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
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
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction in soft ground.
What we don’t: Not versatile for easy trails or most mountain running.
The Speedgoat above is a nicely cushioned go-to for well-established trail networks, but it suffers on particularly soft terrain like mud and snow. In these conditions, you’ll want a full rubber outsole (the Speedgoat uses a combination of rubber and foam) with relatively long and widely spaced lugs that bite into the ground with each step. Salomon’s trail-eating Speedcross 5 sets the standard for this category, combining massive 6-millimeter arrow-shaped lugs and a supportive and snug-fitting upper for impressive control at speed. Tack on a thick midsole, single-pull lace system, and sturdy yet still reasonably light chassis, and you get one of the most capable trail designs, whether your run takes you over snow, sand, or wet leaves and thick mud.
But while the Speedcross is hard to beat on soft terrain, it’s not a particularly versatile shoe. The tooth-like lugs and aggressive build are overkill on easy trails and gravel roads, and the tall stack height can feel tippy on uneven ground (plus, shorter lugs offer better traction on rock). For off-trail exploration, we’d recommend a more planted, rock-ready design like the Bushido or Sense Ride below. But for wet and rugged forest paths, the Speedcross is incredibly purpose-built, even down to details like the anti-debris mesh upper and gusseted tongue. And for those who regularly get out in the cold and wet, the Speedcross 5 is also sold in a Gore-Tex version, which retails for $150.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 5 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 5
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Too much grip and not enough cushion for trail miles.
In 2021, mountain athletes don’t think twice about taking on big, technical challenges with nothing more than a pair of running shoes and a day’s worth of supplies. Among the growing assortment of fast-and-light footwear options, many of our go-to shoes come from climbing-specialist La Sportiva. Their versatile Bushido II is a perennial favorite and excels on all manner of terrain, from soggy trails and snow to fifth-class rock and loose talus. Grippy FriXion rubber (a compound used on some of Sportiva’s climbing shoes) gives you solid traction while scrambling, and the burly tread grips remarkably well on soft terrain without being too overbuilt for firm ground. Tack on a durable upper, protective toe cap, and rock guard underfoot, and the Bushido is a solid and confidence-inspiring workhorse of a shoe.
Compared to the Salomon above, the La Sportiva here has much more versatile intentions for a variety of on- and off-trail terrain. Further, mountain runners will love the shoe’s low stack height (19mm in the heel compared to the Speedcross’ 30mm), which lends stability and a solid ground feel. But all this performance does end up feeling a bit overkill on smooth paths, and the Bushido’s lightly cushioned midsole is noticeably less comfortable than all-around models like the Speedgoat above or Salomon Sense Ride 4 below (especially on high-mileage days). But for technical missions that don’t involve too much dry trail—think high routes in the Cascades, the Sierra, and Colorado—the Bushido is hard to beat... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido II See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido II
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: A very comfortable shoe that allows the foot to lie in its natural position.
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish feel and too roomy for some.
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 hiking. Building off this design, the Altra also features a noticeably wide toe box that allows the toes room to relax. It all adds up to a wildly comfortable shoe, particularly popular among long-distance runners and those prone to injury and blisters. If you’ve struggled with finding a running shoe that fits, the Lone Peak is certainly worth a shot.
The new Lone Peak 5 doesn’t venture far from previous models, but does add Altra’s Ego midsole for noticeably more bounce and cushion. It also features an updated StoneGuard underfoot, improved drainage, and a more versatile tread (all for a $10 price increase). But as we’ve always cautioned, it’s important to keep in mind that the zero-drop design is not for everyone, and the Lone Peak’s roomy fit can be polarizing. Those accustomed to a more typical trail runner might find the Lone Peak slightly sluggish, and the wide toe box can feel sloppy over technical terrain (especially for those with narrow feet). And it's worth noting that we haven't had great luck with the Lone Peak's durability, with frayed stitching and delamination after just 100 miles on our pair. Finally, the Lone Peak 5 now comes in wide sizes (with increased room in the midfoot) and a waterproof “All-WTHR” version.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 5
Weight: 1 lb. 4.5 oz.
