Running on varied and challenging trails is a welcome break from the monotony of pounding pavement (or even worse, the belt of a treadmill). Better yet, trail running is an immensely easy sport to get into. Below are our top trail runners of 2020, from flexible and lightweight shoes for smooth trails to tough and stable designs for tackling technical or mountainous terrain. If you're needing any background information on shoe types and features, see our trail-running shoe comparison table and buying advice below the picks. And for a wider look at the market including a number of our favorite road runners, see our article on the best running shoes.
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: Excellent mix of traction, comfort, and weight.
What we don’t: A bit too flexy for highly technical terrain.
Saucony’s Peregrine has been a favorite of ours over multiple generations, and the “ISO” doesn’t deviate much from the winning formula. Simply put, the shoe excels 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 the premium midsole is responsive and comfortable even on high-mileage days. For the latest model, Saucony has added their ISOFIT lacing system, which includes more substantial “wings” at each eyelet to provide a more sock-like feel. The changes aren’t revolutionary but should make it a little easier to customize the fit on the ISO compared with the old Peregrine 8.
What are the shortcomings of the Peregrine? Similar to its predecessor, the ISO isn’t a go-to shoe for highly technical terrain as the midsole favors long-distance cushioning and flexibility over stability (a stiffer design like the La Sportiva Bushido below is better in those conditions). That said, the Saucony is a strong performer on all but the nastiest rocky and rooty trails. Overall, its combination of comfort, reasonable 21-ounce weight (in a men’s size 9), and high-quality materials throughout earn it our top spot. And be on the lookout for an updated Peregrine “10” to be available in early 2020.
See the Men's Saucony Peregrine ISO See the Women's Saucony Peregrine ISO
Best Trail Shoe for Rugged Terrain
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: A superb technical shoe with awesome traction.
What we don’t: Overkill and stiff for easy trails.
La Sportiva is a climbing company at its core, so it should come as little surprise that their Bushido trail runner is most at home in the mountains. With a semi-stiff platform and burly lugs, the Bushido is our favorite shoe for technical trails: it’s responsive, grips remarkably well, and is stable over challenging terrain. And unlike a heavily cushioned model, the La Sportiva retains excellent trail feel (this can be a downside, however, if you prefer a lot of isolation from harsh impacts). The Bushido was lightly updated to the “II” last spring with a new EVA midsole, rubber toe cap, and moderate boost to the durability of the upper. Importantly, its confidence-inspiring and fast-moving personality remains.
One thing to keep in mind with such a serious mountain runner is that the La Sportiva is stiffer than a standard trail shoe. It’s intended for long runs where you’ll have to climb and descend for extended stretches, and on a smooth path, this extra support is overkill and less comfortable than an all-around model like the Peregrine above. But if you tackle the steeps and want a reliable partner, we highly recommend the Bushido. Its performance fit and high levels of stability and traction truly make it stand out... Read in-depth review
See the Men's La Sportiva Bushido II See the Women's La Sportiva Bushido II
Best Cushioned Trail-Running Shoe
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.6 oz.
What we like: Lightweight with fantastic cushioning.
What we don’t: Very thick midsole minimizes trail feel in technical sections.
Hoka One One has become synonymous with max-cushioned shoes, which feature very thick midsoles for fantastic comfort on just about any trail. From their lineup, we like the Speedgoat 4 best: it’s almost exactly the same weight as the popular Altra Lone Peak below, but the shoe’s thicker stack height (32mm vs. 25mm at the heel), rockered sole, and quality foam give it a more energetic feel. Further, the Speedgoat has an aggressive lug pattern with Vibram’s Megagrip compound—an upgrade in stickiness from the Lone Peak—which we’ve found holds very well on a variety of surfaces.
The Speedgoat 4 is Hoka’s technical trail offering, and the thick cushioning 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 design like the Bushido above or Arc’teryx’s Norvan VT 2 below. Hoka did make some small tweaks with the “4,” including a slightly firmer foam and a more durable upper, but the shoe isn’t as nimble as a true off-trail model. If you prefer a waterproof design for its extra warmth and protection, Hoka now makes a Gore-Tex variation. And finally, those with wide feet will be happy to know you can get a Speedgoat in EE (men’s) and D (women’s) widths.
