Running on varied and challenging trails is a welcome break from the monotony of pounding pavement (or even worse, the belt of a treadmill). Better yet, trail running is an immensely easy sport to get into and requires only minimal gear. Below are our top trail runners of 2021, which cover everything from flexible and lightweight shoes for smooth trails to tough and stable designs for tackling technical or mountainous terrain.
Table of Contents
- Our Trail Running Shoe Picks
- Trail Running Shoe Comparison Table
- Trail Running Shoe Buying Advice
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.6 oz.
What we like: Standout comfort and traction in a lightweight package.
What we don’t: Thick midsole minimizes trail feel in technical sections.
Hoka One One may have built their reputation around soft, heavily cushioned road and trail runners, but we think their Speedgoat 4 is an exceptional all-rounder. The shoe has the brand’s signature thick midsole, but the design hits a near-ideal balance of comfort, weight, protection, and responsiveness (we’ve also found it’s a great option for hiking). In addition, the aggressive outsole is one of our favorites, with substantial lugs and tacky Vibram Megagrip rubber that hold well in everything from dry dirt and mud to steep rock. Tack on a medium-width toe box that fits a broad range of foot shapes—plus available wide sizes for both men and women—and the Speedgoat is our favorite trail running shoe of 2021.
The Speedgoat 4 is Hoka’s technical trail offering, and the substantial midsole does inspire a lot of confidence while running over roots or sharp rocks, but the tall stack height has its downsides. When foot placement is very important, such as when descending steep switchbacks, the shoe lacks the precision of a low-slung build like La Sportiva’s Bushido II below. Hoka did make some small tweaks with the “4,” including a slightly firmer foam and more durable upper, but the shoe isn’t as nimble as a true off-trail model (and we’d be remiss not to mention that some find the updated tongue a bit abrasive). That said, for the vast majority of runners—including those covering serious distances over fairly rough terrain—the Speedgoat hits a sweet spot between performance and cushioning.
See the Men's Hoka One One Speedgoat See the Women's Hoka One One Speedgoat
Category: Rugged trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 3.8 oz.
What we like: Comfortable for miles of trail yet adept in technical mountain terrain.
What we don’t: There are better options for rock scrambling.
The Speedgoat above is a nicely cushioned go-to for well-established trail networks, but it suffers on cross-country terrain like rock and snow. For everything from rugged local trails to mountain missions—think fast-and-light peak bagging in the Cascades, the Sierra, and Colorado—you’ll want a shoe with a sticky rubber sole, added protection around the foot and extra durability in the upper, and a stiffer build that can handle technical rock (and even accommodate a crampon). The Salomon Sense Ride 3 nails the equation, and even tacks on a good deal of midsole cushioning for high-mileage days. The result is a shoe that is adept on glaciers and can scramble low-5th-class rock but also tackles trail miles with ease.
Within the mountain running category, the Salomon Sense Ride 3 is the best all-rounder, but there are a number of other options. Shoes like the La Sportiva Bushido II (below) and Salmon X Alpine Pro take on more of a cleat-like persona and are arguably better on technical terrain, but they come up short on smooth paths. Arc’teryx’s Norvan VT below is another solid alternative (and even tacks on a climbing zone on the sole for those rocky summits) but it’s more of an investment at $170. In the end, the Sense Ride 3 puts it all together better than most, and it has become our trusted companion for mountain missions that include a long trail approach and a variety of cross-country travel.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 3 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 3
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish feel; hard to trust in off-camber or technical sections.
Altra quickly progressed from an unknown to a go-to brand in the trail running community, and much of their rapid ascent can be attributed to the rise in popularity of zero-drop shoes. An offshoot of the barefoot running movement, zero-drop trail runners keep the foot in its naturally flat position (most shoes here elevate the heel by 4 to 10mm). Many brands have experimented with this trend, but the Lone Peak is our favorite model for both trail running and thru-hiking. Like other shoes in the Lone Peak series (it’s worth checking out the Mid or Mid RSM for more protection and waterproofing), the 4.5 features a wide toe box and moderate cushioning, which lend comfort for high-mileage days on moderate terrain.
What are the downsides of the Lone Peak? First off, the zero-drop design is not for everyone. Those accustomed to a more typical trail runner might find it slightly more sluggish than the Speedgoat above and Bushido below, and it isn’t as capable in off-camber sections of trail (there’s nothing aggressive about the Lone Peak). Further, the wide toe box can lead to a sloppy feel over technical terrain, especially for those with narrow feet (the 4.5’s tighter instep and redesigned laces do help a little here). As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. All in all, the Lone Peak 4.5 is our favorite zero-drop shoe, but there are a number of great options available, including Altra’s Timp 2, the Merrell Bare Access XTR, and the Topo Athletic Runventure 3.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 4.5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 4.5
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6
What we like: One of the few capable hybrid trail/road shoes.
