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 2018, 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.
Weight: 20 oz.
What we like: This shoe puts it all together: traction, comfort, protection, and weight.
What we don’t: A bit too flexy for technical terrain.
Saucony’s Peregrine line has been a favorite of ours through multiple generations, and the all-new “8” is their best rendition yet. The shoe excels in the categories important to the majority of runners: comfort, traction, protection, and weight. With the 2018 update comes the addition of a more premium midsole, which offers a bump in comfort while still maintaining a responsive ride. And Saucony even improved the trail-eating, teeth-like tread that we love, lengthening the lugs from 5mm to 6mm and adding grooves along the forefoot to improve responsiveness on tricky terrain.
What are the shortcomings of the Peregrine 8? Compared to the 7, the new model is a little heavier (about 1.2 ounces more for the pair). And similar to older models, the Peregrine 8 won’t be our go-to shoe for technical terrain as the cushioned midsole favors long-distance comfort and flexibility over stability on rocky and rooty trails. But with plenty of traction for most uses and comfort for anything from short runs on muddy trails to ultramarathons, the Peregrine gets our top overall billing for 2018.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 8 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 8
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 21 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 result is a confidence-inspiring build for moving fast on uneven ground.
One thing to keep in mind with such a serious mountain runner is that the shoe is stiffer than a standard trail shoe. The Bushido is intended for long runs where you’ll have to climb and descend for extended stretches, and on a smooth trail this extra support is overkill and less comfortable than an all-around shoe like the Peregrine. But if you tackle the steeps and want a reliable trail partner, we highly recommend the Bushido... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 21.8 oz.
What we like: Soft cushioning and fantastic traction.
What we don’t: Less stable than the Bushido above.
Salomon has been in the trail running game for a long time, and the updated Speedcross 4 has all their signature features: a single pull lace system, supportive fit, and sturdy but still reasonably light chassis. What sets the Speedcross apart are the 6mm arrow-shaped lugs (most trail shoes are about 4mm), offering best-in-class traction in soft ground like dirt, mud, and as we found out recently, snow. Along with a thick midsole, the Speedcross is one of the most capable—and comfortable—mountain-ready designs.
We rank the Speedcross 4 below the La Sportiva Bushido, however, due to its less stable feel over rough stretches of trail. Whereas the Bushido sits low and feels planted, the tall stacked height of the Speedcross can feel tippy and prone to rolling over, particularly on rock. Nonetheless, the Speedcross is a beast in terms of traction and should be at the top of the list for those that head out in rough conditions or participate in adventure races like Tough Mudders. Salomon also makes Gore-Tex and ClimaShield versions of the Speedcross 4 with full or partial waterproofing, respectively... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 4 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 4
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 19.4 oz.
What we like: Great fit and light.
What we don’t: Thin upper material and limited protection underfoot.
Nike’s Terra Kiger 4 may look like a converted road shoe, but it earns a spot on our list due to its serious performance chops. With plenty of cushioning underfoot and a tread pattern that climbs as well as it brakes on the downhill, the Terra Kiger is a top choice for ultra-distance competitors. This Nike model also has a distinctive look with its highly breathable Flymesh upper material that resembles knit fabric. The good news is that the unique appearance is functional and the flexible material adapts well to a variety of foot sizes and shapes without feeling loose or compromised. Even among our top-rated shoes, the Terra Kiger stands out for its superior fit.
In many ways, the Terra Kiger 4 is a direct competitor to our top ranked Saucony Peregrine 8. They both weigh about 10 ounces per shoe, have a 4mm offset, and offer a similar mix of cushioning, flexibility, and on-trail performance. We give the edge to the Peregrine for its slightly superior all-around traction and more durable upper material, but both are fantastic shoes that are equally adept at short and long distance runs.
See the Men's Nike Terra Kiger 4 See the Women's Nike Terra Kiger 4
Weight: 20.8 oz.
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Not everyone will love the wide fit.
Altra quickly progressed from an unknown to a go-to brand in the trail-running community, and much of their rapid ascent can be attributed to the Lone Peak line of zero-drop shoes. The most recent model was released in summer 2017 as a replacement to the 3.0, and we were happy to see it retained Altra’s signature wide toe box and moderate cushioning. The most notable changes are a more durable, reinforced upper material and the addition of drain holes for creek crossings. Altra also tweaked their Velcro gaiter attachment system, a nod to its popularity among thru-hikers as well as for running in wet conditions.
