Guide to trail running in the Canadian Rockies (Alberta)

Running down prairie mountain

In the summer of 2021, I had the privilege of finally visiting what I now consider the most beautiful gem in Canada for trail running, the Rockies. I was based in Calgary and Banff for this adventure. I’m originally from Ottawa and had to learn to adapt quickly.

If you are a trail runner and want to maximize your time, I’ve compiled a list of resources to make the most out of your season as an out-of-towner. This guide is intended for people who are completely new to the area and mountain running.

Summer running is short

The snow starts melting in mid-June. Then there’s forest fire smoke from the West. You sneeze. It’s now September, larches are turning to a magical golden colour. By the time you put your shoes on, the snowflakes start appearing. You will have at most 30% of the year for optimal access to trail running.

This guide was written with summer and early-fall running in mind.

It doesn’t get more pristine than this

There’s an unmistakable awe factor that makes you fall over. I’ve tripped a few times simply by looking at the scenery. Everything is so pristine.

When you will run trails with glacier or reach sub-alpine heights (out of the tree line), you will feel minuscule with the already sheer size of the mountains.

The water is delicious, and the lakes and rivers have a variety of beautiful hues and transparencies.

Wildlife also casually roams around. Half the time it’s a game to see who startles who first. The suburbs in Banff have their own four-legged fuzzy lawn mowers. Life is good.

Running the Rockwall in Kootenay with a friend.

Running buddies

Make friends! Just like anywhere else, locals are training for races or hit up some of their projects (trails objectives) they’ve been planning for a while. They might know the area. Also, there’s power in number when it comes to Grizzly bears; sometime group-sizes are even mandatory for some trails.

The trail running community in Alberta is super inclusive! Most of the time the group runs are social runs or sought-after projects. When you find running buddies, you can discuss to see what pace works for you. The rest of this guide will help you better estimate effort.

Where to find trail running buddies

Make friends, become a guide. Learn mountain skills. Find trails you want to try and share your projects too!

Terrain

Say hello to elevation

If you are going to be staying in the area, your base elevation is already going to be well above sea-level. This means when you will get elevation gain, the effort will be that much harder.

  • Calgary is at : ~1050m
  • Banff and Canmore are at: 1375~1400m

Source: Wikipedia – List of communities in Canada by elevation

Don’t be too hard on yourself, factor this in your planning when choosing your distances for the first few weeks.

My new running buddy introduced me to the notion of Mountain Training Units (MTU). In short, 1km of vertical gain would equate to 10km of horizontal running.

Visual example of MTU. Credit: personalpeak.ca

As a knee-hurting example: one of the directions for the Rockwall trail has a 55km distance and 2.6km of vertical. This would translate to an estimated effort of running 81km on flat.

Steep continuous climbs

Be ready for continuous steep climbs. Compared to its eastern Canadian provinces, some trails have continuous elevation gain without the rolling-hill breaks. (Good luck Manitobans.)

Oxygen

Base elevation is going to exhaust you for the first two weeks, and on top of that, the more you climb, the less oxygen you will get. Take it easy. You will be tired in the evenings.

On my first day out, I sprinted a few hundred meters at the Athabasca Glacier to take photos. I was completed winded but my legs felt fine, what an odd feeling.

If you return to lower elevation after weeks of conditioning, it’s delightful! I felt amazing returning to run in Ontario and QuĂ©bec. While I was running for my first 50 miler, my body was being taxed but oxygen was never an issue. Inhaling was energizing.

Scree, scramble, and snow

Scrambling: Using your hands to move up. Educate yourself on the difficulty. I did more of these on technical trails that were less runnable/meant for hiking. Check the park’s website to see if helmets are required; usually it’s from rocks being launched from above by other humans or goats. Don’t go up what you can’t come down.

Scree: I initially had no idea how to spell this. Your nightmare for pebbles in shoes. Gritty going up. Very fun going down. I haven’t found much need to wear gaiters, but I could see the appeal.