What we like: Comfortable for miles of trail yet adept in technical mountain terrain.
What we don’t: Less specialized than the Bushido.
The Sense Ride is a tricky shoe to pin down. Salomon bills it as an all-rounder great for door-to-trail runs, while many in the mountain running community have adopted the shoe for technical cross-country travel. In our opinion, the new “4” (and previous “3”) trends much closer to the latter description than the former, with firm Optivibe foam in the midsole, a full Contragrip rubber outsole, and highly durable and protective materials throughout. We put over 350 on- and off-trail miles on our Sense Ride 3 (mostly while running high routes in the North Cascades), and it proved to be a wonderfully versatile combination of long-distance comfort and great grip on a variety of surfaces. And the new 4 stays close to the winning formula but with a few small improvements, including a more secure-fitting heel and revamped upper with anti-debris mesh.
Identity crisis aside, we’ve come to think of the Sense Ride as one of the most well-rounded trail running shoes in the game. Held up against the specialist Bushido above, you give up a bit of grip and ground feel for off-trail terrain, but the Salomon’s less aggressive outsole and cushioned midsole is a much better fit for long distances on hardpacked trail. And while it’s not as soft and lightweight as shoes like the Speedgoat above or MTN Racer below, the Sense Ride will keep most runners happy, mile after mile (it also runs wider than most Salomon shoes, which is great for comfort). Added up, for routes that combine on-trail and cross-country travel it doesn’t get much better. And at $120, the Sense Ride is also one of the most affordable shoes in its class.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 4 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 4
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: A comfortable shoe with some technical chops.
What we don't: Pricey and some might find the toebox to be a touch wide.
Topo Athletic might not be a household name like Salomon or La Sportiva, but their lineup of trail and road running shoes speaks for itself (not to mention, they’re founded by the former CEO of Vibram). The MTN Racer 2 is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver: like the Lone Peak above, it features a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, lending all-day comfort for swollen and hard-working feet. But the MTN Racer tacks on some technical chops, with a 5-millimeter drop (compared to the Altra’s 0mm), slightly firmer cushioning, a sticky Vibram Megagrip sole (a blend often used in climbing approach shoes), and a small decrease in weight. Overall, it’s a really easy shoe to get along with—we recommend the MTN Racer to friends more than any other model here, and have yet to know anyone who’s been less than thrilled.
The MTN Racer was updated this year, and the “2” features a more breathable upper, revamped heel, and a refined fit (we had to go a half size up with the first iteration but dropped down to our normal size with the “2”). We think it’s a great update to an already excellent shoe, and with a solid build the MTN Racer should last you upwards of 500 miles. Where it does fall short is on truly off-camber terrain—mountain runners will want to opt for a stiffer and protective ride like the La Sportiva Bushido or Salomon Sense Ride above. But for those who stick to the trail (even fairly technical trails), the Topo Athletic is a trustworthy and capable companion.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer 2 See the Women's Topo MTN Racer 2
Weight: 1 lb. 5.8 oz.
What we like: High performance at a reasonable price point.
What we don’t: Some might want plusher cushioning.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been an all-around favorite of ours over multiple generations, excelling in most of the categories that matter: traction, fit, 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 off-camber terrain, featuring just enough cushioning and shock absorption to keep you comfortable in most conditions. We’ve been running in the new “11” this past winter and into summer, and have been impressed with its responsiveness, fit, and overall precision on moderately technical trails.