See the Men's Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 See the Women's Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
Best Trail Runner With a Wide Toe Box
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
What we like: Cushioned and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Not everyone will love the wide fit.
Altra quickly progressed from an unknown to a go-to brand in the trail-running community, and much of their rapid ascent can be attributed to the Lone Peak line of zero-drop shoes. The most recent model retains Altra’s signature wide toe box and moderate cushioning, but they’ve changed the midsole for improved longevity while simplifying the upper and lacing system. Furthermore, the 4.5 seems to fit a little more narrow around the instep of the foot, which can be a potential concern for those with very wide feet, although the tweaks there appear to be rather minor.
What are the downsides of the Lone Peak? First off, its wide toe box is not for everyone. If your feet have a little too much room, it can lead to a sloppy feel over technical terrain (the tighter instep and redesigned laces do help a little here). The shoe also has a slightly more sluggish feel than the Peregrine and Speedgoat above, and isn’t as capable in off-camber sections of trail. As with most running footwear, however, one person’s downside is another’s benefit. If a cushioned, comfortable ride is a priority and you like a roomy toe box and zero-drop design, the Lone Peak 4.5 is a winner.
See the Men's Altra Lone Peak 4.5 See the Women's Altra Lone Peak 4.5
Best Minimalist Trail-Running Shoe
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 14.8 oz.
What we like: Ultralight and comes in multiple widths.
What we don’t: Rough trails can lead to foot soreness.
The ultralight shoe craze has come and gone, but there still are a number of compelling options for those that want to maximize trail feel and minimize weight. One of the stalwarts is New Balance’s Minimus 10v1, which is equipped with Vibram rubber, a stretchy and breathable upper, and an all-in weight of 14.8 ounces. At 5 to 7 ounces less than a typical trail runner, the difference is immediately noticeable and gives the shoe a sprightly and fun performance feel. Along with its modest 4-millimeter heel-to-toe drop, the Minimus has a neutral ride that is a great match for fairly smooth paths and short to moderate distances.
As expected, there are some compromises in trail running with a minimalist shoe like the 10v1. To start, the very thin cushioning can lead to foot soreness over rough trails and long distances. In addition, the fairly short lugs and generous amount of mesh in the upper favor dry conditions and struggle on wet, muddy days. Durability also falls short of a more serious option like our top-rated Peregrine ISO. But if you prioritize weight and a glove-like feel, the Minimus is well worth a try.
See the Men's New Balance Minimus See the Women's New Balance Minimus
Best of the Rest
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Truly excellent traction in soft ground.
What we don’t: Less stable than the Bushido II above.
Salomon has been in the trail running game for a long time, and the Speedcross 5 packs in all of their well-known features: a single-pull lace system, supportive fit, and sturdy but still reasonably light chassis. What sets the Speedcross apart is its massive 6-millimeter arrow-shaped lugs (most trail shoes are about 4mm), which offer best-in-class traction over soft ground like dirt, mud, and even snow. The performance-oriented and narrow fit isn’t for everyone, but the Speedcross’s thick midsole and supportive upper material makes it a capable, mountain-ready design.
We rank the Speedcross 5 below the La Sportiva Bushido II, however, due to its less stable ride over sketchy stretches of trail. Whereas the Bushido sits low and is planted, the tall stack height of the Speedcross can feel tippy and prone to rolling over, particularly on rock. Nonetheless, the Salomon is a beast in terms of traction and should be at the top of the list for those that head out in rough conditions or participate in adventure races like Tough Mudders. As with previous models, the Speedcross 5 is also sold in a Gore-Tex version for those who regularly get out in the wet.
See the Men's Salomon Speedcross 5 See the Women's Salomon Speedcross 5
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
What we like: Nike’s proven road-running technology tailored for trail use.
What we don’t: The Peregrine ISO above has a better outsole design.
Nike puts most of their efforts into road-running gear, but their Terra Kiger 5 is a quality cushioned option for trail work. Updated last year, the newest model is built around a number of familiar features: Nike’s Flymesh upper breathes well and offers good foot hold, and the React foam in the midsole is bouncy and very responsive. Combined with a rock plate, sturdy toe cap, and outsole that grips particularly well in hardpack dirt and rock, the Terra Kiger amounts to a solid all-rounder.