What we don’t: Tread and stability fall short in soft or especially rugged terrain.
Mixing road and trail shoe characteristics, Hoka’s Challenger ATR 6 offers a nice all-in-one solution for those who combine mediums on their daily run. Like the Speedgoat above, the shoe has excellent cushioning and comfort thanks to a thick midsole, and a streamlined build and rockered base give it a springy personality. You get a lightweight and efficient road feel with a section of standard blown rubber on the outsole, while pods of trail-worthy lugs can be found under the ball of the foot and heel. Finally, the updated “6” features a revamped upper made with post-consumer recycled plastic, and the greatly improved fit should appeal to most runners (wide sizes are also available).
Unsurprisingly, trying to do everything for everyone does come with some compromises. In the case of the ATR 6, its closely spaced lugs come up short in muddy and sloppy conditions, and the flexible outsole is noticeably less planted over rocky terrain than a dedicated trail shoe. On pavement, the grippy sections of the sole can feel a little sticky and slow compared to a standard road model. As is often the case, serious runners that want maximum performance will be better off with a dedicated pair of shoes for each activity. But for runs that mix together short sections of road and fairly easy trail (a popular combo if you’re running from home), the Challenger is one of the best designs we’ve used.
See the Men's Hoka Challenger ATR 6 See the Women's Hoka Challenger ATR 6
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Noticeably lightweight and wide toe box offers all-day comfort.
What we don't: Narrow feet will swim in the toe box.
Topo Athletic might not be a household name like Salomon or La Sportiva, but their lineup of shoes speaks for itself. Founded by the former CEO of Vibram, this company knows what goes into making a good running shoe, and the MTN Racer is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver. Like the Lone Peak above, the MTN Racer features a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, lending all-day comfort for swollen and hard-working feet. But the Topo Athletic tacks on some technical chops, with a 5-millimeter drop (compared to the Altra’s 0mm), slightly firmer cushioning, and a small decrease in weight. We’ve logged over 400 trail miles in one pair of MTN Racers and overall have been very impressed with the shoe's high degree of comfort, durability, and trail-handling.
The MTN Racer features deep lugs and a Vibram Megagrip sole (a blend often used in climbing approach shoes) for excellent hold on rocky and rooted trails. But for true mountain travel, you’ll want a more supportive and protective shoe like the Salomon Sense Ride 3 above or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 below. We’ve also found the MTN Racer to be very capable in wet weather: the upper is designed with minimal bulk and drainage ports, meaning that when your feet do get wet, they dry quickly. And while many runners appreciate the MTN Racer for its spacious toe box, if you’re looking for a true wide size (EE for men, D for women), the good news is that there are a number of options, including our top-rated Speedgoat above and Brooks’ Cascadia 15 below.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer See the Women's Topo MTN Racer
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Narrow fit; too specialized for most runners.
Combining key traits of both a trail runner and an approach shoe, Arc’teryx’s Norvan VT is an ideal pick for moving quickly in mountainous terrain. You get a lot of features we look for in a trail running shoe, including a cushioned midsole, breathable upper, and a lightweight build. But the Norvan VT (short for “vertical”) makes its climbing intentions clear with a streamlined toe box, ground-hugging design, and Megagrip outsole with a climbing zone underneath the big toe. Add it all up, and this is a great option for peak bagging and high-country scrambles when you want a bit more grip, stability, and protection than a traditional trail runner can provide.
The Norvan VT takes it one step further than the Sense Ride 3 above, with a stiffer build and stickier sole that give it an extra dose of performance particularly on rock. But unlike the Salomon, the Arc’teryx becomes overkill on anything tame. As a result, the Norvan is a specialized shoe best for mountain running, and particularly routes with minimal trail mileage (this is a tough shoe to actually jog in). For a more cushioned and flexible option from Arc’teryx that’s comfortable on moderately technical terrain, check out their Norvan LD 2. And as with all Arc’teryx shoes, keep in mind that the Norvan VT (also available in a GTX version) is on the narrow side—one of our wide-footed testers found the toe box to be prohibitively tight... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2 See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2
Weight: 1 lb. 5.9 oz.
