How to find trail running routes

How do you find new trail running routes? If you live out in the country, and have the luxury of being able to step on the trails as you leave your front door, then you can just follow your nose and see where you end up. But if you’re having to travel to the trails you want to be reasonably certain that you’ll be able to find a decent route to follow when you get there. Preferably one that isn’t impassable or likely to see you chased off by a farmer for trespassing!

If you’re starting to venture onto trails for the first time, or if you’re an experienced runner looking for new routes, read on for some advice on finding fresh trails.

1. Use multiple maps

The best way to start finding new running trails is to look at a map. If there’s a line that’s a path (and not a road or river or a boundary of some sort), then it’s probably a path or bridleway. It’s best to double-check though. Each kind of map will have different information they focus on and different ways of presenting them. That’s why it can be useful to use different maps to confirm or clarify what you’re looking at.

For example, Ordnance Survey leisure maps show official public footpaths and bridleways with dashed green lines. You can definitely run on these with confidence that you’re not going anywhere you shouldn’t. OS maps also show other paths with thin dashed black lines. These indicate that a path exists, but not whether there is any public right of way over them. What looks like a wide path could in fact be a private driveway.

For this reason, see if you can work out the right of way using another map. There’s loads of mapping providers out there, but a few I like are:

  • OS – online, app, or physical paper copies
  • Google – satellite, standard and terrain imagery
  • Komoot – presented in such a way as to be helpful to cyclists and runners
  • Strava – because there’s a good chance you’re using it anyway
A Komoot map of part of the New Forest

Where Komoot and Strava are particularly useful is with their route planning features, as you can use them to see if a path is publicly accessible or not. Strava’s heat map feature is also good for revealing where other people have run. If someone else has run there, you should be able to too.

2. Use location specific maps

If your local area is renowned as the kind of place people visit for walking or mountain biking, there’s a good chance your local authority or tourist board have already created a map with good routes to choose from.

For example, I live near the New Forest and a quick search for ‘New Forest Cycling Map’ brings up this: LINK . There are also loads of websites with walking routes.

Part of the New Forest Cycling Map

3. Bike paths are easier to follow than footpaths

Following on from the previous point, you may find that off road cycling route maps are better options than walking route maps. This depends on your sense of direction and navigation abilities, but cycling routes are usually designed to be easy to follow when you’re moving fairly quickly. The paths are also chosen as ones that you can get a bike through.

Walking routes, on the other hand, could be narrow, overgrown, or tricky to follow unless you’re happy to spend a few moments consulting a map and compass.

4. Not all lines on the map are obvious on the ground

On a similar note, bear in mind that just because a right of way is shown on a map doesn’t mean it will be obvious to spot in real life. Paths over open grassland, for example, can easily get covered over with grass if it’s grown and no-one has walked that way recently. A trail through trees that is easily spotted for three seasons of the year can be completely hidden from view in the autumn when covered by fallen leaves.

This is where checking on a Google satellite image can be handy. If you can see it clearly from space, you might be OK spotting it on the ground. Chalk downland is particularly good for this, as footpaths show up as white lines on a green background.

5. Take the high road

If you’re nervous about getting lost, consider choosing a route that goes over a hill rather than through a valley. The reason for this is that you’ll have a higher vantage point should you get lost and need to spot landmarks! Of course, it does require running uphill though…

6. Don’t rely on phone signal

The maps you can load up in the comfort of your own home, over wifi, may not be any good in the middle of nowhere if your battery dies or you can’t get any signal.

Screenshots of the maps, taken before you leave, can help if you lose signal. And a paper map never runs out of battery!

7. Use a handrail

Not an actual handrail, but some kind of obvious landmark that you can use as a reference point. For example, in the route below, the A31 was my handrail. Because I ran an anti-clockwise loop that went underneath it twice, I knew that it always had to be on my left hand side. If I reached the road and it was on my right hand side, then I would know that I’d somehow got turned around.

With the A31 on my left as a ‘handrail’ I knew I was going in the right direction. Also, the chalk path stands out on aerial imagery.

Other handrails might be a railway line, river, coastline, or a fixed point that you run around.

8. Carry a compass…

…and know how to use it.

It’s pretty easy to lose your bearings, get turned around, or get confused – especially if you’re tired from running and in the middle of a forest you don’t know well. Yes, your phone probably has a compass feature, but they’re not perfect. An old-school compass will help keep you pointing in the right direction.

It doesn’t need to be big or cumbersome. Look for an orienteering thumb compass. They loop onto your thumb so they’re always handy, but keep your hands free, and the dial is designed to be easy to read when you’re moving quickly.

9. Where have other people run?

If you’re struggling to work out a route on your own, ask someone else for their trail running recommendations. Friends and family – even if they’re not runners – can be useful sources of information. For example, your grandmother may remember an old lane behind the fields that you haven’t spotted. Looking at the routes for local trail running races is also a good option, but bear in mind that they may go over land that isn’t usually open.

Of course, asking fellow runners is the best bet. Remember to make use of the wonderful Lonely Goat Running Club community. Our Facebook Chat Group is home to 20,000+ people who can offer you trail running route advice: LINK

The route I ran, as shown in the Coros Training Hub map

10. Get out and explore

A certain amount of planning is sensible. This is especially true if you’re running anywhere particularly hazardous. It is also worth considering taking a navigation or outdoor skills course if you’re going into high mountains or heading out in poor weather.

Once you’ve got your safety covered though, a bit of exploration can be a great way to find new trail running routes. If you spot a new path each time you to head to the trails, you’ll always have a new route to discover next time!


ps… You may also want to check out our previous article on ‘Finding new routes’ which has more tips on finding new places to run – on trail or road: LINK

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