Running in winter in the Truckee-Tahoe area is… complicated. Many people stick to the plowed bike paths in the Truckee Area (which gets old after all those months), run on roads (which can get really dangerous in icy/stormy conditions), transition to other winter sports, and/or drive down the hill to Auburn or Reno to get their fix. But for those that want to give snow running a shot, there are a number of hurdles and logistics to figure out…
In most cases, your generic trail running shoe is not going to cut it – at best, you’ll finish with really cold feet, but possibly also with a new bruise or two from falling on your butt. Gore-Tex trail running shoes not only help keep the moisture out (at least for a bit…), they also keep your feet warmer than typical trail shoes. Traction devices improve your grip on snow and ice, which makes your running more efficient, but also reduces the changes of falling. Here are some of the more popular options:
- Ice Spikes: Relatively inexpensive, durable, and light. The downside is that they are not easy to take on and off, so this option works best if you have a dedicated winter running shoe. They can hold up to running on asphalt, dirt, or rocky trails, so you don’t have to worry about mixed conditions. There’s also a dirtbag version – buy screws at the hardware store.
- YakTrax: Relatively inexpensive and easy to remove. The downside is that they are not as durable and sometimes will come off during a run (without noticing it). If you have to buy a second or third pair, they might start feeling expensive!
- Kahtoola Microspikes: More like a crampon, they will make you feel very secure in firm snow (even steep stuff), are relatively light (compared to crampons), and can be removed when desired (like YakTrax). More expensive than some other options, but a really nice alternative to a crampon. A rather specialized option.
- Snowshoes: Really a completely different category of traction device that will be covered later…
For deep or loose snow, don’t forget gaiters! They help keep snow and water from getting inside your shoe. Even summer gaiters like Dirty Girls will make a difference. For a little more water resistance, Black Diamond Talus or Kahtoola INSTAgaiters Low get good reviews for trail running-friendly water resistance.
Unlike all of the options listed above, snowshoes are traction devices that also prevent post-holing for running in powder! But they are also a lot more expensive than other traction devices. Thankfully, there are opportunities to rent/demo a pair before taking the plunge. DPMR has a fleet of snowshoes (compliments of Alpenglow Sports) to loan out. And Tahoe Mountain Sports offers snowshoe rentals.
You will want running-specific snowshoes for the best experience. But even then, snowshoes are a little cumbersome and take some time to get used to. But they can be really fun! Local Run on Dirt coach Peter Fain wrote a great article on snowshoe basics. And also worth checking out, “Snowshoe Running 101” from Outside Magazine.
Almost every beginner makes the mistake of not getting layers right. Many people (probably women more than men) wear too much. Here’s my kit for about 25-45 degree temperatures (and female):
- Socks: Relatively thick (for a running sock), wool blend, tall crew socks from brands like Smartwool, Farm to Feet, Darn Tough, etc. work well.
- Tights: Most people like to wear full-length tights (unless you are Steve Buelna!) and there are a lot of winter running tights to choose from. Not all of them are designed for the wet conditions that you experience while snow running. Tights that are marketed as cross-country skiing tights will provide better wind and/or water-resistance (check out brands like Salomon and Craft).
- Top: A long sleeve mid-weight base layer. All the better if it has a hood and thumb holes, which makes it very versatile because it can provide additional warm on your head and hands.
- Jacket: If it is snowing, raining, or on the colder side, I will add a second layer to the top, such as a thin jacket or vest. Some of my favorites for this layer are Patagonia Houdini, Outdoor Research Whirlwind Hoodie, Marmot DriClime Vest, or lightweight waterproof shell.
- Gloves: Sometimes not necessary when it is on the warmer side and sunny, but otherwise, lightweight gloves for mild conditions and mid-weight gloves (I really like Polartec fabric) if dark/cold/snowy/rainy.
- Hat: My summer running cap, unless it is raining, then a Gore-Tex baseball cap. If too cold for just my hoodie, a buff or light beanie over the hat.
- Buff: For the neck/face/head, sometimes.