What we like: Excellent mix of traction, comfort, and protection.
What we don’t: A bit heavy and some might want plusher cushioning.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been an all-around favorite of ours over multiple generations, excelling in all of the categories that matter: traction, cushioning, protection, and weight. We love its signature trail-eating, teeth-like tread that grips anything from wet rocks to hardpack dirt, and a rock plate underfoot adds protection without compromising flexibility. Moving up the shoe, the well-balanced PWRUN midsole is stable yet responsive on technical trails, featuring just enough cushioning to keep you comfortable on high-mileage days. And the newest “11” builds on the winning formula, with a premium-feeling upper that improves upon durability, protection, and breathability (for a small weight penalty).
While the Peregrine is a well-balanced, trustworthy companion for most trails, it’s not a standout on highly technical terrain and is overbuilt for pavement and gravel. We’ve found the Hoka Speedgoat above to be a bit more versatile, even while topping the Peregrine in weight and responsiveness. But you do get some options within the Peregrine line, including a waterproof GTX model ($150) and an ST (soft terrain) version, which features longer lugs (6.5mm compared to 5mm) and a debris-resistant upper and quick-lace system for $130. No matter what model you choose, the Peregrine continues to offer an impressive combination of comfort, performance, and high-quality materials.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 11 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 11
Category: Rugged trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Cushioned for long distances but still has great technical chops.
What we don’t: No rock plate and some might not like the isolated feel.
Scarpa is most known for climbing and mountaineering footwear, so it comes as no surprise that their Spin Ultra is a capable companion on the trail. True to its name, the Spin Ultra is a great ultra-distance shoe, thanks to its generous cushioning, wide toe box, and breathable upper. And when the trail turns technical, a sticky Vibram Megagrip sole keeps you on your feet, while a tall stack height and rigid heel provide stiffness and protection underfoot. The end result is a shoe that can speed down long sections of easy trail but still holds its own on rocky and off-camber terrain, similar to the Salomon Sense Ride 3 above.
Although it hasn’t been around for long, the Spin Ultra has quickly risen in popularity among ultra-racers and mountain runners alike. Compared to the Sense Ride 3, the Scarpa is lighter by a little less than one ounce per shoe and offers slightly more isolation from the ground with a stiffer and taller heel. But its upper lags behind the Salomon in terms of durability, especially around rock (or if you’re strapping on a crampon). In the end, we think the Spin Ultra performs slightly better on trail while the Sense Ride 3 is a better choice for cross-country travel.
See the Men's Scarpa Spin Ultra See the Women's Scarpa Spin Ultra
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 4.5 oz.
What we like: Nike’s proven road-running technology tailored for trail use.
What we don’t: The Peregrine 11 above has a better outsole design.
Nike puts most of their efforts into road-running gear, but their Terra Kiger 6 is a quality, cushioned option for trail work. With the most recent update, the Terra Kiger features a revamped mesh upper that’s designed to better keep out mud and other trail debris, alongside an improved fit in the forefoot. Other familiar features remain unchanged, such as the highly responsive React foam in the midsole, segmented rock plate, sturdy toe cap, and outsole that grips particularly well in hardpack dirt and rock. All in all, the Terra Kiger 6 amounts to a solid all-rounder that’s well-deserving of a spot on this list.
In many ways, the Nike Terra Kiger is a direct competitor to the Saucony Peregrine 11 above. They both weigh about 10 ounces per shoe (the Peregrine is slightly heavier), have a 4-millimeter offset, and provide a similar mix of cushioning, flexibility, and on-trail performance. We give the edge to the Peregrine for its superior outsole that lasts longer and grips better in muddy and wet conditions, but both are great shoes that are equally adept at short- and long-distance runs. For a beefed-up alternative to the Terra Kiger for rough terrain, check out Nike’s Wildhorse 6.
See the Men's Nike Terra Kiger 6 See the Women's Nike Terra Kiger 6
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Overkill and stiff for trail jogging.
Like Scarpa, La Sportiva is a climbing company at its core, and this is reflected in their mountain-ready Bushido II trail runner. With a semi-stiff platform and burly lugs, the Bushido is one of our favorite shoes for technical trails: it’s responsive, grips remarkably well even over slippery rocks and roots, and is stable on challenging terrain. And unlike a heavily cushioned model, the La Sportiva retains excellent trail feel (this can be a downside, however, if you prefer a lot of isolation from harsh impacts). Tack on a durable upper (improved in the most recent version) and toe cap, and the Bushido is a solid and confidence-inspiring workhorse of a shoe.
