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 2023, which cover everything from flexible and lightweight shoes for smooth trails to tough and stable designs for tackling technical or mountainous terrain. For more information, check out our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
- Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Salomon Sense Ride 5
- Best Max-Cushioned Trail Running Shoe: Hoka Speedgoat 5
- Best Light and Responsive Trail Runner: Brooks Catamount 2
- Best Trail Runner for Wide and/or Finicky Feet: Altra Lone Peak 7
- Best Running Shoe for Mud and Soft Terrain: Salomon Speedcross 6
- Best Running Shoe for Mountain Terrain: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Weight: 1 lb. 4.2 oz.
What we like: A versatile shoe for everything from daily training to mountain running.
What we don’t: Not a top performer in any one category.
For a trail runner that can do it all, we love the Salomon Sense Ride 5. Although not quite as snazzy-looking as some of the newer trail shoes, it’s not to be underestimated: The Sense Ride 5 is equally at home on quick door-to-trail runs as it is during ultra-distance pursuits, and can even handle technical cross-country terrain with ease. The all-around performance isn’t surprising given the Salomon’s versatile design, which features a moderate amount of cushioning (29.6mm in the heel), generously sized toe box, fairly standard 8-millimeter drop, and full Contagrip rubber outsole. And it’s comfortable too: During a recent 100-mile race, we swapped to the Sense Ride 5 at mile 45 (after forming blisters in one of the aforementioned snazzy shoes) and wore it to the finish line without complaint.
But while the Sense Ride 5 is good at everything, it’s not necessarily a top performer in any specific category. Held up against specialists like the Speedcross and Ultra Raptor II below, you give up a bit of protection, grip, and ground feel for challenging terrain, and the Sense Ride is not as soft and lightweight as a max-cushioned shoe like the Speedgoat. Further, runners focused on speed will want a more precise and responsive runner like the Catamount or Peregrine. But for a versatile trainer and adventure shoe that can handle most trails with aplomb, the Sense Ride 5 is one of the most well-rounded designs we’ve tried. And in an era when many trail runners are creeping close to $200, it’s also a solid value at $140.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 5 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 5
Best Max-Cushioned Trail Running Shoe
Weight: 1 lb. 4.6 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 has built their reputation around plush, heavily cushioned running shoes, and the freshly updated Speedgoat 5 is a nice upgrade to the popular design. With a thick midsole (33mm at the heel), the shoe offers maximum long-distance comfort and underfoot protection, absorbing a nice amount of impact with each stride. But there’s a lot more to love about the design: In our opinion, the Speedgoat hits a near-ideal balance of comfort, weight, protection, and responsiveness whether you’re running short or far, fast or slow. The aggressive outsole is light but sticky with substantial lugs (improved in the most recent version), blown rubber, and a Vibram Megagrip compound that holds well on everything from dry dirt and mud to steep rock. Tack on a medium-width toe box that fits a broad range of foot shapes, and it’s no secret why Speedgoat is one of the most well-loved running shoes of 2023.
The fifth version of the Speedgoat is a pretty serious overhaul from the previous model, but the new shoe retains all the performance characteristics we love. The biggest changes were to the upper, which features stretchy engineered mesh without the overlays of the outgoing 4, translating to a closer fit with slightly less weight and bulk. The midsole is also a bit softer and lighter, which is good news for most runners—although some have found it to lack stability compared to previous iterations. But while the Speedgoat has converted many skeptics to the max-cushioned world, it’s not for everyone: The tall stack height lacks the precision of a low-slung build like Hoka’s Torrent 3 (below), and those taking on shorter distances at speed will likely want a less cushioned, more responsive design. But for a surprisingly good all-rounder that offers exceptional comfort for ultra distances, the Hoka is a top performer. We’re also huge fans of their Mafate Speed 4, which features a narrower base, Hoka’s dual-density Profly+ foam, and gripper, trail-biting lugs.
