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 4
- Best Max-Cushioned Trail Running Shoe: Hoka Speedgoat 5
- Best Trail Runner for Wide and/or Finicky Feet: Altra Lone Peak 6
- Best Running Shoe for Mud and Soft Terrain: Salomon Speedcross 6
- Best Mountain Running Shoe: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II
- Best Light and Responsive Trail Runner: Brooks Catamount
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Weight: 1 lb. 4.5 oz.
What we like: A winning combination of comfort, versatility, and price.
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 4. This shoe 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 (27mm in the heel), generously sized toe box that accommodates our wide feet, fairly standard 8-millimeter drop, and full Contragrip rubber outsole. We’ve put over 700 miles on various iterations of the Sense Ride, and the “4” has proven to be a consistently comfortable and high performance shoe for a wide variety of terrain.
But while the Sense Ride 4 is good at everything, it’s not necessarily a top performer in any specific category. Held up against the specialist Ultra Raptor II below, you give up a bit of grip and ground feel for off-trail terrain, and the Salomon is not as soft and lightweight as a max-cushioned shoe like the Speedgoat. Further, although we’ve used it for several FKT attempts, the Sense Ride 4 is not nearly as speed-oriented as shoes like Catamount or Zinal below. But for a one-quiver trail runner that can handle most terrain with aplomb, it’s one of the most well-rounded designs we’ve tried. Finally, if you’re not already won over by the Sense Ride’s stellar combination of comfort and performance, consider its price: at $120, it’s an excellent value. Keep an eye out for the Sense Ride 5 (set to release in early 2023), which will feature a softer midsole, more durable outsole, and revised fit.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 4 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 4
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. 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 Zinal (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 new 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 Trail Runner for Wide and/or Finicky Feet
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
What we like: A very comfortable shoe that allows the foot to lie in its natural position.
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish feel and too roomy for some.
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 flat 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 6 doesn’t venture far from previous models, but it does feature an updated upper and new lacing system for a more secure fit. This is good news for those with low-profile feet: Previous versions of the Lone Peak have been critiqued for being too roomy and thus unstable on rocky and rooty terrain. And true to its trail-worthy intentions, the Altra also features a rock plate, gaiter attachments, and drain ports both on the toe box and inside of the foot. But all praise aside, it’s 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. Finally, we haven't had great luck with the Lone Peak's durability, although the “6” features a more robust toe guard that should address many of the outgoing model’s delamination issues.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 6 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 6
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 Mountain Running Shoe
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 Sense Ride 4 above 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 See the Women's La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
Best Light and Responsive Trail Runner
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: A lightweight and snappy shoe great for speed.
What we don't: Expensive and not plush enough for long distances.
Brooks is most known in the trail running world for their Cascadia (below), a beloved shoe among both runners and thru-hikers that is now in its 16th generation. But the modern Catamount here offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a nimble design built to take on 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. You’ll notice the extra kick on fast ground like gravel roads and easy hardpack, but the Catamount is also prepared for battle on technical terrain, with trail-specific features like a rock plate, gaiter adapters, and a TrailTack rubber outsole.
At $160, the Catamount is no small investment, so it’s important to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Despite the fact that it was “designed and built for 100 miles of run happy” (as it states on the tongue), most runners will want a softer and plusher shoe for ultra-distance efforts. Further, the upper doesn’t stretch as much as a shoe like the Speedgoat above—worth considering if you deal with swollen feet—and like most of Brooks’ offerings it lacks a truly locked-down fit. But there’s no denying that the Catamount is lightweight and fast, and despite its high price tag, it is still a noticeable $40 less than the similarly high-end TNF VECTIV Flight. Finally, within this race-ready category, it’s also worth looking at carbon-plated shoes like the Hoka Tecton X and Saucony Endorphin Edge.
See the Men's Brooks Catamount See the Women's Brooks Catamount
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: A comfortable shoe with some technical chops.
What we don't: Pricey and some might find the toebox to be a touch wide.