One thing to keep in mind with such a serious mountain runner is that the La Sportiva is more cleat-like than a standard trail shoe. In fact, it’s even stiffer than the mountain-focused Arc’teryx Norvan VT above. Most runners will find this extra support to be overkill on smooth paths, and the lightly cushioned midsole is noticeably less comfortable than an all-around model like the Speedgoat or MTN Racer (especially on high-mileage days). But if you tackle the steeps and want a reliable partner, we highly recommend the Bushido. Its performance fit and high levels of stability and traction truly make it a standout... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido II See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido II
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: A Hoka shoe for Hoka skeptics; responsive and fast.
What we don’t: The upper feels a bit sloppy; light cushioning is not ideal for high-mileage days.
Running-shoe giant Hoka One One has built a name around their max-cushioned designs (as seen in the Speedgoat and Challenger above), but the Torrent 2 bucks this trend with a lower profile that provides ample ground feel. The result is a Hoka that’s responsive and fast, making it great for race day and tempo workouts alike. But it’s not all speed—with a low-slung build and Hoka’s proprietary sticky rubber sole, the nimble Torrent holds its own on technical trails, too. We’ve put over 100 miles into our pair of Torrent 2s and have been impressed with their lightweight and plush feel combined with great traction on a variety of terrain.
The Torrent 2 goes head-to-head with an all-around trail shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer above. The two models differ most in terms of cushioning and fit: First off, with the Hoka you get 7 millimeters less foam in both the heel and toe, making it the better choice for those who appreciate ground feel (at the sacrifice in comfort for long days on the trail). Secondly, the MTN Racer’s streamlined upper straps you in tight, while the Torrent 2’s engineered mesh and padded tongue have a more casual (perhaps even sloppy) feel. In the end, both are excellent shoes and your decision might come down to foot shape: wide-footed runners will love the generous toe box on the MTN Racer, while those with narrow feet will prefer the Torrent 2’s slimmer profile (and it doesn’t hurt that the Hoka is $20 less).
See the Men's Hoka One One Torrent 2 See the Women's Hoka One One Torrent 2
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction in soft ground.
What we don’t: Less stable than the Bushido II above.
Salomon has been in the trail running game for a long time, and the Speedcross 5 packs in all of their well-known features: a single-pull lace system, supportive fit, and sturdy but still reasonably light chassis. What sets the Speedcross apart is its massive 6-millimeter arrow-shaped lugs (most trail shoes are about 4mm), which offer best-in-class traction over soft ground like dirt, mud, and even snow. The performance-oriented and narrow fit isn’t for everyone, but the Speedcross’s thick midsole and supportive upper material makes it a capable, mountain-ready design.
We rank the Speedcross 5 lower on the list due to its less stable ride over sketchy stretches of trail. Whereas shoes like the Bushido and Norvan VT sit low and are planted, the tall stack height of the Speedcross can feel tippy and prone to rolling over, particularly on rock. And if you’re intrigued by the Speedcross, it’s worth checking out Salomon’s Wildcross, which offers a more stable and cushioned alternative and features a wider toe box (we’ve found the Speedcross to be quite narrow, although wide sizes are available). We have yet to test the Wildcross, but all signs point to it being a more forgiving and versatile all-rounder. And for those who regularly get out in the cold and wet, the Speedcross 5 and Wildcross are also sold in Gore-Tex versions, which retail for $150 and $160 respectively.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 5 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 5
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and not very capable on technical terrain.
Brooks is most known in the trail running world for their Cascadia (below), a beloved shoe among both runners and thru-hikers that is now in its 15th generation. The Caldera offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a stack height reminiscent of a Hoka One One, the wide toe box of an Altra, and overall more flexibility and cushion than the Cascadia for tackling long distances on moderate terrain. We wore the first iteration of this shoe on our first 50K, and found it to be a comfortable, capable choice for the hardpacked dirt of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now in its 4th iteration, the updated design features added mesh for increased breathability, a TPU toe cap to guard against toe stubs, and an improved outsole that excels on hardpack dirt and rock.
The Caldera wouldn’t be our first choice for technical or wet terrain (you don’t get the type of underfoot protection we see in the popular Cascadia line), and with a generous dose of plush cushioning the shoe is far from fast (within Brooks’ lineup, their new nitrogen-infused Catamount is the best choice for speed). But along with Hoka’s Challenger above, the Caldera is one of the more capable all-rounders for door-to-trail runs. In the end, most recreational trail runners will benefit from a jack-of-all-trades shoe over a specialist design, and the Caldera’s mix of durability, comfort, and traction make it a solid performer in most conditions.