The Lone Peak’s wide toe box is not for everyone. If your feet have a little too much room, it can lead to a sloppy feel over technical terrain. The shoe also has a slightly heavier feel than the Peregrine and Terra Kiger above and isn’t as capable in off-camber sections of trail. As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. If a cushioned, comfortable ride is a priority and you like a roomy toe box and zero-drop design, the Lone Peak 3.5 is a winner.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 3.5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 3.5
Weight: 19.8 oz.
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and only moderate stability.
When Brooks launched their all-new Caldera in late 2016, we quickly put it to the test while training for and completing a 50k trail run in North Carolina. By and large, the Caldera proved to be an excellent choice for this type of distance work. The shoe has substantial and springy cushioning, grippy lugs, and a breathable yet protective upper. Brooks did forgo the type of underfoot protection you get from the Cascadia line, but the benefit is a much faster shoe that weighs less than 10 ounces each.
In addition to the occasional sharp impact that may be felt through the cushioning, the Caldera’s other weakness is its rollover protection. Similar to the Altra Lone Peak above, the thick midsole and wide footbed occasionally can result in lightly rolled ankles on uneven ground. But unlike the Lone Peak, the Caldera’s midsole doesn’t diminish trail feel and responsiveness (which may partly explain the $20 difference in price). And with their latest update, Brooks made the upper even more protective, durable, and well-fitting. In our opinion, the Caldera hits the right mix of performance and comfort for non-technical distance running.
See the Men's Brooks Caldera 2 See the Women's Brooks Caldera 2
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 19.4 oz.
What we like: Salomon quality at a friendly price.
What we don’t: Narrow feet will swim in the roomy toebox.
Marketed as a “quiver killer,” the Sense Ride is a do-everything trail shoe that’s equally at home on a 50K as it is clinging to wet rocks and roots. This model does a decent job in most categories: comfort, stability, protection, and grip. In fact, it’s billed as the budget version of the S-LAB Sense Ultra, Salomon’s best selling S-LAB shoe. And with the quality build and lacing system we love from Salomon, the Sense Ride is a well-constructed shoe for a reasonable price.
But is it really a one-shoe-does-it-all model? No, although that is a pretty tall order for a trail runner. The Sense Ride is too soft and lacking in stability to wear with a pack, and certainly is not stable and protective enough to take off trail. Furthermore, added cushioning in the forefoot would make this a better ultra distance shoe. As for sizing, be forewarned that the toebox is roomier than most other shoes from Salomon.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride
Weight: 20.8 oz.
What we like: Comfortable over long distances.
What we don’t: There are better options at lighter weights.
Named after the legendary 100-mile mountain race, the New Balance Leadville v3 is an unabashed distance-oriented trail shoe. With substantial cushioning, a wide toe box, and durable construction, the shoe checks off the must-haves for keeping you safe and comfortable over the dicey terrain the Leadville course is known for. It also feels very planted, offering slightly better technical abilities than the Peregrine above. Those that prefer a close trail feel should look elsewhere, but muting the impacts underfoot has its benefits as the miles roll on.
While the Leadville performs decently across the board, it’s not a standout in any particular category. The Peregrine, Terra Kiger, and Lone Peak above are lighter and have similar long-distance capabilities, and the shallow lugs on the Leadville lack the same level of bite as the competition. In the end, we like the Leadville a lot, but not enough to move it any further up our list.
See the Men's New Balance Leadville See the Women's New Balance Leadville
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 21.5 oz.
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Too specialized for most runners.
Arc’teryx jumped into the trail-running shoe market late last year with the mountain-ready Norvan VT. As we’ve come to expect from Arc’teryx, they started with a blank slate and the result is a completely unique and innovative product. Right off the bat, comfort is fantastic with a sock-like stretchy lining. The lacing system extends all the way over the toes, similar to an approach shoe, providing unmatched fit customization. The lugs underfoot aren’t particularly deep, but their aggressive design bites in nicely on rock, mud, and even snow. All in all, it’s clear the Norvan VT was built for terrain like the often wet and technical trails surrounding Arc’teryx’s headquarters in North Vancouver, BC.
Over rough ground the Norvan VT excels, but it’s overkill on anything tame. The very stable ride and reinforced upper that make it easy to run confidently over rocks and roots became stiff and a little heavy when we took the shoe over smooth dirt singletrack and rolling hills. As a result, the Norvan is a specialized shoe best for those in the Pacific Northwest or with a quiver to choose from. For those who running in cold weather or who want waterproofing, check out the Norvan VT Gore-Tex model.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan VT See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan VT
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 18 oz.