Topo Athletic might not be a household name like Salomon or La Sportiva, but their lineup of trail and road running shoes speaks for itself (not to mention, they’re founded by the former CEO of Vibram). The MTN Racer 2 is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver: like the Lone Peak above, it features a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, lending all-day comfort for swollen and hard-working feet. But the MTN Racer tacks on some technical chops, with a 5-millimeter drop (compared to the Altra’s 0mm), slightly firmer cushioning, a sticky Vibram Megagrip sole (a blend often used in climbing approach shoes), and a small decrease in weight. Overall, it’s a really easy shoe to get along with—we recommend the MTN Racer to friends more than any other model here, and have yet to know anyone who’s been less than thrilled.
The MTN Racer was recently updated, and the “2” features a more breathable upper, revamped heel, and a refined fit (we had to go a half size up with the first iteration but dropped down to our normal size with the “2”). We think it’s a great update to an already excellent shoe, and with a solid build the MTN Racer should last you upwards of 500 miles. Where it does fall short is on truly off-camber terrain—mountain runners will want to opt for a stiffer and protective ride like the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II or Salomon Sense Ride above. But for those who stick to the trail (even fairly technical trails), the Topo Athletic is a trustworthy and capable companion.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer 2 See the Women's Topo MTN Racer 2
Weight: 1 lb. 1 oz.
What we like: A Hoka shoe for Hoka skeptics; lightweight and fast.
What we don’t: Poor traction on rock.
Running-shoe giant Hoka has built a name around their max-cushioned designs (as seen in the Speedgoat above), but the Zinal bucks this trend with a lower profile that provides ample ground feel. The result is a Hoka that’s responsive and fast, making it great for race day and tempo workouts alike. But it’s not all speed—with durable cushioning, highly breathable mesh, and a fit that leaves nothing to be desired, the Zinal is incredibly fun to wear, too. We’ve put over 400 miles into our pair of Zinals while training for (and racing) a 50K, and have been impressed with their nimble, speedy, and supportive feel on a variety of terrain.
In a world flush with rock guards, carbon plates, and maximum cushion, the Zinal’s minimalist weight and close-to-the-ground feel is a breath of fresh air. Much of this weight-savings is achieved through streamlining the outsole, which contains a hefty dose of blown rubber alongside patches of Megagrip Litebase on the heel and forefoot. We’ve found this combination to provide ample traction for most hardpacked trail and gravel roads, but the Zinal definitely struggles on boulders and slab. The sole nevertheless does an admirable job isolating the foot from sharp roots and rocks, and it’s really all most trail runners need. All told, for a speedy shoe that can tackle anything from a 5K to a 50K or 50 miler (and all your training in between), the Zinal is one of our favorite models—ever. If you’re looking for a bit more traction in a similarly low-slung design, it’s worth checking out Hoka’s Torrent 2.
See the Men's Hoka Zinal See the Women's Hoka Zinal
Weight: 1 lb. 3.4 oz.
What we like: A great all-rounder among moderately cushioned shoes.
What we don’t: Some might want plusher cushioning.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been an all-around favorite of ours over multiple generations, excelling in most of the categories that matter: traction, fit, protection, and weight. We love 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 on the trail. And with the newest “12,” the upper received a full overhaul, dropping most of the overlays for a stretchy, foot-hugging fit that’s even lighter than the previous version.
But with only a modest level of cushioning and a fairly firm midsole, you do give up some comfort on hard surfaces or during long days on the trail. Further, the newest Peregrine features an even trimmer fit, which is less than ideal for swelling feet. If you log high-mileage days or run on the road from time to time, we’d stick with a plusher shoe like the Hoka Speedgoat above. On the other hand, the Saucony is a great option for short and speedy efforts, with a goldilocks combination of cushion, responsiveness, and protection for those who like to push the pace. Finally, at just $130 it’s an excellent value. And keep in mind that Saucony also makes the Peregrine 12 ST (soft terrain), which features longer lugs (6.5mm compared to 5mm), a debris-resistant upper, and quick-lace system for $140.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 12 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 12
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 Pegasus Trail below, 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. 5 oz.
What we like: A big update gives an old classic a lighter and livelier feel.
What we don't: Still stiffer and heavier than most shoes here.