But with only a modest level of cushioning and a fairly firm midsole, you do give up some comfort on hard surfaces or during long days on the trail (we experienced foot soreness while running frozen dirt paths). If you log high-mileage days or run on the road from time to time, we’d stick with a plusher shoe like the Hoka Speedgoat above. But the Peregrine is nevertheless a great shoe for most trails, and at just $120 it’s an excellent value. And keep in mind that Saucony also makes a waterproof GTX model ($150) and an ST (soft terrain) version, which features longer lugs (6.5mm compared to 5mm), a debris-resistant upper, and quick-lace system for $130.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 11 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 11
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 Bushido above, with a beefier, more durable build and smoother sole that gives it an extra dose of performance particularly on rock. And like the La Sportiva, the Arc’teryx is overkill on anything tame, making it highly specialized for mountain running (and particularly routes with minimal trail mileage). In the end, the Bushido is a slightly better all-rounder (especially on soft terrain), and it’s much more affordable at $140. 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. 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 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
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A big update gives an old classic a lighter and livelier feel.
What we don't: Still stiffer and heavier than most shoes here.
Now in its 16th iteration, the Brooks Cascadia is one of the longest standing trail runners on the market, and for good reason. This is a shoe that can do it all, with the traction and protection you need for rugged trails alongside a hefty dose of cushioning for long days out. Add to that an emphasis on stability, and the Cascadia is an easy-wearing shoe and deservingly popular with a wide audience, from ultrarunners and daily joggers to mile-crunching thru-hikers. It’s true that recent iterations had started to feel really dated (read: heavy and slow compared to the more modern competition), but the updates to the “16” are significant and give it a brand new lease on life.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to the Cascadia 16 is its lighter and sprightlier build, thanks to a couple millimeters of extra (and softer) cushioning, a flexible rock plate, and an updated outsole. The result is a workhorse shoe that will put a bounce in your step, which is never a bad combination. Of course, the Cascadia still can’t match the speed or light weight of some of the top models here, and despite the updated cushion it’s still stiffer than most. But for a trail shoe that will provide reliable stability and protection mile after mile—and double as a wonderful hiking design—Brooks’ Cascadia is back on our radar as one of the best all-rounders in the game.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 16 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 16
Weight: 1 lb. 6.7 oz.
What we like: Nike’s React midsole is both responsive and soft.
What we don’t: Unstable on technical terrain and poor traction on wet surfaces.
Nike puts most of their efforts into road running gear, but their Pegasus Trail 3 is a quality, max-cushioned option for trail work. Modeled after the road-specific Pegasus but infused with trail features (including a full-rubber tread and reinforcements in the upper), this is a great option for runners crossing over into the trail world. The main event here is the large dose of Nike’s soft yet responsive React midsole, which offers great energy return as well as long-distance comfort. The tall stack height is balanced out with a wide flair in the forefoot for stability on moderate terrain, although you don’t get that low-slung feel that many runners love for particularly technical trails. And with the most recent update, the Pegasus Trail 3 features a more traditional upper and tongue and more locked-down fit at the midfoot, which we think are nice improvements from the last iteration.
Looking at Nike’s trail lineup, the Pegasus Trail is the clear all-rounder, sliding in next to the durable Wildhorse and light and speedy Terra Kiger. Among the trio, the Pegasus Trail gets the edge in terms of comfort and high-mileage use, but it’s not particularly performance-oriented. On rugged trails the shoe’s max cushioning will feel unstable, and traction is among the worst here, especially on wet surfaces. Further, at 11.3 ounces per shoe, the Pegasus Trail is noticeably heavier than the competition, and—although roomy for a Nike—it runs narrower than most trail shoes. But for max-cushioned comfort and undeniable style, Nike’s Pegasus Trail 3 is a great option for recreational trail runners, long-distance training, and even road-to-trail routes.
See the Men's Nike Pegasus Trail 3 See the Women's Nike Pegasus Trail 3
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
What we like: Comfortable and cushioned yet still very capable in technical terrain.
What we don’t: Sizing is tricky and short lugs aren’t great on soft ground.
La Sportiva’s mountain running shoes are known for being fairly narrow and firm, but they’ve expanded their offerings with the new Jackal. Like the Salomon Sense Ride above and Scarpa Spin Ultra below, the Jackal is 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. It all adds up to a really comfortable yet high-performance shoe for everything from packed dirt and gravel to cross-country terrain. Finally, we’ve been really impressed with the Jackal’s durability, which has held up remarkably well during a season of trail running in Kaua’i, despite frequent run-ins with sharp rocks and plants, wet conditions, and over 200 trail miles.
