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. Below are our top trail runners of 2017, from flexible and lightweight shoes for smooth trails to tough and stable designs for tackling technical or mountainous terrain. If you're needing any background information on shoe types and features, see our trail-running shoe comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
 

1. Saucony Peregrine 7 ($120)

Saucony Peregrine 7 trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 18.8 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: This shoe puts it all together: traction, comfort, protection, and weight.
What we don’t: A bit too flexy for technical terrain.

Saucony’s Peregrine line has been a favorite of ours through multiple generations, and the all-new “7” doesn’t deviate much from the formula. The shoe excels in the categories important to the majority of runners: comfort, traction, protection, and weight. With their 2017 update, Saucony has added a full-length layer of cushioning (dubbed EVERUN) right underneath the insole for a more responsive ride and no weight penalty. They’ve also retained the trail-eating teeth-like tread that we love. It all adds up to the Peregrine being our favorite all-around trail shoe on the market.

What are the shortcomings of the Peregrine 7? Similar to the Peregrine 6, the 7 won’t be our go-to shoe for technical terrain as the cushioned midsole favors long-distance comfort and flexibility over stability on rocky and rooty trails. But with a sub-10-ounce weight (men’s size 9) and plenty of traction and comfort for anything from short runs on muddy trails to ultramarathon distances, the Peregrine gets our top billing for 2017.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 7  See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 7

 

2. La Sportiva Bushido ($130)

La Sportiva Bushido trail-running shoes 2017Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 21 oz.
Cushioning: Light/moderate
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Overkill and stiff for easy trails.

La Sportiva is a climbing company at its core, so it should come as little surprise that their Bushido trail runner is most at home in the mountains. With a semi-stiff platform and burly lugs, the Bushido is one of our favorite shoes for technical trails. 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). The result is a confidence-inspiring build for moving fast on uneven ground.

One thing to keep in mind with such a serious mountain runner is that the shoe is stiffer than a standard trail shoe. The Bushido is intended for long runs where you’ll have to climb and descend for extended stretches, and on a smooth trail this extra support is overkill and less comfortable than an all-around shoe like the Peregrine. But if you tackle the steeps and want a reliable trail partner, we highly recommend the Bushido... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido  See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido

 

3. Salomon Speedcross 4 ($130)

Salomon Speedcross 4 trail-running shoes 2017Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 21.8 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Soft cushioning and fantastic traction.
What we don’t: Less stable than the Bushido above.

Salomon has been in the trail running game for a long time, and the updated Speedcross 4 has all their signature features: a single pull lace system, supportive fit, and sturdy but still reasonably light chassis. What sets the Speedcross apart are the 6mm arrow-shaped lugs (most trail shoes are about 4mm), offering best-in-class traction in soft ground like dirt, mud, and as we found out recently, snow. Along with a thick midsole, the Speedcross is one of the most capable—and comfortable—mountain-ready designs.

We rank the Speedcross 4 below the La Sportiva Bushido, however, due to its less stable feel over rough stretches of trail. Whereas the Bushido sits low and feels planted, the tall stacked height of the Speedcross can feel tippy and prone to rolling over, particularly on rock. Nonetheless, the Speedcross is a beast in terms of traction and should be at the top of the list for those that head out in rough conditions or participate in adventure races like Tough Mudders. Salomon also makes Gore-Tex and ClimaShield versions of the Speedcross 4 with full or partial waterproofing, respectively... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 4  See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 4

 

4. Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 ($125)

Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 trail-running shoe (2017)Category: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 19.4 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Great fit and light.
What we don’t: Thin upper material and limited protection underfoot.

Nike’s Terra Kiger 4 may look like a converted road shoe, but it earns a spot on our list due to its serious performance chops. With plenty of cushioning underfoot and a tread pattern that climbs as well as it brakes on the downhill, the Terra Kiger is a top choice for ultra-distance competitors. This Nike model also has a distinctive look with its highly breathable Flymesh upper material that resembles knit fabric. The good news is that the unique appearance is functional and the flexible material adapts well to a variety of foot sizes and shapes without feeling loose or compromised. Even among our top-rated shoes, the Terra Kiger stands out for its superior fit.