What we like: Very comfortable max-cushioned design.
What we don’t: Limited trail feel.
Hoka One One has become synonymous with max-cushioned shoes, which feature very thick midsoles for fantastic comfort on just about any surface. From their lineup, we like the updated Challenger ATR 4 best, which is designed for both trail and road use. The shoe is reasonably light at 18 ounces for the pair, and despite the hybrid intent, the ATR 4 offers competitive traction and rollover support compared to shoes like the Lone Peak 3.5 above. For those that found previous Challenger ATR models lacking in durability, in this fourth version Hoka One One has replaced the upper with dual layer mesh and added an extended toe cap.
What do you give up with the Challenger ATR 4’s max-cushioned design? The primary downside is isolation from the ground, and it does take getting used to the extra height to really trust it over uneven trails. Further, the Challenger’s treads aren’t known for having a long life if you spend a good amount of time on the road or hardpack. But if you’re willing to compromise a little in terms of performance, the Challenger ATR 4 lives up to its billing as a supremely comfortable hybrid shoe. For a max-cushioned shoe made specifically for technical terrain, see Hoka One One’s Speedgoat.
See the Men's Hoka One One Challenger See the Women's Hoka One One Challenger
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 20.8 oz.
What we like: Comfortable, wide fit.
What we don’t: The upper holds water and lacks in breathability.
Topo Athletic might be an unfamiliar name to many trail runners, but don’t let that fool you. Founded by the former CEO of Vibram, this company knows what goes into making a good running shoe, and the Terraventure is our favorite model in their quiver. All Topo Athletic shoes feature a wide toe box and a snug waist and heel, fitting similarly to a shoe like the Altra Lone Peak. But in contrast to the zero drop Altra, the Terraventure features a 3mm drop, a more durable upper and outsole, and slightly firmer cushioning. All in all, this makes for a very comfortable trail shoe for long distance days when speed is not your top priority.
Given their Vibram background, we expected Topo Athletic to nail the sole on this shoe. In many ways, they did: the Terraventure performs exceptionally well on packed dirt with varying lengths and sizes of lugs for traction on steep terrain. These lugs, however, are not widely spaced, causing mud to build up and compromise traction. Moreover, the material covering the mesh upper drains and breathes surprisingly poorly. For the first iteration, the Terraventure is very good but not great, and we’re excited to see what Topo Athletic comes up with next.
See the Men's Topo Athletic Terraventure See the Women's Topo Athletic Terraventure
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 27.4 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 train 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 above.
See the Men's La Sportiva Akyra GTX See the Women's La Sportiva Akyra GTX
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 24 oz.
What we like: Durable, great traction, and stable.
What we don’t: Poor ventilation and heavy.
Made for rough terrain and inclement weather, the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic is a serious, mountain-ready trail runner. The aggressive Continental outsoles share a lug pattern with a mountain bike tire, and we’ve found them to be sticky and grip well in rock, mud, and snow. A low stacked height and semi-stiff platform contribute to a stable feel over technical terrain, but what impressed us most was the all-around nature of the build. These shoes are comfortable on both steep and flat trails, and we’ve even used them on a number of occasions as a hiking or fastpacking shoe.
The downsides to the Terrex Agravic are a slightly heavy feel that makes them less fun on long runs and poor ventilation in hot conditions. Otherwise, the Agravic gives the La Sportiva Bushido a real run for its money as our favorite shoe for rough trails. And with their cushioned ride, the Terrex Agravic has better isolation from sharp rocks... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Adidas Terrex Agravic See the Women's Adidas Terrex Agravic
Weight: 22 oz.
What we like: Great do-everything shoe from a time-tested company.
What we don’t: Heel and toe are lacking in traction.
Vasque has been making hiking shoes for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that they released a trio of trail running shoes. Of the three, which range from ultra cushioned to ultra light, the Constant Velocity is our middle-of-the-road favorite. With an impressive balance of rigidity and cushioning, this shoe is an excellent choice for the majority of runners who fall into the moderate terrain/medium distance category. And as we would expect from Vasque, the durable rubber sole provides excellent traction on rock and packed dirt.