At 1 pound 5.2 ounces for the pair the Jackal isn’t particularly lightweight, but it has a really nimble feel and the soft foam lends a bit more spring than the Spin Ultra in particular. 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), which lends more hold on rocky, hardpacked terrain and less on soft mud or snow. And finally, the Jackal runs small (most will bump up at least a half size) and some runners have experienced issues with rubbing around the heel, although we’ve had no complaints during our testing. Finally, it’s also worth checking out Sportiva’s new-for-2021 Karacal ($130), which has similar all-around intentions and an even roomier fit.
See the Men's La Sportiva Jackal See the Women's La Sportiva Jackal
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: A snappy shoe great for speed.
What we don't: Expensive and not plush enough for long distances.
Brooks is most known in the trail running world for their Cascadia (above), a beloved shoe among both runners and thru-hikers that is now in its 16th generation. But the modern Catamount here offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a nimble design built to take on long distances at speed. Imported from Brooks’ Hyperion Tempo road shoe, the DNA Flash midsole is lightweight and responsive, which offers a snappy underfoot feel similar to speed-oriented shoes like the Torrent 2 above and Flight VECTIV below. You’ll notice the extra kick on fast ground like gravel roads and easy hardpack, but the Catamount is also prepared for battle on technical terrain, with trail-specific features like a rock plate, gaiter adapters, and a TrailTack rubber outsole.
At $160, the Catamount is no small investment, so it’s important to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Despite the fact that it was “designed and built for 100 miles of run happy” (as it states on the tongue), most runners will want a softer and plusher shoe for ultra-distance efforts. Further, the precision fit limits how much the upper can stretch—worth considering if you deal with swollen feet—and like most of Brooks’ offerings it lacks a truly locked-down fit. But there’s no denying that the Catamount is lightweight and fast, and despite its high price tag, it is still a noticeable $40 less than the Flight VECTIV below. Added up, it’s no surprise that this shoe has been quick to gain popularity in a competitive market, and it’s a very worthy companion for elite runners taking on shorter distances.
See the Men's Brooks Catamount See the Women's Brooks Catamount
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 long-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 above.
Although it hasn’t been around for long, the Spin Ultra has quickly risen in popularity among trail and mountain runners alike. Compared to the Sense Ride 4, the Scarpa is lighter by almost one ounce per shoe and offers slightly more isolation from the ground with a stiffer midsole and taller heel. It also features really generous toe protection, and the upper is slightly more durable than the Salomon with less mesh and more welded overlays. In the end the choice is yours—we like the softer and more flexible feel of the Sense Ride (especially for ultra distances) and find the Scarpa’s heel padding to be particularly outdated, but many runners love the Spin Ultra’s added stiffness and support. And within Scarpa’s lineup, it’s also worth looking at their max-cushioned Spin Infinity and lightweight and speedy Spin 2.0.
See the Men's Scarpa Spin Ultra See the Women's Scarpa Spin Ultra
Weight: 1 lb. 4.4 oz.
What we like: Incredible fit and comfort for long distance efforts.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as cushioned as some models.
Salomon is a force within the running world, and their shoes are consistently best in class. Joining the Speedcross (a soft-terrain specialist) and Sense Ride (an all-rounder with great mountain chops) above, the S/Lab Ultra 3 is their ultra-distance design, balancing comfort and performance for long days out. To tackle dozens of trail miles at speed, you want a snug yet accommodating fit, and this shoe delivers in spades, with a soft, sock-like upper, molded foam liner, and roomy toe box to allow for swelling. Tack on a moderate dose of cushioning, added bounce from Salomon’s EnergyCell+ compound, and their top-shelf Contragrip MA outsole, and it’s no surprise that the S/Lab Ultra is one of the most premium trail shoes of 2021.