See the Men's Hoka Speedgoat 5 See the Women's Hoka Speedgoat 5
Best Light and Responsive Trail Runner
Weight: 1 lb. 3.4 oz.
What we like: A lightweight shoe that can tackle both easy and technical trails at speed.
What we don't: Some ultra-distance runners will want a bit more cushion.
Brooks is best known in the trail running world for their Cascadia (below), a beloved shoe among both runners and thru-hikers that is now in its 17th generation. But the modern Catamount 2 here offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a nimble design built to take on moderate distances at speed. Imported from Brooks’ Hyperion Tempo road shoe, the carbon-like DNA Flash midsole is lightweight and responsive, offering a snappy underfoot feel ideal for pushing the pace and precision on tricky sections of trail. And the “2” adds an all-new SkyVault propulsion plate, which both protects your feet from rocks and boosts efficiency on the uphill. Whether you’re cruising gravel roads or going to battle on technical terrain, the Catamount is one speedy shoe to have on your team.
The “2” is a significant improvement over the first-gen Catamount, featuring a more flexible and energetic feel, better fit via the new engineered mesh upper and soft liner, and revamped lug pattern for increased traction in soft terrain. It all adds up to one of our favorite shoes of the year for distances of about 50K or less (we also wore the Catamount 2 during a 50-mile race but wished for more cushion in the latter half). In terms of the competition, the Brooks is a versatile middle ground between speed-oriented shoes like the Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra and Saucony Peregrine 13: You get a more substantial outsole than the former (better performance on technical trails), but a zippier and more locked-in feel than the latter (increased speed on runnable terrain). For a high-performance race-day-oriented shoe that can do it all, look no further than the Brooks Catamount 2.
See the Men's Brooks Catamount 2 See the Women's Brooks Catamount 2
Best Trail Runner for Wide and/or Finicky Feet
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz.
What we like: A very comfortable shoe that allows the foot to lie in its natural position.
What we don’t: Sluggish, slipper-like feel; too roomy for some.
If you’re among the myriad trail runners who suffer from the pressure points, hot spots, and blisters resulting from ill-fitting shoes, this one’s for you. Popularized by the barefoot running movement, Altra’s zero-drop Lone Peak is arguably the most ergonomic and comfortable trail runner on the market. With a flat footbed and extra roomy toe box, the Lone Peak allows the foot to stay in its naturally prone and splayed position, which is great news for wide-footed runners or those with particularly finicky feet. We’ve recommended this shoe to dozens of friends and acquaintances who’ve struck out with more traditional shoes (including wide versions of models like the Hoka Speedgoat), and have yet to lead anyone astray.
The new Lone Peak 7 features a fairly sizable revamp, with a seamless upper and wrap-around plastic at the heel for added stability. The result is a more locked-in, planted feel, which many users will welcome—previous versions of the Lone Peak have been critiqued for being too roomy and squirrely, especially on off-camber terrain. True to its trail-worthy intentions, the Lone Peak also features a rock plate and gaiter attachments (Altra notably removed the drain ports on the 7, but the engineered mesh upper should do the trick). But all praise aside, it is important to keep in mind that the zero-drop design is not for everyone, and those accustomed to a more typical trail runner might find the Lone Peak rather sluggish, under-cushioned (you get just 25mm in the midsole), and lacking in arch support. Finally, we haven't had great luck with the Lone Peak's durability, although the 7’s seamless upper and burly toe cap should address many of the previous versions’ delamination issues.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 7 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 7
Best Running Shoe for Mud and Soft Terrain
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction on 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 6 sets the standard for this category, combining massive 5-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.
The Speedcross was recently updated to the 6, and the latest version features a lightly revamped upper and outsole at slightly lower weight. In our opinion, the newest design is the most well rounded yet: You don’t get that tippy feeling we’ve found with previous versions, and the shoe even holds its own on short stretches of pavement during our door-to-trail runs. That said, the Speedcross is by no means a generalist, and most runners will find its tooth-like lugs and aggressive build to be overkill on easy trails and gravel roads. But for wet and rugged forest paths, the Speedcross 6 is incredibly purpose-built—even down to details like the anti-debris mesh upper and gusseted tongue.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 6 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 6
Best Running Shoe for Mountain Terrain
Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.