In many ways, the Terra Kiger 4 is a direct competitor to our top ranked Saucony Peregrine 7. They both weigh less than 10 ounces per shoe, have a 4mm offset, and offer a similar mix of cushioning, flexibility, and on-trail performance. We give the edge to the Peregrine for its slightly superior all-around traction and more durable upper material, but both are fantastic shoes that are equally adept at short and long distance runs.
See the Men's Nike Terra Kiger 4  See the Women's Nike Terra Kiger 4

 

5. Altra Lone Peak 3.5 ($120)

Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail-running shoe (2017)Category: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 20.8 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate/maximum
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Not everyone will love the wide fit.

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 Lone Peak line of zero-drop shoes. The most recent model was released in summer 2017 as a replacement to the 3.0, and we were happy to see it retained Altra’s signature wide toe box and moderate cushioning. The most notable changes are a more durable, reinforced upper material and the addition of drain holes for creek crossings. Altra also tweaked their Velcro gaiter attachment system, a nod to its popularity among thru-hikers as well as for running in wet conditions.

The Lone Peak’s wide toe box is not for everyone. If your feet have a little too much room, it can lead to a sloppy feel over technical terrain. The shoe also has a slightly heavier feel than the Peregrine and Terra Kiger above and isn’t as capable in off-camber sections of trail. As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. If a cushioned, comfortable ride is a priority and you like a roomy toe box and zero-drop design, the Lone Peak 3.5 is a winner.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 3.5  See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 3.5

 

6. Brooks Caldera ($140)

Brooks Caldera trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 19.8 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and only moderate stability.

Brooks launched their all-new Caldera in late 2016, and we quickly put it to the test while training for and completing a 50k trail run in North Carolina. By and large, the Caldera proved to be an excellent choice for this type of distance work. The shoe has substantial and springy cushioning, grippy lugs, and a breathable but protective upper. Brooks did forgo the type of underfoot protection you get in the Cascadia line, but the benefit is a much faster shoe that weighs less than 10 ounces. 

In addition to the occasional sharp impact that may be felt through the cushioning, the Caldera’s other weakness is its rollover protection. Similar to the Altra Lone Peak above, the thick midsole and wide footbed occasionally can result in lightly rolled ankles on uneven ground. But unlike the Lone Peak, the Caldera’s midsole doesn’t diminish trail feel and responsiveness (which may partly explain the $20 difference in price). In our opinion, the Caldera hits the right mix of performance and comfort for non-technical distance running... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Brooks Caldera  See the Women's Brooks Caldera

 

7. Salomon S-Lab Wings 8 ($180)

Salomon S-Lab Wings 8 trail-running shoesCategory: Rugged trails
Weight: 19.4 oz.
Cushioning: Light/moderate
What we like: Race-ready fit and performance.
What we don’t: Expensive and the fit will be too narrow for some.

Salomon reserves their “S-Lab” moniker for their highest performing shoes that are streamlined for maximum performance and minimal weight (and often maximum cost). Sharing a similar design as their Wings Pro 2, a solid all-around shoe in its own right, the Wings 8 has a race-ready construction with a snug fit, solid protection, and sure-footed traction. Compared with the options above, the Wings 8 is faster and more stable than the Bushido while weighing the same as the less capable Altra Lone Peak. If you have the cash and need a race shoe for rugged trails, give the Wings 8 a serious look. 

The primary downside of the S-Lab Wings 8 is price. At $180, it’s a significant jump from most trail shoes on the market, and you can get a similar, albeit slower, experience for $40 less in the Wings Pro 2. If you opt for the Wings 8, take note that there are two options: the standard model is tailored to hard surfaces while the “SG” (soft ground) version is best on muddy and sloppy trails.
See the Salomon S-Lab Wings 8

 

8. New Balance Leadville v3 ($125)

New Balance Leadville v3 trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 20.8 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Comfortable over long distances.
What we don’t: There are better options at lighter weights.

