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 2020, 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.
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.6 oz.
What we like: Standout comfort and traction in a lightweight package.
What we don’t: Thick midsole minimizes trail feel in technical sections.
Hoka One One may have built their reputation around soft, heavily cushioned road and trail runners, but we think their Speedgoat 4 is an exceptional all-rounder. The shoe has the brand’s signature thick midsole, but the design hits a near-ideal balance of comfort, weight, protection, and responsiveness (we’ve also found it’s a great option for hiking). In addition, the aggressive outsole is one of our favorites, with substantial lugs and tacky Vibram Megagrip rubber that hold well in everything from dry dirt and mud to steep rock. Tack on a medium-width toe box that fits a broad range of foot shapes—plus available wide sizes for both men and women—and the Speedgoat is our favorite trail running shoe of 2020.
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. 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 4 See the Women's Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
Best Trail Runner for Rugged Terrain
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Overkill and stiff for 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 our favorite shoe for technical trails: it’s responsive, grips remarkably well, and is stable over challenging terrain. And unlike a heavily cushioned model, the La Sportiva retains excellent trail feel (this can be a downside, however, if you prefer a lot of isolation from harsh impacts). The Bushido was lightly updated to the “II” last spring with a new EVA midsole, rubber toe cap, and moderate boost to the durability of the upper. Importantly, its confidence-inspiring and fast-moving personality remains.
One thing to keep in mind with such a serious mountain runner is that the La Sportiva is stiffer than a standard trail shoe. It’s intended for long runs where you’ll have to climb and descend for extended stretches, and on a smooth path, this extra support is overkill and less comfortable than an all-around model like the Speedgoat above. But if you tackle the steeps and want a reliable partner, we highly recommend the Bushido. Its performance fit and high levels of stability and traction truly make it stand out... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido II See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido II
Best Zero-Drop Trail Runner
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish feel; hard to trust in off-camber or technical sections.
Altra quickly progressed from an unknown to a go-to brand in the trail running community, and much of their rapid ascent can be attributed to the rise in popularity of zero-drop shoes. An offshoot of the barefoot running movement, zero-drop trail runners keep the foot in its naturally flat position (most shoes here elevate the heel by 4 to 10mm). Many brands have experimented with this trend, but the Lone Peak is our favorite model for both trail running and thru-hiking. Like other shoes in the Lone Peak series (it’s worth checking out the Mid or Mid RSM for more protection and waterproofing), the 4.5 features a wide toe box and moderate cushioning, which lend comfort for high-mileage days on moderate terrain.
What are the downsides of the Lone Peak? First off, the zero-drop design is not for everyone. Those accustomed to a more typical trail runner might find it slightly more sluggish than the Speedgoat and Bushido above, and it isn’t as capable in off-camber sections of trail (there’s nothing aggressive about the Lone Peak). Further, the wide toe box can lead to a sloppy feel over technical terrain, especially for those with narrow feet (the 4.5’s tighter instep and redesigned laces do help a little here). As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. All in all, the Lone Peak 4.5 is our favorite zero-drop shoe, but there are a number of great options available, including Altra’s Timp 2, the Merrell Bare Access XTR, and the Inov-8 Terraultra.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 4.5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 4.5
Best Pavement-to-Trail Running Shoe
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: A great do-all Salomon shoe that’s now even better on trail.
What we don’t: Not as stable or grippy as the Bushido on challenging terrain.
Salomon’s Sense Ride 2 was marketed as a “quiver-killer,” and the new “3” is an even more capable do-all shoe that builds off the same beloved design. The previous iteration was ideal for tackling short stretches of pavement and long distances on trail (a popular combo if you’re running from home), but the updated shoe improves performance on both mediums. Two layers of foam in the midsole (inspired by Salomon’s road shoes) offer great protection and cushioning for both road and trail, and the snug heel cup lends a closer fit. For when the terrain turns technical, the 3 adds raised sidewalls for more support and protection, spreads out the rock plate for more coverage, and increases grip with a 4-millimeter lug length (compared to the previous version’s 3mm).