Snow: I was surprised to see occasional snow on the paths in summer. It made it difficult to impossible to see the path sometimes on long stretches. Ideally, people will have recently traversed the trail before you. This would leave shoe and mud prints to hint at a direction. I recommend preparing in advance by studying the trail and having the gpx file or map handy. Sidenote: snow is very refreshing on a hot day.

Working our way up a small patch of snow in late-June on Skyline, Jasper.

Flower power

Flowers and vegetation changes throughout the weeks. During a hike, I was told the trail was not at its apex. It was difficult for me to imagine it being even more glorious. Lesson: some areas have better blooms and colour combinations at certain time of the year.

Remoteness

The wildness surrounds you fast. Rough terrain makes search and rescue extractions complex. Say goodbye to phone signal once you are out of town. If you want examples of scenarios and what to avoid, the Kananaskis Country Public Safety Section Facebook page is informative and educational.

Iceline trail in Yoho.

Precautions having been taken into consideration…

Embrace the nature! Bask in it. Don’t trip while transcending.

Finding trails

Talking to runners was the best method to see what is popular, and runnable. Also ask about trail conditions to know what is enjoyable or possible. Most medium to heavily trafficked trails were very well groomed and it’s obvious where you need to go usually.

Make a wish list as you discover trails that interest you as you find them. This will avoid scrambling on your phone the day you arrive in a region. I found it useful to divide them in driving distance categories so that I could factor driving time for logistics. I also added the distance and elevation gain with a link to the online source. Future you will thank you.

Trail Running in Canmore and the Canadian Rockies

The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit Canmore, the Bow Valley and the Rockies offer some of the best terrain in the world for trail running. From alpine ultra-distance runs to colourful meadows and technical ridges, there is something for beginners and experts alike. Here are some of our favourite running trails around Canmore and in the Bow Valley.

A good list of runnable trails.

Don’t blindly trust AllTrails for reviews and navigation since it’s a mixed bag. It’s heavily used by beginners/new to hiking, but also by experts.

For phone only users: You can also use AllTrails or other maps apps. I found the phone app to be only poorly to sometimes accurate compared to watches (as expected).

For watch users with maps: Get the gpx files if your watch uses them. You can download them off AllTrails, Strava activity profiles, and elsewhere. I discovered workaround to get gpx files with AllTrails from your mobile phone (if you can and intend to sync it to your watch). Using your mobile browser, find your trail on the website, then switch your browser to desktop-mode. The download file option appears. Tada! Tap it a few time, and download your file.

Hiking, paddle boarding, biking, etc.

Consider hiking and other sports for your rest days! The views are good for those too.

Some trails are too technical or steep for an enjoyable run, save those for hike days. Take advantage of this option while you are in the region.

“Tapering” in early September while actively recovering on Mt. Temple before a race…

Epic classics

Some long epic classics that kept being brought up during my adventure, by hikers and runners, were: Rockwall (Kootenay), Assiniboine (Assiniboine), Lake O’Hara (Yoho), and Skyline (Jasper).

These classics can be done in a long run, fast-packing (move-sleep-move), or multi-day hike. Some are one-way; you will need to plan accordingly.

I found this article to be accurate and inspiring for some projects. I was able to squeeze-in three out of five. They were as transformative as the hype promised.

Long Runs in the Rockies: Our Five Favourite Trails

The Canadian Rockies offer some of the best trail running you could ever think of. With a great variety of distances, views for days and flowy singletracks, there is something for every trail runner out there. Looking for a longer adventure? Here are five classics that you have to add to your bucket list!

I completed three of these and they were as epic as promised.

Gear

Don’t worry if you are missing some gear before arriving in-town. Calgary, Canmore, and Banff, have plenty of sports shops that will be happy to liberate you of your equipment budget. I’ve visited them often… and you can get great advice if you can snuff out the trail runners and mountaineers. The stores also have more mountain-oriented gear (makes sense), and you benefit from 5% tax. Coming from Ontario, it felt like everything was on sale!