Now in its 16th iteration, the Brooks Cascadia is one of the longest standing trail runners on the market, and for good reason. This is a shoe that can do it all, with the traction and protection you need for rugged trails alongside a hefty dose of cushioning for long days out. Add to that an emphasis on stability, and the Cascadia is an easy-wearing shoe and deservingly popular with a wide audience, from ultrarunners and daily joggers to mile-crunching thru-hikers. It’s true that recent iterations had started to feel really dated (read: heavy and slow compared to the more modern competition), but the updates to the “16” are significant and give it a brand new lease on life.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to the Cascadia 16 is its lighter and sprightlier build, thanks to a couple millimeters of extra (and softer) cushioning, a flexible rock plate, and an updated outsole. The result is a workhorse shoe that will put a bounce in your step, which is never a bad combination. Of course, the Cascadia still can’t match the speed or light weight of some of the top models here, and despite the updated cushion it’s still stiffer than most. But for a trail shoe that will provide reliable stability and protection mile after mile—and double as a wonderful hiking design—Brooks’ Cascadia is back on our radar as one of the best all-rounders in the game.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 16 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 16
Weight: 1 lb. 4.6 oz.
What we like: A max-cushioned shoe that’s still stable, speedy, and impressive on technical terrain.
What we don’t: Difficult to lock in the fit.
The Peregrine above has long been Saucony’s go-to trail shoe for shorter and technical efforts, but the running company hasn’t always had a similarly popular pairing for ultra distances. Enter the Xodus Ultra, a revamp of a bygone model that’s gotten a lot of attention upon its 2022 release. It’s been called everything from “the best shoe of the year” to “Saucony’s answer to the Speedgoat,” which is certainly high praise in a flooded market. The key to the Xodus Ultra’s success is its dual-density midsole, which combines two different varieties of foam (one as a frame, the other as a core) for a running experience that’s well cushioned without sacrificing stability and speed. And the cherry on top is that you get all that performance at a decently low weight.
There are a lot of reasons why runners love the Hoka Speedgoat, but stability and traction on technical trails is not one of them. Here is where the Xodus Ultra shines: The shoe is fairly savvy on rocky, off-camber trails, thanks to the midsole’s dense foam frame and the outsole’s grippy PWRTRAC rubber and sharp lugs. The fit does leave a bit to be desired—you get a little more room than the Peregrine (great for foot swelling), but the shoe fails to get a really secure lock on the foot, and the elasticized laces don’t help. But minor gripes aside, Saucony made a real winner in the Xodus Ultra, which is a great companion for long-distance rambles and short, technical trails alike.
See the Men's Saucony Xodus Ultra See the Women's Saucony Xodus 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 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. 5.2 oz.
What we like: Comfortable and cushioned yet still very capable in technical terrain.
What we don’t: Sizing is tricky and short lugs aren’t great on soft ground.
La Sportiva’s mountain running shoes are known for being fairly narrow and firm, but they’ve expanded their offerings with the Jackal. Like the Salomon Sense Ride above, the Jackal 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. It all adds up to a really comfortable yet high-performance shoe for everything from packed dirt and gravel to cross-country terrain. Finally, we’ve been really impressed with the Jackal’s durability—it has held up remarkably well during a season of trail running in Kauai, despite frequent run-ins with sharp rocks and plants, wet conditions, and over 200 trail miles.
At 1 pound 5.2 ounces for the pair, the Jackal isn’t particularly lightweight, but it has a really nimble feel and the soft foam lends a bit more spring than the Sense Ride. Keep in mind that the 3-millimeter lugs are shorter than we’re used to seeing in a mountain running shoe (4mm is a more standard lug length), which lends more hold on rocky, hardpacked terrain and less on soft mud or snow. And finally, the Jackal runs small (most will bump up at least a half size) and some runners have experienced issues with the overly rigid heel cup, which we’d love to see Sportiva change in the forthcoming update (the 2 is expected for summer 2023). Finally, it’s also worth checking out Sportiva’s Karacal ($145), which has similar all-around intentions and an even roomier fit.
See the Men's La Sportiva Jackal See the Women's La Sportiva Jackal
Weight: 1 lb. 5.8 oz.
What we like: A responsive midsole alongside max-level cushioning.
What we don’t: Takes some time to break in and get used to.
