Running on varied and challenging trails is a welcome break from the monotony of pounding pavement (or even worse, the belt of a treadmill). Better yet, trail running is an immensely easy sport to get into and requires only minimal gear. Below are our top trail runners of 2021, which cover everything from flexible and lightweight shoes for smooth trails to tough and stable designs for tackling technical or mountainous terrain.
Table of Contents
- Our Trail Running Shoe Picks
- Trail Running Shoe Comparison Table
- Trail Running Shoe Buying Advice
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.6 oz.
What we like: Standout comfort and traction in a lightweight package.
What we don’t: Thick midsole minimizes trail feel in technical sections.
Hoka One One may have built their reputation around soft, heavily cushioned road and trail runners, but we think their Speedgoat 4 is an exceptional all-rounder. The shoe has the brand’s signature thick midsole, but the design hits a near-ideal balance of comfort, weight, protection, and responsiveness (we’ve also found it’s a great option for hiking). In addition, the aggressive outsole is one of our favorites, with substantial lugs and tacky Vibram Megagrip rubber that hold well in everything from dry dirt and mud to steep rock. Tack on a medium-width toe box that fits a broad range of foot shapes—plus available wide sizes for both men and women—and the Speedgoat is our favorite trail running shoe of 2021.
The Speedgoat 4 is Hoka’s technical trail offering, and the substantial midsole does inspire a lot of confidence while running over roots or sharp rocks, but the tall stack height has its downsides. When foot placement is very important, such as when descending steep switchbacks, the shoe lacks the precision of a low-slung build like La Sportiva’s Bushido II below. Hoka did make some small tweaks with the “4,” including a slightly firmer foam and more durable upper, but the shoe isn’t as nimble as a true off-trail model (and we’d be remiss not to mention that some find the updated tongue a bit abrasive). That said, for the vast majority of runners—including those covering serious distances over fairly rough terrain—the Speedgoat hits a sweet spot between performance and cushioning.
See the Men's Hoka One One Speedgoat See the Women's Hoka One One Speedgoat
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction in soft ground.
What we don’t: Not versatile for easy trails or most mountain running.
The Speedgoat above is a nicely cushioned go-to for well-established trail networks, but it suffers on particularly soft terrain like mud and snow. In these conditions, you’ll want a full rubber outsole (the Speedgoat uses a combination of rubber and foam) with relatively long and widely spaced lugs that bite into the ground with each step. Salomon’s trail-eating Speedcross 5 sets the standard for this category, combining massive 6-millimeter arrow-shaped lugs and a supportive and snug-fitting upper for impressive control at speed. Tack on a thick midsole, single-pull lace system, and sturdy yet still reasonably light chassis, and you get one of the most capable trail designs, whether your run takes you over snow, sand, or wet leaves and thick mud.
But while the Speedcross is hard to beat on soft terrain, it’s not a particularly versatile shoe. The tooth-like lugs and aggressive build are overkill on easy trails and gravel roads, and the tall stack height can feel tippy on uneven ground (plus, shorter lugs offer better traction on rock). For off-trail exploration, we’d recommend a more planted, rock-ready design like the Bushido or Sense Ride below. But for wet and rugged forest paths, the Speedcross is incredibly purpose-built, even down to details like the anti-debris mesh upper and gusseted tongue. And it’s also worth checking out Salomon’s Wildcross, a relatively new alternative that offers similar grip on soft terrain but is lighter, roomier, and rides closer to the ground. And for those who regularly get out in the cold and wet, the Speedcross 5 and Wildcross are also sold in Gore-Tex versions, which retail for $150 and $160 respectively.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 5 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 5
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Too much grip and not enough cushion for trail miles.
In 2021, mountain athletes don’t think twice about taking on big, technical challenges with nothing more than a pair of running shoes and a day’s worth of supplies. Among the growing assortment of fast-and-light footwear options, many of our go-to shoes come from climbing-specialist La Sportiva. Their versatile Bushido II is a perennial favorite and excels on all manner of terrain, from soggy trails and snow to fifth-class rock and loose talus. Grippy FriXion rubber (a compound used on some of Sportiva’s climbing shoes) gives you solid traction while scrambling, and the burly tread grips remarkably well on soft terrain without being too overbuilt for firm ground. Tack on a durable upper, protective toe cap, and rock guard underfoot, and the Bushido is a solid and confidence-inspiring workhorse of a shoe.
Compared to the Salomon above, the La Sportiva here has much more versatile intentions for a variety of on- and off-trail terrain. Further, mountain runners will love the shoe’s low stack height (19mm in the heel compared to the Speedcross’ 30mm), which lends stability and a solid ground feel. But all this performance does end up feeling a bit overkill on smooth paths, and the Bushido’s lightly cushioned midsole is noticeably less comfortable than all-around models like the Speedgoat above or Salomon Sense Ride 4 below (especially on high-mileage days). But for technical missions that don’t involve too much dry trail—think high routes in the Cascades, the Sierra, and Colorado—the Bushido is hard to beat... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido II See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido II
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish feel and too wide for those with narrow feet.