A comprehensive check list for mountain running by Dog Walker Dave. I found it included everything I needed.

Bevy: Get a bevy for long remote runs. If you are close to town on a very trafficked route on a busy day, it’s overkill. Full waterproof jackets can somewhat compensate. The number of cars in the parking lot for short trails or out-and-backs, can be a good indicator for traffic.

Bear spray: See below.

Bug spray: Some trails are bad, most are great. Bring spray in your car. If you stop running on a buggy trail, get ready to be bit; I was a target even up to subalpine zone once. Great motivation for a continuous runs! Alltrails and Facebook were pretty good to mention bug levels. Sidenote: don’t use floral soaps or lotions before a run, you will be sending mixed messages to bugs.

Ibopurfin: If you or your friends are in a pinch; don’t take too much because kidneys.

Garmin in-reach: A satellite phone can save lives and limbs. The plans are annual on top of monthly activation. They could make the difference that money can’t buy if you are doing less trafficked trails or mostly solo. Some used ones can be found online. (Sidenote: If you don’t have reception and need emergency help, you can still try to call 911 with your phone; you might have emergency reception from another provider.)

Layers for summits and peaks: It’s crazy how much of a temperature difference there is from base to top. It’s very easy to underestimate the cold. The wind picks up too. I got uncomfortably chilly on a few runs; getting injured at that point could lead to hypothermia. A minimal windbreaker is definitely worth it’s weight. Always bring extra layers.

Mountain trail shoes: Some shoes perform better on mountain terrain. I got the Bushidos II and they were noticeably grippier on stone with their softer plastics. Skree, scrambling, loose rocks might also give a bigger beating to your feet than you might be used to. Buy something that works for you with the right traction and cushioning. Expect faster wear on rugged terrain; I abused my shoes. They wore down faster than usual but they’ve performed superbly.

How to aquaseal your trail shoes

Adding aquaseal to one’s trail shoes should be standard practice to maximize useful life, otherwise known as trying to keep the upper hole-free until the tread is worn down to nothing. If you walk in rough terrain, and especially if you get your shoes wet frequently, this is not always easy to accomplish.

If you are a real keener, you can research your model’s typical wear-and-tear spot and reinforce them preemptively with a sealer.

Water filters

Many trails have glacier water streams, delicious… but you need a filter. There’s many types with their trade-offs. My preferred method was bottle with squeeze.

Because the water is rich in sediments, it seems that filters might not last as long as other places with softer water..

You can use filters to share water with others, refilling the bottle many times for distribution.

“Spotted a waterfall dance” on Iceline. Glacier water is cold!

After mooching other people’s filters for a couple of runs, I decided it was time to purchasing an extremely convenient, light-weight, and potential survival tool. It was worth it for me.

I got myself a Salomon XA filter for my ADV skin 12 kit and it worked really well. You can also get non-kit specific filters that perform quickly (like the Katadyn BeFree). Some filters are even inter-brand compatibility, just make sure to check the thread sizes.

I found the water tablets too slow for water intake. It wasn’t fun managing water based on time. If you only have one bladder, you can’t drink right away. If you have two bladders, you might not top-up completely or waste tablets. Waiting for 30 minutes while thirsty, not great.

How to Choose a Water Filter or Purifier

Water treatment is important to maintaining your health in the outdoors. Not all water sources are unsafe, but even the most pristine-looking source can make you sick. If livestock, wildlife or humans can reach an area, so can contaminants transmitted via their fecal matter. As more and more of us explore wild places, contamination levels rise.

A link I quickly searched. There’s some water filter reviews out there for running, but it’s not as popular as I had expected.

Influencers in the wild and over-packing

Get ready to see some really ill-equipped hikers. The tourism brings all levels of experience to the landscape. I cringed at watching the ankle-rolling potential of a hiker walking-up boulders in 7-inch-high-heel-platform-sandals further into a trail without water.