Finding one shoe to does it all is a tall order for any trail runner, but the Sense Ride 3 accomplishes the task better than most. The improvements do come at a significant weight increase (3.6 ounces for the pair), and it’s important to note that any all-arounder won’t excel at the extremes. For truly technical terrain (think off-trail scrambling and particularly rooty trails), the Sense Ride 3 is no match for the all-out grip and stability of the Bushido above or Speedcross 5 below. On the other hand, some might find it overbuilt for hard-packed trails and gravel roads. But for that happy medium of trail terrain, we think the Sense Ride 3 is one of the most versatile trail shoes of 2020.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 3 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 3
Best Trail Runner With a Wide Toe Box
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Noticeably lightweight and wide toe box offers all-day comfort.
What we don't: Narrow feet will swim in the toe box.
Topo Athletic might not be a household name like Salomon or La Sportiva, but their lineup of shoes speaks for itself. Founded by the former CEO of Vibram, this company knows what goes into making a good runner, and the MTN Racer is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver. Like the Lone Peak above, the MTN Racer features a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, lending all-day comfort for swollen and hard-working feet. But the Topo Athletic tacks on some significant technical chops, with a 5-millimeter drop (compared to the Altra’s 0mm), slightly firmer cushioning, and a small decrease in weight. We’ve logged over 400 trail miles in one pair of MTN Racers, and overall have been very impressed with the shoe's high degree of comfort, durability, and trail-handling.
For truly rugged terrain, we’d recommend a less cushioned and more protective shoe, like the La Sportiva Bushido II or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2. That said, the MTN Racer holds its own on rocks and roots alike, with deep lugs, sticky Vibram Megagrip rubber (a blend often used in climbing-specific approach shoes), and a relatively stiff build. And while it doesn’t come in a Gore-Tex model, the shoe is designed with minimal bulk and drainage ports, meaning that when your feet do get wet, they dry quickly. Of note: the MTN Racer is our favorite design with a roomy toe box, but if you’re looking for a true wide size (EE for men, D for women), the good news is that there are a number of options, including our top-rated Speedgoat above and Brooks’ Cascadia 14 below.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer See the Women's Topo MTN Racer
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 5.4 oz.
What we like: Excellent mix of traction, comfort, and weight.
What we don’t: A bit too flexy for highly technical terrain.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been an all-around favorite of ours over multiple generations, and the “10” builds on the winning formula. For a reliable, do-all trail runner, the shoe excels in the of the categories that matter: traction, cushioning, protection, and weight. We love its signature trail-eating, teeth-like tread that grips anything from wet rocks to hardpack dirt, and the premium midsole is springy and energetic, lending comfort even on high-mileage days. The “10” comes with a rock plate for added protection on rugged trails, and also tacks on a more protective, form-fitting upper.
While the Peregrine is a well-balanced, trustworthy companion for most trails, it’s not a standout on highly technical terrain and is overbuilt for pavement and gravel. We’ve found the Hoka Speedgoat above to bit a bit more versatile, while matching the Peregrine in weight and responsiveness. One interesting addition to the Saucony is a dozen customizable ports in the shoe’s outsole, giving you the option of drilling holes to promote drainage or adding screws for extra traction in slippery conditions. They also released a Peregrine 10 ST (soft terrain) version, which features longer lugs (6.5mm compared to 5mm) and an abrasion- and water-resistant upper for the same price. The standard 10 also comes in a waterproof GTX model ($150). No matter what version you go with, the Peregrine offers an impressive combination of comfort, performance, and high-quality materials.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 10 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 10
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction in soft ground.
What we don’t: Less stable than the Bushido II above.