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. Hallmarked by its unique rocker, the VECTIV collection includes the high-end Flight, the mid-range Infinite, and the max-cushioned Enduris here. This is the ultra-distance VECTIV, offering runners a responsive feel (thanks in large part to the TPU midsole) that’s forgiving enough to go all day. Tack on an airy mesh upper, full rubber outsole, and accommodating fit, and the Enduris is one of our favorite all-rounder trail shoes this year. A recent update features a redesigned upper and slightly lighter weight, but the overall formula remains the same.
We don’t blame you if the top-shelf VECTIV Flight grabs your attention over the Enduris, with flashy selling points like a carbon-fiber plate, Kevlar upper, and a number of notable long-distance FKTs to its name. But the affordable Enduris is actually our favorite shoe in the lineup, with a much more forgiving feel and fit for most feet (the Flight is very narrow and lacks cushioning for long efforts). Do expect the Enduris to take some time to break in, and you might need to get a few runs under your belt before the rocker shape feels natural. But for $139, it’s a solid new entry into the max-cushioned market, and we’ve been really impressed by TNF’s build quality overall.
See the Men's The North Face VECTIV Enduris II See the Women's The North Face VECTIV Enduris II
Weight: 1 lb. 8.6 oz.
What we like: A comfortable and stable max-cushioned shoe.
What we don’t: Sluggish and not ideal for narrow feet.
Altra’s Lone Peak (above) gets a lot of attention from everyone from trail runners to thru-hikers, but the Olympus 5.0 is arguably the better shoe for long efforts. With 33 millimeters of cushioning from heel to toe, you get no shortage of all-day comfort, on par with max-cushioned kicks like the Hoka Speedgoat and Nike Pegasus Trail above. The updated upper offers an impressively snug lock at the midfoot—translating to great stability on off-camber terrain—while Altra’s trademark wide toe box keeps your toes happy. Tack on a Vibram Megagrip outsole, and the Olympus 5.0 is ready for everything from cruisy hardpack to technical cross-country adventures.
Not everyone will want to join the zero-drop, extra-wide-toe-box club, and with its beefy midsole, the Olympus is even more polarizing than the Lone Peak . But we actually like the combination: With a wide base, it feels a lot more stable than most max-cushioned shoes. All that said, the standard Altra caveats still apply here: The Olympus will feel sloppy on those with narrow feet, and its 1-pound 8.6-ounce build (for the pair) isn’t going anywhere particularly fast. And at $180, it's far from cheap. But for long, slow days where comfort matters more than technical precision and speed, the Altra Olympus 5.0 is well worth a second look. And for those with narrower feet, Altra now offers the Mont Blanc, which features a slightly more streamlined footbed.
See the Men's Altra Olympus 5 See the Women's Altra Olympus 5
Weight: 1 lb. 4.2 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 3 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), and the newest Divide forgoes a rock plate, which is great for ground feel on easy hardpack. On the other hand, the Brooks is trail-ready, with reinforcements on the upper, a full rubber sole, and enough cushion (31mm at the heel, 23mm at the toe) 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 3 shouldn’t really be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep terrain or over rocks, roots, or other rough ground, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment, even for new runners. For just $20 more, you can bump up to the Salomon Sense Ride, which is a high-quality shoe built for experienced runners. But for light trail use and runs that feature a mix of terrain (even gravel roads), the Divide is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Brooks Divide 3 See the Women's Brooks Divide 3
Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 oz.
What we like: Well made and great looking.
What we don't: Expensive and rocks get stuck in the outsole grooves.
Based in Switzerland, On is known for their innovative collection of road and trail shoes. It’s easy to tell an On design apart from the rest—each model includes their trademark CloudTec outsole, a series of hollow cells that absorb impact and propel you forward, no matter what your stride. In theory, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s for good reason that On shoes have become increasingly popular in the U.S. market. The Cloudultra is their most cushioned design for long-distance efforts, built to swallow ground impact and keep your feet happy, mile after mile.
The Cloudultra stood out to us as a unique shoe, but ironically it wasn’t a cloud-like feel that set it apart. In fact, it actually felt rather firm underfoot, and in a blind test we’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the CloudTec technology and any other shoe. The biggest differences came from the sock-like upper, which felt sleek and close-fitting (and is undeniably good-looking) but was hard to get into and resulted in some pressure points on the top of our foot. In the end, it’s worth considering sizing up a half size, and be sure to give yourself ample time for break-in (read: don’t tackle 17 miles right away like we did). On shoes are expensive and known for one major and inherent downfall—rocks get stuck in the large grooves of their soles—but they exude quality and are well worth a look.
