The path less traveled: an adventure runner’s guide to Peninsula trails

San Carlos-based ultrarunner Leor Pantilat shares advice on how to blaze unexplored trails (and map hidden waterfalls) without leaving a trace

Leor Pantilat along the Norcal coast near Big Sur. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

Do your typical hiking and trail-running routes feel too…well…pedestrian?

Do you dream of trekking in the outdoors for days at a time, sans trail, over mountains and along rugged coastlines?

As an adventure runner who designs innovative routes to new places, Leor Pantilat does just that. Pantilat, who lives in San Carlos with his wife and fellow adventurer Erica Namba, is an attorney by day and a self-proclaimed “weekend warrior” who has developed a knack for exploring rugged wilderness areas without a trail.

Building on his college athletic career as a NCAA Division 1 track and cross country runner at Rice University, Pantilat moved on to ultrarunning while attending Stanford Law School, competing in the local ultra circuit before he grew weary of some aspects of trail racing. He says he wanted the solitude of being the only one out in the middle of nowhere, and the freedom to stop and take in the scenery. So he moved on to adventure running, racing solo to chase down the “fastest known times” on long trails.

Pantilat grew up in Washington and spent time in the mountains from an early age. (Image via Pantilat’s website)

Today he holds the record for the fastest known time to complete the Sierra High Route, and previously held the record for the John Muir Trail and the course record for the former Quad Dipsea course (a race he’s won twice). He has won the Ohlone 50k four times and holds the course record. (He is also sponsored by outdoor shoe and gear brands La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction.)

He says he’s now focusing on setting “only known time” records, going places most people never see, let alone traverse. So he is currently working on two primary exploration projects: mapping out the secret waterfalls of Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness, as well as discovering the hidden glacial lakes of the High Sierras.

On his website, Pantilat answers what most people are probably asking: Uh, why?

As he explains it, his intense foot-powered adventures give him a really, really good runner’s high:

“My high is more than just crossing a threshold of physical exertion or beating a time; it’s a connection with my surroundings and neither pain nor physical stress is necessary. It’s a high that comes not from the act of running alone, but from running in inspiring places. It’s about experiencing the flow and rhythm of nature — the single track winding through the forest; the sweeping views after cresting a ridge; the clear, fresh air on my face; and the solitude and peacefulness of wilderness. … It allows me to take an introspective look at what I’ve become, who I am, and where I’m headed; a reflection of things I’ve done right and things I wish did differently, but overall a feeling of satisfaction and happiness.”

A photo of Glacier Lakes at Kings Canyon National Park, along the Sierra High Route. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

Recently, Pantilat spoke at REI in San Carlos to present his current hiking projects and offer advice. We caught up with him afterwards to repackage some of his main advice to aspiring adventure runners.

1. Pack light, but not too light.

The art of “fastpacking” (that’s backpacking, but with a light pack permitting faster movement, including running), Pantilat says, comes down to a series of delicate trade-offs between comfort and speed. A lighter pack means you can move faster and more comfortably, but puts you more at risk of having your trip wrecked should anything go wrong…and things often go wrong, he explains.

“It’s rare I complete an adventure without drawing blood in some way,” Pantilat says.

Should you bring trekking poles? An air mattress? A tent? A stove? You can generally make do without, but sleeping uncushioned on the rocks and eating straight granola gets less fun after a couple of days. He brings lightweight trekking poles, a super-light air mattress and a bivy sack — or one-man sleeping sack — instead of a tent, and skips the stove when he’s trying to move fast. Being able to sleep moderately comfortably is worth a little extra weight, especially when considering how skipping sleep can affect people who are pursuing endurance feats, he argues.

California poppies blooming along Prewitt Ridge in Big Sur. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

2. Pay attention to weather and climate.

When you’re traveling light, you’re far more susceptible to the impacts of bad weather, Pantilat explains.

“It’s not worth going out if the weather is going to be bad,” he says.

Especially in the mountains, thunderstorms can appear seemingly out of nowhere. This happens especially in the summer, and in his experience, July is typically the worst month for surprise thunder, he says. A key indicator that a thunderstorm is coming later in the day is the sight of puffy cumulus clouds in the morning.

It’s also important to pay attention to changing temperatures and how they feel: temperature decreases between 3 and 6 degrees for every 1,000 feet one goes up in elevation. That means it can be a comfortable 50 degrees in San Jose, but at the summit of Mt. Umunhum, it can be in the 30s, he explains.

Cliff maids (Lewisia cotyledon) emerge from cracks in the ice-polished granite at Sapphire Lake in the Trinity Alps, mountains Pantilat says feel like a mix of the Cascades and the Sierras. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

As a result of this temperature and weather variability in the mountains, it’s great to always bring along a lightweight shell or rain jacket, a warm hat and gloves, he adds. On mountains, because of a phenomenon called “orographic lift,” he explains, prevailing winds are more likely to become rain on the side of the mountain closest to the ocean, and be much drier on the other side of the mountain. And wind can be deceptive: higher winds come with higher terrain, and wind plus cold temperature create wind chill, the effect that occurs when it feels colder than it is because of the wind.

It can also take some time to adjust to the lower amount of oxygen at higher altitudes, so if you’re heading for the mountains, factoring in extra time to acclimate is important.