What we like: A highly protective and supportive shoe with great traction on rock.
What we don’t: Too stiff and heavy to serve as a dedicated trail runner.
Mountain running can mean different things to different people, so let’s first clarify our definition: We’re referencing speedy travel on off-trail terrain, such as scrambling 14ers in Colorado, traversing glaciers in the PNW, or ridge-running in the Wasatch. For this style of “running,” you’ll want a robust shoe that prioritizes solid traction, features wraparound protection, and is decently firm and supportive for confidence on technical terrain. Racking up high points in all of these metrics is the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II, one of the longest-standing models in the brand’s mountain running lineup. Key highlights include incredibly sticky FriXion XF 2.0 rubber (aka FriXion White), a full-length rock guard and generous toe and heel bumpers, and a snug-fitting, sock-like upper that promotes a close, locked-in feel.
The Ultra Raptor is the first shoe we’d reach for when scrambling California’s Evolution Traverse or “running” the Grand Teton, but it’s too heavy and clunky to serve as a dedicated trail runner. In fact, one of our testers developed an achilles issue after logging too many training miles in the Ultra Raptor last spring. If your version of mountain running includes more singletrack than cross-country terrain, you’ll likely want a lighter and more flexible shoe like the La Sportiva Mutant or Scarpa’s Ribelle Run (a personal favorite of ours). And for shorter efforts like technical VK races or mountain FKTs, La Sportiva’s streamlined Cyklon (which features the same FriXion XF rubber) is a much better option. But for fast-and-light missions on terrain that might otherwise require an approach shoe or lightweight mountain boot, the Ultra Raptor II is hard to beat.
See the Men's La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II See the Women's La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
What we like: A lightweight and speedy shoe that still offers significant performance on difficult trails.
What we don’t: Lacing system makes it challenging to lock down and get a consistent fit.
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 the Peregrine’s signature trail-eating, teeth-like tread that grips anything from wet rocks to hardpack dirt, along with the added underfoot protection of the forefoot rockplate. Moving up the shoe, the well-balanced Pwrun midsole is stable yet responsive on off-camber terrain, with enough cushioning to keep you comfortable for a few hours (or more) on the trail. To top it off, the Saucony checks in at a surprisingly low weight, which is impressive given its credentials. If you’re drawn to speedy, race-oriented shoes like the Catamount 2 above or Torrent 3 below but want more bite and protection for technical terrain, put the Peregrine at the top of your list.
We’ve run in various iterations of the Peregrine throughout the years, and are big fans of the most recent update. With the 13, Saucony made a small but noticeable pivot to more of an all-rounder—the shoe features slightly thicker foam and a more flexible rock plate, which results in a softer ride. To be sure, the shoe still feels sporty and moderately responsive, but it’s overall less punishing on long runs (we also don’t balk at taking it on road-to-trail runs—something we didn’t enjoy with older versions). But as with all Peregrines, the 13 is not our favorite fit—they’ve always been slightly wide and prone to slipping at the heel—and the new lacing system makes it difficult to get a good lock. But the Saucony is nevertheless a high-performance shoe for difficult trails, and it doesn’t hurt that the price is reasonable at just $140.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 13 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 13
Weight: 1 lb. 2.3 oz.
What we like: Salomon's most premium ultra-distance design; Courtney Dauwalter’s shoe of choice.
What we don’t: Expensive; not as plush as many long-distance shoes.