In many ways, the Nike Terra Kiger is a direct competitor to the Saucony Peregrine ISO above. They both weigh about 10 ounces per shoe, have a 4-millimeter offset, and provide a similar mix of cushioning, flexibility, and on-trail performance. We give the edge to the Peregrine for its superior outsole that lasts longer and grips better in muddy and wet conditions, but both are great shoes that are equally adept at short- and long-distance runs. For a beefed-up alternative to the Terra Kiger for rough terrain, check out Nike’s Air Zoom Wildhorse 5.
See the Men's Nike Terra Kiger 5 See the Women's Nike Terra Kiger 5
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.4 oz.
What we like: New model is lighter and more capable.
What we don’t: Even with the changes, it’s still not a fast and nimble shoe.
After a string of disappointing updates, Brooks has righted the ship with the latest Cascadia 14. Their leading trail shoe is now lighter by a notable 2 ounces per pair, more comfortable with a streamlined and revamped upper, and extra grippy thanks to a new tread and rubber outsole. Importantly, it hasn’t lost its way over rough terrain with a stable chassis, reinforced mud guards, and locked-in fit and lacing system. Taken together, the Cascadia 14 has reclaimed its place as our favorite trail runner from the Seattle-based brand.
Where does the Cascadia fall short? Unlike our top-rated Peregrine or Salomon’s Sense Ride 2 below, it’s less of an all-rounder and falls mid-pack in terms of responsiveness. We wouldn’t go as far as calling the shoe slow, but it’s also not peppy or fast, and particularly over mellow terrain. Further, the Brooks’ reinforced upper does make it run warmer than mesh-heavy alternatives like the Peregrine or Sense Ride. All that said, our overall impression of the Cascadia still is very strong, and we’d once again put it high on the list for trail runners looking for a tough and capable shoe.
See the Men's Brooks Cascadia 14 See the Women's Brooks Cascadia 14
Category: Easy trails/all-around
Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz.
What we like: Salomon quality at a friendly price.
What we don’t: Stability and cushioning fall short on rough, technical terrain.
Marketed as a “quiver killer,” the Sense Ride 2 aims to be a do-everything trail shoe that’s equally at home on an ultramarathon as it is clinging to wet rocks and roots. This model does a solid job in most categories: comfort, protection, and grip. Updated last spring, Salomon made some tweaks to the upper material to better lock your feet in place while allowing the shoe to flex more naturally (it also breathes well). The rest remains largely the same, and with the quality build and lacing system we love from the French brand, the Sense Ride 2 adds up to a well-rounded design at a reasonable price.
But is it really a one-shoe-does-it-all model? No, although that is a pretty tall order for a trail runner. The flexible build is too soft for our liking on technical sections, and its 3-millimeter lugs can’t match the all-out grip of the Speedcross 5 above in soft ground. That said, the generous cushioning and thin layer of thermoplastic in the forefoot do help lessen the sting when running on rocky trails. As for sizing, be forewarned that the toe box is roomier than most other shoes from Salomon... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Salomon Sense Ride 2 See the Women's Salomon Sense Ride 2
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Lightweight, comfortable, sticky Megagrip sole.
What we don’t: Narrow feet will swim in the wide toe box.
Topo Athletic might be an unfamiliar name to many trail runners, but don’t let that fool you. Founded by the former CEO of Vibram, this company knows what goes into making a good running shoe, and the MTN Racer is our favorite trail-specific model in their quiver. All Topo Athletic shoes feature a wide toe box and locked-in waist and heel, fitting similarly to a design like the Altra Lone Peak. But in contrast to the zero-drop Altra, the MTN Racer features a 5-millimeter drop, slightly firmer cushioning, and a small decrease in weight. All in all, we’ve found this makes for a very comfortable trail shoe for cruising long distances, whether we’re trail running or speed hiking.
For truly rugged trails, we’d recommend a less cushioned and more protective shoe, like the La Sportiva Bushido II or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2. That said, the MTN Racer holds its own on rocks and roots alike, with deep lugs, sticky Vibram Megagrip rubber (a blend often used in climbing-specific approach shoes), and a relatively stiff build. And while it doesn’t come in a Gore-Tex model, the MTN Racer is designed with minimal bulk and drainage ports, meaning that when your feet do get wet, they dry quickly. In the end, Topo Athletic doesn’t yet have the extensive track record to be considered on par with brands like Altra and La Sportiva, but the impressive MTN Racer shows they’re making solid strides in that direction.
