keep right on running, to the puzzlement of fair-weather runners and, even more so, non-runners, who can’t wrap their brains around doing something so loathsome in the first place, let alone in sub-freezing temps.
I've encountered this attitude while purchasing sheet metal screws from the local hardware store to put on my soles for winter traction on icy trails and roads. To the winter runner, it’s a cheap and brilliant solution to a very real, very slippery problem. Not so to the cashier, who instantly regrets making small talk with you regarding your purchase.
"Doing some duct work?" he or she asks, one eyebrow raised.
“Nope, I screw them into my shoes," you reply, "so I don’t slip on the ice when I run this winter.”
“When you run this winter?” they parrot, but with a look befitting someone who just whiffed a freshly soiled diaper.
“Yeah, they’re perfect.”
“I’m sure they are,” they say, wishing you'd just go away.
Non-believers aside, running in winter can be sublime. Early mornings with newly fallen snow make for an elegant outdoor theater; hushed tones, like the muted crumping of footsteps and rhythmic breathing, produce the sonic landscape that is unique to winter running. And, blelieve it or not, transitioning to winter running really isn't that big of a deal. There are a couple minor considerations with regards to shoe selection, temperature management and footwork to help enjoy running in winter conditions.
• If you're not into the idea of adding DIY traction to your shoes (like sheet metal screws), it's best to have sparse but aggressive traction. Snow will be less likely to clump to your shoes, adding unnecessary weight and increasing your danger of slipping. For more aggressive traction, there are Yaktrax and mini crampons that add plenty of grip for more ambitious pursuits in icier, more technical conditions.
• Over-dressing is easier than you think. Dress as though it's 15 degrees (or more) warmer than it really is. This will allow for your body temp to increase from exertion, reducing the risk of excess sweat and overheating. You should feel a chill when you walk out the door. As your workout intensifies, your body temp will rise to balance out the difference.
• Waterproof/"breathable" membranes in running shoes seem best suited for winter running because they keep out the cold and wet of snow and slush. While they don’t tend to breathe as much as you’d want in warm weather, they're perfect for keeping the elements at bay in winter.
• Shortening your stride is a good tactic when running over loose snow, hardpack and occasional ice. With a shorter stride, your feet hit the ground at less of an angle, creating less forward and backward momentum that might cause them, on a slippery surface, to slide out from under you. The addition of running crampons, screws or some other after-market traction device almost make this a non-issue, so it’s not a bad idea to seek out a system that best suits winter conditions where you run.
Here are four great shoes (and one set of crampons) for running through winter:
Scarpa Pursuit GTX
The medial-posted Pursuit is a solid platform for most any conditions one will face shuffling along on those chilly mornings. It’s also where the virtues of GORE-TEX™ shine, keeping snow out and feet warm and dry for the duration of your run.
La Sportiva Crossover GTX
The built-in gaiter is a dream come true for dedicated winter runners. The additional GTX waterproofing is ideal for added warmth when slush hopping or pushing through deeper snow. The lugs are prominent, with specific spike areas to install LaSportiva hobnails or your own sheet metal screws.
Salomon Speedcross 3 CS
This streamlined winter runner relies on anti-debris meshing, a Climashield™ membrane and a tongue collar to shed ice and snow, keeping your digits dry and detritus-free. The aggressive Contragrip™ sole is sparse, yet pronounced, providing ample traction without buildup of snow or mud. If you want it take it up a notch, Salomon also sells this shoe with an integrated gaiter called the Snowcross CS.
Vasque Velocity GTX
The uppers of the Velocity provide structural integrity and abrasion resistance, making it durable and waterproof no matter what season you're in or terrain you’re on. The robust chassis and EVA midsole offers added protection without compromising long-term comfort, allowing you to stay out longer than you otherwise might.
These fast action, mini crampons slip right over your favorite running shoes or light hikers, working essentially like tire chains for your shoes (only way easier to put on and take off).