Named after the legendary 100-mile mountain race, the New Balance Leadville v3 is an unabashed distance-oriented trail shoe. With substantial cushioning, a wide toe box, and durable construction, the shoe checks off the must-haves for keeping you safe and comfortable over the dicey terrain the Leadville course is known for. It also feels very planted, offering slightly better technical abilities than the Peregrine above. Those that prefer a close trail feel should look elsewhere, but muting the impacts underfoot has its benefits as the miles roll on.

While the Leadville performs decently across the board, it’s not a standout in any particular category. The Peregrine 7, Terra Kiger 4, and Lone Peak 3.0 above are lighter and have similar long-distance capabilities, and the shallow lugs on the Leadville lack the same level of bite as the competition. In the end, we like the Leadville a lot, but not enough to move it any further up our list.
See the Men's New Balance Leadville  See the Women's New Balance Leadville

 

9. Arc’teryx Norvan VT ($170)

Arc'teryx Norvan VT trail-running shoes (2017)Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 21.5 oz.
Cushioning: Light/moderate
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Too specialized for most runners.

Arc’teryx jumped into the trail-running shoe market late last year with the mountain-ready Norvan VT. As we’ve come to expect from Arc’teryx, they started with a blank slate and the result is a completely unique and innovative product. Right off the bat, comfort is fantastic with a sock-like stretchy lining. The lacing system extends all the way over the toes, similar to an approach shoe, providing unmatched fit customization. The lugs underfoot aren’t particularly deep, but their aggressive design bites in nicely on rock, mud, and even snow. All in all, it’s clear the Norvan VT was built for terrain like the often wet and technical trails surrounding Arc’teryx’s headquarters in North Vancouver, BC.

Over rough ground the Norvan VT excels, but it’s overkill on anything tame. The very stable ride and reinforced upper that make it easy to run confidently over rocks and roots became stiff and a little heavy when we took the shoe over smooth dirt singletrack and rolling hills. As a result, the Norvan is a specialized shoe best for those in the Pacific Northwest or with a quiver to choose from. For those who running in cold weather or who want waterproofing, check out the Norvan VT Gore-Tex model.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan VT  See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan VT

 

10. Asics Gel-FujiLyte ($110)

Asics Gel-Fujilyte trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails
Weight: 16 oz.
Cushioning: Light
What we like: Light and very nimble.
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-FujiLyte makes a lot of sense. The FujiLyte 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. At 1 pound for the pair and with a mesh upper material, the Gel-FujiLyte 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-FujiLyte shouldn’t be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep trails or over rocks, roots, or other rough terrain, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment. But for light trail use, the FujiLyte is a solid choice and a nice value at $110.
See the Men's Asics Gel-FujiLyte  See the Women's Asics Gel-FujiLyte

 

11. Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic ($135)

Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic trail-running shoesCategory: Rugged trails/easy trails
Weight: 24 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Durable, great traction, and stable.
What we don’t: Poor ventilation and heavy.

Made for rough terrain and inclement weather, the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic is a serious, mountain-ready trail runner. The aggressive Continental outsoles share a lug pattern with a mountain bike tire, and we’ve found them to be sticky and grip well in rock, mud, and snow. A low stacked height and semi-stiff platform contribute to a stable feel over technical terrain, but what impressed us most was the all-around nature of the build. These shoes are comfortable on both steep and flat trails, and we’ve even used them on a number of occasions as a hiking or fastpacking shoe.

The downsides to the Terrex Agravic are a slightly heavy feel that makes them less fun on long runs and poor ventilation in hot conditions. Otherwise, the Agravic gives the La Sportiva Bushido a real run for its money as our favorite shoe for rough trails. And with their cushioned ride, the Terrex Agravic has better isolation from sharp rocks... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Adidas Terrex Agravic  See the Women's Adidas Terrex Agravic

 

12. Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 ($130)

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 19 oz.
Cushioning: Maximum
What we like: Very comfortable max-cushioned design.
What we don’t: Limited trail feel.