Salomon has been in the trail running game for a long time, and the Speedcross 5 packs in all of their well-known features: a single-pull lace system, supportive fit, and sturdy but still reasonably light chassis. What sets the Speedcross apart is its massive 6-millimeter arrow-shaped lugs (most trail shoes are about 4mm), which offer best-in-class traction over soft ground like dirt, mud, and even snow. The performance-oriented and narrow fit isn’t for everyone, but the Speedcross’s thick midsole and supportive upper material makes it a capable, mountain-ready design.
We rank the Speedcross 5 below the La Sportiva Bushido II, however, due to its less stable ride over sketchy stretches of trail. Whereas the Bushido sits low and is planted, the tall stack height of the Speedcross can feel tippy and prone to rolling over, particularly on rock. Nonetheless, the Salomon 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. As with previous models, the Speedcross 5 is also sold in a Gore-Tex version for those who regularly get out in the wet.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 5 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 5
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 slightly less aggressive than the Sense Ride above.
For trail runners who want to have their cake and eat it too, Scarpa’s Spin Ultra is one of our favorite new styles. The Italian shoe company (most known for their climbing and mountaineering lineups) puts it all together here with the stiffness and protection (both upper and underfoot) you need for rocky and off-camber terrain, alongside generous cushioning and great breathability. The outsole manages to combine the best of both worlds too: utilizing Vibram’s LiteBase technology, Scarpa uses the sticky Megagrip compound (great for traction on rock) while still keeping weight low at just 9.3 ounces per shoe. All told, the Spin Ultra is another great option for long distances and off-trail exploration, giving the Sense Ride above a run for its money in the versatility department.
Scarpa did not include a rock plate on the Spin Ultra, but two layers of foam keep you fairly isolated from the ground. All in all, the feel is akin to shoes with cushioning like the Hoka One One above and Brooks’ Caldera below, but with an increased drop for more aggressive movement on the trail. You can opt for a faster and more stable shoe with the Spin or Spin RS, but we find that the Ultra’s added cushion is actually a bonus on all but the most technical terrain. Finally, keep in mind that like most of Scarpa’s offerings, the Spin Ultra is slightly wider than average.
See the Men's Scarpa Spin Ultra See the Women's Scarpa Spin Ultra
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 4.5 oz.
What we like: Nike’s proven road-running technology tailored for trail use.
What we don’t: The Peregrine 10 above has a better outsole design.
Nike puts most of their efforts into road-running gear, but their Terra Kiger 6 is a quality, cushioned option for trail work. Updated this year, the newest model features a revamped mesh upper that’s designed to better keep out mud and other trail debris, alongside an improved fit in the forefoot. Other familiar features remain unchanged, such as the highly responsive React foam in the midsole, segmented rock plate, sturdy toe cap, and outsole that grips particularly well in hardpack dirt and rock. All in all, the Terra Kiger 6 amounts to a solid all-rounder that’s well-deserving of a spot on this list.
In many ways, the Nike Terra Kiger is a direct competitor to the Saucony Peregrine 10 above. They both weigh about 10 ounces per shoe, have a 4-millimeter offset, and provide a similar mix of cushioning, flexibility, and on-trail performance. We give the edge to the Peregrine for its superior outsole that lasts longer and grips better in muddy and wet conditions, but both are great shoes that are equally adept at short- and long-distance runs. For a beefed-up alternative to the Terra Kiger for rough terrain, check out Nike’s Air Zoom Wildhorse 6.
See the Men's Nike Terra Kiger 6 See the Women's Nike Terra Kiger 6
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Narrow fit; too specialized for most runners.