Salomon’s S/Lab series is home to their most innovative and high-performance footwear, and the Ultra 3 is the long-distance specialist. The shoe exudes premium quality from heel to toe and is a noticeable step up from the Sense Ride above. You get a lightweight yet durable mesh upper that’s both breathable and water-resistant (great for fending off light dew or small puddles), a stretch-knit collar that effectively keeps out trail debris, and a tried-and-true Contagrip outsole. And Salomon’s Quicklace system is far from a gimmick—it offers a snug fit and ensures that you’ll never have to stop during a race to retie your shoes. Finally, the S/Lab Ultra 3 features a rock plate and PU insert that add a good dose of underfoot protection and bounce. It all adds up to a zippy yet protective shoe for elite ultra-distance runners.
It’s tough to argue with a shoe that’s worn by the likes of Courtney Dauwalter and Killian Journet, but that doesn’t mean the S/Lab Ultra 3 is a great match for everyone. Our first gripe is price: At $190, it’s the most expensive offering here and likely won’t last you as long as NNormal shoes (like their $165 Tomir below), which are built for longevity. Second, while we generally like Salomon’s Contagrip rubber, it’s not particularly trustworthy on smooth, wet surfaces (like rock or steep pavement). And finally, while the Ultra 3’s midsole tech is great for protection and speed, it doesn’t provide the most plush ride, which is a worthwhile consideration if you run on hard surfaces (like gravel), tackle long-distance routes, or are relatively new to trail running. But for experienced ultra runners wanting to get the most out of their shoe, it’s a proven and capable option.
See the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3
Weight: 1 lb. 5.7 oz.
What we like: An affordable and comfortable daily training shoe.
What we don’t: Not particularly fast, especially compared to the more high-end Vectiv offerings.
The North Face hasn’t always been much of a player in trail running, but that all changed with the release of their Vectiv lineup. Freshly revamped for 2023, the Vectiv collection now includes a gaggle of hiking and trail running offerings with a signature rockered sole and moderate-to-maximum midsole cushioning. The Enduris 3 here is the daily trainer, providing runners a plush underfoot feel (you get 31mm of cushion in the heel) and responsive ride that’s forgiving enough to go all day. Tack on an airy mesh upper, full rubber outsole, accommodating fit, and increased stability via the new Vectiv 2.0 midsole, and the updated Enduris is one of our favorite all-rounder trail shoes this year.
We don’t blame you if the top-shelf Vectiv Pro or Sky grab your attention over the Enduris, with flashy selling points like carbon-fiber plates, sky-high price tags, and a number of notable podiums to their names. For experienced runners, these are great race-day shoes that offer an excellent combination of speed and stability. But the affordable Enduris is the indisputable daily driver, with a much more forgiving feel and fit for most feet. What’s more, you can even push it off-trail thanks to the tacky SurfaceCtrl rubber—the Enduris was the only shoe that fit our swollen feet during the latter half of the North Cascades High Route, and it got the job done on snowy, rocky, and loose terrain. All told, for a more cushioned alternative to an everyday shoe like the Sense Ride 5, the Enduris 3 is well-deserving of a closer look.
See the Men's TNF Vectiv Enduris 3 See the Women's TNF Vectiv Enduris 3
Weight: 1 lb. 4.2 oz.
What we like: A wonderful all-arounder that can do it all.
What we don't: The wide toe box might be a deal breaker for some.
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 3 is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver: like the Lone Peak above, it features a wide toe box that lends 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. Added up, it’s a great all-around kick for everything from easy to technical trails—short and fast or long and slow—and the durable build should last you upwards of 500 miles.
However, the Mtn Racer’s recent updates weren’t all positive for us. Topo increased the stack height by 3 millimeters and improved their ZipFoam cushioning, but the most noteworthy change came in terms of fit. While the Mtn Racer 2 nicely accommodated our wide feet, the roomier Mtn Racer 3 is a firm no-go: Despite employing every lacing technique in the book, we were unable to get a solid lock at the ankle and absolutely swam around in the shoe while running on our familiar home trails. For us, it’s a sad ending to a years-long running shoe love story, but if you’ve got a high-volume foot or are a fan of especially roomy toe boxes, the Mtn Racer 3 might still be a home run. In fact, we passed it along to a friend who was looking for a high-performance alternative to the Lone Peak, and she gave the shoe rave reviews.