Hoka One One has become synonymous with max-cushioned shoes, which feature very thick midsoles for fantastic comfort on just about any surface. From their lineup, we like the updated Challenger ATR 3 best, which is designed for both trail and road use. The shoe is reasonably light at 19 ounces, and despite the hybrid intent, the ATR 3 offers competitive traction and rollover support to shoes like the Lone Peak 3.0 above. And for those that found previous Challenger ATR models too narrow, Hoka One One has widened the fit a little in this third version.

What do you give up with the Challenger ATR 3’s max-cushioned design? The primary downside is isolation from the ground, and it does take some getting used to the extra height to really trust it over uneven trails. More, the Challenger’s treads aren’t known for having a long life if you spent a good amount of time on the road or hardpack. But if you’re willing to compromise a little on trail performance, the Challenger ATR 3 lives up to its billing as a supremely comfortable hybrid shoe.
See the Men's Hoka Challenger ATR 3  See the Women's Hoka Challenger ATR3

 

13. Salomon XA Pro 3D CS ($145)

Salomon XA Pro 3D CS trail-running shoesCategory: Rugged trails
Weight: 27.2 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Burly and ready for off-trail adventuring.
What we don’t: Very heavy and specialized.

Salomon makes a running shoe for just about every type of terrain and running style, and for off-trail exploring, they have the XA Pro 3D. Compared with the rest of the shoes on this list—including La Sportiva’s wild Crossover 2.0 below—the XA Pro 3D offers a substantial increase in protection, durability, and stability. At 27.2 ounces for the pair, it’s also far and away the heaviest shoe on the list. We like to think of the XA Pro as a hiking shoe that’s been mildly adapted for trail running use.

If you don’t need the high levels of rollover stability and protection, we recommend looking elsewhere. Even the non-waterproof version of the XA Pro 3D is very heavy and cumbersome relative to an all-around model like the Peregrine and Terra Kiger above. But as tough, off-trail shoes go, the updated XA Pro 3D is a standout.
See the Men's Salomon XA Pro 3D  See the Women's Salomon XA Pro 3D

 

14. Brooks Cascadia 12 ($130)

Brooks Cascadia 12 trail-running shoesCategory: Easy trails/rugged trails
Weight: 24.2 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Excellent protection and stability.
What we don’t: Heavy and slow.

As a testament to its longevity, 2017 marks the launch of the 12th generation Brooks Cascadia. If you’re familiar with trail running, thru-hiking, or fastpacking gear, it’s likely you’ve come across this shoe, which is popular in all three communities for its unflappable stability and comfort. For this lightly updated model, Brooks tweaked the midsole and outsole, but the fit and feel are largely unchanged. Of note, the Cascadia 12 weighs 0.3 ounces more than the 11, and, while this isn’t a substantial amount, it does push the Cascadia to a rather heavy 12.1 ounces per shoe.

Unfortunately, the Cascadia has continued its downward trajectory on our list for 2017 as the small changes to the design haven’t kept up with the competition. Part of the problem is Brooks themselves have already built a better shoe in the Caldera. This all-new offering is quite a bit lighter at 9.9 ounces per shoe and offers similar comfort and traction without the Cascadia’s ponderous tendencies. If you mix in a decent amount of hiking or like the bulletproof feel, the Cascadia still has its place, but we think there are better options out there for trail running—including within the Brooks lineup.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 12  See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 12

 

15. Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 ($130)

Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 trail-running shoesCategory: Rugged trails
Weight: 18 oz.
Cushioning: Light/moderate
What we like: Lightweight with great traction. 
What we don’t: Not as comfortable as the competition. 

There are a lot of big-time shoes on this list, but lesser-known Inov-8 holds its own thanks to a great combination of minimalism and serious traction. At 9 ounces per shoe, the Terraclaw is unquestionably light but not excessively so—it still has enough protection and support underfoot for rough tracks and running moderate distances. The real difference maker is the traction: the substantial and wideset outsoles are some of the best performers on soft ground, coming close to the outstanding Speedcross 4 above.