Get ready to be an over-equipped runner on new-to-you popular trails. I still chuckle at the thought of having brought a full running vest up Sulfur Mountain in Banff. Turns out that it’s really popular. The people in jeans and sandals that were sipping on their no-effort Gondola Starbucks combo were looking at us funny. Better safe than sorry. It was fun to run downhill.

Bears

I was lucky to have seen two grizzlies on my first run. I was also fortunately with friends. This experience helped manage fear of the unknown. Both bears behaved very differently. The first time, the bear couldn’t be bothered away from their berries. The second encounter, the bear fled immediately after hearing us.

Bear spray

Bear spray beats battling them bare hands. Learn the difference between a grizzly and a brown bear.

Don’t cheap out! Get some bear spray. You get used to the weight. You can wear it in your front vest, or others prefer the bottom-back belt strap. On some really light runs, I’ve even just carried it in my hand. Practice getting it out in one second or less. Buy it locally or second-hand once you arrive in the region. Everyone will want to sell them to you.

If you really want to save money, buy a fresh one second-hand. Some bottles have their labels made out of cheap paper sticker. I have one and it wore down after two runs; it’s just aesthetic. If you are looking at a used spray, simply ensure that it has never sprayed before, and that it isn’t expired. A used sprays become less effective, and will continue losing pressure over time. They expire after 4 years. Should you still risk it? Probably not because it becomes more like bear ooze.

Having bear spray saves both bears and humans.

I watched many videos and this one was the most comprehensive by Be Bear Aware. It explains the distances scenarios well and in detail.
This video Parks Canada was the second most comprehensive for me.

Be bear aware

Running With The Bears: A Guide For Trail Runners

You’re three miles from the finish line at the Valles Caldera Trail Marathon in the Valles Caldera National Preserve of New Mexico. Soon you’ll be able to sit down with friends and a cold beverage. Your run has gone to plan and you feel pretty good.

Bear behaviours when you are on trails

Bear poops: You won’t see as much on heavily trafficked routes, but on other trails you will soon see large piles of them. They do this to mark their territory. The more you see, the better you will become at telling how fresh it is. You will encounter free-roaming cows (I call them moo’s) on the crownland. Watch where you place your feet, but mostly look up.

Bear calls: Get used to calling “hey bear!”. If you are turning around blind corners, hills or in areas with bushes, keep giving warning screams to notify bears or other wildlife you are coming around. This works to notify your presence.

Dinner bells: Bells don’t work for bears, they don’t recognize the sound as anything else than ambient-noise. This does not work. A common joke is that you will find bells in bear scat.

Dogs: Keep your dog on leashes. They won’t win.

Look up and stay alert: I’m used to looking down where I’m stepping when trails get technical, or when there’s cool vegetation and rock formations. During my first bear encounter, it was my friend who stopped us; I was looking down at my feet at the time. Daydreaming is fine as long as you can see your surroundings. Practice getting into the habit to always scan the area for bears. It does take more effort to remember this when you are pushing on long runs.

Safe travel in bear country

The Canadian Rocky Mountains are home to both grizzly and black bears. You can run into a bear anywhere here, be it on a busy trail close to town or in the remote backcountry. Bears generally prefer to avoid people. However, encounters between bears and people do occur.

Other animals

It seems pretty silly to type, but there’s also more animals to familiarize yourself with. I learned not to drive between mothers and their calves. Don’t go trying to pet a moose?

Animals

The United Nations created the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site partly because of the incredible diversity of animals found here. Jasper National Park is home to 53 species of mammals, mammals that rely on a variety of habitats, some of which we share with them.

Trail closures and forecasts

Before heading out to the trails, stay-tuned with trail closures. Trail are regularly closed for ecological maintenance, protection (for humans, grizzlies, nesting animals) and well… bridges that get washed away.