See the Men's Topo Mtn Racer 3 See the Women's Topo Mtn Racer 3
Weight: 1 lb. 2.4 oz.
What we like: Designed by Killian Jornet—need we say more?
What we don’t: For NNormal’s high-performance offering, look instead to the Kjerag.
If you haven’t yet heard of NNormal, let us introduce you. The trail-focused company was founded in the fall of 2022 as a joint venture between Camper (a family-run shoe-making business based in Mallorca, Spain) and one of the greatest mountain athletes of all time, Killian Jornet. At the time of publishing, NNormal offers a small lineup of shoes and apparel, all designed with a focus on longevity and sustainability. Killain himself raced in NNormal prototypes for the 2022 race season, allegedly wearing the same shoe for his wins at both Hardrock and UTMB. If that’s not a glowing endorsement for performance and durability, we don’t know what is.
The Tomir here is NNormal’s flagship all-rounder, marketed for everything from easy trails to speed workouts and peak bagging (for a more performance-oriented option, check out the Kjerag). A few key design features help the Tomir live a long life: The upper is stitched into the midsole, asymmetrical lacing reduces pressure and wear points, and the Vibram Megagrip Lightbase sole has a strong track record of durability. And to streamline the design process, the unisex fit is accommodating to most foot sizes without stepping into truly wide toe box terrain (referencing players like Altra and Topo Athletic). We haven’t yet tested the Tomir—that’s about to change—but all signs point to it being an excellent daily driver from one of the most intriguing new collabs in trail running.
See the NNormal Tomir
Weight: 1 lb. 1.4 oz.
What we like: The plushness of a Hoka yet responsive and nimble; great grip.
What we don’t: Light cushioning is not ideal for high-mileage days; lacks the locked-in feel of most minimalist race shoes.
Running-shoe giant Hoka has built a name around their max-cushioned designs (as seen in the Speedgoat above), but the Torrent 3 bucks this trend with a lower profile that provides ample ground feel. The latest version also drops a layer of fabric for a single-layer mesh upper that’s both lightweight and breathable. The result is a responsive, agile Hoka that’s built for speed, making it great for race day and tempo workouts alike. And with Hoka’s proprietary sticky rubber sole and 4-millimeter multi-directional lugs, it holds its own on technical trails, too. We’ve put over 300 miles into the latest Torrent 3 and have been impressed with its nimble yet plush feel combined with great traction on a variety of terrain.
But despite its Hoka heritage, the Torrent 3 won’t be the shoe most runners choose for long-distance efforts (think 50+ miles). In fact, we discovered this first hand during a 100-mile race: By mile 45, the combination of rocky terrain, streamlined cushioning, and air channels in the insole had led to blisters in the bottom of both feet—a first-time experience for us despite years of long-distance running. On the other hand, the Torrent 3 lacks the true locked-in feel we'd want for racing sub-ultra distances at speed. But the Torrent 3 is nevertheless a very likable design for daily training runs and long-ish efforts on easy trails, and it doesn't hurt that it's one of the most affordable trail shoes here at just $130. All told, there are faster shoes (from Hoka’s lineup, check out the Zinal), there are grippier shoes (namely those with Salomon Contagrip or Vibram’s Megagrip rubber), and there are plusher shoes, but the Torrent 3 puts it all together better than most, making it one of our go-to designs in Hoka’s lineup.
See the Men's Hoka Torrent 3 See the Women's Hoka Torrent 3
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz.
What we like: A wonderfully comfortable and protective shoe for technical terrain.
What we don't: A bit too stiff and heavy to be a daily trainer.
Now in its 17th 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 a roomy toe box and an emphasis on stability, and the Cascadia is an easy-wearing shoe and deservingly popular among a wide audience, from ultrarunners and daily joggers to mile-crunching thru-hikers (it’s gaiter-compatible, too). All told, it’s a workhorse shoe that will put a bounce in your step, which is never a bad combination.