What are the shortcomings of the Vasque Constant Velocity 2? Simply put, these shoes don’t excel in the extremes. For highly technical or soft terrain, their 4mm lugs are no match for the aggressive sole of a shoe like the Salomon Speedcross. For long distances, we’ll be reaching for a more cushioned shoe like the Brooks Caldera. Further, the upper could use some tweaking to be more durable as the miles add up. But for moderate distances on moderate trails, the Constant Velocity is a comfortable shoe with the quality build that we’ve come to expect from Vasque.
See the Men's Vasque Constant Velocity See the Women's Vasque Constant Velocity
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 24.2 oz.
What we like: Excellent protection and stability.
What we don’t: Heavy and slow.
As a testament to its longevity, last year marked the launch of the 12th generation Brooks Cascadia. If you’re familiar with trail running, thru-hiking, or fastpacking gear, it’s likely you’ve come across this shoe, which is popular in all three communities for its unflappable stability and comfort. For this lightly updated model, Brooks tweaked the midsole and outsole, but the fit and feel are largely unchanged. Of note, the Cascadia 12 weighs 0.3 ounces more than the 11, and, while this isn’t a substantial amount, it does push the Cascadia to a rather heavy 12.1 ounces per shoe.
Unfortunately, the Cascadia has continued its downward trajectory on our list for 2018 as the small changes to the design haven’t kept up with the competition. Part of the problem is Brooks themselves have already built a better shoe in the Caldera 2. This new model is quite a bit lighter at 9.9 ounces per shoe and offers similar comfort and traction without the Cascadia’s ponderous tendencies. If you mix in a decent amount of hiking or like the bulletproof feel, the Cascadia still has its place, but we think there are better options out there for trail running—including within the Brooks lineup.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 12 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 12
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 15 oz.
What we like: Super lightweight with incredible traction on loose and soft terrain.
What we don’t: Not protective or particularly comfortable.
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 superlight and aggressive X-Talon 212 excels. The 8mm lugs bite into soft and slippery ground, making this shoe a favorite of obstacle course racers and fell runners the world over. And with a DWR coating and thin, water-wicking upper, the X-Talon is prepared to keep your feet dry through mud and streams.
Year after year, the Inov-8 X-Talon and the Salomon Speedcross top the list for the adventure racer’s shoe of choice. While similar in most respects, the X-Talon is almost 7 ounces lighter per pair and sports even longer (8mm vs. 6mm) lugs. For those who appreciate feeling the ground underfoot, the X-Talon offers a more responsive ride, but the Speedcross certainly is more protective and comfortable. We prefer Salomon’s version as the better all-rounder, which is more bearable over long distances and slightly less overkill on packed dirt.
See the Men's Inov-8 X-Talon 212 See the Women's Inov-8 X-Talon 212
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 16 oz.
What we like: Light and low.
What we don’t: Minimal protection and stability.
The minimalist shoe craze has tempered in recent years, but the emphasis on cutting weight and connection to the trail yielded several quality shoes, including the Merrell Trail Glove 4. What stands out about this shoe is its low profile, zero-drop shape, and superior trail feel. It’s the lightest shoe to make our list at 16 ounces but manages to retain modest trail performance with a close fit, rock guard, and Vibram outsoles. Overall, the Trail Glove is a great match for the minimalist runner that sticks to smooth trails and short distances.
Like other specialized shoes, it’s important to consider the inherent compromises in the barefoot design. First, the thin construction doesn’t offer nearly the same degree of protection and rollover stability as the shoes above. Further, it will take some time to get used to the zero-drop ride if you’re transitioning from a traditional shoe or are a heel striker. But if the minimalist style works for you, no shoe on this list can match the Trail Glove’s barely-there feel.
See the Men's Merrell Trail Glove 4 See the Women's Merrell Trail Glove 4
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 22.4 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 6 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 6 See the Women's Asics Gel-Venture 6
|Saucony Peregrine 8||$120||All-around||20 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|La Sportiva Bushido||$130||Rugged trails||21 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Salomon Speedcross 4||$130||All-around/rugged trails||21.8 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
|Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4||$125||Easy trails/all-around||19.4 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Altra Lone Peak 3.5||$120||All-around||20.8 oz.||Moderate/maximum||0mm|
|Brooks Caldera 2||$140||All-around||19.8 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Salomon Sense Ride||$120||Easy trails/all-around||19.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|New Balance Leadville v3||$125||All-around||20.8 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT||$170||Rugged trails||21.5 oz.||Light/moderate||9mm|
|Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4||$130||Easy trails/all-around||18 oz.||Maximum||5mm|
|Topo Athletic Terraventure||$110||Easy trails/all-around||20.8 oz.||Moderate||3mm|
|La Sportiva Akyra GTX||$160||Rugged trails||27.4 oz.||Moderate||9mm|
|Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic||$135||All-around/rugged trails||24 oz.||Moderate||6mm|
|Vasque Constant Velocity 2||$120||All-around||22 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Brooks Cascadia 12||$130||All-around/rugged trails||24.2 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
|Inov-8 X-Talon 212||$115||Rugged trails||15 oz.||Light||6mm|
|Merrell Trail Glove 4||$100||Easy trails||16 oz.||Minimum||0mm|
|Asics Gel-Venture 6||$70||Easy trails||22.4 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
- Trail-Running Shoe Categories
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail-Running Shoes
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 Topo Athletic Terraventure, Merrell Trail Glove, 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 Saucony Peregrine 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 2018, our favorite trail runners weigh a little over 1 pound per pair (measured in a men’s 9 or 10). This typically gets you enough protection and support for long distances without feeling sluggish.