See the Men's Topo MTN Racer See the Women's Topo MTN Racer
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.6 oz.
What we like: Very capable over steep and technical terrain.
What we don’t: Narrow fit; too specialized for most runners.
Arc’teryx jumped into the trail-running-shoe market a couple years ago with the mountain-ready Norvan VT, and last summer they released the updated “2.” The VT (“vertical”) maintains the original shoe’s aggressive intentions, but does so with a more traditional feature set. Most notably, Arc’teryx eliminated the approach shoe-like lacing system that extended to the toes, updated the midsole for more cushion and shock absorption, and removed the sock-like liner for a boost in breathability. What remains is the ultra-impressive Megagrip outsole, which offers excellent traction on rock, mud, and even snow. All in all, it’s clear the Norvan VT 2 was built for terrain like the often wet and technical trails surrounding Arc’teryx’s headquarters in North Vancouver, BC.
Over rough ground, the Norvan VT excels, but it’s overkill on anything tame. The very stable ride and reinforced upper that make it easy to run confidently over rocks and roots became stiff and a little heavy when we took the shoe over smooth dirt singletrack and rolling hills. As a result, the Norvan is a specialized shoe best for mountain-specific running. For a more cushioned and flexible option from Arc’teryx that’s comfortable on moderately technical terrain, check out their Norvan LD. And as with all Arc’teryx shoes, keep in mind that the Norvan VT is on the narrow side—one of our wide-footed testers found the toe box to be prohibitively tight.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2 See the Women's Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 11.4 oz.
What we like: Rugged shoe for rugged terrain.
What we don’t: Heavy, sluggish, and in many cases, overkill.
La Sportiva continues to churn out quality shoes built for serious mountain environments, and the Akyra GTX is no exception. This trail runner is a stable and durable choice for fastpackers and runners who often venture off trail. In terms of protection, you can’t do much better. With a toe bumper, reinforcement on the inside of the toe box, a stiff midsole, and burly, sticky lugs, the rough and tumble Akyra feels a lot closer to a light hiker than a trail runner.
However, the Akyra is the heaviest shoe on this list (its non-GTX version is only a few ounces lighter) and certainly not for everyone. If you’re accustomed to a lightweight trail runner, the inflexible midsole and aggressive lugs will feel sluggish on your feet. And Gore-Tex trail runners are a specialty choice: they’re great if you run in the cold or venture into wet terrain, but generally unnecessary otherwise. But in the right environments, the Akyra is a high-performance and bombproof trail runner. For those who want similar traction and stability without waterproofing, we recommend the La Sportiva Bushido II above.
See the Men's La Sportiva Akyra GTX See the Women's La Sportiva Akyra GTX
Category: All-around/easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 2.8 oz.
What we like: One of the few capable hybrid trail/road shoes.
What we don’t: Tread falls short in rough and technical conditions.
Mixing road and trail shoe characteristics, Hoka’s Challenger ATR 5 offers a nice all-in-one solution. Like the Speedgoat above, the shoe has excellent cushioning and comfort thanks to a thick midsole, plus its streamlined build and rockered base give the Challenger a springy personality. For road use, the middle of the outsole is standard blown rubber to trim weight and help with efficiency, while pods of trail-worthy lugs can be found under the ball of the foot and heel. Fit-wise, the Challenger hits a nice middle ground that should appeal to a lot of runners, with decent space in the toe box but a snug-enough shape to avoid feeling overly loose.
Unsurprisingly, trying to do everything for everyone does come with some compromises. In the case of the ATR 5, its closely spaced lugs and only moderately aggressive design come up short in muddy and sloppy conditions. And on pavement, the grippy sections of the sole can feel a little sticky and slow compared with a dedicated road shoe. Serious athletes that want maximum performance will still be better off with a dedicated pair for each activity, but the Challenger is the best design we’ve used that can pull double duty.
See the Men's Hoka Challenger ATR 5 See the Women's Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
What we like: Responsive and cushioned ride.
What we don’t: Pricey and only moderate stability.