The latest Cascadia adds a few millimeters of cushioning and a new propulsion plate, which results in a wonderful combination of comfort, stability, and “pop.” And despite the shoe’s wide base and all-terrain-vehicle feel, we’ve found it to be more precise than the boat-like Speedgoat, even while traversing off-camber terrain. Of course, the Cascadia still can’t match the speed or light weight of some of the top models here, and we think it’s a bit overkill for a daily trainer (the 17 is an ounce heavier than the 16 for the pair). But for a trail shoe that will provide reliable stability and protection mile after mile—and double as a capable hiking design—Brooks’ Cascadia remains one of the best all-rounders in the game.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 17 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 17
Weight: 1 lb. 1.2 oz.
What we like: Incredibly versatile for such a lightweight shoe.
What we don’t: Thin materials give up some durability; some runners will want more cushioning.
For Adidas, gone are the days of slapping a rubber outsole on a road running shoe and deeming it ready for the trail: Their Terrex lineup is now home to a number of high-performance offerings developed specifically for off-road terrain. We quizzed our friend Corrine Malcom—host of the Trail Society podcast and member of the Terrex team—about her favorite Adidas shoe, and her answer was convincing: “I definitely run 90% of my miles in the Speed Ultra!” Designed with input from pro runner Tom Evans, the Speed Ultra is Adidas’ lightweight, fast, and responsive shoe that’s most at home on gravel roads, easy trails, and the odd section of pavement.
The Speed Ultra bucks the rockered, max-cushioned trend with a relatively streamlined midsole (26mm at the heel) and decently flat outsole. Its upper is similarly minimalist, including a thin tongue, sleek engineered mesh, and very little structure in the heel. As a result, durability certainly isn’t the shoe's greatest strength. But despite its race-flat appearance and weight, the Terrex has a lot to offer most trail runners: The fit is snug and secure, the Continental rubber sole offers great grip on a variety of terrain, and Adidas really nailed the midsole with a combination of responsive Boost and feather-light LightStrike foams. For experienced runners who love a close-to-the-ground feel—and for everything from speed workouts to ultra-distance racing—the Speed Ultra is an excellent shoe to add to your quiver.
See the Men's Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra See the Women's Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra
Weight: 1 lb. 4.6 oz.
What we like: A comfortable and responsive road-to-trail shoe.
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 React Pegasus Trail 4 is a quality, max-cushioned option for trail work. Modeled after the road-specific Pegasus but infused with trail features (including a mostly rubber tread and reinforcements in the upper), this is one of the best road-to-trail shoes in the business. 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. You don’t get that low-slung feel that many runners love for particularly technical trails, but the Pegasus Trail 4 offers a great fit for most (with a roomier toe box than most Nike models), and the recently updated version is a lot lighter than its max-cushioned frame would suggest.
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. The shoe’s max cushioning will feel unstable on rugged trails, and traction—although improved in the latest version—is among the worst here, especially on wet surfaces. But for max-cushioned comfort and undeniable style, Nike’s Pegasus Trail 4 is a great option for recreational trail runners, long-distance training, and road-to-trail routes.
See the Men's Nike Pegasus Trail 4 See the Women's Nike Pegasus Trail 4
Weight: 1 lb. 4.4 oz.
What we like: A road-to-trail shoe that doesn’t compromise on trail performance.
What we don’t: Not everyone will love the firm cushioning.
Unless you’re one of the chosen few who lives just steps away from singletrack, a road-to-trail shoe can be a great pairing for training runs that start out your front door. With all-terrain (ATR) in its name, Scarpa’s relatively new Golden Gate ATR is our current go-to when our route involves a mix of pavement, gravel, and trail. We love this shoe’s attention to detail, which includes a snug, sock-like liner, sleek padding at the ankle, and a breathable yet thoughtfully reinforced upper. And in terms of cushioning, the Golden Gate ATR is Scarpa’s plushest design yet, with a thick, dual-density midsole that’s softer at the heel (ideal for impact absorption) and firmer at the front for great spring and propulsion.