The Terraclaw 250 drops in our rankings primarily because of its specialized nature. Most shoes on this list excel or at least perform well in a variety of conditions and fit a good range of foot sizes, but the Terraclaw’s thin midsole and relatively narrow shape limit its appeal. While the Terraclaw won’t be everyone’s favorite, the mix of weight and grip is enough to earn a spot on our list.
See the Men's Inov-8 Terraclaw 250  See the Women's Inov-8 Terraclaw 250

 

16. Merrell Trail Glove 4 ($100)

Merrell Trail Glove 4 trail-running shoe (2017)Category: Easy trails
Weight: 16 oz.
Cushioning: Minimum
What we like: Light and low.
What we don’t: Minimal protection and stability.

The minimalist shoe craze has tempered in recent years, but the emphasis on cutting weight and connection to the trail yielded several quality shoes, including the Merrell Trail Glove 4. What stands out about this shoe is its low profile, zero-drop shape, and superior trail feel. It’s the lightest shoe to make our list at 16 ounces but manages to retain modest trail performance with a close fit, rock guard, and Vibram outsoles. Overall, the Trail Glove is a great match for the minimalist runner that sticks to smooth trails and short distances.

Like other specialized shoes, it’s important to consider the inherent compromises in the barefoot design. First, the thin construction doesn’t offer nearly the same degree of protection and rollover stability as the shoes above. More, it will take some time to get used to the zero-drop ride if you’re transitioning from a traditional shoe or are a heel striker. But if the minimalist style works for you, no shoe on this list can match the Trail Glove’s barely-there feel.
See the Men's Merrell Trail Glove 4  See the Women's Merrell Trail Glove 4

 

17. La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 GTX ($190)

La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 GTX trail-running shoesCategory: Rugged trails
Weight: 26.1 oz.
Cushioning: Moderate
What we like: Fantastic protection and a very functional gaiter.
What we don’t: Heavy and only useful in the right conditions.

Standing apart from traditional trail shoes is the alpine-ready La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 GTX. The Crossover features a built-in gaiter atop a burly trail runner base for fantastic protection against rain, snow, or trail debris. The shoe doesn’t have the nimble feel of a typical trail runner, but it’s a bombproof option for winter running, snowshoeing, and even hiking. And once you take into consideration the cost of a running gaiter, the $190 price tag is within reason.

All of this capability built into the shoe comes with obvious consequences. The first is weight: the Crossover is heavier than every shoe here except the Salomon XA Pro 3D CS and feels it. More, the integrated gaiter is non-removable so the shoe is functional for only part of the year for most folks. Depending on your area, wearing a durable shoe like the Salomon Speedcross 4 with thick socks and a gaiter in winter could make more sense. But it’s nice to know there’s a winter-ready tank to help us keep running year-round. 
See the Men's La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 GTX

 

Trail-Running Shoe Comparison Table

Shoe Price Category Weight Cushioning Drop
Saucony Peregrine 7 $120 Easy trails/rugged trails 18.8 oz. Moderate 4mm
La Sportiva Bushido $130 Rugged trails 21 oz. Light/moderate 6mm
Salomon Speedcross 4 $130 Rugged trails 21.8 oz. Moderate 10mm
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 $125 Easy trails/rugged trails 19.4 oz. Moderate 4mm
Altra Lone Peak 3.5 $120 Easy trails/rugged trails 20.8 oz. Moderate/maximum 0mm
Brooks Caldera $140 Easy trails/rugged trails 19.8 oz. Moderate 4mm
Salomon S-Lab Wings 8 $180 Rugged trails 19.4 oz. Light/moderate 9mm
New Balance Leadville v3 $125 Easy trails/rugged trails 20.8 oz. Moderate 8mm
Arc'teryx Norvan VT $170 Rugged trails 21.5 oz. Light/moderate 9mm
Asics Gel-FujiLyte $110 Easy trails 16 oz. Light/moderate 4mm
Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic $135 Rugged trails/easy trails 24 oz. Moderate 6mm
Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 $130 Easy trails/rugged trails 19 oz. Maximum 5mm
Salomon XA Pro 3D CS $145 Rugged trails 27.2 oz. Moderate 10mm
Brooks Cascadia 12 $130 Easy trails/rugged trails 24.2 oz. Moderate 10mm
Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 $130 Rugged trails 18 oz. Light/moderate 8mm
Merrell Trail Glove 4 $100 Easy trails 16 oz. Minimum 0mm
La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 $190 Rugged trails 26.1 oz. Moderate 10mm


Trail-Running Shoe Buying Advice

What Is a Trail-Running Shoe?