Altra quickly progressed from an unknown to a go-to brand in the trail running community, and much of their rapid ascent can be attributed to the rise in popularity of zero-drop shoes. An offshoot of the barefoot running movement, zero-drop trail runners keep the foot in its naturally flat position (most shoes here elevate the heel by 4 to 10mm). Many brands have experimented with this trend, but the Lone Peak is our favorite model for both trail running and thru-hiking. Epitomized by a wide toe box, grippy and durable MaxTrac outsole, and moderate cushioning, the Lone Peak offers great comfort for high-mileage days without giving up much in terms of performance.
The new Lone Peak 5 doesn’t venture far from previous models, but does add Altra’s Ego midsole for noticeably more bounce and cushion. It also features an updated StoneGuard underfoot, improved drainage, and a more versatile tread (all for a $10 price increase). But as we’ve always cautioned, it’s important to keep in mind that the zero-drop design is not for everyone. Those accustomed to a more typical trail runner might find the Lone Peak slightly sluggish, and the wide toe box can feel sloppy over technical terrain (especially for those with narrow feet). As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. And take note: The Lone Peak 5 now comes in wide sizes (with increased room in the midfoot) and a waterproof “All-WTHR” version.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 5
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6
What we like: One of the few capable hybrid trail/road shoes.
What we don’t: Tread and stability fall short in soft or especially rugged terrain.
Mixing road and trail shoe characteristics, Hoka’s Challenger ATR 6 offers a nice all-in-one solution for those who combine mediums on their daily run. Like the Speedgoat above, the shoe has excellent cushioning and comfort thanks to a thick midsole, and a streamlined build and rockered base give it a springy personality. You get a lightweight and efficient road feel with a section of standard blown rubber on the outsole, while pods of trail-worthy lugs can be found under the ball of the foot and heel. Finally, the updated “6” features a revamped upper made with post-consumer recycled plastic, and the greatly improved fit should appeal to most runners (wide sizes are also available).
Unsurprisingly, trying to do everything for everyone does come with some compromises. In the case of the ATR 6, its closely spaced lugs come up short in muddy and sloppy conditions, and the flexible outsole is noticeably less planted over rocky terrain than a dedicated trail shoe. On pavement, the grippy sections of the sole can feel a little sticky and slow compared to a standard road model. As is often the case, serious runners that want maximum performance will be better off with a dedicated pair of shoes for each activity. But for runs that mix together short sections of road and fairly easy trail (a popular combo if you’re running from home), the Challenger is one of the best designs we’ve used.
See the Men's Hoka Challenger ATR 6 See the Women's Hoka Challenger ATR 6
Category: Rugged trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 4.4 oz.
What we like: Comfortable for miles of trail yet adept in technical mountain terrain.
What we don’t: Less specialized than the Bushido.
The Sense Ride is a tricky shoe to pin down. Salomon bills it as an all-rounder great for door-to-trail runs, while many in the mountain running community have adopted the shoe for technical cross-country travel. In our opinion, the new “4” (and previous “3”) trends much closer to the latter description than the former, with firm Optivibe foam in the midsole, a full Contragrip rubber outsole, and highly durable and protective materials throughout. We put over 350 on- and off-trail miles on our Sense Ride 3 (mostly while running high routes in the North Cascades), and it proved to be a wonderfully versatile combination of long-distance comfort and great grip on a variety of surfaces. And the new 4 stays close to the winning formula but with a few small improvements, including a more secure-fitting heel and revamped upper with anti-debris mesh.
Identity crisis aside, we’ve come to think of the Sense Ride as one of the most well-rounded shoes for mountain running. Held up against the specialist Bushido above, you give up a bit of grip and ground feel, but the Salomon’s less aggressive outsole and cushioned midsole is a much better fit for long distances on hardpacked trail. On the other hand, if you stick exclusively to trail, the Sense Ride’s tank-like build (which feels heavier than its 1 lb. 4.4 oz. weight) might feel overkill—for most runners, we’d instead recommend a softer and lighter feeling design like the Speedgoat above or MTN Racer below. But for routes that combine on-trail and cross-country travel it doesn’t get much better, and at $120, the Sense Ride is also one of the most affordable shoes in its class.
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 4 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 4
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Noticeably lightweight and wide toe box offers all-day comfort.
What we don't: Narrow feet will swim in the toe box.
Topo Athletic might not be a household name like Salomon or La Sportiva, but their lineup of shoes speaks for itself. Founded by the former CEO of Vibram, this company knows what goes into making a good running shoe, and the MTN Racer is a standout trail-specific model in their quiver. Like the Lone Peak above, the MTN Racer features a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, lending all-day comfort for swollen and hard-working feet. But the Topo Athletic tacks on some technical chops, with a 5-millimeter drop (compared to the Altra’s 0mm), slightly firmer cushioning, and a small decrease in weight. We’ve logged over 400 trail miles in one pair of MTN Racers and overall have been very impressed with the shoe's high degree of comfort, durability, and trail-handling.