When Brooks launched their all-new Caldera in late 2016, we quickly put it to the test while training for and completing a 50K trail run in North Carolina. By and large, the Caldera proved to be an excellent choice for this type of distance work. The shoe has substantial and springy cushioning, grippy lugs, and a breathable yet protective upper. Brooks did forgo the type of underfoot protection you get from the popular Cascadia line, but the benefit is a much faster shoe that weighs less than 10 ounces each.
In addition to the occasional sharp impact that may be felt through the cushioning, the Caldera’s other weakness is its rollover protection. Similar to the Altra Lone Peak above, the thick midsole and wide footbed occasionally can result in lightly rolled ankles on uneven ground. But unlike the Lone Peak, the Caldera’s midsole doesn’t diminish trail feel and responsiveness (which may partly explain the $20 difference in price). And with their latest update, Brooks dropped just over an ounce per pair while upping traction with a very sticky outsole. Overall, we think the Caldera hits the right mix of performance and comfort for extended runs.
See the Men's Brooks Caldera 3 See the Women's Brooks Caldera 3
Category: Rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 0.6 oz.
What we like: Super lightweight with incredible traction on loose and soft terrain.
What we don’t: Not particularly comfortable; snug fit is polarizing.
With its origins in British fell running, Inov-8 is no stranger to steep terrain, cross-country travel, and the wettest of conditions. It’s here that their superlight and aggressive X-Talon G 235 excels. The 8-millimeter lugs bite into soft and slippery ground, making the X-Talon line a long-time favorite of obstacle course racers and fell runners the world over. Further, the latest “G” models include a reworked tread that features an innovative Graphene compound for increased durability and longevity. Tack on a low-slung build and minimalist ballistic nylon upper, and you have one serious pair of high-performance kicks.
Year after year, the Inov-8 X-Talon and the Salomon Speedcross top the list for the adventure racer’s shoe of choice. While similar in some respects, the X-Talon is about 6 ounces lighter per pair and sports even longer (8mm vs. 6mm) lugs. For those who appreciate feeling the ground underfoot, the X-Talon offers a more responsive ride, but the Speedcross certainly is more protective and comfortable. We prefer Salomon’s version as the better all-rounder, which is more bearable over long distances, has a regular fit in the toe box (the Inov-8 is quite snug), and is slightly less overkill on packed dirt. That said, if you want a no-compromise, racing-ready machine, the X-Talon G 235 is your ticket.
See the Men's Inov-8 X-Talon G 235 See the Women's Inov-8 X-Talon G 235
Category: All-around/rugged trails
Weight: 1 lb. 5.8 oz.
What we like: Durable, great traction, and stable.
What we don’t: Poor ventilation and feels heavy.
Made for rough terrain and inclement weather, the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Agravic XT is a serious, mountain-ready trail runner. The aggressive Continental outsole shares a lug pattern with a mountain bike tire, and we’ve found it to be sticky and grip well on rock and in mud and snow. A low stack height and semi-stiff platform contribute to a stable feel over technical sections, but what’s most impressive is the all-around nature of the build. The Agravic is comfortable on both steep and flat trails, and it’s fully capable for crossing over into hiking and fastpacking.
One downside of the Terrex Agravic XT is a somewhat heavy feel that makes it less fun on long runs. In addition, the tightly woven upper struggles with ventilation in hot conditions (the upside is solid durability). Otherwise, the Agravic gives the La Sportiva Bushido II a real run for its money (no pun intended) as one of our favorite shoes for rough trails. And with its cushioned ride, the Terrex Agravic has better isolation from sharp rocks.
See the Men's Adidas Terrex Agravic XT
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 14 oz.
What we like: Light and low.
What we don’t: Minimal protection and stability.
Like the New Balance Minimus above, Merrell's Trail Glove 4 is another holdover from the minimalist shoe craze. What stands out about this design is its low-profile, zero-drop shape, and superior trail feel. It’s one of the lightest shoes to make our list at 14 ounces but manages to retain modest trail performance with a close fit, rock guard, and Vibram outsole. Overall, the Trail Glove is a good choice for the minimalist runner that sticks to easy trails and short distances.
