The Very Basics of Running Safety in the Dark & Snowy Winter

Winter Run Safety1

I cannot believe that I recently found myself in a position of debating some of the core, basic, common sense safety rules for running in the dark during winter. I mean, all you have to do is go to any running site and there will be a ‘Top 10 Winter Running Tips’ article or more every year, and they pretty much assume that you have SOME basic idea as an adult about basic safety. And yet … there I was befuddled by this other person, someone who other runners look to for advice, wondering whether it was ignorance (he is a trail runner for the most part) or machismo that caused him to take these positions. Megan wrote a while back about ‘letting it go’, that sometimes being right doesn’t make the argument worthwhile. So I did – I stepped away and didn’t participate.

But what I could NOT let go is the possibility that someone would listen to that bad advice and end up hurt. As we start a new year we will have new runners trying to keep resolutions. So here are a few core safety items for all runners:

1. Know Your Route
– Make sure you have a known route that provides you with all you need to stay safe. Snowy and icy days are NOT the times for ‘route discovery’, and ESPECIALLY during an active storm.
– Looping your neighborhood for mileage might seem boring, but if that is the safest choice … stick to it!
– For example, there is a ~100 meter section of the main road near me that has <12" of space between the travel lane and a jagged road edge that drops 12 – 18' at a steep angle. With snow and ice that edge gets further blurred, making it an easy spot to lose footing. In bad conditions I avoid that section.

2. Maximize Your Awareness
– I am a vocal advocate of taking off your earbuds while running outdoors. But ESPECIALLY when it is dark and wintery. You really want to make sure you can hear anything going on around you.
– When it is ‘hat weather’, use ‘tech’ instead of ‘bulk’. Older hats relied on bulk for warmth, whereas new tech materials work to keep your own heat trapped to form a thermal layer. This allows much thinner and lighter layers – and better hearing.
– Avoid hoods, or anything else that obscures your peripheral vision. In snow with sun, sunglasses are more important than during the summer. But make sure yours have an open side-view. Also, if you need a hood to protect against wind, make sure it isn’t blocking your vision.

3. Make Yourself Visible
– Wear bright colors. For example: I got a black thermal base layer for Christmas. Which is great, but it will never go with me as a ‘only layer’ the way my bright yellow one does – because I run in the dark and don’t want to be invisible.
– Reflective EVERYTHING – Brooks has the best stuff, because it ALL has reflective elements. But most gear now has some amount of reflectivity, and in the morning add on a reflective vest, cuffs, and so on.
– Head lamp / Wrist lights / flashers / etc – these make you visible a long way off and give drivers the chance to prepare. We have a young woman who runs with hand-lights, and I estimated the other night driving the boys that I could see her nearly 3/4 mile away. I wear a head lamp all the time. Another bonus – a head-lamp helps you navigate the lousy edges of many roads. And see critters who seek trash cans in the early mornings of spring and fall (e.g. skunks)

4. Run Defensively
– In the battle of Man vs. Car … car ALWAYS wins. So do EVERYTHING to ensure you never enter that battle.
– Run facing traffic – that gives you more warning about what is coming, and with your reflective gear and lights, they can also see you coming.
– Know your ‘escape route’. I mean this in case a car slips, but also in case you find yourself being followed/pursued.
– Remember that no amount of lights / safety gears is a ‘sure thing’, and that your own attention to safety has to be constant and unrelenting – which is also why I am an advocate for maximizing awareness.

As I said, these are just the basics – there are other considerations:
Women: I absolutely HATE that there is an entire set of ‘gender specific’ rules, but while there are cases of men runners getting shot or otherwise killed, in general when you hear about assault, rape, kidnapping or other things happening to runners – it is to women. Dorothy Beal has a couple of great posts here and here to help you.
Hydration / Fuel: you need to work just as hard to stay hydrated in winter, but your body doesn’t scream for it like during the summer. And if you are going to be away from home for a while, be sure to carry some fuel (Gu, energy bar, etc) and water.
Cell Phone: true confession – until recently I ran with my phone ONLY on the weekends or evenings. On my morning runs I would leave it at home. The sad thing is that it is your easiest and most direct safety ‘lifeline’ and should always be with you. Please buy a belt and carry your phone … also a RoadID is a great idea.
Hypothermia: the picture below is my slushy and soaked shoes from a couple of nights ago. We had 3-4″ of slushy snow and the temperatures were just above freezing. My feet were soaked within a quarter mile. And then I ran a total of 7.75 miles. Fortunately at the outdoor temperatures I was not in danger of hypothermia – but my feet were never warm the entire time. Running outside presents some real dangers of hypothermia due to wind and low temperatures. Be aware and dress appropriately.

Winter Run Safety3

5 thoughts on “The Very Basics of Running Safety in the Dark & Snowy Winter

  1. Thanks for the link-back, and for the tips. Most of them, I’m good at … I wear a reflective hat with a double-beam light (dorky but critical for dark runs!), I run very defensively, I wear bright colors. However, I usually DO listen to podcasts (only one earbud in if it’s dark/ busy streets/ etc., although I realize I should do no earbuds!), and I don’t carry my phone. I have a RoadID and I run in very populated/ urban areas … but still, would be much safer to carry a phone.

    • I have been very slow adapting technology in my running – no Garmin until 2012, and I have really just started regularly carrying my phone every day in the last month. And I’ve had a cell phone of some sort for more than 20 years now!

      The whole ‘earbuds while running’ thing is a separate debate for many reasons, but ultimately it is all about awareness – I personally love running WITHOUT any added noise other than nature, but know others who can’t stand it. But so long as nothing impacts your ability to keep safe, then none of it matters.

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