Given the Salomon’s price tag ($180), we don’t recommend this shoe for recreational runners or even training days—it’s best saved for long races when performance really matters. And while the S/Lab’s cushioning is certainly sufficient for ultra distances, runners who are accustomed to a plusher ride might want to stick with softer, max-cushioned kicks like the Hoka Speedgoat or Nike Pegasus Trail above. But the S/Lab Ultra checks all of the boxes for most long-distance efforts, and it doesn’t hurt that durability and protection are excellent with a robust upper, thin rock plate, and generous toe bumper. And if you’re looking for a lighter and speedier Salomon shoe, check out their S/Lab Sense 8, which tips the scales at just 13.8 ounces for the pair.
See the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3
Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 oz.
What we like: Well made and great looking.
What we don't: Expensive and rocks get stuck in the outsole grooves.
Based in Switzerland, On is known for their innovative collection of road and trail shoes. It’s easy to tell an On design apart from the rest—each model includes their trademark CloudTec outsole, a series of hollow cells that absorb impact and propel you forward, no matter what your stride. In theory, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s for good reason that On shoes have become increasingly popular in the U.S. market. The Cloudultra is their most cushioned design for long-distance efforts, built to swallow ground impact and keep your feet happy, mile after mile.
The Cloudultra stood out to us as a unique shoe, but ironically it wasn’t a cloud-like feel that set it apart. In fact, it actually felt rather firm underfoot, and in a blind test we’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the CloudTec technology and any other shoe. The biggest differences came from the sock-like upper, which felt sleek and close-fitting (and is undeniably good-looking) but was hard to get into and resulted in some pressure points on the top of our foot. In the end, it’s worth considering sizing up a half size, and be sure to give yourself ample time for break-in (read: don’t tackle 17 miles right away like we did). On shoes are expensive and known for one major and inherent downfall—rocks get stuck in the large grooves of their soles—but they exude quality and are well worth a look.
See the Men's On Cloudultra See the Women's On Cloudultra
Weight: 1 lb. 4.1 oz.
What we like: The first carbon-plated trail running shoe.
What we don’t: Expensive and unnecessary for most runners.
Until 2021, The North Face hasn’t been much of a player in trail running. But with the release of their flagship VECTIV lineup, they’ve come onto the scene in a big way—or should we say, three big ways. Hallmarked by its unique rocker, the VECTIV trio includes the max-cushioned Enduris, the all-rounder Infinite, and the speedy Flight here. The Flight VECTIV has made the most waves due to its carbon fiber plate, which offers extra propulsion with each step and is the first of its kind in a trail running shoe. The buzz is hot on this design, and it doesn’t hurt that prototypes of the Flight were worn during 17 record-setting FKTs in the year before its release (notably, two on the Wonderland Trail and one on the UTMB).
With that kind of introduction, you might be wondering why the Flight VECTIV is ranked so low on our list. First off, we have yet to meet a runner who flat-out loves the Flight. For some, it’s the fit: the shoes are noticeably narrow (not ideal for ultra distances) and have a high heel cup that could cause issues. For others, it’s the rocker and carbon plate, which simply offer a different feel than most shoes and take awhile to get used to. And regardless of the performance, you’ll have to ask yourself if you really need a $199 shoe that’s built for cutting-edge speed efforts. With all of that in mind, mere mortals will probably be better off getting a taste of the VECTIV by way of the Enduris ($139) or very similar but Pebex-plated Infinite ($169).
See the Men's The North Face Flight VECTIV See the Women's The North Face Flight VECTIV
Weight: 1 lb. 4.6 oz.