On the extreme ends of the spectrum are minimalist shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove 4 (16 ounces) and burly waterproof models like the La Sportiva Akyra GTX (27.4 ounces, or nearly double). The Merrell feels extremely light on your feet while the La Sportiva is super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises. Both are best for short distances—the Merrell due its lack of protection and the La Sportiva because of its extra weight—and lack the versatility of an all-around shoe that weighs just over a pound.
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 or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 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 (11.5mm for the Merrell Trail Glove) to heavily cushioned (31mm for the Hoka One One Challenger ATR). Minimalist designs like the Trail Glove 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. 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 New Balance Leadville 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 8mm, which can work well for both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero drop shoes have a 0mm difference, encouraging a mid or forefoot landing point. And many models for rugged trails have the most dramatic drops, often 8 to 10mm.
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. The chassis, which is the perimeter of the base of the shoe, is beefed up with trail runners to create that solid base. In addition, some shoes include a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon that’s been slid in-between the midsole and outsole for added stiffness. Finally, some manufacturers create what amounts to a partial plastic exoskeleton around the heel cup for added structure and rollover protection.
The relative stiffness and stability of a shoe will most often correlate with its intended use, or as we’ve defined it, the trail-running shoe category. A race or mountain-oriented shoe like the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 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. 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 reduce the barriers to air and moisture flow. And as we’ve found, some are more accomplished than others. In comparing a couple popular shoes, the Brooks Cascadia and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Terra Kiger to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Cascadia’s more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you get some added protection in the shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail-running shoes have some form of toe protection. It’s usually a rubber toe guard or cap that is capable of absorbing direct hits pretty well. Because of the lightweight intent of a trail runner, the toe protection isn’t as substantial as a hiking shoe, but it should prevent your toes from turning black and blue should you accidentally kick a rock or root on the trail.
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 will vary based 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 use a standard lace-up method, but Salomon and Adidas are doing things a little differently: both feature a single pull quick lace system on their trail-running shoes. We love the design on the Salomon Speedcross 4 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.
It’s not uncommon for trail-running folk to start turning to their trail-running shoes for their day hikes. On most day adventures you’re not hauling a lot of weight, so the extra ankle support isn’t as important. And as long as the trail isn’t too nasty, a trail runner is a great pick. With a flexible feel but solid traction, a trail-running shoe can serve the fast-moving weekend warrior quite well. But if you're carrying a heavy pack and need additional support, a lightweight hiking shoe or even a full-on hiking boot may end up being the better choice.
In recent years, trail-running shoes have absolutely taken off as a go-to choice for fastpackers and thru-hikers. And, it makes a lot of sense: thru-hikers are putting serious miles on nearly every single day, and a lightweight shoe can help them cover more ground with less effort. But there are a number of obvious issues. One is durability. It’s unlikely you’ll get as many miles out of your trail runners as you would a hiking shoe or boot, which makes it important to plan out your replacements (and mail drops) along the way. Despite some potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular thru-hiking option. We’ve spoken to a number of PCT thru-hikers who made the switch from boots to trail runners mid-trip and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their levels of comfort and nimble feel—provided they kept their pack weight down.
Wearing Trail-Running Shoes on Pavement
As a result of the unique designs for both road and trail shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can actually be painful to run with a trail-running shoe on pavement or visa versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do an okay job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single shoe exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. If you have to get you a short stretch before hitting dirt, we’ve found both the Hoka One One Challenger ATR and Asics Gel-Venture are suitable hybrid options.
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