“The water is going above and below the bridge…”
“Yeah that’s normal. Just don’t stop on it.”

Parks announcements

Visit the trail’s park website and social media for timely updates.

An example from Parks Canada – Banff National Park, in October.

Weather

Beware of micro-weather from the mountains. Weather can change extremely quickly. When I was hiking in Tonquin Valley, the weather changed from blue sky to a hailing lightning storm within 5 minutes. With experience and training, you can kind of see the ominous clouds coming in if.

Weather app: My brother uses this really dinky-looking mountaineering website that works really well: Spotwx.com. With additional metrics and granular timelines, it adds extra context to help plan ahead and avoid poor conditions. I use it in combination with weather.gc.ca.

Which one are you going to find more insightful? An vague regional estimate? Or a multi-station-hyper-localized comprehensive metric report.

Smoke and air quality with fires

Rockies fresh mountain air is amazing until it isn’t.

Have you ever felt like you smoked overnight while sleeping? This element took me by surprise. One day you have a beautiful view of the mountains or city, the next day, just dim outlines.

If you are lucky enough, you can find housing accommodation with central (filtered) air. Calgary doesn’t usually have AC because of the cooling effect of the mountains at night. Temperatures drop rapidly in the evening.

For runs, it falls back to your tolerance for pollutants. Be aware that running greatly multiplies your air intake, and therefore pollutants during activity. It will exhaust you faster. Your mouth and throat will get dryer and more irritated, so plan for extra water consumption. Your Strava photos might also suffer a bit.

A smoked-out view of Banff.

Learn the term Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). This is the index for you should look out at. AQHI varies daily, and by region. If the air quality is terrible in Calgary, it doesn’t mean that it’s as bad in Canmore, and vice-versa. Use different resources to gauge the air quality and discuss with your trail running buddies if this is within your threshold. You have to decide if your runs and races are worth the health impact tradeoff.

My favourite resource was iqair because it shows the wind patterns to help predict future smoke quality. It worked pretty reliably for me. The weather gc app was also helpful for categorizing harm-levels. Finally, I also used the web-cameras.

Web-cameras

A sneaky tool to visually see the weather conditions, including smoke!

An example of a webcam in Banff.

Here’s a few links, I’m sure there’s more. (If the number of cameras is making you uncomfortable to roam in town: buy a Pantagonia sweater; you will blend into the crowd of the Pataguuci parade. I bought a sweater and it was perfect for blending in… I mean cozy for cool evenings.)

Getting around

Parks passes

Parks Canada pass: Get a Parks Canada pass. You will need it for national parks, including the Town of Banff. Purchasing the family/group one was a no-brainer since I could bring my running buddy and family without a hassle. You can buy these online, at affiliated stores, the parks stores, or conveniently on the road while entering Banff.

Kananaskis pass: A controversial new pass for accessing the Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley. Applies to two license plates. Split the cost with someone is an option.

Transportation

Driving to trails

Driving: To get to the trailheads the best way is to have a car… or carpool with your new running buddies! (Or bike if you a particular one is close enough).

Car rental: Renting a car can be both expensive and difficult to find in peak times. In 2021 there was a pandemic North-American rental car shortage. Some had luck with alternative rental options like Turo.

Drive safely: Be alert. Wildlife on the roads are very real. We’ve had to stop or slowdown for many different animals. The most dangerous ones are humans. There’s a lot of oblivious and distracted tourists that drive erratically, especially when there’s animals on the side of the road.

Sad sidenote: Bears die due to drivers speeding in the region.

Buses

There are buses that connect between Banff, Canmore and Calgary, for a cheap rate. Some also go to Lake Louise, Kananaskis, and up to Jasper. Using a bus could be adequate for meeting up with other people that have cars if you are intending to go hit the trails.