See the Men's Brooks Caldera 4 See the Women's Brooks Caldera 4
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and cushioned yet still capable in rocky and off-camber environments.
What we don’t: Not great for soft terrain.
La Sportiva continues to churn out quality shoes built for serious mountain environments, and the Jackal GTX is no exception. Like the Scarpa Spin Ultra and Salomon Sense Ride 3 above, this is another solid all-rounder, combining ultra-distance levels of cushioning and a roomy toe box with mountain-ready features like a rock plate and sticky Vibram FriXion rubber. The Jackal also tacks on a Gore-Tex membrane, making it a great option for shoulder-season hiking or those who want added moisture protection, although keep in mind this will come at the cost of some breathability (it’s available in a non-GTX version, too).
Despite weighing a bit more than the aforementioned shoes, the Jackal feels particularly lightweight, and the soft foam lends a bit more spring to the step than the Scarpa in particular. In practice, the Jackal feels nimble on our feet, and the 7-millimeter stack height promotes an aggressive feel. Keep in mind that the 3-millimeter lugs are shorter than we’re used to seeing in a mountain running shoe (4mm is a more standard lug length) and don’t hold up on snow or deep mud as well as other designs. And finally, the Jackal runs small (it’s worth considering bumping up a half size) and some runners have experienced issues with the Jackal rubbing around the heel, although we’ve had no complaints during our testing.
See the Men's La Sportiva Jackal GTX See the Women's La Sportiva Jackal GTX
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.5 oz.
What we like: A reliable go-to for technical terrain.
What we don’t: Not as fast and nimble as more modern options above.
For years running, the Cascadia has been Brooks’ leading trail shoe, and its 15th iteration still claims that top spot. This should tell you two things: one, runners (and thru-hikers) love the Cascadia and turn to it year after year for technical trail needs. On the other hand (two), this also means that the Cascadia has been around for over a decade, and as a result is a rather dated concept. In 2021, there are a plethora of more modern and improved options, whether you’re looking for a peppy ride on roots and rocks or all-day comfort for long distances.
It’s not all bad with the Cascadia though. The "14" saw a much-needed revamp, and the "15" builds off of its improved design a new mesh upper (similar to that of the Caldera 4 above) that offers more protection and a closer fit. Further, the newest model keeps the relatively lightweight build and updated outsole, and with a rock plate and sticky rubber is still a very capable shoe for rough terrain. But expect the Brooks to have a pretty bland feel to it on the trail (especially compared with snappy options like the Speedgoat), and its reinforced upper does make it run warmer than mesh-heavy alternatives. Taken together, the Cascadia 15 is still good but not great, and we’ll point all but the most stalwart of fans towards other options farther up the list.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 15 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 15
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 3.3 oz.
What we like: Great grip and durability along with a close-to-ground feel.
What we don’t: Less of an all-rounder than the Bushido II above.
With its origins in British fell running, Inov-8 is no stranger to steep terrain, cross-country travel, and the wettest of conditions. It’s here that their lightweight and aggressive Roclite G 275 excels. With a stack height of only 8 millimeters at the forefoot, the Roclite is by far the least-cushioned shoe on our list (the next in line is the Norvan VT 2 with 16mm at the toe), which keeps you feeling close to the ground and in control (a rock plate adds ample protection). Further, the latest “G” models include a reworked tread that features an innovative Graphene compound for increased durability and longevity. Tack on a minimalist yet durable mesh upper, and you have one serious pair of high-performance kicks.
The Roclite is built for varied, technical terrain, which puts it head-to-head with the La Sportiva Bushido above. Both feature a rock plate, 6-millimeter lugs, and a lightweight build (the Roclite is 1.7 ounces lighter per pair), but the Inov-8 has slightly more aggressive intentions, with less cushioning and a more pronounced drop (8mm vs. 6mm). All in all, the Bushido II gets the edge as the more capable all-rounder that does a better job absorbing impacts over high-mileage days. But the Roclite isn’t far behind, as its fairly large British fanbase can attest.
See the Men's Inov-8 Roclite G 275 See the Women's Inov-8 Roclite G 275
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.4 oz.
What we like: Affordable road shoe that can hold its own on dirt and rock.
What we don’t: Not intended for technical trails.