Trail-running shoes are differentiated from pavement pounders and cross trainers in a number of ways, but one of the most obvious is their aggressive tread design. These shoes are meant to spend their entire lives on an actual trail. Deep, soft lugs and an open tread pattern clearly differentiate them from the mostly flat underbody of a road shoe. In addition, the shoe’s uppers typically will have a tougher build to handle trail obstacles and the front of a trail-running shoe will have beefed-up toe protection.
Saucony Peregrine 6

Trail-running shoes are also not modified road running shoes; they are a completely separate breed. While it may not be as obvious at first, bend and twist a standard trail runner and road running shoe back-to-back and you’ll see the trail runner has more structure along the sides and underfoot to protect against ankle rollover when planting and driving on uneven terrain. You can still roll an ankle with these low profile under-the-ankle designs, but a trail runner gives you a more stable platform to reduce the risk.
 

Trail-Running Shoe Categories

There is neither a single type of trail nor a single category of trail runner, and as such, the shoes can vary widely. Nearly all trail-running shoes can handle local dirt single track, but if you plan to really push yourself in a race format or extend your distances, it may be worth upgrading to a stiffer, mountain-oriented trail shoe.

Easy Trails
The majority of trail-running shoes are used on relatively smooth trail networks. The trails are dirt or bark and have undulations, but aren’t technical (filled with rocks or other uneven surfaces and don’t have steep inclines/declines) and are accessible for most skill levels. Correspondingly, the shoes best suited for these trails (including the Saucony Peregrine 7) have moderate underfoot and toe protection, and grippy but not overly thick outsoles. And most importantly, they’re a medium to soft stiffness, which makes them far more comfortable. The forgiving flex still offers enough support for making sharp turns and through the occasional rough section, but it still favors a flatter and more maintained trail.
Easy trails

Rugged Trails
As the name indicates, a rugged trail or mountain-oriented trail runner is designed for serious backcountry pursuits. Designs like the La Sportiva Bushido are often streamlined and focus on trimming weight in some areas while beefing up others, utilizing a mix of ultralight fabrics and really aggressive tread patterns. The stiffer structure supports longer climbs and technical descents, where a floppy and flexible shoe would be a liability.
Trail-running shoe rocks

Weight

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 2017, 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.

On the extreme ends of the spectrum are minimalist shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove 4 (16 ounces) and burly waterproof models like the Salomon XA Pro 3D CS (27.2 ounces, or nearly double). The Merrell feels extremely light on your feet while the Salomon is super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises. Both are best for short distances—the Merrell due its lack of protection and the Salomon because of its extra weight—and lack the versatility of an all-around shoe that weighs just over a pound.
Trail-running shoe weight

Outsoles and Traction

As we touched on above, the rugged rubber outsoles on a trail-running shoe is one its defining features. As such, a lot of research and development goes into building a quality outsole that can grip a variety of surfaces and in a wide range of conditions. Rock, dirt (both hard and loose), and mud are the most common surface types, which lead to deep, aggressive lugs that can grip, turn and brake. Unlike the hiking footwear market that commonly turns to Vibram for its outsole needs, most trail-running shoes do their design in-house. We suspect this is because of the big focus manufacturer’s put on a unique tread design, which is a way they can differentiate themselves in the market.
Trail-running shoe traction

Deeper lugs and a more complex tread pattern indicate a serious shoe. As an example, the racing ready Salomon Speedcross 4 has 6mm lugs, which are so tall they almost look like soccer cleats. Clearly, the Speedcross is not intended to ever touch anything but a rock, rooty and rough trail, like what you’d find in mile 10 of an alpine trail race. And its not just the height of the lugs—the tread pattern is more aggressive as well. Many utilize a multi-directional pattern, with both forward and backward facing patterns for gripping on both a steep uphill and technical downhill.
Trail-running shoes traction