What we like: Affordable 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 Brooks Divide 2 makes a lot of sense. Designed for runners transitioning from pavement to dirt, the Divide pulls features from both styles of footwear. Road runners will be familiar with the airy mesh upper, which lends a good dose of breathability and comfort and doesn’t have a difficult break-in period (like you might get with a burlier trail shoe). But the Divide is nevertheless trail-ready, with reinforcements on the upper, a full rubber sole, and even a lightweight rock plate. For the right person, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s important to note that with its hybrid, entry-level intentions, the Divide 2 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, even for new runners. For just $20 more, you can bump up to the Salomon Sense Ride or Hoka One One Torrent, which are high-quality shoes built for experienced runners. But for light trail use and runs that feature a mix of terrain (even gravel roads), the Divide is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Brooks Divide 2 See the Women's Brooks Divide 2
|Hoka One One Speedgoat 4||$145||1 lb. 5.6 oz.||Maximum||4mm||No|
|Salomon Speedcross 5||$130||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||10mm||No|
|La Sportiva Bushido II||$130||1 lb. 5 oz.||Light||6mm||Yes|
|Altra Lone Peak 5||$130||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Moderate||0mm||Yes|
|Salomon Sense Ride 4||$120||1 lb. 4.5 oz.||Moderate||8mm||No|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2||$145||1 lb. 4 oz.||Moderate/maximum||5mm||No|
|Saucony Peregrine 11||$120||1 lb. 5.8 oz.||Moderate||4mm||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2||$170||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|Hoka One One Torrent 2||$120||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate||5mm||No|
|Brooks Cascadia 16||$130||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate/maximum||8mm||Yes|
|Nike Pegasus Trail 3||$130||1 lb. 6.7 oz.||Maximum||10mm||No|
|La Sportiva Jackal||$140||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Moderate||7mm||Yes|
|Brooks Catamount||$160||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||6mm||Yes|
|Scarpa Spin Ultra||$149||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate||6mm||No|
|Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3||$180||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|On Cloudultra||$180||1 lb. 4.8 oz.||Maximum||8mm||No|
|The North Face Flight VECTIV||$199||1 lb. 4.1 oz.||Moderate||6mm||No|
|Brooks Divide 2||$100||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
- How to Choose a Trail Running Shoe
- Cushioning (Stack Height)
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Mountain Running Shoes
- Road-to-Trail Shoe Recommendations
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
- Other Expert Takes on Trail Running Shoes
Selecting the best trail running shoe is no small task, and will come down to a variety of factors, including the style of running (terrain, distance, and speed) and your own preferences (desired feel and fit). We used to think it would be helpful to our readers to have our picks above divided into categories—a sort of “you tell us what type of trails you run, we’ll tell you what to wear.” But then we took a deeper look at our own shoe choices. We were consistently opting for an “easy trails” shoe for cross-country mountain runs (the Salomon Sense Ride) and cursing our “rugged trails” La Sportiva Jackal on muddy singletrack (the 3mm lugs are great on rock, awful on wet ground). In the end, we realized that most running shoes defy categories, and are far more about the synergy between the shoes, the terrain, and the runner. However, there are still a good number of clues that can help you narrow down your choice, which we dive into in greater detail below.
The good news is that most of the shoes here are great all-rounders, sufficient for most runners on most trails. Where you’ll really need to start thinking is if you have specific demands for a shoe, including if you want to go really far, really fast, or really remote. Here is where the specialists come in, which we detail in the write-ups above. In general, max-cushioned shoes are great for ultra distances (such as the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 or On Cloudultra), streamlined and firm shoes are ideal for race day (the TNF Flight Vectiv and Brooks Catamount, for example), and those who venture into off-trail terrain will want to prioritize protection, stability, and sticky tread above all else (check out the La Sportiva Bushido and Arc’teryx Norvan VT). And take heart: this is a big decision but hopefully one you won’t have to make often. Most runners find a shoe (or shoes) that they love and just stick with it, year after year.
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 and Hoka Torrent 2 to 1 pound 6.6 ounces for the Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2 and 1 pound 6.7 ounces for the Nike Pegasus Trail 3. Shoes like the Spin Ultra and Torrent feel extremely light on your feet (great for speed) while heavier shoes feature maximum cushioning (like the Nike) or are super tough and built for off-trail exploring (as in the case of the Arc'teryx). Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection, while designs like the Norvan VT 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 and Topo MTN Racer are springy and have enough squish 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 all-rounder shoes 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 Altra Lone Peak being the most popular example). 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 2). 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 us: 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.