See the Men's On Cloudultra See the Women's On Cloudultra
Weight: 12 oz.
What we like: Exceptionally lightweight and responsive; great on technical terrain.
What we don’t: Narrow, minimal protection, lacks support for long-distance runs.
A lot of runners are turning to max-cushioned shoes for their extra comfort and shock absorption, but trimmed-down models still have their appeal. For short trail races, Vertical Kilometer events, or technical runs, you’ll want a shoe that is light on your feet and prioritizes ground feel. Arc’teryx’s Norvan SL 2 is a strong entry in this category, with the lowest weight here (by a large margin) and notably less cushioning than most (19mm at the heel). And it’s not just light and nimble: with a Vibram Megagrip sole and snug, approach-shoe-like fit, the SL 2 offers exceptional grip and performance on rock (no surprise, considering Arc’teryx’s dominance in the climbing market). The shoe even features a cutout on the inside heel to accommodate a carabiner.
The Norvan SL 2 shares a lot of characteristics with a streamlined mountain running shoe like the La Sportiva Cyklon, including minimal cushioning and a solid rubber sole. But at just 12 ounces for the pair, the Arc’teryx is on another level in terms of weight, giving it much more credence as a shorter-distance, race-ready shoe (the downside is less protection and stability overall). We have had some issues with the mesh upper: The thin build doesn’t do much to keep out dust and dirt, and it lacks the locked down feel you get with more robust, cushioned uppers. Keep in mind that Arc’teryx shoes have a tendency to run narrow, and this is particularly true for the streamlined SL 2.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2 See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2
|Salomon Sense Ride 4||$120||1 lb. 4.5 oz.||Moderate||8mm||No|
|Hoka Speedgoat 5||$155||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Maximum||4mm||No|
|Altra Lone Peak 6||$140||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Moderate||0mm||Yes|
|Salomon Speedcross 6||$150||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate||10mm||No|
|La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II||$155||1 lb. 9 oz.||Moderate||9mm||Yes|
|Brooks Catamount||$160||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate||6mm||Yes|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2||$145||1 lb. 4 oz.||Moderate||5mm||No|
|Hoka Zinal||$160||1 lb. 1 oz.||Moderate||4mm||No|
|Saucony Peregrine 12||$130||1 lb. 3.4 oz.||Moderate||4mm||Yes|
|Scarpa Golden Gate ATR||$149||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Maximum||4mm||No|
|Brooks Cascadia 16||$130||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate/maximum||8mm||Yes|
|Saucony Xodus Ultra||$150||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Maximum||6mm||Yes|
|Nike Pegasus Trail 4||$140||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Maximum||10mm||No|
|La Sportiva Jackal||$155||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Moderate||7mm||Yes|
|The North Face VECTIV Enduris II||$139||1 lb. 5.8 oz.||Maximum||6mm||No|
|Altra Olympus 5||$180||1 lb. 8.6 oz.||Maximum||0mm||No|
|Brooks Divide 3||$100||1 lb. 4.2 oz.||Moderate||8mm||Yes|
|On Cloudultra||$180||1 lb. 4.8 oz.||Maximum||8mm||No|
|Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2||$160||12 oz.||Light||7mm||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 3mm lugs are great on rock, awful on wet ground). In the end, we realized that most running shoes defy categories, and are far more about the synergy between the shoes, the terrain, and the runner. However, there are still a good number of clues that can help you narrow down your choice, which we dive into in greater detail below.