Arc’teryx jumped into the trail running shoe market a couple years ago with the mountain-ready Norvan VT, and last summer they released the updated “2.” The VT (“vertical”) maintains the original shoe’s aggressive intentions, but does so with a more traditional feature set. Most notably, Arc’teryx eliminated the approach shoe-like lacing system that extended to the toes, updated the midsole for more cushion and shock absorption, and removed the sock-like liner for a boost in breathability. What remains is the ultra-impressive Megagrip outsole, which offers excellent traction on rock, mud, and even snow. All in all, it’s clear the Norvan VT 2 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 mountain-specific running. For a more cushioned and flexible option from Arc’teryx that’s comfortable on moderately technical terrain, check out their Norvan LD. And as with all Arc’teryx shoes, keep in mind that the Norvan VT 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
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 2.8 oz.
What we like: One of the few capable hybrid trail/road shoes.
What we don’t: Tread falls short in rough and technical conditions.
Mixing road and trail shoe characteristics, Hoka’s Challenger ATR 5 offers a nice all-in-one solution. Like the Speedgoat above, the shoe has excellent cushioning and comfort thanks to a thick midsole, plus its streamlined build and rockered base give the Challenger a springy personality. For road use, the middle of the outsole is standard blown rubber to trim weight and help with efficiency, while pods of trail-worthy lugs can be found under the ball of the foot and heel. Fit-wise, the Challenger hits a nice middle ground that should appeal to a lot of runners, with decent space in the toe box but a snug-enough shape to avoid feeling overly loose.
Unsurprisingly, trying to do everything for everyone does come with some compromises. In the case of the ATR 5, its closely spaced lugs and only moderately aggressive design come up short in muddy and sloppy conditions. And on pavement, the grippy sections of the sole can feel a little sticky and slow compared with a dedicated road shoe. Serious athletes that want maximum performance will still be better off with a dedicated pair for each activity, but along with the Sense Ride 3 above, the Challenger is one of the best designs we’ve used that can pull double duty.
See the Men's Hoka Challenger ATR 5 See the Women's Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and only moderate stability.
Brooks is most known in the trail running world for their Cascadia (below), a beloved shoe among both runners and thru-hikers that is now in its 14th generation. The Caldera offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a stack height reminiscent of a Hoka One One or Altra, a lighter feel, and overall more flexibility and cushion for tackling long distances on moderate terrain. We wore the plush model in the Blue Ridge Mountains while training for (and running) our first 50K, and found it to be a comfortable, capable choice. Now in its 4th iteration, the updated design features added mesh for increased breathability, a TPU toe cap to guard against toe stubs, and an improved outsole that excels on hard-packed dirt and rock.
The Caldera wouldn’t be our first choice for technical or wet terrain (you don’t get the type of underfoot protection we see in the popular Cascadia line), but it is a great shoe for door-to-door runs that cover both pavement and trail. Similar to the Altra Lone Peak above, some might find that the thick midsole and wide footbed occasionally 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). Overall, we like what Brooks has done (and continues to do) with the Caldera, and think it hits the right mix of performance and comfort for extended runs.
See the Men's Brooks Caldera 4 See the Women's Brooks Caldera 4
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 11.4 oz.
What we like: Rugged shoe for rugged terrain.
What we don’t: Heavy, sluggish, and in many cases, overkill.
La Sportiva continues to churn out quality shoes built for serious mountain environments, and the Akyra GTX is no exception. This trail runner is a stable and durable choice for fastpackers and runners who often venture off trail. In terms of protection, you can’t do much better. With a toe bumper, reinforcement on the inside of the toe box, a stiff midsole, and burly, sticky lugs, the rough and tumble Akyra feels a lot closer to a light hiker than a trail runner.
However, the Akyra is the heaviest shoe on this list (its non-GTX version is only a few ounces lighter) and certainly not for everyone. If you’re accustomed to a lightweight trail runner, the inflexible midsole and aggressive lugs will feel sluggish on your feet. And Gore-Tex trail runners are a specialty choice: they’re great if you run in the cold or venture into wet terrain, but generally unnecessary otherwise. But in the right environments, the Akyra is a high-performance and bombproof trail runner. For those who want similar traction and stability without waterproofing, we recommend the La Sportiva Bushido II above.
