Trail Running Safety Tips for Colorado’s Backcountry

In the summer of 2022, two trail runners went missing in Colorado’s backcountry. First, 22-year-old Daniel Lamthatch, a Salt Lake resident, set off on foot on July 17 in San Juan National Forest and never returned to his vehicle. Less than three months later, 29-year-old Durango resident David Lunde parked in La Plata Canyon and set out on a 40-mile route around Madden, Gibbs and Parrott peaks. He was reported missing by co-workers the following day. Despite exhaustive search efforts, at the time of writing, neither runner has ever been seen again.

Though two cases so close together isn’t enough to make a trend, Anna DeBattiste, public information officer for the Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR), says it’s enough to make her team sit up and take notice.

“It might be an anomaly,” DeBattiste says. “What I do know, though, is this is a group of backcountry recreationists that need some education.”

DeBattiste says that the more people come to our mountains in search of adventure, the more calls they see coming in to an already-stretched system of volunteers.

“We see where it may be going if visitation to Colorado continues to rise, if more people continue to move to Colorado. Eventually, we’re gonna have a problem,” she states.

In an effort to curb that problem before things get out of hand, CSAR recently put together the Three T’s of safe trail running in Colorado to help you understand the unique risks surrounding the conditions and terrain here (hint: it won’t be like running back in Kansas) and make sure you’re educated and prepared before setting off.


First, backcountry running means anticipating the terrain you’ll encounter to ensure you have the skills, fitness and gear required to tackle it. And no, this doesn’t mean checking Strava.

“Sometimes a trail runner looks at somebody’s Strava track, and they think, ‘Oh, that looks great.’ Well, that’s not a topo map, right? There are no contour lines on that. You don’t know if that was just a trail run, or if that was really more of a kind of a technical mountaineering route,” DeBattiste points out.

A technical mountain run is different from a regular trail run and may involve challenging scree, exposed ridges and massive changes in elevation.

Further, always communicate your exact plans to a reliable person. The sooner you’re reported missing, the sooner a rescue team can mobilize, something which could be the difference between life and death.

Finally, don’t be fooled by Colorado’s bluebird skies. You might encounter lightning, snow and wild temperature swings, so check the weather using a reliable website or app.

“The weather really can change on a dime in Colorado. You can leave town in 70 degrees and sun, and then you can get up on that peak where it’s basically winter,” warns DeBattiste.

Carry extra clothing that can protect you against the overnight conditions in case you’re out for longer than planned.


+ Electrolytes and energy bars
+ Sunglasses
+ Headlamp
+ Emergency bivy
+ Minimalist first-aid kit
+ Pocket knife
+ Fire starter
+ Map and compass
+ Two-way communications device
+ Portable charger
+ Wool/synthetic gloves
+ Wool hat
+ Soft water bottles and water filter
+ Phone with offline mapping app
+ Waterproof breathable shell jacket
+ 12-liter running vest
+ Lightweight puffy jacket


Just because you’re fit enough to run at high altitude, don’t assume that fitness will save your life — something DeBattiste was guilty of as a younger runner.

“I know that my attitude was always, I can go fast and light, because my fitness will protect me, right? If it starts storming, if it gets cold, I’ll just turn around and run back, and I’ll be there in a jiffy,” she recalls.

Physical conditioning can’t save you from loose rock, lightning strikes or subzero temperatures, so Colorado trail running requires skills-based training like navigation, avalanche awareness and general mountain safety.

“The thing is, anybody can twist an ankle. Anybody can blow out a knee. Anybody, if they’re in a really rugged area, can get hit by rockfall or can take a fall,” DeBattiste says.

Join a running club when you’re first starting out, and look into outdoor safety courses, so that you are confident.


Finally, DeBattiste highlights an increasing trend towards an ultralight approach to trail running as a potential problem.

“Since you can go fast and light, you’re not carrying anything, but you can’t survive a night out there waiting for us to find you,” says DeBattiste. Search and rescue can take a long time to reach you by the time they assemble a team, get to the trailhead and start searching.

If you set off on a warm summer’s day wearing only mesh shorts and carrying a few gels and a liter of water, you’re not prepared. DeBattiste urges runners to carry the following items on every backcountry run, so that you always have what you need to spend the night in the wild.

Learn more about CSAR at