The MTN Racer features deep lugs and a Vibram Megagrip sole (a blend often used in climbing approach shoes) for excellent hold on rocky and rooted trails. But for true mountain travel, you’ll want a more supportive and protective shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido or Salomon Sense Ride above. We’ve also found the MTN Racer to be very capable in wet weather: the upper is designed with minimal bulk and drainage ports, meaning that when your feet do get wet, they dry quickly. And while many runners appreciate the MTN Racer for its spacious toe box, if you’re looking for a true wide size (EE for men, D for women), the good news is that there are a number of options, including our top-rated Speedgoat above and Brooks’ Cascadia 15 below.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer See the Women's Topo MTN Racer
Weight: 1 lb. 5.9 oz.
What we like: Excellent mix of traction, comfort, and protection.
What we don’t: A bit heavy and some might want plusher cushioning.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been an all-around favorite of ours over multiple generations, excelling in all of the categories that matter: traction, cushioning, protection, and weight. We love its signature trail-eating, teeth-like tread that grips anything from wet rocks to hardpack dirt, and a rock plate underfoot adds protection without compromising flexibility. Moving up the shoe, the well-balanced PWRUN midsole is stable yet responsive on technical trails, featuring just enough cushioning to keep you comfortable on high-mileage days. And the newest “11” builds on the winning formula, with a premium-feeling upper that improves upon durability, protection, and breathability (for a small weight penalty).
While the Peregrine is a well-balanced, trustworthy companion for most trails, it’s not a standout on highly technical terrain and is overbuilt for pavement and gravel. We’ve found the Hoka Speedgoat above to be a bit more versatile, even while topping the Peregrine in weight and responsiveness. But you do get some options within the Peregrine line, including a waterproof GTX model ($150) and an ST (soft terrain) version, which features longer lugs (6.5mm compared to 5mm) and a debris-resistant upper and quick-lace system for $130. No matter what model you choose, the Peregrine continues to offer an impressive combination of comfort, performance, and high-quality materials.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine 11 See the Women's Saucony Peregrine 11
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Narrow fit; too specialized for most runners.
Combining key traits of both a trail runner and an approach shoe, Arc’teryx’s Norvan VT is an ideal pick for moving quickly in mountainous terrain. You get a lot of features we look for in a trail running shoe, including a cushioned midsole, breathable upper, and a lightweight build. But the Norvan VT (short for “vertical”) makes its climbing intentions clear with a streamlined toe box, ground-hugging design, and Megagrip outsole with a climbing zone underneath the big toe. Add it all up, and this is a great option for peak bagging and high-country scrambles when you want a bit more grip, stability, and protection than a traditional trail runner can provide.
The Norvan VT takes it one step further than the Bushido above, with a beefier, more durable build and smoother sole that gives it an extra dose of performance particularly on rock. And like the La Sportiva, the Arc’teryx is overkill on anything tame, making it highly specialized for mountain running (and particularly routes with minimal trail mileage). In the end, the Bushido is a slightly better all-rounder (especially on soft terrain), and it’s much more affordable at $140. For a more cushioned and flexible option from Arc’teryx that’s comfortable on moderately technical terrain, check out their Norvan LD 2. And as with all Arc’teryx shoes, keep in mind that the Norvan VT (also available in a GTX version) is on the narrow side—one of our wide-footed testers found the toe box to be prohibitively tight... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2 See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 7.5 oz.
What we like: Nike’s React midsole is both responsive and soft.
What we don’t: Heavy, not super durable, and difficult to dial in a close fit.
Nike puts most of their efforts into road-running gear, but their Pegasus Trail 2 is a quality, max-cushioned option for trail work. The predecessor to the old Pegasus 36 Trail, this ultra-modern shoe has been completely retooled from the ground up. It now features Nike’s React midsole, which is both delightfully responsive and soft—a difficult combination for foam—meaning you get great energy return as well as long-distance comfort. The tall stack height is balanced out with a wide flair in the forefoot for stability on moderate terrain, and a full rubber outsole lends solid traction on everything from rock and hardpack to soft terrain like snow and mud.
Looking at Nike’s trail lineup, the Pegasus Trail is the clear all-rounder, sliding in next to the durable Wildhorse and light and speedy Terra Kiger. Among the trio, the Pegasus Trail gets the edge in terms of comfort and high-mileage use, but it’s not particularly performance-oriented. On rugged trails the shoe will feel unstable, the upper is less durable than we’re used to seeing in most trail shoes, and many have found it difficult to dial in a close fit. Further, at almost 12 ounces per shoe, the Pegasus Trail is noticeably heavier than the competition. But for max-cushioned comfort and undeniable style, Nike’s newest trail shoe is a great option for recreational trail runners, long-distance efforts, and even road-to-trail routes.
See the Men's Nike Pegasus Trail 2 See the Women's Nike Pegasus Trail 2
Weight: 1 lb. 4.4 oz.
What we like: Incredible fit and comfort for long distance efforts.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as cushioned as some models.