See the Men's La Sportiva Akyra GTX See the Women's La Sportiva Akyra GTX
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.4 oz.
What we like: New model is lighter and more capable.
What we don’t: Even with the changes, it’s still not a fast and nimble shoe.
For years running, the Cascadia has been Brooks’ leading trail shoe, and its 14th iteration still claims that top spot. This should tell you two things: one, runners (and thru-hikers) love the Cascadia and turn to it year after year for technical trail needs. On the other hand (two), this also means that the Cascadia has been around for over a decade, and as a result is a rather dated concept. In 2020, there are a plethora of more modern and improved options, whether you’re looking for a peppy ride on roots and rocks or all-day comfort for long distances.
It’s not all bad with the Cascadia though. The 14 is an improvement on the previous design, with a lighter build (by 2 ounces per pair), a streamlined and revamped upper, and extra grip thanks to a new tread and rubber outsole. Importantly, the shoe hasn’t lost its way over rough terrain with a decently stable chassis, reinforced mud guards, and locked-in fit and lacing system. But the Brooks’ has a pretty bland feel to it on the trail (especially compared with bouncy options like the Speedgoat), and its reinforced upper does make it run warmer than mesh-heavy alternatives. Taken together, the Cascadia 14 is still good but not great, and we’ll point all but the most stalwart of fans towards other options further up the list.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 14 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 14
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 3.3 oz.
What we like: Great grip and durability along with a close-to-ground feel.
What we don’t: Less of an all-rounder than the Bushido II above.
With its origins in British fell running, Inov-8 is no stranger to steep terrain, cross-country travel, and the wettest of conditions. It’s here that their lightweight and aggressive Roclite G 275 excels. With a stack height of only 8 millimeters at the forefoot, the Roclite is by far the least-cushioned shoe on our list (the next in line is the Bushido II with 13mm at the toe), which keeps you feeling close to the ground and in control (a rock plate adds ample protection). Further, the latest “G” models include a reworked tread that features an innovative Graphene compound for increased durability and longevity. Tack on a minimalist yet durable mesh upper, and you have one serious pair of high-performance kicks.
The Roclite is built for varied, technical terrain, which puts it head-to-head with the La Sportiva Bushido above. Both feature a rock plate, 6-millimeter lugs, and a lightweight build (the Roclite is 1.7 ounces lighter per pair), but the Inov-8 has slightly more aggressive intentions, with less cushioning and a more pronounced drop (8mm vs. 6mm). All in all, the Bushido II gets the edge as the more capable all-rounder that does a better job absorbing impacts over high-mileage days. But the Roclite isn’t far behind, as its fairly large British fanbase can attest.
See the Men's Inov-8 Roclite G 275 See the Women's Inov-8 Roclite G 275
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.8 oz.
What we like: Durable, great traction, and stable.
What we don’t: Poor ventilation and feels heavy.
Made for rough terrain and inclement weather, the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic XT is a serious, mountain-ready trail runner. The aggressive Continental outsole shares a lug pattern with a mountain bike tire, and we’ve found it to be sticky and grip well on rock and in mud and snow. A low stack height and semi-stiff platform contribute to a stable feel over technical sections, but what’s most impressive is the all-around nature of the build. The Agravic is comfortable on both steep and flat trails, and it’s fully capable for crossing over into hiking and fastpacking.
One downside of the Terrex Agravic XT is a somewhat heavy feel that makes it less fun on long runs. In addition, the tightly woven upper struggles with ventilation in hot conditions (the upside is solid durability). Otherwise, the Agravic gives the La Sportiva Bushido II a real run for its money (no pun intended) as one of our favorite shoes for rough trails. And with its cushioned ride, the Terrex Agravic has better isolation from sharp rocks.
See the Men's Adidas Terrex Agravic XT
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.4 oz.
What we like: Affordable road shoe that can hold its own on dirt and rock.