Like other specialized shoes, it’s important to consider the inherent compromises in the barefoot design. First, the thin construction doesn’t offer nearly the same degree of protection and rollover stability as the shoes above. Further, it will take some time to get used to the zero-drop ride if you’re transitioning from a traditional shoe or are a heel striker. But if the minimalist style works for you, few shoes out there can match the Trail Glove’s barely there feel.
See the Men's Merrell Trail Glove 5 See the Women's Merrell Trail Glove 5
Category: Easy trails
Weight: 1 lb. 6.4 oz.
What we like: Affordable road shoe that can hold its own on dirt and rock.
What we don’t: Not intended for technical trails.
If you plan to stick mostly to smooth trails or want to mix in some road miles, the Asics Gel-Venture 6 makes a lot of sense. The Gel-Venture will outgrip and offers better lateral stability and support than a road shoe without overdoing it with a large toe cap, thick materials, or massive lugs. But with a mesh upper, the Gel-Venture has the light and airy feel of a road runner. For the right person, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s important to note that with the emphasis on easy trails, the Gel-Venture shouldn’t really be cross-shopped with the options above. If you’ll be running steep terrain or over rocks, roots, or other rough ground, the stability, grip, and underfoot feel will be a disappointment. But for light trail use, the Venture is a solid choice and a nice value.
See the Men's Asics Gel-Venture 6 See the Women's Asics Gel-Venture 6
|Saucony Peregrine ISO||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|La Sportiva Bushido II||$130||Rugged trails||1 lb. 5 oz.||Light/moderate||6mm|
|Hoka One One Speedgoat 4||$145||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.6 oz.||Maximum/moderate||4mm|
|Altra Lone Peak 4.5||$120||All-around||1 lb. 5 oz.||Moderate/maximum||0mm|
|New Balance Minimus 10v1||$115||Easy trails||14.8 oz.||Minimum||4mm|
|Salomon Speedcross 5||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
|Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 5||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 4 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Brooks Cascadia 14||$130||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.4 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Salomon Sense Ride 2||$120||Easy trails/all-around||1 lb. 3 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer||$140||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Maximum/moderate||5mm|
|Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 6.6 oz.||Moderate||8mm|
|La Sportiva Akyra GTX||$160||Rugged trails||1 lb. 11.4 oz.||Moderate||9mm|
|Hoka Challenger ATR 5||$130||All-around/easy trails||1 lb. 2.8 oz.||Maximum/moderate||5mm|
|Brooks Caldera 3||$140||All-around||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||Moderate||4mm|
|Inov-8 X-Talon G 235||$170||Rugged trails||1 lb. 0.6 oz.||Light||6mm|
|Adidas Terrex Agravic XT||$140||All-around/rugged trails||1 lb. 5.8 oz.||Moderate||6mm|
|Merrell Trail Glove 5||$100||Easy trails||14 oz.||Minimum||0mm|
|Asics Gel-Venture 6||$70||Easy trails||1 lb. 6.4 oz.||Moderate||10mm|
- Trail-Running Shoe Categories
- Heel-to-Toe Drop
- Toe Protection
- Rock Plates
- Hiking and Backpacking in Trail-Running Shoes
For tackling local trail networks or maintained paths that aren’t very technical or steep, a shoe in our easy trails category is best. Compared with a standard road-running model, these shoes are defined by a moderate increase in traction, stability, and toe and underfoot protection. They also should outlast those pavement pounders with a more durable construction and beefed up tread design. Among the larger trail running market, these are the most flexible, prioritizing comfort over all-out grip and support. If you’ll be covering serious miles or heading into mountainous terrain, it may be worth upgrading to a shoe in the all-around or rugged trails categories. But for cruising dirt or bark paths, shoes like the Salomon Sense Ride, Merrell Trail Glove, and Asics Gel-Venture are great options.
The majority of trail runners choose a shoe from the all-around category. The reason is simple: they are the most versatile designs that offer the right balance of performance and comfort. A model like our top-rated Saucony Peregrine provides fantastic grip in dirt, mud, or over rock, and keeps your feet protected and comfortable. It won’t feel stiff and overkill on easy-going singletrack, but has the chops to handle a race like the Leadville Trail 100. The main reason not to choose an all-rounder is if you need a more focused design (for example, a shoe like the La Sportiva Bushido that excels on demanding, mountainous terrain). Otherwise, we recommend most people start and end their search here.