Salomon is a force within the running world, and their shoes are consistently best in class. Joining the Speedcross (a soft-terrain specialist) and Sense Ride (an all-rounder with great mountain chops) above, the S/Lab Ultra 3 is their ultra-distance design, balancing comfort and performance for long days out. To tackle dozens of trail miles at speed, you want a snug yet accommodating fit, and this shoe delivers in spades, with a soft, sock-like upper, molded foam liner, and roomy toe box to allow for swelling. Tack on a moderate dose of cushioning, added bounce from Salomon’s EnergyCell+ compound, and their top-shelf Contragrip MA outsole, and it’s no surprise that the S/Lab Ultra is one of the most premium trail shoes of 2021.
Given the Salomon’s price tag ($180), we don’t recommend this shoe for recreational runners or even training days—it’s best saved for long races when performance really matters. And while the S/Lab’s cushioning is certainly sufficient for ultra distances, runners who are accustomed to a plusher ride might want to stick with softer, max-cushioned kicks like the Hoka Speedgoat or Nike Pegasus Trail above. But the S/Lab Ultra checks all of the boxes for most long-distance efforts, and it doesn’t hurt that durability and protection are excellent with a robust upper, thin rock plate, and generous toe bumper. And if you’re looking for a lighter and speedier Salomon shoe, check out their S/Lab Sense 8, which tips the scales at just 13.8 ounces for the pair.
See the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3
Category: Rugged trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Cushioned for long distances but still has great technical chops.
What we don’t: No rock plate and some might not like the isolated feel.
Scarpa is most known for climbing and mountaineering footwear, so it comes as no surprise that their Spin Ultra is a capable companion on the trail. True to its name, the Spin Ultra is a great ultra-distance shoe, thanks to its generous cushioning, wide toe box, and breathable upper. And when the trail turns technical, a sticky Vibram Megagrip sole keeps you on your feet, while a tall stack height and rigid heel provide stiffness and protection underfoot. The end result is a shoe that can speed down long sections of easy trail but still holds its own on rocky and off-camber terrain, similar to the Salomon Sense Ride above.
Although it hasn’t been around for long, the Spin Ultra has quickly risen in popularity among ultra-racers and mountain runners alike. Compared to the Sense Ride 4, the Scarpa is lighter by almost one ounce per shoe and offers slightly more isolation from the ground with a stiffer and taller heel. But its upper lags behind the Salomon’s in terms of durability, especially around rock (or if you’re strapping on a crampon). Overall, we think the Spin Ultra performs slightly better on trail while the Sense Ride is a better choice for cross-country travel. And keep an eye out for the max-cushioned Spin Infinity and lightweight and speedy Spin 2.0, set to release this spring.
See the Men's Scarpa Spin Ultra See the Women's Scarpa Spin Ultra
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: A Hoka shoe for Hoka skeptics; responsive and fast.
What we don’t: The upper feels a bit sloppy; light cushioning is not ideal for high-mileage days.
Running-shoe giant Hoka One One has built a name around their max-cushioned designs (as seen in the Speedgoat and Challenger above), but the Torrent 2 bucks this trend with a lower profile that provides ample ground feel. The result is a Hoka that’s responsive and fast, making it great for race day and tempo workouts alike. But it’s not all speed—with a low-slung build and Hoka’s proprietary sticky rubber sole, the nimble Torrent holds its own on technical trails, too. We’ve put over 100 miles into our pair of Torrent 2s and have been impressed with their lightweight and plush feel combined with great traction on a variety of terrain.
The Torrent 2 goes head-to-head with an all-around trail shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer above. The two models differ most in terms of cushioning and fit: First off, with the Hoka you get 7 millimeters less foam in both the heel and toe, making it the better choice for those who appreciate ground feel (at the sacrifice in comfort for long days on the trail). Secondly, the MTN Racer’s streamlined upper straps you in tight, while the Torrent 2’s engineered mesh and padded tongue have a more casual (perhaps even sloppy) feel. In the end, both are excellent shoes and your decision might come down to foot shape: wide-footed runners will love the generous toe box on the MTN Racer, while those with narrow feet will prefer the Torrent 2’s slimmer profile (and it doesn’t hurt that the Hoka is $20 less).
See the Men's Hoka One One Torrent 2 See the Women's Hoka One One Torrent 2
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.2 oz.
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and not very capable on technical terrain.
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 15th generation. But the Caldera here offers a whole different take on a trail runner, with a stack height reminiscent of a Hoka One One and more flexibility than the Cascadia for tackling long distances on moderate terrain. We wore the first iteration of this shoe on our first 50K, and found it to be a comfortable, capable choice for the hardpacked dirt of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And while the Caldera strayed a bit from its original intentions in the 4th iteration, the new “5” is closer to the original formula, with updates including a more locked-in fit, narrower forefoot, and redesigned upper.
