I am a bit of a gear nerd, and a bit of a perfectionist, and it is hard for me to settle for gear that isn’t pretty close to doing its job really well. Fortunately, these days there are so many options! Surely, the perfect pair of running tights exists.
A few of my friends have asked about gear for running in the cold and dark. Knowing that every person and every body is different, my faves may not work for you. BUT, if you need a place to start, this might help.
I am willing to pay more for something that is the right thing, if it is truly perfect and high quality. I take very good care of my gear and it tends to last. (One major exception, which is shoes, noted below.) And if I find something awesome, I buy at least two as great trail running products get phased out of product lines all the time. These suggestions will work for runs up to ten or so miles. After that… more and different things may be needed (for hydration, etc.).
Probably the most important thing for running in the dark is a decent headlamp. What I love about the Black Diamond Iota is that it is small, lies flat on my forehead, and charges with a USB. The beam is appropriately long and bright, it fits easily in my pocket when the sun rises, and it doesn’t bounce on my head when I run.
2021 update: Sadly the Iota is long gone from the product line. I replaced the strap on mine once the old one unraveled (the big weakness of BD headlamps has always been the strap). I also have a BD Sprint, which is brighter but not as comfortable. Thanks to COVID, however, I am working from home and haven't needed to run in the dark in order to get to work on time. I will revisit headlamps if life changes again.
There are many kinds of tights to suit your style, body type, and weather conditions. I have a selection, arranged in order from lightest to most insulating. I’ve also been known to wear capris with ski socks to extend their season.
My current favorite running tights for most cold weather conditions are made by Rabbit. They fit well, are supernaturally soft and comfortable, have thoughtful pockets, and stretch well. While Rabbit used to make everything in the US, it seems much is crafted abroad these days, though a few products are still made in California. They do have a runner referral program, and if you use this link you will get 15% off your order and I will get a small credit. No offense will be taken if you just go their website, google style. I just want everyone to experience the awesomeness of Rabbit running gear.
Pro tip: when it gets really cold or when there is a biting winter wind, wear a pair of merino wool boy shorts-style underwear (I am partial to those made by Ridge Merino) under your tights. It is a huge help in keeping my butt cheeks warm (or at least less cold).
Headbands and Hats
I know there are heaps of technical running hats out there, but the one I prefer is a cheap polyester beanie that I got for free at some giveaway. It isn't overly warm, has excellent breathability, and manages to work in a broad range of temperatures. When it is seriously cold I have a fleecey wool hat that holds more heat in. Sometimes, I just need something to keep my ears warm, and I found a Smartwool headband years ago that does the job in milder weather.
Like my running tight collection, I have a stack of long-sleeved wool tees ranging from lightweight to heavyweight. When it is really cold, I layer one of these with a short sleeve merino tee for extra core protection. Currently in rotation are merino wool tops from Ridge Merino, Rabbit (which are some kind of Polartec wonder material to make them better at wicking, making them less soggy), Tracksmith, Oiselle, and Kitsbow. Most have thumb loops, which adds an extra buffer of protection from wind on the back of my hands.
Some people love a vest, but I tend to avoid them because if I overheat in a vest there are no arms to tie it around my waist. Luckily there are a lot of great jackets in the world that have a warm or windproof panel over the front (to keep the core toasty) with ventilating fabric on the arms and back. I have a few, of different design, depending on the temperature and wind speed. As a rule, I tend to rely on shirts for warmth and jackets for weather and wind protection.
Where I live, wind is a much bigger issue than rain. Regular windbreakers are not really made for trail running since they don't ventilate very well (but if you know of a truly breathable wind jacket, please let me know!), and you can end up being soggy and chilled. The best wind jacket I have found so far is the Airshed Pro Pullover from Patagonia, which is breathable and has double zippers for best airflow. However, it is really lightweight, so for cold days I have had better luck with nordic skiing jackets. These are made for active movement in the cold, and have far superior breathability and weather protection than any running jacket I have found.
This rest of this gear is not specific for the cold or dark, but in case you are interested…
Best Sports Bra
Am I the only one who struggles with the perfect sports bra?? I have a drawer full of rejects and just luckily happened on Handful, which is easily the most comfortable running bra I have ever put on. Obviously, also great for mountain biking and whatever else you need a sports bra for.
Please read Hilary Oliver’s hilarious essay about the Alpine Death Sponge.
Trail Running Shoes
As you all know, as soon as you find a running shoe that works, they change the style and it never quite works again. I thought I had found a favorite shoe in the Saucony Peregrine (great traction on the loose, steep hills where I run), but while healing from a ankle sprain I discovered the magic of the super cush Hoka.
These shoes make me a little crazy: they are so comfortable that every other shoe now feels like I am running barefoot. But they are not proving to be very durable. Especially for a trail shoe. Maybe my rocky trails are especially tough on shoes, but in 30+ years of trail running, I have never blown out shoes like I blow out Hokas. Nothing compares to the comfort, so until some other company comes along to make the same shoe but better, I’ll probably keep shelling out the cash.
2021 shoe update: I gave up on Hoka shoes after so many blow-outs (80 miles is just not enough miles in a pair of shoes!). Brooks makes trail running shoes almost as comfortable that are much more durable. At the moment, however, I am not all that stoked with any particular running shoe. Currently, I have three different brands/models of running shoes in rotation, none of which is perfect. If you have a fave that will work with my crazy feet, please let me know!
That’s it! Do you have any gear favorites?