The thing that all of these layers have in common is that they are relatively thin/lightweight (no down puffies or ski gloves) and layer well for adjusting clothing as temps change.
Tips, Tricks, and Etiquette
Unlike dirt, the snow is constantly changing. If you time things right, there’s some truly sublime running to be had out there! In general, you need snow that is compacted, consolidated, or not too deep for running in just running shoes. So hunt out locations where other people have been hiking or snowmobiling or wait for a cold morning after some good freeze-thaw cycles (it’s so cool to run anywhere you please in the forest on top of smooth, firm snow!). These conditions also work for snowshoes. But once the snow gets too deep or soft, it’s time for snowshoes. And you do have to consider temperature too… Sometimes running conditions are better during the cold parts of the day (e.g. the snow might support you better) and sometimes it’s better during the warmer parts of the day (e.g. warm/slushy snow might not be as slippery and can be a more forgiving surface).
It will take some time to get good at predicting snow conditions (it may never happen). To increase the chances of having a successful run, bring a variety of options with you to the trailhead so you can choose what’s appropriate once you see what you will be running on. This applies to gear (snowshoes vs. GoreTex running shoes with traction devices vs. road shoes…) but also to layers (sometimes it can be significantly colder/warmer in just a short drive).
Speaking of conditions, muddy trails are also very likely during the winter. To avoid damage to trails, avoid really muddy trails as much as possible and do not avoid the mud by walking on vegetation on the side of the trail. And to avoid scowls from backcountry skiers, don’t ever run in an established skin track (whether you are wearing running shoes or snowshoes).
Ease into it. Snow is slippery, uneven terrain. You will be using a lot of new muscles out there. If your first snow run is too long, you might find yourself on the couch for a while. You might also find that your heart rate is higher and/or your pace is a little slower on snow runs. It’s not just you having an off day – it’s hard work!
If you aren’t lucky enough to live close to where you want to run, accessing the snow is possibly the trickiest part to running on snow… Street parking is not allowed, shoulders aren’t plowed, and many parking lots aren’t accessible either.
Cross country skiing areas (Tahoe XC, Royal Gorge, Tahoe Donner Cross Country…) provide reliable parking lots and groomed trails, but you have to pay for a trail pass and you are limited to snowshoeing on particular routes.
There are some plowed parking areas intended for snow play and amenable to running:
- Tahoe Meadows (extensive parking along the road) and the Mt Rose Summit parking lot on the Mt Rose Highway
- California State SNO-PARKS (permit required), such as Donner Summit and Blackwood Canyon
- Pole Creek on Hwy 89, which gets a lot of attention from backcountry skiers going into the Sierra Hut (remember not to run in established skin tracks)
- Glacier Way Trailhead in Tahoe Donner (Truckee)
- Off-Highway Vehicle staging areas on 89 at Prosser Hill and at Jackson Meadows Rd
- Downhill ski areas, as long as you abide by the rules (which usually means keeping out of the resort). Note that Sugar Bowl has a small network of groomed streets in their snow-bound neighborhood that is not within the Royal Gorge XC area
- Coldstream Canyon parking on Coldstream Road (near Donner Pond and adjacent to the State Park Campground). Occasionally, Coldstream Road gets groomed.
Another option are parking lots that aren’t plowed, but tend to have little accumulation:
- The Martis Creek Wildlife Area and Waddle Ranch parking areas off highway 267 between Schaffer Mill Road and Northstar Drive
- Tahoe Pyramid Trail parking, e.g. at Floriston and Farad exits
In early season, the USFS has not yet closed gates on many of the forest roads. The ’06 road for Sawtooth Trailhead access is still open, for example. This is an area that gets a lot of traffic from hikers and bikers in early season, and cross country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers later in the winter, so it’s generally a good spot to find compacted snow. However once the gate closes, you either have to live close by in the neighborhood, have someone drop you off, or park on the shoulder and risk getting a ticket to access the area.
These spots are all shown on this CalTopo map: https://caltopo.com/m/U05T. In all cases, you will be sharing these limited access points with a lot of other users and spots might be full… Get there early to avoid disappointment and have fun!