This story was produced with support from REI. REI Vernon Hills is now open at 901 N Milwaukee Ave., Unit 100.
It’s no secret that fall in Chicago often has volatile weather. Sunny and 60 one day, 30 with freezing rain the next.
According to local folklore, Chicago garnered the nickname the Windy City from big storms that frequently carried freezing gusts off nearby Lake Michigan.
Most locals embrace the unpredictable weather swings by packing an extra layer, so that they are able to stay outside and enjoy the fall colors.
I decided to visit Chicago in early November and, all things considered, got lucky with a few crisp but sunny days. As an avid runner, my goal was to explore the city and surrounding area by foot. I was fortunate to have two friends tag along, who wanted to discover new trails in their backyard and share one of their favorites with me, too.
We met at the REI store in Vernon Hills, to pick up some new trail running gear and get the local beta on the best trails in the northern suburbs. The store is easy to access, just off the interstate, and a great jumping-off point for adventures in both southern Wisconsin and the nearby lakes region of Illinois.
Thanks to the suggestions of Brad, the sales manager, and Sarah, one of the footwear specialists, we were on our way in under an hour, eager to explore nearby trails.
REI offers great Intro to Trail Running classes, with guidance on technique, training, and the appropriate apparel and footwear. Although we couldn’t make a class this trip, it was clear from talking to the REI Green Vests that their knowledge was rich. We got quick and digestible advice on shoe traction, wicking materials, and the best refueling snacks to throw in our hip pockets. We walked out of the store confident we had the right gear, and a fun route.
Brad pointed us towards the Des Plaines River Trail, and a trailhead with a parking lot less than a mile away from the store.
This trail runs north-south paralleling the Des Plaines river, is primarily gravel and dirt, and is nearly 60 miles long – although we ran just 8 of them. Mostly flat and wooded, the views were stunning, running through tunnels of bright yellow and orange leaves.
The next morning we woke early and headed downtown to the Lakefront Trail, an iconic paved trail that runs 18 miles along Lake Michigan. Pinched between sandy beaches and towering skyscrapers, the trail is frequented by a wide variety of walkers, runners, and bikers. We started our run before the sun rose and put some of our warmer jackets to use, enjoying a mostly empty path. Heading north, Chicago’s skylite slowly lit up behind us – a view that few cities can match.
Thanks to Brad and Sarah at REI, we had all the gear needed to enjoy a couple days of running around in Chicago. Here’s the gear we picked up at the store in Vernon Hills, and how it worked for us.
Designed in Chamonix on the steep and rugged trails around Mont Blanc, HOKA shoes have quickly become some of the most popular on the market, providing trail runners with great traction and best-in-class support.
The Speedgoat is one of the longest tenured models, with a wide midsole and big lugs on the bottom to keep you from slipping on loose gravel or mud. The shoe is easy to pick out in a lineup, with considerably more cushion than its competitors, yet surprisingly, the shoe is the same weight.
I put the Speedgoat 2 to the test in Chicago and quickly understood why it has a reputation as a workhorse in the distance running community. Fast and light, the Speedgoat 2 feels like running on clouds. It’s no wonder that so many runners use this shoe to help prevent overuse injuries in their hamstrings, IT bands, knees, and ankles.
Cool mornings in Chicago called for thicker socks, and we knew just where to turn. While Stance made an early name for themselves with flashy designs and key partnerships with the NBA and Disney, don’t let their style fool you. Stance manufactures some of the highest quality wool socks on the market, great for a wide variety of outdoor activities. These socks function as well as they fashion.
Teton Hike socks have a soft feel that hasn’t faded away, even after weeks of use. Unlike many lightweight socks, a pair of Stance socks will rarely rip, due to the brand’s investment in better materials and improved weaving technologies. This pair kept me comfortably warm in 40-degree weather.
My local running friend, Jeremy, was looking for a new pair of shorts that were well ventilated, simple, and had a zippered pocket to carry his phone while running. While this sounds straightforward, it’s often difficult to find a short that checks all these boxes. Poorly designed shorts have a bad habit of chafing, especially on runners with larger legs, like Jeremy.
The REI store specialists directed us to The North Face Reactor shorts, a pair that has a standard fit and comfortable inseam length for his larger, 6’2″ frame. Jeremy often runs long distances, and wanted a more versatile pair of shorts without a liner, so that he could pair the shorts with compression shorts that he already trusted. The Reactor were perfect for this.
Along with the shorts, Jeremy was looking for a new watch. Specifically, he wanted one that would excel in the mixed conditions that running in Chicago would throw at it – and the Spartan was the perfect fit. The GPS watch combines an air pressure sensor with a barometric reading to offer storm alerts, so you know when it’ll be great to run, and when it’s best to stay inside. This sounded like a gimmick to us, until we put it to use. The accuracy of the notifications we received were spot on.
The watch is also water resistant, offers navigation tracking, and a heart rate monitor, all great features for multisport athletes that like to hike, run, ski, and bike. Jeremy was particularly excited about the a couple features that would help him train for his upcoming marathon, and track his sleep and calories burned. Overall, the Suunto Spartan is a great sidekick for runners in mixed environments.
While Jeremy and I were getting the full download on watch specs, Dani was trying on a selection of running jackets, with the support of Sarah, an REI specialist. After testing a few options, Dani found the one she was looking for – The North Face Reactor. Designed with a similar vision to the shorts Jeremy found, the Reactor jacket is simple, functional, and lightweight. Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
A DWR waterproof coating helps keep a light rain off, while allowing the jacket to breathe well, too. A pair of zippered pockets are great for your phone or gloves. A standard fit, elastic cuffs, and lower drop in the back make the jacket a great design, without the bulk or over-engineering that you sometimes see. Dani wore the Reactor for the first few miles on both of our runs, and as she warmed up, easily packed it away.
The last piece of gear we grabbed was a small running vest, the Osprey Dyna. Before our visit to REI, Dani had run with a couple packs from other brands, but hadn’t found one that fit well. The Dyna, with its women-specific fit and bounce-free carry, changed that.
The Dyna is light enough for you to forget you’re wearing it and well organized for a wide selection of snacks and hydration. The 1.5L reservoir provides ample water for long runs that don’t have places to refill, like much of the Des Plaines trail. And above all, it’s shockingly comfortable.
If you’re looking to learn more about trail running, try an REI class at any of the 4 stores in the area. Expert instruction while you run on nearby trails.
Searching for a running community in Chicago? Give November Project a try. They offer a free, running-based workout twice a week at multiple locations. Plus, you can meet Dani and Jeremy!
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