Midsoles and Cushioning

Midsoles play an important part in cushioning the hard impacts of the ground, and also are an area where trail-running shoe builds vary widely. On the extremely light side of the spectrum are minimalist shoes that eschew most padding for a lightweight EVA foam midsole. The advantage is an extremely nimble shoe and a close feel of the trail. The downside is the potential for some really sore feet as the miles pound on or if the trail is rocky and rough. While the initial surge in interest has faded to a degree, there are still a number of these minimalist styles available, from brands like FiveFingers, Inov-8, and Altra. For the right distance and terrain (and running style), these definitely have their appeal.

Hoka One One is an up-and-coming footwear company that has built its foundation on thick and plush heavy cushioning—they’re the anti-minimalist shoe. Kind of like a fat bike, the ride is smooth and you can tackle rough terrain with ease, but there is more disconnect between you and the trail. For some, this is no issue and they appreciate the extra cushioning that allows them to cover more distances with less discomfort, but we prefer Hoka’s less extreme models, like the Challenger ATR 3 featured above.
Adidas Terrex Agravic midsole

Depending on intended use and some personal preference, either a heavily cushioned or minimalist design may work. Most, however, fall somewhere in the middle, with enough protection to keep your feet happy without isolating you so much that you can’t feel the ground beneath you. Overall, your running distances, preferences on trail feel vs. isolation, and penchants for soft or firm cushioning should be your leading considerations in selecting midsole type.
 

Heel-to-Toe Drop

This spec was barely on the radar of folks outside the hardcore running community until the barefoot, zero drop running shoes fad hit. And while many of the minimalist shoes have seen a significant dip in popularity, there are a number of engaging options that remain, including the Merrell Trail Glove 4.

As the name indicates, the heel-to-toe drop is the difference in shoe height, where your foot sits, from the heel to toe. Traditional shoes are higher in the heel and drop towards the toe, and while the heel-to-toe drop on these shoes varies, it is generally around 8-12mm. Our top shoe, the Saucony Peregrine 7, has a 4mm drop and can work well with both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero drop shoes have a 0mm difference, encouraging a mid or forefoot landing point. Our take is that both styles have their merits, with some finding the minimalist an ideal fit, while others prefer the more traditional approach. The zero drop shoes are sometimes associated with minimalist designs (exceptions include the well cushioned Altra Lone Peak 3.0) that don’t have as much cushion and protection, so we always encourage you to slowly ease into these shoes and not head out for a long run on your first use. This should reduce the chance of injury and give you enough time to decide whether or not a zero drop shoe is right for you.
Altra Lone Peak zero drop

Stability

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. 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 we’ve defined it, the trail-running shoe category. A race or mountain-oriented shoe is stiffer and has more of a structure, while easy trail options are more flexible and comfortable out of the box.
Trail-running shoes stability

Waterproofing

The most common waterproof design is made by Gore-Tex, and consists 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. For those looking to go light and fast, waterproofing 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 to do a great job preventing freezing toes.

Waterproofing makes the most sense when the extra warmth (i.e. less ventilation) is a good thing, such as during the shoulder seasons or winter. 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. 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.
Wet weather running

Breathability

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 reduce the barriers to air and moisture flow. And as we’ve found, some are more accomplished than others. In comparing a couple popular shoes, the Brooks Cascadia and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Terra Kiger to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Cascadia’s more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail-running shoe breathability

Toe and Underfoot Protection

Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you get some added protection in the shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail-running shoes have some form of toe protection. It’s usually 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.

Trail-Running Shoes (rocky trail)

Much in the same way that a protective toe cap isolates you from a sharp rock or other trail debris, lightweight plates are inserted under the forefoot on many trail shoes. And as with the types of midsole cushioning, these plates vary in thickness, coverage and materials, ranging from small, extremely thin and flexible to stiffer and more substantial. We prefer having some underfoot protection for longer mountain runs to reduce soreness underfoot as long as it doesn’t add too much weight and negatively impact the shoe’s feel.
 