The Caldera wouldn’t be our first choice for technical or wet terrain (you don’t get the same grip and underfoot protection we see in the Cascadia line), and with a generous dose of plush cushioning the shoe is far from fast (within Brooks’ lineup, their new nitrogen-infused Catamount is the best choice for speed). Further, the 5’s narrower forefoot can be limiting for some, particularly during long efforts when you’re dealing with swollen feet. But along with Hoka’s Challenger and the Nike Pegasus Trail above, the Caldera is one of the more capable all-rounders for runs that cover a mix of pavement and trail. In the end, most recreational trail runners will benefit from a jack-of-all-trades shoe over a specialist design, and the Caldera’s mix of durability, comfort, and traction make it a solid performer in most conditions.
See the Men's Brooks Caldera 5 See the Women's Brooks Caldera 5
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.2 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and cushioned yet still capable in rocky and off-camber environments.
What we don’t: Not great for soft terrain.
La Sportiva continues to churn out quality shoes built for serious mountain environments, and the Jackal GTX is no exception. Like the Scarpa Spin Ultra and Salomon Sense Ride above, this is another 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. The Jackal also tacks on a Gore-Tex membrane, making it a great option for shoulder-season hiking or those who want added moisture protection, although keep in mind this will come at the cost of some breathability (it’s available in a non-GTX version, too).
Despite weighing a bit more than the aforementioned shoes, the Jackal feels particularly lightweight, and the soft foam lends a bit more spring to the step than the Scarpa in particular. In practice, the Jackal feels nimble on our feet, and the 7-millimeter stack height promotes an aggressive feel. 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) and don’t hold up on snow or deep mud as well as other designs. And finally, the Jackal runs small (it’s worth considering bumping up a half size) and some runners have experienced issues with rubbing around the heel, although we’ve had no complaints during our testing.
See the Men's La Sportiva Jackal GTX See the Women's La Sportiva Jackal GTX
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 4.1 oz.
What we like: The first carbon-plated trail running shoe.
What we don’t: Expensive and unnecessary for most runners.
Until 2021, The North Face hasn’t been much of a player in trail running. But with the release of their flagship VECTIV lineup, they’ve come onto the scene in a big way—or should we say, three big ways. Hallmarked by its unique rocker, the VECTIV trio includes the max-cushioned Enduris, the all-rounder Infinite, and the speedy Flight here. The Flight VECTIV has made the most waves due to its carbon fiber plate, which offers extra propulsion with each step and is the first of its kind in a trail running shoe. The buzz is hot on this design, and it doesn’t hurt that prototypes of the Flight were worn during 17 record-setting FKTs in the year before its release (notably, two on the Wonderland Trail and one on the UTMB).
With that kind of introduction, you might be wondering why the Flight VECTIV is ranked so low on our list. First off, we’ve seen TNF over-hype enough new products over the years to be slightly skeptical of anything that’s too good to be true. And regardless of its follow through, you’ll have to ask yourself if you really need a $199 shoe that’s built for cutting-edge speed efforts. Finally, with a durable knit upper, Kevlar overlays, and that firm carbon plate in the midsole, the Flight does have a steep break-in period. With all of that in mind, mere mortals will probably be better off getting a taste of the VECTIV by way of the Enduris ($139) or very similar but Pebex-plated Infinite ($169).
See the Men's The North Face Flight VECTIV See the Women's The North Face Flight VECTIV
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.5 oz.
What we like: A reliable go-to for technical terrain.
What we don’t: Not as fast and nimble as more modern options above.
For years running, the Cascadia has been Brooks’ leading trail shoe, and its 15th iteration still claims that top spot. This should tell you two things: one, runners (and thru-hikers) love the Cascadia and turn to it year after year for technical trail needs. On the other hand (two), this also means that the Cascadia has been around for over a decade, and as a result is a rather dated concept. In 2021, there are a plethora of more modern and improved options, whether you’re looking for a peppy ride on roots and rocks or all-day comfort for long distances.
It’s not all bad with the Cascadia though. The "14" saw a much-needed revamp, and the "15" builds off of its improved design a new mesh upper that offers more protection and a closer fit. Further, the newest model keeps the relatively lightweight build and updated outsole, and with a rock plate and sticky rubber is still a very capable shoe for rough terrain. But expect the Brooks to have a pretty bland feel to it on the trail (especially compared with snappy options like the Speedgoat), and its reinforced upper does make it run warmer than mesh-heavy alternatives. Taken together, the Cascadia 15 is still good but not great, and we’ll point all but the most stalwart of fans towards other options farther up the list.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 15 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 15
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 4.6 oz.
What we like: Affordable shoe that can hold its own on dirt and rock.
What we don’t: Not intended for technical trails.