The good news is that most of the shoes here are great all-rounders, sufficient for most runners on most trails. Where you’ll really need to start thinking is if you have specific demands for a shoe, including if you want to go really far, really fast, or really remote. Here is where the specialists come in, which we detail in the write-ups above. In general, max-cushioned shoes are great for ultra distances (such as the Nike Pegasus Trail 4 or Hoka Speedgoat), streamlined and firm shoes are ideal for race day (the Hoka Tecton X and Brooks Catamount, for example), and those who venture into off-trail terrain will want to prioritize protection, stability, and sticky tread above all else (check out the La Sportiva 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 12 ounces for the Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2 to 1 pound 8.6 ounces for the Altra Olympus 5. Shoes like the Norvan SL feel extremely light on your feet (great for speed) while heavier shoes feature maximum cushioning (like the Nike) or are super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection and support, while designs like the Olympus 5 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 Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 excel on rock, while others that have a softer and more pliable feel often do better in mud. Secondly, tread depth (or lug depth as defined by the height of the lugs in millimeters) isn’t listed by many manufacturers, but you can get a good idea of the size by looking at an image of the sole. Tall lugs like you’ll find on the Salomon Speedcross 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 Altra (the Altra Olympus 5 has 33mm of cushioning underfoot). 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 and Topo Athletic MTN Racer are springy and have enough squish to keep your feet happy on rough terrain and for long distances, but don’t sit too tall to compromise stability and confidence. It’s no accident most of the shoes we have listed above offer a moderate amount of cushioning.
As the name indicates, the heel-to-toe drop is the difference in shoe height, where your foot sits, from the heel to toe. This spec was barely on the radar of folks outside the hardcore running community until the zero-drop fad hit a few years ago. Many all-rounder shoes have a drop in the range of 4 to 8 millimeters, which can work well for both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero-drop shoes have a 0-millimeter difference (Altra is a leader in this department), encouraging a mid- or forefoot landing point. And many models for rugged trails have the most dramatic drops, often 8 to 10 millimeters.
Our take is that drop is a matter of comfort and personal preference more than anything else. Many people like a moderate drop in their trail running shoes, while others prefer a zero-drop design (the Altra Lone Peak being the most popular example). The trend is toward lower drops for running shoes in general, although the performance and injury prevention science are hotly debated. The key is that you don't make a major change to an extreme end of the spectrum and then head straight out for a long run. Instead, if you're interested in a zero-drop design, try it out by easing in and developing confidence on the trail. This will reduce the chance of injury and ensure that it's the right choice for you.
Trying to move fast over rough terrain in a pair of lightweight low-top shoes may seem like asking for an injury (and it can happen), but today’s trail running shoes do offer a stable ride that is resistant to ankle rolls. It starts with a solid platform, which is wide and rigid enough to sustain hard impacts on uneven ground (this platform is pronounced on a highly stable shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2 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-$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 5 and Sense Ride for its ease of use and speed. It only requires a single pull, and then you can tuck away the excess laces and forget about them. We’ve found that the laces hold extremely well—better than some traditional sets in fact. There is a potential downside, however. For those with finicky feet that need to customize the fit around certain parts of your feet, there isn’t really a solution with the quick lace design. The laces will fit equally tight around the entirety of your foot. Accordingly, we recommend avoiding quick laces if you often fiddle with your laces to get the fit just right.
Mountain running is experiencing a huge growth spurt, with more and more enthusiasts ditching heavy overnight gear for a pair of running shoes and a light pack. By our definition, this style of running takes you off trail and into cross-country zones, where you might encounter anything from technical rock climbing and talus or boulder fields to glacier travel and steep snow—think ridge scrambling in the Rockies or peak bagging in the North Cascades. And you’ll need just the right footwear to tackle this complex terrain: a shoe that combines the light weight and comfort of a trail runner with the stability, grip, and durability of an approach or hiking shoe.
Fortunately, a whole new class of mountain running-specific shoes has emerged recently, engineered especially for off-trail trickery. La Sportiva leads the field here, but designs from brands like Arc’teryx, Dynafit, Salomon, and Scarpa come in close behind (our favorites above include the La Sportiva 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 (compared to a standard trail running shoe) and have highly durable and protective uppers (we often strap crampons or microspikes to our mountain running shoes). In our picks above, we make sure to call out the shoes that are specially designed for off-trail mountain travel. 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 Pegasus Trail 4, Brooks Catamount, and Scarpa Golden Gate ATR. Some of these shoes even have ties to the road world: The Catamount’s DNA Flash midsole was adapted from Brooks’ popular Hyperion Tempo, while the Pegasus Trail took design hints from road running models. Don’t expect them to be particularly great performers on pavement, 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.
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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