Lacing Systems

Laces are easy to overlook but play fundamental role in shoe comfort. Most use a standard lace-up method, but Salomon and Adidas are doing things a little differently: both feature a single pull quick lace system on their trail-running shoes. We love the design 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.
Trail-running shoe shape comparison

Hiking and Backpacking in Trail-Running Shoes

It’s not uncommon for trail-running folk to start turning to their trail-running shoes for their day hikes. On most day adventures you’re not hauling a lot of weight, so the extra ankle support isn’t as important. And as long as the trail isn’t too nasty, a trail runner is a great pick. With a flexible feel but solid traction, a trail-running shoe can serve the fast-moving weekend warrior quite well. But if you're carrying a heavy pack and need additional support, a lightweight hiking shoe or even a full-on hiking boot may end up being the better choice.
Hiking in trail runners

In recent years, trail-running shoes have absolutely taken off as a go-to choice for fastpackers and thru-hikers. And, it makes a lot of sense: thru-hikers are putting serious miles on nearly every single day, and a lightweight shoe can help them cover more ground with less effort. 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 hiking shoe or boot, which makes it important to plan out your replacements (and mail drops) along the way. Despite some potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular thru-hiking option. We’ve spoken to a number of 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.
 

Wearing Trail-Running Shoes on Pavement

As a result of the unique designs for both road and trail shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can actually be painful to run with a trail-running shoe on pavement or visa versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do an okay job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single shoe exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. If you have to get you a short stretch before hitting dirt, we’ve found both the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 and Asics Gel-FujiLyte are suitable hybrid options.
Back to Our Trail-Running Shoe Picks   Back to Our Trail-Running Shoe Comparison Table

Lightweight Hiking Shoes

Best Lightweight Hiking Shoes of 2017

The momentum in hiking footwear is moving away from bulky boots toward lightweight shoes and even trail runners that are faster and more comfortable. You do lose some ankle support when carrying...
Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail-running shoes

Review: Altra Lone Peak 3.0

The Lone Peak 3.0 is the latest version of Altra’s most popular trail shoe, released last year as a replacement for the 2.5. The core elements of the design—zero-drop platform, wide toe box, and significant cushioning...
Brooks Caldera trail-running shoes

Review: Brooks Caldera

In December of 2016, Brooks released a brand new shoe—the Caldera—filling a much-needed hole in their trail running lineup. The timing was perfect: in January of 2017, I completed training for and ran my first ultramarathon. During testing...
Rain Jackets (2017)

Best Rain Jackets of 2017

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we know a thing or two about rain. From months of daily drizzle to heavy downpour in the mountains, we’re acutely aware of the benefits of a quality waterproof and breathable jacket. The rain jackets for men and women...
Salomon Speedcross 4 Trail-Running Shoe

Review: Salomon Speedcross 4

As one of their most popular and recognizable designs, the Speedcross trail-running shoe has been a huge hit for Salomon. The toothy, exposed traction and bright colorways are a common sight at...
La Sportiva Bushido trail-running shoes

Review: La Sportiva Bushido

Over a decade ago I purchased and wore a La Sportiva Wildcat trail runner, and though I loved the tacky tread, the stability was unimpressive. I easily dismissed the brand as simply...
Backpacking Pack

Best Backpacking Packs of 2017

Gone are the days when backpacking consisted of strapping on a huge external frame and lumbering through the forest with an aching body. Trends in backpacks these days err towards minimalism and...
Adidas Terrex Agravic trail-running shoes

Review: Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic

The new Terrex Agravic is further proof that Adidas can crossover from track and road running to the trails. Featuring their proprietary Boost midsole, the shoes are well cushioned and...
Rock Climbing Shoes 2016

Best Rock Climbing Shoes of 2017

We love rock climbing shoes, and we bet you do too. The good news for climbers is that there are more quality products and styles to choose from than ever before. Impressive new models...