We’ve tested the Golden Gate ATR on everything from 6-mile pavement loops to longer on-trail jaunts and appreciate the shoe’s high-end fit, stable feel, and subtle rocker. But while the Scarpa is designed as a road-to-trail shoe, we certainly favor it for the latter: Its cushioning is surprisingly firm (much more so than the Speedgoat above, for example), and the outsole’s 4-millimeter lugs and sticky rubber are most at home on mud, dirt, rock, and snow. Of course, it’s hard to find the best of both worlds—those who prefer a plusher road feel might opt for the Nike React Pegasus Trail above, but you’ll give up performance on the trail. For us, the Golden Gate ATR is a fairly ideal compromise, and we expect the quality construction to hold up well over time.
See the Men's Scarpa Golden Gate ATR See the Women's Scarpa Golden Gate ATR
Weight: 1 lb. 4.4 oz.
What we like: Comfortable and cushioned; a great daily trainer.
What we don’t: Not as sprightly and responsive as the La Sportiva Jackal.
La Sportiva’s mountain running shoes are known for being fairly narrow and firm, but they’ve recently expanded their offerings with the dynamic duo of the Jackal and Karacal. The Karacal here is a 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. At 1 pound 4.4 ounces for the pair, it isn’t particularly lightweight, but we’ve found the Karacal to be decently nimble and offer a nice amount of bounce for moving down the trail (after a break-in period). It all adds up to a highly comfortable and versatile option for everything from packed dirt and gravel to cross-country terrain.
We used to have the Jackal on our list, but found the recent update to be quite disappointing (namely, its collar gapes open and offers much less of a locked-in feel). If you’re deciding between the two, keep in mind that the Karacal tends to have a slightly more forgiving fit and a more durable outsole; on the other hand, the Jackal II is more breathable, slightly lighter, and has more pop due to polyurethane inserts embedded in the EVA foam. In the end, we like to think of the Karacal as the better training shoe (and it’s $10 cheaper), while the Jackal is the better race-day option. And keep in mind both shoes feature relatively short 3- and 3.5-millimeter lugs, which are great for rocky and hard-packed terrain but suffer a bit on soft surfaces like mud and snow.
See the Men's La Sportiva Karacal See the Women's La Sportiva Karacal
Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 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 4 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). On the other hand, the Brooks is trail-ready, with reinforcements on the upper, a full rubber sole, and enough cushion to protect from roots and rocks. 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 4 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 $40 more, you can bump up to the Salomon Sense Ride, which is a high-quality shoe built for experienced runners; better yet, it’s often possible to find outgoing shoes (like the Cascadia 16 or Speedcross 5, for example) on sale for less than $100. 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 4 See the Women's Brooks Divide 4
Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 oz.
What we like: The “2” is much improved from the outgoing version.
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 features their trademark CloudTec cushioning, a series of hollow cells that absorb impacts and keep your foot protected from sharp roots and rocks. Tack on a very premium build and an eye-catching aesthetic, 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 soak up varied trail surfaces and keep your feet happy mile after mile.
The Cloudultra was recently updated to the “2,” and changes include a softer midsole, improved stretch-knit collar, and new outsole that On claims offers 50% more ground contact than the previous design. The result is a shoe that’s easier to step into (the first-gen version was a bear to get on and off), has much better traction, and provides a more forgiving feel—this is great news, as we found the outgoing Cloudultra to be surprisingly firm. However, there’s no avoiding the inherent downfall of On shoes: The hollowed-out CloudTec midsole has a tendency to attract small rocks, which can grind away at both the foam and your foot during long runs. But this obvious flaw has yet to deter many runners, and the Cloudultra 2 is an undeniably fun alternative to traditional max-cushioned designs.