If you plan to stick mostly to smooth trails or want to mix in some road miles, the Asics Gel-Venture 7 makes a lot of sense. The Gel-Venture will outgrip and offers better lateral stability and support than a road shoe without overdoing it with a large toe cap, thick materials, or massive lugs. But with a mesh upper, the Gel-Venture has the light and airy feel of a road runner. For the right person, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s important to note that with the emphasis on easy trails, the Gel-Venture shouldn’t really be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep terrain or over rocks, roots, or other rough ground, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment. But for light trail use, the Venture is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Asics Gel-Venture 7 See the Women's Asics Gel-Venture 7
|Hoka One One Speedgoat 4||$145||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.6 oz.||Maximum||4mm|
|Salomon Sense Ride 3||$120||Rugged trails/all-around||1 lb. 3.8 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Altra Lone Peak 4.5||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate||0mm|
|Hoka Challenger ATR 6||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||5mm|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer||$140||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||5mm|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Light||8mm|
|Saucony Peregrine 11||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5.9 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Scarpa Spin Ultra||$149||Rugged trails/all-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 4.5 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|La Sportiva Bushido II||$130||Rugged trails||1 lb. 5 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Hoka One One Torrent 2||$120||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Light/moderate||5mm|
|Salomon Speedcross 5||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||10mm|
|Brooks Caldera 4||$140||All-around||1 lb. 4 oz.||Maximum||4mm|
|La Sportiva Jackal GTX||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Moderate||7mm|
|Brooks Cascadia 15||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.5 oz.||Light/moderate||8mm|
|Inov-8 Roclite G 275||$135||Rugged trails||1 lb. 3.3 oz.||Light||8mm|
|Asics Gel-Venture 7||$70||Easy trails||1 lb. 5.4 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
- Trail Running Shoe Categories
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Lacing Systems
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
- Wearing Trail Running Shoes on Pavement
For tackling local trail networks or maintained paths that aren’t very technical or steep, a shoe in our easy trails category is best. Compared with a standard road-running model, these shoes are defined by a moderate increase in traction, stability, and toe and underfoot protection. They also should outlast those pavement pounders with a more durable construction and beefed up tread design. Among the larger trail running market, these are the most flexible, prioritizing comfort over all-out grip and support. If you’ll be covering serious miles or heading into mountainous terrain, it may be worth upgrading to a shoe in the all-around or rugged trails categories. But for cruising dirt or park paths, shoes like the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 and Asics Gel-Venture are great options.
The majority of trail runners choose a shoe from the all-around category. The reason is simple: they are the most versatile designs that offer the right balance of performance and comfort. A model like our top-rated Hoka One One Speedgoat provides fantastic grip in dirt, mud, or over rock, and keeps your feet protected and comfortable. It won’t feel stiff and overkill on easy-going singletrack, but has the chops to handle a race like the Leadville Trail 100. The main reason not to choose an all-rounder is if you need a more focused design (for example, a shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido that excels on demanding, mountainous terrain). Otherwise, we recommend most people start and end their search here.
Trail running shoes intended for rugged terrain are the most specialized of the bunch. While the specific designs can vary from a soft-ground specialist like the Salomon Speedcross to the Arc’teryx Norvan VT’s approach shoe-like grip, common features include a durable construction, stiffer build for long climbs and tricky descents, and fit systems that aim to keep your feet solidly in place. Look also for a full rubber outsole (many running shoes leave some midsole foam uncovered for weight-savings and bounce), resulting in a heavier build that will likely feel a bit overkill on maintained trails. But if your runs feature steep inclines, rocks and roots, mud or soft grass, and snow or scree, a rugged trails shoe is best.
We put a high priority on weight when considering a trail running shoe. Lighter shoes are faster, feel less cumbersome, and allow you to cover more ground with less fatigue. But we also like a balanced design that doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of comfort and trail performance. For 2021, our favorite trail runners weigh a little over 1 pound per pair (measured in a men’s 9 or 10). This typically gets you enough protection and support for long distances without feeling sluggish.
Our picks above range in weight from 1 pound 2.6 ounces for the Scarpa Spin Ultra, Hoka Torrent 2, and Topo Athletic MTN Racer to 1 pound 6.6 ounces for the burly Salomon Speedcross 5 and Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2. The Spin Ultra, Torrent, and MTN Racer feel extremely light on your feet (great for speed and high-mileage days) while the Salomon and Arc'teryx are super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection, while designs like the Speedcross can be fairly cumbersome on easy trail. In general, we find the sweet spot to often be right in the middle.