Trail-running shoes intended for rugged terrain are the most specialized of the bunch. While the specific designs can vary from a soft-ground specialist like the Salomon Speedcross to the Arc’teryx Norvan VT’s approach shoe-like grip, common features include a durable construction, stiffer build for long climbs and tricky descents, and fit systems that aim to keep your feet solidly in place. They’re often heavier than an all-around or easy trails shoe, so they’re overkill and not a good choice if you stick to maintained trails. But if your runs feature steep inclines, rocks and roots, mud or soft grass, and potentially snow, a rugged trails shoe is best.
We put a high priority on weight when considering a trail-running shoe. Lighter shoes are faster, feel less cumbersome, and allow you to cover more ground with less fatigue. But we also like a balanced design that doesn’t sacrifice too much in the way of comfort and trail performance. For 2020, our favorite trail runners weigh a little over 1 pound per pair (measured in a men’s 9 or 10). This typically gets you enough protection and support for long distances without feeling sluggish.
On the extreme ends of the spectrum are minimalist shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove 5 (14 oz.) and burly waterproof models like the La Sportiva Akyra GTX (1 lb. 11.4 oz., or nearly double). The Merrell feels extremely light on your feet while the La Sportiva is super tough and built for off-trail exploring. Not surprisingly, each design has compromises. Both are best for short distances—the Merrell due its lack of protection and the La Sportiva because of its extra weight—and lack the versatility of an all-around shoe that weighs just over a pound.
The rugged rubber outsole on a trail-running shoe is one of its defining features, but performance can vary widely between models. In general, the level of traction provided will closely follow which of the above categories a shoe falls into. Shoes for easy trails offer the least grip, particularly over difficult sections with slippery rocks, roots, and mud. All-rounders are balanced and fare well in most conditions, while those built for rugged trails often stand out in a specific environment (including mud, snow, or steep and loose inclines/declines).
Looking closer at the nitty gritty of traction, an outsole’s rubber compound, tread depth, and tread pattern all play a role in maximizing grip. Starting with rubber compound, shoes that have sticky, approach shoe-like rubber like the La Sportiva Bushido II or Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 excel on rock, while others that have a softer and more pliable feel often do better in mud. Secondly, tread depth (or lug depth as defined by the height of the lugs in millimeters) isn’t listed by many manufacturers, but you can get a good idea of the size by looking at an image of the sole. Tall lugs like you’ll find on the Salomon Speedcross or Saucony Peregrine provide excellent bite in loose ground, but in the case of the Speedcross, the raised profile has a negative impact on stability. Finally, the tread design should be considered: widely spaced, tall lugs with a soft compound will outperform tightly spaced, short lugs, and sticky rubber in mud, and the reverse is typically true over rock or hardpack.
An area where manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves is the amount of cushioning provided by their shoes. Known as the “stack height,” which is the measured height from where the foot sits inside the shoe to the ground, trail running models range from very thin (11.5mm for the Merrell Trail Glove) to heavily cushioned (32mm for the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4). Minimalist designs like the Trail Glove only have a small amount of EVA foam in the midsole, which makes them extremely nimble and provides a close feel of the terrain. But the downside is the potential for some really sore feet as the miles pound on. On the other end of the spectrum are maximum-cushioned shoes from brands like Hoka One One and Altra. These remind us a lot of a fat bike: the ride is smooth and you barely notice the ground underneath, but there is more of a disconnect between you and the trail (and their tall heights can make them prone to rolling over).
Both minimalist and max-cushioned styles have their merits—and loyal fans—but in the end, most runners are happiest somewhere in the middle. Shoes like the Saucony Peregrine, Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger, and 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, 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. The chassis, which is the perimeter of the base of the shoe, is beefed up with trail runners to create that solid base. In addition, some shoes include a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon that’s been slid in-between the midsole and outsole for added stiffness. Finally, some manufacturers create what amounts to a partial plastic exoskeleton around the heel cup for added structure and rollover protection.
The relative stiffness and stability of a shoe will most often correlate with its intended use, or as we’ve defined it, the trail-running shoe category. A race or mountain-oriented shoe like the Inov-8 X-Talon G 235 is stiffer and has more of a structure, while easy trail options are more flexible and comfortable out of the box.