Rain and wet conditions don’t stop most trail runners from getting out, but wet feet can be a big reason for going home early. For this reason, many of the shoes above are offered in waterproof versions, which feature a waterproof and breathable membrane (usually Gore-Tex) in between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining. These shoes are generally a few ounces heavier per pair and $15-$40 more, but the waterproofing is very effective and especially makes sense in cold weather, when wet feet become cold feet in a hurry.
That said, we’re not huge fans of waterproof trail running shoes, for a number of reasons. Our main gripe is that waterproof membranes have a significant impact on breathability, creating a ripe situation for clammy feet. What’s more, drying time suffers, with no way for water (or sweat) to leave once it's inside. Further, while they guard against low-lying puddles and streams, waterproof shoes do nothing to prevent water entering at the ankle. In the end, we can see the appeal for shoulder seasons or winter, but for most runners the tradeoffs simply aren’t worth it. And if you want to add waterproof protection without a brand new shoe, we highly recommend waterproof socks (like these from Rocky), which are easy to take off and stow in your pack during long stretches of dry trail. For more on this topic, check out our article: Do You Need Waterproof Hiking Shoes?
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 Pegasus Trail 3, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Pegasus 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.
Mountain running is experiencing a huge growth spurt, with more and more enthusiasts ditching heavy overnight gear for a pair of running shoes and a light pack. By our definition, this style of running takes you off trail and into cross-country zones, where you might encounter anything from technical rock climbing and talus or boulder fields to glacier travel and steep snow—think ridge scrambling in the Rockies or peak bagging in the North Cascades. And you’ll need just the right footwear to tackle this complex terrain: a shoe that combines the light weight and comfort of a trail runner with the stability, grip, and durability of an approach or hiking shoe.
Fortunately, a whole new class of mountain running-specific shoes has emerged recently, engineered especially for off-trail trickery. La Sportiva leads the field here, but designs from brands like Arc’teryx, Dynafit, Salomon, and Scarpa come in close behind (our favorites above include the La Sportiva Bushido II, Salomon Sense Ride 4, and the Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2). Within this category, look for sticky rubber outsoles (MegaGrip and FriXion are common compounds) with shallow lugs and even a smooth patch near the toe for climbing performance. Many will feature a lower, more planted feel for stability on off-camber terrain, aided by moderate to light cushioning in the midsole. Finally, they’re relatively stiff (compared to a standard trail running shoe) and have highly durable and protective uppers (we often strap crampons or microspikes to our mountain running shoes). In our picks above, we make sure to call out the shoes that are specially designed for off-trail mountain travel.
If you’re anything like us, your daily runs leave from your front door and include a combination of pavement and trail. That’s all well and good, until you consider that the trail running shoes here are not designed to run on pavement. With full rubber soles, firm midsoles, and more protective uppers, they’ll feel overbuilt and heavy.
A few hybrid designs are made to toe the line between the two worlds, including the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 and Topo Athletic MT-3, but their trail performance is so middling that we don’t include them on the list above. However, looking at our picks, there are a few trail models that stand out as being able to handle the road better than most, including the Nike Pegasus Trail 3, the Brooks Catamount, and the Salomon Sense Ride 4. These shoes all have ties to the road world: the Catamount’s DNA Flash midsole was adapted from Brooks’ popular Hyperion Tempo, while both the Pegasus Trail and Sense Ride took design hints from road running models. Don’t expect these shoes to be particularly great performers on pavement, but they’ll get you from your doorstep to the trail better than most.
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.
The picks above were compiled through market research and the combined decades of experience of Switchback Travel’s gear testing team. For additional expert opinions on trail running shoes, check out iRunFar’s Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021 and GearJunkie’s The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021.
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