What we don’t: Not intended for technical trails.
If you plan to stick mostly to smooth trails or want to mix in some road miles, the Asics Gel-Venture 7 makes a lot of sense. The Gel-Venture will outgrip and offers better lateral stability and support than a road shoe without overdoing it with a large toe cap, thick materials, or massive lugs. But with a mesh upper, the Gel-Venture has the light and airy feel of a road runner. For the right person, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s important to note that with the emphasis on easy trails, the Gel-Venture shouldn’t really be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep terrain or over rocks, roots, or other rough ground, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment. But for light trail use, the Venture is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Asics Gel-Venture 7 See the Women's Asics Gel-Venture 7
|Hoka One One Speedgoat 4||$145||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.6 oz.||Maximum/moderate||4mm|
|La Sportiva Bushido II||$130||Rugged trails||1 lb. 5 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Altra Lone Peak 4.5||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate/maximum||0mm|
|Salomon Sense Ride 3||$120||Easy trails/all-around||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer||$140||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Maximum/moderate||5mm|
|Saucony Peregrine 10||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5.4 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Salomon Speedcross 5||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
|Scarpa Spin Ultra||$149||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate||6mm|
|Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 4.5 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Hoka Challenger ATR 5||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 2.8 oz.||Maximum/moderate||5mm|
|Brooks Caldera 4||$140||All-around||1 lb. 4 oz.||Maximum||4mm|
|La Sportiva Akyra GTX||$160||Rugged trails||1 lb. 11.4 oz.||Moderate||9mm|
|Brooks Cascadia 14||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Inov-8 Roclite G 275||$135||Rugged trails||1 lb. 3.3 oz.||Light||8mm|
|Adidas Terrex Agravic XT||$140||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.8 oz.||Moderate||6mm|
|Asics Gel-Venture 7||$70||Easy trails||1 lb. 5.4 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
- Trail Running Shoe Categories
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Lacing Systems
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
- Wearing Trail Running Shoes on Pavement
For tackling local trail networks or maintained paths that aren’t very technical or steep, a shoe in our easy trails category is best. Compared with a standard road-running model, these shoes are defined by a moderate increase in traction, stability, and toe and underfoot protection. They also should outlast those pavement pounders with a more durable construction and beefed up tread design. Among the larger trail running market, these are the most flexible, prioritizing comfort over all-out grip and support. If you’ll be covering serious miles or heading into mountainous terrain, it may be worth upgrading to a shoe in the all-around or rugged trails categories. But for cruising dirt or bark paths, shoes like the Salomon Sense Ride and Asics Gel-Venture are great options.
The majority of trail runners choose a shoe from the all-around category. The reason is simple: they are the most versatile designs that offer the right balance of performance and comfort. A model like our top-rated Hoka One One Speedgoat provides fantastic grip in dirt, mud, or over rock, and keeps your feet protected and comfortable. It won’t feel stiff and overkill on easy-going singletrack, but has the chops to handle a race like the Leadville Trail 100. The main reason not to choose an all-rounder is if you need a more focused design (for example, a shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido that excels on demanding, mountainous terrain). Otherwise, we recommend most people start and end their search here.
Trail running shoes intended for rugged terrain are the most specialized of the bunch. While the specific designs can vary from a soft-ground specialist like the Salomon Speedcross to the Arc’teryx Norvan VT’s approach shoe-like grip, common features include a durable construction, stiffer build for long climbs and tricky descents, and fit systems that aim to keep your feet solidly in place. They’re often heavier than an all-around or easy trails shoe, so they’re overkill and not a good choice if you stick to maintained trails. But if your runs feature steep inclines, rocks and roots, mud or soft grass, and potentially snow, a rugged trails shoe is best.