See the Men's On Cloudultra 2 See the Women's On Cloudultra 2
|Salomon Sense Ride 5||$140||1 lb. 4.2 oz.||Moderate||8mm||No|
|Hoka Speedgoat 5||$155||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Maximum||4mm||No|
|Brooks Catamount 2||$170||1 lb. 3.4 oz.||Moderate||6mm||Yes|
|Altra Lone Peak 7||$150||1 lb. 6 oz.||Moderate||0mm||Yes|
|Salomon Speedcross 6||$145||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate||10mm||No|
|La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II||$165||1 lb. 9 oz.||Moderate||9mm||Yes|
|Saucony Peregrine 13||$140||1 lb. 2 oz.||Moderate||4mm||Yes|
|Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3||$190||1 lb. 2.3 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|The North Face Vectiv Enduris 3||$149||1 lb. 5.7 oz.||Maximum||6mm||No|
|Topo Athletic Mtn Racer 3||$150||1 lb. 4.2 oz.||Moderate||5mm||No|
|NNormal Tomir||$165||1 lb. 2.4 oz.||Maximum||8mm||No|
|Hoka Torrent 3||$130||1 lb. 1.4 oz.||Moderate||5mm||No|
|Brooks Cascadia 17||$140||1 lb. 6 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra||$160||1 lb. 1.2 oz.||Moderate||8mm||No|
|Nike React Pegasus Trail 4||$140||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Maximum||10mm||No|
|Scarpa Golden Gate ATR||$169||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Maximum||4mm||No|
|La Sportiva Karacal||$145||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Moderate||7mm||Yes|
|Brooks Divide 4||$100||1 lb. 4.8 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|On Cloudultra 2||$180||1 lb. 4.8 oz.||Maximum||6mm||No|
- 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
- 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 3.5mm 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 4 or Hoka Speedgoat 5), streamlined and firm shoes are ideal for race day (the Brooks Catamount 2 and Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra, 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 Ultra Raptor II). 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. For 2023, our picks range from 1 pound 1.2 ounces for the Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra to 1 pound 9 ounces for the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II. Shoes like the Speed Ultra feel extremely light on your feet (great for speed) while heavier shoes feature maximum cushioning or are super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection and support, while designs like the Ultra Raptor can be fairly cumbersome on easy trail. In general, we find the sweet spot to often be right in the middle: This typically gets you enough protection and support for long distances without feeling sluggish.
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 Ultra Raptor II or Jackal II 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 6 provide excellent bite in loose ground, but 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 and Nike (the Hoka Speedgoat 5 has 33mm of cushioning 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 Salomon Sense Ride 5 and Topo Athletic Mtn Racer 3 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 3 or Altra Lone Peak). 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 mountain-oriented shoe like the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor 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 to $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 Altra Lone Peak and Hoka Speedgoat, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Speedgoat to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Altra'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 6, Sense Ride 5, and S/Lab Ultra 3 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. (Note: By another definition, mountain running is a USA Track & Field sanctioned sport in which elite runners race on short and steep courses—importantly, this is very different from the form of mountain running we discuss here and requires a whole different skillset and a focus on much lighter-weight footwear.)
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 Ultra Raptor II, La Sportiva Cyklon, and Scarpa Ribelle Run). 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 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. For more, check out our editor's picks for the best mountain running gear.
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. What’s more, they often use softer rubber compounds that will wear out prematurely if subjected to a lot of road running.
A few hybrid designs toe the line between the two worlds, including the Hoka Challenger ATR 6, Topo Athletic MT-4, and Altra Outroad, 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-ready models that stand out as being able to handle the road better than most, including the Nike React Pegasus Trail 4 and Scarpa Golden Gate ATR. These shoes often feature some of the same components as road running shoes, including soft midsoles and airy mesh uppers. Don’t expect them to be particularly great performers on pavement (the trail-ready rubber outsole will feel decidedly clunky), but they’ll get you from your doorstep to the trail—and back—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. Brooks' Cascadia has long defined this category of crossover trail shoes, and we see a lot of hikers wearing the Hoka Speedgoat 5 and Altra Lone Peak 7, too.
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 2023 and GearJunkie’s The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2023.
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