Not all trail running shoes are created equal, and traction is one of the places we see the most variation. In general, the level of grip provided will closely follow the categories above. Shoes for easy trails feature a combination of outsole rubber and exposed midsole, which lends a lightweight, springy feel but suffers particularly on slippery rocks, roots, and mud. On the other hand, those built for rugged trails often have a full rubber outsole for approach-shoe-like traction in mountainous terrain (think snow, boulder hopping, and scree). All-rounders fall somewhere in between and are a great middle-ground option for most trail running objectives.
Looking closer at the nitty gritty of traction, an outsole’s rubber compound, tread depth, and tread pattern all play a role in maximizing grip. Starting with rubber compound, shoes that have sticky, approach shoe-like rubber like the La Sportiva Bushido II or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 excel on rock, while others that have a softer and more pliable feel often do better in mud. Secondly, tread depth (or lug depth as defined by the height of the lugs in millimeters) isn’t listed by many manufacturers, but you can get a good idea of the size by looking at an image of the sole. Tall lugs like you’ll find on the Salomon Speedcross or Saucony Peregrine ST provide excellent bite in loose ground, but in the case of the Speedcross, the raised profile has a negative impact on stability. Finally, the tread design should be considered: widely spaced, tall lugs with a soft compound will outperform tightly spaced, short lugs, and sticky rubber in mud, and the reverse is typically true over rock or hardpack.
An area where manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves is the amount of cushioning provided by their shoes. Known as the “stack height,” which is the measured height from where the foot sits inside the shoe to the ground, trail running models range from very thin to heavily cushioned. Minimalist designs only have a small amount of EVA foam in the midsole, which makes them extremely nimble and provides a close feel of the terrain. But the downside is the potential for some really sore feet as the miles pound on. On the other end of the spectrum are maximum-cushioned shoes from brands like Hoka One One and Altra (the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 is 32mm at the heel). These remind us a lot of a fat bike: the ride is smooth and you barely notice the ground underneath, but there is more of a disconnect between you and the trail (and their tall heights can make them prone to rolling over).
Both minimalist and max-cushioned styles have their merits—and loyal fans—but in the end, most runners are happiest somewhere in the middle. Shoes like the Saucony Peregrine, Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger, and Altra Lone Peak are soft and springy to keep your feet happy on rough terrain and for long distances, but don’t sit too tall to compromise stability and confidence. It’s no accident most of the shoes we have listed above offer a moderate amount of cushioning.
As the name indicates, the heel-to-toe drop is the difference in shoe height, where your foot sits, from the heel to toe. This spec was barely on the radar of folks outside the hardcore running community until the zero-drop fad hit a few years ago. Many of the shoes in our all-around category have a drop in the range of 4 to 8 millimeters, which can work well for both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero-drop shoes have a 0-millimeter difference (Altra is a leader in this department), encouraging a mid- or forefoot landing point. And many models for rugged trails have the most dramatic drops, often 8 to 10 millimeters.
Our take is that drop is a matter of comfort and personal preference more than anything else. Many people like a moderate drop in their trail running shoes, while others prefer a zero-drop design. The trend is toward lower drops for running shoes in general, although the performance and injury prevention science are hotly debated. The key is that you don't make a major change to an extreme end of the spectrum and then head straight out for a long run. Instead, if you're interested in a zero-drop design, try it out by easing in and developing confidence on the trail. This will reduce the chance of injury and ensure that it's the right choice for you.
Trying to move fast over rough terrain in a pair of lightweight low-top shoes may seem like asking for an injury (and it can happen), but today’s trail running shoes do offer a stable ride that is resistant to ankle rolls. It starts with a solid platform, which is wide and rigid enough to sustain hard impacts on uneven ground (this platform is pronounced on a highly stable shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer). The chassis, which is the perimeter of the base of the shoe, is beefed up with trail runners to create that solid base. In addition, some shoes include a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon that’s been slid in-between the midsole and outsole for added stiffness. Finally, some manufacturers create what amounts to a partial plastic exoskeleton around the heel cup for added structure and rollover protection.
The relative stiffness and stability of a shoe will most often correlate with its intended use, or as defined in this article, its category (easy trails, all-around, rugged trails). A race or mountain-oriented shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido II is stiffer and has more of a structure, while easy trail options are more flexible and comfortable out of the box.