We put a high priority on weight when considering a trail running shoe. Lighter shoes are faster, feel less cumbersome, and allow you to cover more ground with less fatigue. But we also like a balanced design that doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of comfort and trail performance. For 2020, 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 Topo Athletic MTN Racer to 1 pound 11.4 ounces for the burly waterproof La Sportiva Akyra GTX. The Spin Ultra and MTN Racer feel extremely light on your feet while the La Sportiva is super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection, while the La Sportiva is fairly cumbersome on the trail. In general, we find the sweet spot to often be right in the middle.
The rugged rubber outsole on a trail running shoe is one of its defining features, but performance can vary widely between models. In general, the level of traction provided will closely follow which of the above categories a shoe falls into. Shoes for easy trails offer the least grip, particularly over difficult sections with slippery rocks, roots, and mud. All-rounders are balanced and fare well in most conditions, while those built for rugged trails often stand out in a specific environment (including mud, snow, or steep and loose inclines/declines).
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 provide excellent bite in loose ground, but in the case of the Speedcross, the raised profile has a negative impact on stability. Finally, the tread design should be considered: widely spaced, tall lugs with a soft compound will outperform tightly spaced, short lugs, and sticky rubber in mud, and the reverse is typically true over rock or hardpack.
An area where manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves is the amount of cushioning provided by their shoes. Known as the “stack height,” which is the measured height from where the foot sits inside the shoe to the ground, trail running models range from very thin to heavily cushioned. Minimalist designs only have a small amount of EVA foam in the midsole, which makes them extremely nimble and provides a close feel of the terrain. But the downside is the potential for some really sore feet as the miles pound on. On the other end of the spectrum are maximum-cushioned shoes from brands like Hoka One One and Altra (the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 is 32mm at the heel). These remind us a lot of a fat bike: the ride is smooth and you barely notice the ground underneath, but there is more of a disconnect between you and the trail (and their tall heights can make them prone to rolling over).
Both minimalist and max-cushioned styles have their merits—and loyal fans—but in the end, most runners are happiest somewhere in the middle. Shoes like the Saucony Peregrine, Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger, and Altra Lone Peak are soft and springy to keep your feet happy on rough terrain and for long distances, but don’t sit too tall to compromise stability and confidence. It’s no accident most of the shoes we have listed above offer a moderate amount of cushioning.
As the name indicates, the heel-to-toe drop is the difference in shoe height, where your foot sits, from the heel to toe. This spec was barely on the radar of folks outside the hardcore running community until the zero-drop fad hit a few years ago. Many of the shoes in our all-around category have a drop in the range of 4 to 8 millimeters, which can work well for both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero-drop shoes have a 0-millimeter difference (Altra is a leader in this department), encouraging a mid- or forefoot landing point. And many models for rugged trails have the most dramatic drops, often 8 to 10 millimeters.
Our take is that drop is a matter of comfort and personal preference more than anything else. Many people like a moderate drop in their trail running shoes, while others prefer a zero-drop design. The trend is toward lower drops for running shoes in general, although the performance and injury prevention science are hotly debated. The key is that you don't make a major change to an extreme end of the spectrum and then head straight out for a long run. Instead, if you're interested in a zero-drop design, try it out by easing in and developing confidence on the trail. This will reduce the chance of injury and ensure that it's the right choice for you.
Trying to move fast over rough terrain in a pair of lightweight low-top shoes may seem like asking for an injury (and it can happen), but today’s trail running shoes do offer a stable ride that is resistant to ankle rolls. It starts with a solid platform, which is wide and rigid enough to sustain hard impacts on uneven ground (this platform is pronounced on a highly stable shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer). The chassis, which is the perimeter of the base of the shoe, is beefed up with trail runners to create that solid base. In addition, some shoes include a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon that’s been slid in-between the midsole and outsole for added stiffness. Finally, some manufacturers create what amounts to a partial plastic exoskeleton around the heel cup for added structure and rollover protection.
