Appalachia Book Review: Trail Running Western Massachusetts

The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Appalachia arrived in mailboxes last week. Appalachia, published continuously since 1876, is America’s oldest mountaineering and conservation journal. It appears twice a year, in June (Summer/Fall) and December (Winter/Spring).


This issue is loaded with great essays and poetry. Like vinyl records and film cameras, Appalachia is a throwback. You have to buy it to read it in hard copy, but like a new record (in an old format), its worth your time and money.

I’ve written for Appalachia in the past, including a story about our 2005 Long Trail End-to-End hike. That essay was published in the June 2006 issue. In the latest issue, I have a book review. The subject of the review is Ben Kimball’s, Trail Running Western Massachusetts.

Trail Running Western Massachusetts Logo

For sixteen years, my wife Debbie Livingston and I have been running on trails all over New England. Many trail running pioneers hail from Connecticut, where we live, but the real epicenter of trail running in our region during the past 25 years is the region this book covers, western Massachusetts.

The long-running New England Grand Tree Trail Running Series predates the recent trail-running boom by many years. ese races launched by the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC) spurred growth in the sport. The forests, parks, and trail systems of western Massachusetts make it an ideal place to run.

I have in past years felt skeptical about the idea of a trail-running guide, but Kimball’s book changed my mind. He proves that it does make sense to have a reference book to help runners learn about the best trails. It is a wonderful resource for runners of all ability levels, and it creates a model for future trail-running guides. i’m already imagining a series of these guides built around a standard, just as the Appalachian Mountain Club has done with its many hiking guides.

Debbie and I own lots of guides that were written for hikers, and we have adapted them for trail running. We use the AMC’s White Mountain Guide and Maine Mountain Guide, the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail Guide, and Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s Connecticut Walk Book, for examples. Even in a digital world, we would be at a loss without these books. We use them extensively when running and fast-packing, covering distances in less than half the average hiking times.

Hiking guides sometimes are too bulky to carry on the trail. Trail Running Western Massachusetts is a compact 6.9 x 4.3 x 0.6 inches. it weighs only 12.6 ounces and easily fits into a hydration backpack or small butt pack designed for running. All of the maps are contained within the pages of the book. Kimball did the writing, photography, and cartography for this book. In New England, there is no precedent for a trail-running guide. A handful of guides from other parts of the country exist, but they don’t appear to establish a standard. I don’t know if Kimball used the AMC’s guides as a model, but I see in influences.

The nine-page introduction is an important section in which Kimball discusses conservation, etiquette, safety, trail access, and then discusses “How to Use is Book.” As an experienced runner, I appreciate Kimball’s brevity. However, if I put myself in the shoes of a neophyte trail runner, I realize that he manages to cover all of the necessary ground. He introduces the reader to trail running, how it differs from road running, and how hiking and trail running coexist. Early in his introduction, he stresses conservation and the environmental impacts of trail use. He gives tips on how to interact with other trail users. I read the safety section through the eyes of a beginner trail runner; and it is a good primer on hydration, insects, wildlife, and common injuries/illnesses.

He explains in his introduction that he offers options for extending or shortening each of the routes he’ll describe. Each route offers “quick referenced data” (distance, difficulty rating, trail style, trail type, and town) followed by a brief description of the route, directions to the trailhead, “turn-by-turn” trail descriptions, and a section dubbed “nearby” that references additional trail running opportunities in the vicinity.

Kimball reminds readers that running routes go over public and private lands as he previews the 51 “site locations” that are the heart of the guide. Each site profile is a chapter that covers a designated trail-running route.

The description for each route is like an advertisement for your run. Kimball often identifies the overall condition of the trail (e.g., “rocky and rooty”), the best time of the week or year to run, notable views, and other fun facts. If you are skimming through the various sites, the quick-referenced data and these opening paragraphs are all you need to decide where to go.

The print maps for each site are detailed enough with the route clearly identified. Trailhead parking, nearby roads, landmarks, and other trails are noted. A mileage scale and key on every map are handy for reference. The maps include contour lines, but with no elevation figures noted. I enjoy the simplicity, but I also like data. With trail running, elevation gained and lost is important information and good for bragging about your adventures. including elevation data on the print maps and in the descriptions would be a welcome update.

Though each route has Kimball’s subjective difficulty rating of “easy, moderate, challenging, or a combination,” I would like to know more about the author’s criteria. Does he have a formula? Difficulty in trail running is usually dictated by a combination of terrain and elevation. (UltraRunning magazine, for example, rates trail races on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most difficult.) obviously, distance is a factor too, but the 51 site locations are all short-to-middle-distance routes. Elevation and surface keys adaptable for New England trails would enhance the guide. On a map at the beginning of the book, the sites for the various routes are marked. It could be expanded to include distance, difficulty rating, and trail type. At a glance, I would like to see all 51 routes the book covers marked specifically on the map. I like tables and think that expanding this section to include one with the extra information would be a welcome addition.

There are many ways to use the guide. As mentioned, it is small enough to carry, though that would not be my approach. If you carry the guide, seal it in a waterproof freezer bag to keep it dry. Rain, sweat, or a hydration pack leak would make a mess of the paper version. Because you are typically doing one route at a time, and each description and map is no more than four pages, I would photocopy the route and carry a couple of pages.

If you are digitally inclined and carry a mobile device on your runs, then you can easily scan or photograph the information in the guide. In the corner of each map is a QR code. I tested this with my iPhone after downloading a free reader. The code gives you access to a PDF version of each map and additional photos of the trail. There is an e-book for Kindle that can also be read on an iPad, but if you own the print version, the only way to access the site descriptions is to have the book. The maps are also available at But remember that you have to have enough battery life to last through your run and that you should be self-sufficient on your run, not relying on a phone signal for access to the internet or the outside world. Debbie suggested that you bookmark the page of your run and leave that on your car dashboard so others know where you went should you not return on time.

One of the great benefits of this guide is that it will spur runners to leave the roads, seek the trails, and explore new routes. It will encourage healthy exercise, inform you, and increase your love of the outdoors.

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