Stubbornness and rigid plans often lead people to do stupid things, he adds: Don’t be so set in your plans that you can’t be flexible, even if you have a hard-to-get permit that is only for specific dates, he advises. One way to do this is to always make alternate plans in case of bad weather.

Ice covers the vegetation in the Ventana Wilderness, where Pantilat is mapping out the area’s waterfalls. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

3. Be self-sufficient.

Carrying what you need to troubleshoot tricky outdoor situations can be a matter of life and death, he explains. He advises carrying a first aid kit, GPS and satellite messenger tools, a headlamp, extra food, water, snow trekking supplies (when relevant), as well as more traditional must-haves like bug spray and sunscreen.

Going out for a run in the local hills is one thing, but it’s critical to be able to let people know where you’re going when you’re venturing off the beaten path. Pantilat uses Garmin InReach GPS and SPOT satellite messenger to communicate with people — especially his spouse, Erica — when he’s off the grid. The GPS device also comes with an SOS feature that, if triggered, alerts local emergency responders to initiate search-and-rescue operations.

Namba runs along trails in the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve in the hills above Redwood City. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

“There’s no reason not to carry one,” he said, noting the importance of the device outweighs its cost. They weigh under 4 ounces and are USB-rechargeable, he added.

Also: always bring a headlamp, with spare batteries. When he was going for the speed record on the John Muir Trail, he said, the battery died on his headlamp at one point and he had to navigate around in the dark for about five hours without a light.

And then there are the basics, he added. Sunscreen is especially critical at high elevation, where sunburns happen fast, and forgetting mosquito protection is a fast way to wreck a trip to the mountains while scratching bug bites, he adds. Extra duct tape often comes in handy when things break.

Bringing enough food is important as well. Adventures often take longer than anticipated, so it’s important to be prepared with more food than seems necessary. He’s developed a specially-formulated granola that maximizes calories per ounce of weight, but a jar of sunflower butter or Nutella does nicely to offer relatively easy-on-the-stomach caloric density on the go, he adds.

Staying hydrated is also a critical element for staying safe. Know where water access will be along the way, and carry a purification system or purification tablets. The Katadyn BeFree water bottle is collapsible and includes a filter, so it is a nice light-weight option, he said. Be prepared for limited water supplies in late summer and in dry areas. In addition, be sure to bring electrolytes to go with the water to protect yourself against heat exhaustion.

Pantilat stands at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, looking onto Yosemite Falls. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

If you’re going to be hiking where there’s a possibility of snow, make sure you have an ice axe, microspikes or crampons, and know how to use them, he said. The Gaia GPS tool also comes highly recommended.

4. When there’s no path, take the path of least resistance.

If you decide to venture off-trail, Pantilat said, seek the path of least resistance.

Do understand that losing and gaining elevation can be the most efficient route between points A and B, and don’t try to force your way if you’re off-route, he explains. Remember that climbing down is harder than climbing up.

Pantilat crosses a creek while on an adventure in the Ventana Wilderness, near Big Sur. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

Avoid stepping on wood or snow on the edge of snowfields, and skip walking on talus or scree slopes in the Sierras, where footing can be flimsy.

“If things get too hairy, it’s better to live another day than get into a situation that’s scary. I have before, and it’s not fun,” he says.

5. Know your local risks.

Common adventure risks in the Bay are heat, poison oaks, rattlesnakes, flying insects and ticks, Pantilat said.

His advice: To avoid heat, plan for water sources.

To avoid poison oak, make sure you can first recognize it. If you’ve been exposed, treat it with Tecnu, or if you know you’re going somewhere you’ll be exposed to it, you can self-administer prophylaxis via “oral ivy” — a homeopathic dietary supplement that can reduce inflammation following exposure or build up one’s defenses against the inflammatory effects of poison oak, ivy and sumac if taken daily one to two weeks in advance.

To avoid rattlesnakes, exercise caution around areas with tall grass.

To minimize the risk of getting bit by insects, treat clothing with permethrin. With ticks, it’s important to check often to make sure they’re not on your skin or trying to bite you. Ticks move one direction, up, and they seek out exposed skin where they can burrow, Pantilat explained. If you’re going to be traveling through an area with a lot of ticks, wear long pants and a long shirt, and tuck layers into each other to minimize ticks’ access to one’s skin.

Berry Creek Falls, along the Skyline to the Sea trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.(Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

For people seeking out shorter local adventure running options, he recommends local places where backpacking is permitted: along the Skyline to the Sea trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, trail camps at Point Reyes, or the backpacking camp area at Black Mountain, above Los Altos. Local trails he enjoys are at the Purisima Creek Open Space Preserve, Russian Ridge or Long Ridge. Butano State Park, near Pescadero, also boasts beautiful single-track trails and stays lush year-round.

6. Leave no trace.

Pantilat also encourages trail users to follow the seven principles of the “Leave No Trace” ethical guidelines for outdoors people:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces, and seek out areas that have already been used as campsites.

3. Dispose of waste properly.

4. Leave what you find.

5. Minimize campfire impacts.

6. Respect wildlife.

7. Be considerate of other visitors.

Taking in the Bur Sur scenery high above Pfeiffer Beach. (Image via Pantilat’s Instagram)

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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