The relative stiffness and stability of a shoe will most often correlate with its intended use, or as defined in this article, its category (easy trails, all-around, rugged trails). A race or mountain-oriented shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido II is stiffer and has more of a structure, while easy trail options are more flexible and comfortable out of the box.
The most common waterproof design for trail running shoes is made by Gore-Tex, and consists of a waterproof and breathable lining that is inserted between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining. The extra layer does add a little weight—typically about 2 ounces total—and makes the shoe feel less sprightly than a non-waterproof option. Further, it has a significant impact on breathability and the drying time of the shoe. For those looking to go light and fast, waterproofing is probably not the best option, but for running in the rain in cold weather or in slushy snow, we’ve found a Gore-Tex lining does a great job preventing freezing toes.
A waterproof shoe like the La Sportiva Akyra GTX makes the most sense when the extra warmth (i.e. less ventilation) is a good thing, such as during the shoulder seasons or winter. 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.
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 Adidas Terrex Agravic XT and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Terra Kiger to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Terrex's more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you’ll want some added protection from your shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail running shoes have some type of toe protection, usually in the form of a rubber toe guard or cap that is capable of absorbing direct hits pretty well. Because of the lightweight intent of a trail runner, the toe protection isn’t as substantial as a hiking shoe, but it should prevent your toes from turning black and blue should you accidentally kick a rock or root on the trail.
Much in the same way that a protective toe cap isolates you from a sharp rock or other trail debris, lightweight rock plates are inserted between the midsole and outsole on many trail shoes. These plates vary in thickness, coverage, and materials, ranging from thin and flexible ESS foam under the ball of the foot to a stiff TPU shank. How much protection is needed depends on personal preference and the terrain you'll be running over (more miles on rough trails will merit burlier protection), but overall, we find rock plates to be a great feature. They’re unobtrusive, keep foot soreness to a minimum, and only add a small amount of weight.
Laces are easy to overlook but play a fundamental role in shoe comfort. Most shoes use a standard lace-up method, but brands like Salomon are doing things a little differently with a single pull “Quicklace” system on their trail running shoes. We love this design on the Salomon Speedcross 5 and Sense Ride for its ease of use and speed. It only requires a single pull, and then you can tuck away the excess laces and forget about them. We’ve found that the laces hold extremely well—better than some traditional sets in fact. There is a potential downside, however. For those with finicky feet that need to customize the fit around certain parts of your feet, there isn’t really a solution with the quick lace design. The laces will fit equally tight around the entirety of your foot. Accordingly, we recommend avoiding quick laces if you often fiddle with your laces to get the fit just right.
In recent years, trail running shoes have taken off as a go-to choice for day hikers, fastpackers, and thru-hikers alike. And it makes a lot of sense: with a lightweight and flexible feel but solid traction, you can cover more ground with less effort. Further, most day hikers and thru-hikers keep pack weight to a minimum, so there’s less need for the stability and ankle support of a sturdy shoe or boot. In fact, we’ve spoken to some PCT thru-hikers who made the switch from boots to trail runners mid-trip, and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their levels of comfort and nimble feel—provided they kept their pack weight down.
But there are a number of obvious issues. One is durability. It’s unlikely you’ll get as many miles out of your trail runners as you would a lightweight hiking shoe or full-on hiking boot, which are designed to handle more use and abuse. Second, with minimal materials and bulk, a trail runner simply does not offer the same amount of protection as beefier hiking footwear, especially those with generous rubber rands and leather uppers. Finally, we don’t recommend trail running shoes for heavy loads or particularly rugged terrain, when you’ll want a more supportive option. But despite these potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular hiking and backpacking option.
As a result of the unique designs for both trail and road running shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can be painful to run with a trail running shoe on pavement, or vice versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do an decent job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single model exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. That said, it’s fairly common to cover short stretches on road before hitting a trail, and we’ve found both the Salomon Sense Ride and Hoka One One Challenger ATR are suitable hybrid options.
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