On the trail: defining “trail”

What is “the trail”?

Recently I responded to trail shoe company Vasque’s request for product testers for a new model of trail running shoes. I had to itemize how many miles a week I run and on what surface. The choices were single-track trail, dirt, grass or pavement. I ticked off checks in the first three boxes. I don’t run on pavement.

I started wondering, am I a trail runner if I run on grass and dirt in urban environs more than I run on single track paths in the forest?

For a trail runner or hiker, must the ‘trail’ be surrounded by forest or rolling hills? Must it have rocks and roots? What about running on the grass and uneven dirt to the side of an asphalt path in a dimly lit urban park, at night? Does that constitute ‘trail running’.  What about if you run  on a wood chip path in a tree filled park but you see buildings beyond its sylvan perimeter? Is that a ‘trail’ run’? How about starting a run in a park but leaving the graded path to run through high grass, emerging with burrs and maybe a tick or two? Does that count?

Or does “the trail” really limit you to a path in the woods, or wilderness, somewhere far away, a car drive away? Perhaps running on a graded trail, maintained by trail volunteers who trim away brambles, fix the blazes, remove fallen trees, is not even real trail running. Maybe you need to bushwack your own trail through the forest to really make it count.

I never heard back from the folks at Vasque. My mileage was probably too low. My age probably too high. Maybe they don’t count running on grass as real trail running. Fair enough. They should find the hardest charging trail runners out there to test their shoes. Admittedly, that’s not me.

But I am left with my question. Am I a trail runner? On most days, honestly, probably not. But neither am I a road runner. I would accept the moniker “off-road” runner, however. But even when trying to harvest a trail run out of a city park, I aspire to return to the trail, for all the reasons more and more people are running on single track paths in the woods: the inherent challenge, the beauty of the scenery, the need for rapt attention to every foot fall. And I will return. Maybe this weekend, or next. In the meantime, I will continue to nurture my aspirations with the resources I have available. And that is the best training there is.

Howard E. Friedman





  1. I think purely for distinction of running type, the word “trail” is the most easily recognized as the opposite of “road”. In the sense that you are hitting upon–the meaning of being a “trail-runner”–I would say is sustaining yourself in remote locations while running.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I basically agree with you but still think there is a zone between “road” amd “trail” where the ground surface can be uneven and more challenging, even though it lacks the aspect of ‘self-sustaining’.


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