If you plan to stick mostly to smooth trails or want to mix in some road miles, the Brooks Divide 2 makes a lot of sense. Designed for runners transitioning from pavement to dirt, the Divide pulls features from both styles of footwear. Road runners will be familiar with the airy mesh upper, which lends a good dose of breathability and comfort and doesn’t have a difficult break-in period (like you might get with a burlier trail shoe). But the Divide is nevertheless trail-ready, with reinforcements on the upper, a full rubber sole, and even a lightweight rock plate. For the right person, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s important to note that with its hybrid, entry-level intentions, the Divide 2 shouldn’t really be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep terrain or over rocks, roots, or other rough ground, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment, even for new runners. For just $20 more, you can bump up to the Salomon Sense Ride or Hoka One One Torrent, which are high-quality shoes built for experienced runners. But for light trail use and runs that feature a mix of terrain (even gravel roads), the Venture is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Brooks Divide 2 See the Women's Brooks Divide 2
|Hoka One One Speedgoat 4||$145||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.6 oz.||Maximum||4mm|
|Salomon Speedcross 5||$130||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||10mm|
|La Sportiva Bushido II||$130||Rugged trails||1 lb. 5 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Altra Lone Peak 5||$130||All-around||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Moderate||0mm|
|Hoka Challenger ATR 6||$130||Easy trails||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||5mm|
|Salomon Sense Ride 4||$120||Rugged trails/all-around||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer||$140||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate/maximum||5mm|
|Saucony Peregrine 11||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5.9 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Light||8mm|
|Nike Pegasus Trail 2||$130||Easy trails/all-around||1 lb. 7.5 oz.||Maximum||10mm|
|Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3||$180||All-around||1 lb. 4.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Scarpa Spin Ultra||$149||Rugged trails/all-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Hoka One One Torrent 2||$120||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Light/moderate||5mm|
|Brooks Caldera 5||$140||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 5.2 oz.||Maximum||4mm|
|La Sportiva Jackal GTX||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.2 oz.||Moderate||7mm|
|The North Face Flight VECTIV||$199||All-around||1 lb. 4.1 oz.||Moderate||6mm|
|Brooks Cascadia 15||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.5 oz.||Light/moderate||8mm|
|Brooks Divide 2||$100||Easy trails||1 lb. 4.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
- Trail Running Shoe Categories
- Mountain Running Shoes
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Lacing Systems
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
- Wearing Trail Running Shoes on Pavement
For tackling local trail networks or maintained paths that aren’t very technical or steep, a shoe in our easy trails category is best. Compared with a standard road-running model, these shoes are defined by a moderate increase in traction, stability, and toe and underfoot protection. They also should outlast those pavement pounders with a more durable construction and beefed up tread design. Among the larger trail running market, these are the most flexible, prioritizing comfort over all-out grip and support. If you’ll be covering serious miles or heading into mountainous terrain, it may be worth upgrading to a shoe in the all-around or rugged trails categories. But for cruising dirt or park paths, shoes like the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 and Brooks Divide are great options.
The majority of trail runners choose a shoe from the all-around category. The reason is simple: they are the most versatile designs that offer the right balance of performance and comfort. A model like our top-rated Hoka One One Speedgoat provides fantastic grip in dirt, mud, or over rock, and keeps your feet protected and comfortable. It won’t feel stiff and overkill on easy-going singletrack, but has the chops to handle a race like the Leadville Trail 100. The main reason not to choose an all-rounder is if you need a more focused design (for example, a shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido that excels on demanding, mountainous terrain). Otherwise, we recommend most people start and end their search here.
Trail running shoes intended for rugged terrain are the most specialized of the bunch. While the specific designs can vary from a soft-ground specialist like the Salomon Speedcross to the Arc’teryx Norvan VT’s approach shoe-like grip, common features include a durable construction, stiffer build for long climbs and tricky descents, and fit systems that aim to keep your feet solidly in place. Look also for a full rubber outsole (many running shoes leave some midsole foam uncovered for weight-savings and bounce), resulting in a heavier build that will likely feel a bit overkill on maintained trails. But if your runs feature steep inclines, rocks and roots, mud or soft grass, and snow or scree, a rugged trails shoe is best.
Mountain running is experiencing a huge growth spurt, with more and more enthusiasts ditching heavy overnight gear for a pair of running shoes and a light pack. By our definition, this style of running takes you off trail and into cross-country zones, where you might encounter anything from technical rock climbing and talus or boulder fields to glacier travel and steep snow—think ridge scrambling in the Rockies or peak bagging in the North Cascades. And you’ll need just the right footwear to tackle this complex terrain: a shoe that combines the light weight and comfort of a trail runner with the stability, grip, and durability of an approach or hiking shoe.
Fortunately, a whole new class of mountain running-specific shoes has emerged recently, engineered especially for off-trail trickery. La Sportiva leads the field here, but designs from brands like Arc’teryx, Dynafit, Salomon, and Scarpa come in close behind (our favorites above include the La Sportiva Bushido II, Salomon Sense Ride 4, and the Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2). Within this category, look for sticky rubber outsoles (MegaGrip and FriXion are common compounds) with shallow lugs and even a smooth patch near the toe for climbing performance. Many will feature a lower, more planted feel for stability on off-camber terrain, aided by moderate to light cushioning in the midsole. Finally, they’re relatively stiff (compared to a standard trail running shoe) and have highly durable and protective uppers (we often strap crampons or micro-spikes to our mountain running shoes). For now, you’ll find these mountain-specific models in our “rugged trails” category, but we make sure to call out the shoes’ intentions in the descriptions below each product.