The most common waterproof design for trail running shoes is made by Gore-Tex, and consists of a waterproof and breathable lining that is inserted between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining. The extra layer does add a little weight—typically about 2 ounces total—and makes the shoe feel less sprightly than a non-waterproof option. Further, it has a significant impact on breathability and drying time, and if water does enter the shoe (from the ankle, for example), the impermeable walls mean it won’t drain out. For those looking to go light and fast, waterproofing is probably not the best option, but for running in the rain in cold weather or in slushy snow, we’ve found a Gore-Tex lining does a great job preventing freezing toes.
A waterproof shoe like the La Sportiva Jackal GTX makes the most sense when the extra warmth (i.e., less ventilation) is a good thing, such as during the shoulder seasons or winter. Another scenario where waterproofing may come in handy is if you use your trail runners for year-round hiking. In this case, you may run warm in the middle of the summer but have some added protection from the wet. But most summer runs, even if you’ll be crossing a stream or two, are oftentimes still best in a pair of mesh non-waterproof shoes that drain reasonably quickly. Even for mountain missions that involve a lot of snow travel, we’ll often add waterproof socks and gaiters rather than opt for a waterproof shoe.
A sweaty foot is an uncomfortable foot, which is the last thing you want to be thinking about while wheezing your way up a steep climb. As such, the ventilating ability of a shoe is one of the most important factors for runners. Nylon mesh is a common material used in trail running shoes for the obvious benefit of increased breathability. To retain durability, many manufacturers use a combination of a tight weave and thin fabric to both resist tears and keep air flowing. And as we’ve found, some are more accomplished than others. In comparing a couple popular shoes, the Arc’teryx Norvan VT and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Terra Kiger to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Norvan VT’s more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you’ll want some added protection from your shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail running shoes have some type of toe protection, usually in the form of a rubber toe guard or cap that is capable of absorbing direct hits pretty well. Because of the lightweight intent of a trail runner, the toe protection isn’t as substantial as a hiking shoe, but it should prevent your toes from turning black and blue should you accidentally kick a rock or root on the trail.
Much in the same way that a protective toe cap isolates you from a sharp rock or other trail debris, lightweight rock plates are inserted between the midsole and outsole on many trail shoes. These plates vary in thickness, coverage, and materials, ranging from thin and flexible ESS foam under the ball of the foot to a stiff TPU shank. How much protection is needed depends on personal preference and the terrain you'll be running over (more miles on rough trails will merit burlier protection), but overall, we find rock plates to be a great feature. They’re unobtrusive, keep foot soreness to a minimum, and only add a small amount of weight.
Laces are easy to overlook but play a fundamental role in shoe comfort. Most shoes use a standard lace-up method, but brands like Salomon are doing things a little differently with a single pull “Quicklace” system on their trail running shoes. We love this design on the Salomon Speedcross 5 and Sense Ride for its ease of use and speed. It only requires a single pull, and then you can tuck away the excess laces and forget about them. We’ve found that the laces hold extremely well—better than some traditional sets in fact. There is a potential downside, however. For those with finicky feet that need to customize the fit around certain parts of your feet, there isn’t really a solution with the quick lace design. The laces will fit equally tight around the entirety of your foot. Accordingly, we recommend avoiding quick laces if you often fiddle with your laces to get the fit just right.
In recent years, trail running shoes have taken off as a go-to choice for day hikers, fastpackers, and thru-hikers alike. And it makes a lot of sense: with a lightweight and flexible feel but solid traction, you can cover more ground with less effort. Further, most day hikers and thru-hikers keep pack weight to a minimum, so there’s less need for the stability and ankle support of a sturdy shoe or boot. In fact, we’ve spoken to some PCT thru-hikers who made the switch from boots to trail runners mid-trip, and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their levels of comfort and nimble feel—provided they kept their pack weight down.
But there are a number of obvious issues. One is durability. It’s unlikely you’ll get as many miles out of your trail runners as you would a lightweight hiking shoe or full-on hiking boot, which are designed to handle more use and abuse. Second, with minimal materials and bulk, a trail runner simply does not offer the same amount of protection as beefier hiking footwear, especially those with generous rubber rands and leather uppers. Finally, we don’t recommend trail running shoes for heavy loads or particularly rugged terrain, when you’ll want a more supportive option. But despite these potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular hiking and backpacking option.
As a result of the unique designs for both trail and road running shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can be painful to run with a trail running shoe on pavement, or vice versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do a decent job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single model exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. That said, it’s fairly common to cover short stretches on road before hitting a trail, and we’ve found both the Hoka One One Challenger ATR and Brooks Caldera are suitable hybrid options.
Back to Our Trail Running Shoe Picks Back to Our Trail Runner Comparison Table