Parking and carpooling

  • Some remote trails have limited parking spots and can completely fill up early. Adapt your plans accordingly: leave earlier on weekends and holidays, carpool to require less parking spots, use an alternate parking entry-points, or have a second trail in the area as a backup plan.
  • Hitchhiking can be an option, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on this if you are running, especially after an exhausting long run that ends in the evening. Factor the odds of people driving at the time of day and conditions. You are better off carpooling with running buddies to avoid a miserable walk.
  • There’s a popular carpool parking spot outside Calgary on the way to the mountains.

Distances

Here are some approximate driving times. Everything North or West of Banff, well, is closest to Banff.

For the traffic on the weekends: (Banff-bound Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, Calgary-bound Sunday afternoon) and holidays, add a minimum of 30 minutes.

Location Calgary Banff Canmore
Calgary01 h 30 min1 h 10 min
Canmore 1 h 1020 min0
Banff 1 h 30 0 20 min
West Bragg Creek50 min1 h 20 min1 h
Kananaskis trail1 h 451 h 301 h 10
A matrix of rough driving time estimates between two locations.

Towing

For a backup plan for my car, I purchased the CAA premier membership plan. I opted for the longest distance towing service because I was driving from Ottawa.

While volunteering at a race in Kananaskis, a road worker shared that the premier plan is the only one that will save your wallet if your car breaks down in that area (considering tow distance to the closest garage).

Housing

Knowing the distances, calculate what you can afford both in time and money. Look at the distances between the areas you want to run/hike/explore, and how much driving time it will take to get there. Factor fuel in the cost. Find a place with a washer for your stinky clothes.

Here’s a few ways to find accommodation:

Minimalist and dirtbag runners

If you can live minimally, you can save on costs by sleeping in your vehicle (SUV/truck/van or trailer) or camping.

Camping: There’s plenty of very accessible Parks Canada and private camping options in the region.

Sleeping in car: There’s some pretty cool DYI videos out there for adapting your car with a sleeping pad. Look into overflow-parking (for campsites too) if this interests you.

Finding races

On top of monitoring the social channels, I used runguides to scope out races that interested me. I was able to buy an official bib for a night race. I also bought someone else’s bib for another race (most races are flexible before the bib transfer deadline).

Iron Legs night race. First time winning a race.

Ultra running

I was delightfully taken aback by how many ultra runners and athletes are in the area. Someone casually brought up participating in the solo Death race at a Starbucks, no big deal. If ultra distances interests you or is part of your training, this is the right place for you. A lot of people train and complete these distances regularly.

There’s a good selection of trails and plenty of ultra races in the area. There’s also races in British Columbia just a short drive away.

My first official ultra at Moose Mountain Trail Races. Photo credit: Folk and Wild.

Additional tips

  • After a long day, the McDonalds in Canmore can get you a caffeinated drink or a quick-meal on the drive back.
  • If you are “stuck” in downtown Calgary, the Bow river pathway is quite scenic, and has stairs in town. There’s also a number of parks with hills; notably the huge Nosehill Park (the West parking lot is apparently the better one because it’s less chaotic during rush-hour).

Why I made this article

In a moment of trying something else that scared me, and running progression, I had signed up for my first 50 miler: the 80k Harricana Ultra Trail near La Malbaie, in Fall.

I was positioned to work remotely and had enough time-off to travel and explore during the summer. The Rockies seemed like a great opportunity for training in elevation and exploring new trails, while also visiting my brother.

The word privilege in my introduction was not used lightly. Being able to afford cost of living, logistics, access, and leisure. Being able-bodied to run. A personal family guide to start off my adventure. Having access to a humbling, preserved, and vast landscape. Meeting new friendly humans who also share the hobby. It’s an appreciation to have all these elements combined.

I started trail running in 2019, and am avid about learning. I did as most research as I could before arriving to the Rockies. There was still a ton that I learned with my experience and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries.

Leave a comment if you think I might of missed anything for newcomers or thoughts. Cheers!

Thank you to my friends and family for taking photos and revising this guide!

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