We put a high priority on weight when considering a trail running shoe. Lighter shoes are faster, feel less cumbersome, and allow you to cover more ground with less fatigue. But we also like a balanced design that doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of comfort and trail performance. For 2021, our favorite trail runners weigh a little over 1 pound per pair (measured in a men’s 9 or 10). This typically gets you enough protection and support for long distances without feeling sluggish.
Our picks above range in weight from 1 pound 2.6 ounces for the Scarpa Spin Ultra, Hoka Torrent 2, and Topo Athletic MTN Racer to 1 pound 7.5 ounces for the burly Salomon Speedcross 5 and Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2. The Spin Ultra, Torrent, and MTN Racer feel extremely light on your feet (great for speed and high-mileage days) while the Salomon and Arc'teryx are super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises: the lighter options lack overall protection, while designs like the Speedcross can be fairly cumbersome on easy trail. In general, we find the sweet spot to often be right in the middle.
Not all trail running shoes are created equal, and traction is one of the places we see the most variation. In general, the level of grip provided will closely follow the categories above. Shoes for easy trails feature a combination of outsole rubber and exposed midsole, which lends a lightweight, springy feel but suffers particularly on slippery rocks, roots, and mud. On the other hand, those built for rugged trails often have a full rubber outsole for approach-shoe-like traction in mountainous terrain (think snow, boulder hopping, and scree). All-rounders fall somewhere in between and are a great middle-ground option for most trail running objectives.
Looking closer at the nitty gritty of traction, an outsole’s rubber compound, tread depth, and tread pattern all play a role in maximizing grip. Starting with rubber compound, shoes that have sticky, approach shoe-like rubber like the La Sportiva Bushido II or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 excel on rock, while others that have a softer and more pliable feel often do better in mud. Secondly, tread depth (or lug depth as defined by the height of the lugs in millimeters) isn’t listed by many manufacturers, but you can get a good idea of the size by looking at an image of the sole. Tall lugs like you’ll find on the Salomon Speedcross or Saucony Peregrine ST provide excellent bite in loose ground, but in the case of the Speedcross, the raised profile has a negative impact on stability. Finally, the tread design should be considered: widely spaced, tall lugs with a soft compound will outperform tightly spaced, short lugs, and sticky rubber in mud, and the reverse is typically true over rock or hardpack.
An area where manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves is the amount of cushioning provided by their shoes. Known as the “stack height,” which is the measured height from where the foot sits inside the shoe to the ground, trail running models range from very thin to heavily cushioned. Minimalist designs only have a small amount of EVA foam in the midsole, which makes them extremely nimble and provides a close feel of the terrain. But the downside is the potential for some really sore feet as the miles pound on. On the other end of the spectrum are maximum-cushioned shoes from brands like Hoka One One and Altra (the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 is 32mm at the heel). These remind us a lot of a fat bike: the ride is smooth and you barely notice the ground underneath, but there is more of a disconnect between you and the trail (and their tall heights can make them prone to rolling over).
Both minimalist and max-cushioned styles have their merits—and loyal fans—but in the end, most runners are happiest somewhere in the middle. Shoes like the Saucony Peregrine and Altra Lone Peak are soft and springy to keep your feet happy on rough terrain and for long distances, but don’t sit too tall to compromise stability and confidence. It’s no accident most of the shoes we have listed above offer a moderate amount of cushioning.
As the name indicates, the heel-to-toe drop is the difference in shoe height, where your foot sits, from the heel to toe. This spec was barely on the radar of folks outside the hardcore running community until the zero-drop fad hit a few years ago. Many of the shoes in our all-around category have a drop in the range of 4 to 8 millimeters, which can work well for both heel and midfoot strikers. True zero-drop shoes have a 0-millimeter difference (Altra is a leader in this department), encouraging a mid- or forefoot landing point. And many models for rugged trails have the most dramatic drops, often 8 to 10 millimeters.
Our take is that drop is a matter of comfort and personal preference more than anything else. Many people like a moderate drop in their trail running shoes, while others prefer a zero-drop design. The trend is toward lower drops for running shoes in general, although the performance and injury prevention science are hotly debated. The key is that you don't make a major change to an extreme end of the spectrum and then head straight out for a long run. Instead, if you're interested in a zero-drop design, try it out by easing in and developing confidence on the trail. This will reduce the chance of injury and ensure that it's the right choice for you.
Trying to move fast over rough terrain in a pair of lightweight low-top shoes may seem like asking for an injury (and it can happen), but today’s trail running shoes do offer a stable ride that is resistant to ankle rolls. It starts with a solid platform, which is wide and rigid enough to sustain hard impacts on uneven ground (this platform is pronounced on a highly stable shoe like the Topo Athletic MTN Racer). The chassis, which is the perimeter of the base of the shoe, is beefed up with trail runners to create that solid base. In addition, some shoes include a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon that’s been slid in-between the midsole and outsole for added stiffness. Finally, some manufacturers create what amounts to a partial plastic exoskeleton around the heel cup for added structure and rollover protection.
The relative stiffness and stability of a shoe will most often correlate with its intended use, or as defined in this article, its category (easy trails, all-around, rugged trails). A race or mountain-oriented shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido II is stiffer and has more of a structure, while easy trail options are more flexible and comfortable out of the box.
The most common waterproof design for trail running shoes is made by Gore-Tex, and consists of a waterproof and breathable lining that is inserted between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining. The extra layer does add a little weight—typically about 2 ounces total—and makes the shoe feel less sprightly than a non-waterproof option. Further, it has a significant impact on breathability and drying time, and if water does enter the shoe (from the ankle, for example), the impermeable walls mean it won’t drain out. For those looking to go light and fast, waterproofing is probably not the best option, but for running in the rain in cold weather or in slushy snow, we’ve found a Gore-Tex lining does a great job preventing freezing toes.
A waterproof shoe like the La Sportiva Jackal GTX makes the most sense when the extra warmth (i.e., less ventilation) is a good thing, such as during the shoulder seasons or winter. Another scenario where waterproofing may come in handy is if you use your trail runners for year-round hiking. In this case, you may run warm in the middle of the summer but have some added protection from the wet. But most summer runs, even if you’ll be crossing a stream or two, are oftentimes still best in a pair of mesh non-waterproof shoes that drain reasonably quickly. Even for mountain missions that involve a lot of snow travel, we’ll often add waterproof socks and gaiters rather than opt for a waterproof shoe.
A sweaty foot is an uncomfortable foot, which is the last thing you want to be thinking about while wheezing your way up a steep climb. As such, the ventilating ability of a shoe is one of the most important factors for runners. Nylon mesh is a common material used in trail running shoes for the obvious benefit of increased breathability. To retain durability, many manufacturers use a combination of a tight weave and thin fabric to both resist tears and keep air flowing. And as we’ve found, some are more accomplished than others. In comparing a couple popular shoes, the Arc’teryx Norvan VT and Nike Pegasus Trail 2, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Pegasus to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Norvan VT’s more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you’ll want some added protection from your shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail running shoes have some type of toe protection, usually in the form of a rubber toe guard or cap that is capable of absorbing direct hits pretty well. Because of the lightweight intent of a trail runner, the toe protection isn’t as substantial as a hiking shoe, but it should prevent your toes from turning black and blue should you accidentally kick a rock or root on the trail.
Much in the same way that a protective toe cap isolates you from a sharp rock or other trail debris, lightweight rock plates are inserted between the midsole and outsole on many trail shoes. These plates vary in thickness, coverage, and materials, ranging from thin and flexible ESS foam under the ball of the foot to a stiff TPU shank. How much protection is needed depends on personal preference and the terrain you'll be running over (more miles on rough trails will merit burlier protection), but overall, we find rock plates to be a great feature. They’re unobtrusive, keep foot soreness to a minimum, and only add a small amount of weight.
Laces are easy to overlook but play a fundamental role in shoe comfort. Most shoes use a standard lace-up method, but brands like Salomon are doing things a little differently with a single pull “Quicklace” system on their trail running shoes. We love this design on the Salomon Speedcross 5 and Sense Ride for its ease of use and speed. It only requires a single pull, and then you can tuck away the excess laces and forget about them. We’ve found that the laces hold extremely well—better than some traditional sets in fact. There is a potential downside, however. For those with finicky feet that need to customize the fit around certain parts of your feet, there isn’t really a solution with the quick lace design. The laces will fit equally tight around the entirety of your foot. Accordingly, we recommend avoiding quick laces if you often fiddle with your laces to get the fit just right.
In recent years, trail running shoes have taken off as a go-to choice for day hikers, fastpackers, and thru-hikers alike. And it makes a lot of sense: with a lightweight and flexible feel but solid traction, you can cover more ground with less effort. Further, most day hikers and thru-hikers keep pack weight to a minimum, so there’s less need for the stability and ankle support of a sturdy shoe or boot. In fact, we’ve spoken to some PCT thru-hikers who made the switch from boots to trail runners mid-trip, and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their levels of comfort and nimble feel—provided they kept their pack weight down.
But there are a number of obvious issues. One is durability. It’s unlikely you’ll get as many miles out of your trail runners as you would a lightweight hiking shoe or full-on hiking boot, which are designed to handle more use and abuse. Second, with minimal materials and bulk, a trail runner simply does not offer the same amount of protection as beefier hiking footwear, especially those with generous rubber rands and leather uppers. Finally, we don’t recommend trail running shoes for heavy loads or particularly rugged terrain, when you’ll want a more supportive option. But despite these potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular hiking and backpacking option.
As a result of the unique designs for both trail and road running shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can be painful to run with a trail running shoe on pavement, or vice versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do a decent job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single model exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. That said, it’s fairly common to cover short stretches on road before hitting a trail, and we’ve found both the Hoka One One Challenger ATR and Brooks Caldera are suitable hybrid options.
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