The most common waterproof design for trail-running shoes is made by Gore-Tex, and consists of a waterproof and breathable lining that is inserted between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining. The extra layer does add a little weight—typically about 2 ounces total—and makes the shoe feel less sprightly than a non-waterproof option. For those looking to go light and fast, waterproofing is probably not the best option, but for running in the rain in cold weather or in slushy snow, we’ve found a Gore-Tex lining does a great job preventing freezing toes.
A waterproof shoe like the La Sportiva Akyra GTX makes the most sense when the extra warmth (i.e. less ventilation) is a good thing, such as during the shoulder seasons or winter. Summer runs, even if you’ll be crossing a stream or two, are oftentimes still best in a pair of mesh non-waterproof shoes that drain reasonably quickly. Another scenario where waterproofing may come in handy is if you use your trail runners for year-round hiking. In this case, you may run warm in the middle of the summer but have some added protection from the wet.
A sweaty foot is an uncomfortable foot, which is the last thing you want to be thinking about while wheezing your way up a steep climb. As such, the ventilating ability of a shoe is one of the most important factors for runners. Nylon mesh is a common material used in trail-running shoes for the obvious benefit of increased breathability. To retain durability, many manufacturers use a combination of a tight weave and thin fabric to both resist tears and reduce the barriers to air and moisture flow. And as we’ve found, some are more accomplished than others. In comparing a couple popular shoes, the Adidas Terrex Agravic XT and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 5, we’ve found the mesh-heavy design of the Terra Kiger to be better for long runs in the heat of summer, while the Terrex's more substantial synthetic upper material can get warm.
Trail running naturally puts you in terrain far more challenging and potentially hazardous than what you’ll find around town. As such, you get some added protection in the shoe’s construction. Almost without exception, trail-running shoes have some form of toe protection. It’s usually a rubber toe guard or cap that is capable of absorbing direct hits pretty well. Because of the lightweight intent of a trail runner, the toe protection isn’t as substantial as a hiking shoe, but it should prevent your toes from turning black and blue should you accidentally kick a rock or root on the trail.
Much in the same way that a protective toe cap isolates you from a sharp rock or other trail debris, lightweight rock plates are inserted between the midsole and outsole on many trail shoes. These plates vary in thickness, coverage, and materials, ranging from thin and flexible ESS foam under the ball of the foot to a stiff TPU shank. How much protection is needed will vary based on personal preference and the terrain you'll be running over (more miles on rough trails will merit burlier protection), but overall, we find rock plates to be a great feature. They’re unobtrusive, keep foot soreness to a minimum, and only add a small amount of weight.
Laces are easy to overlook but play a fundamental role in shoe comfort. Most use a standard lace-up method, but Salomon and Adidas are doing things a little differently: both feature a single pull quick lace system on their trail-running shoes. We love the design on the Salomon Speedcross 5 for its ease of use and speed. It only requires a single pull, and then you can tuck away the excess laces and forget about them. We’ve found that the laces hold extremely well—better than some traditional sets in fact. There is a potential downside, however. For those with finicky feet that need to customize the fit around certain parts of your feet, there isn’t really a solution with the quick lace design. The laces will fit equally tight around the entirety of your foot. Accordingly, we recommend avoiding quick laces if you often fiddle with your laces to get the fit just right.
It’s not uncommon for trail-running folk to start turning to their trail-running shoes for their day hikes. On most day adventures you’re not hauling a lot of weight, so the extra ankle support isn’t as important. And as long as the trail isn’t too nasty, a trail runner is a great pick. With a flexible feel but solid traction, a trail-running shoe can serve the fast-moving weekend warrior quite well. But if you're carrying a heavy pack and need additional support, a lightweight hiking shoe or even a full-on hiking boot may end up being the better choice.
In recent years, trail-running shoes have absolutely taken off as a go-to choice for fastpackers and thru-hikers. And, it makes a lot of sense: thru-hikers are putting serious miles on nearly every single day, and a lightweight shoe can help them cover more ground with less effort. But there are a number of obvious issues. One is durability. It’s unlikely you’ll get as many miles out of your trail runners as you would a hiking shoe or boot, which makes it important to plan out your replacements (and mail drops) along the way. Despite some potential downsides, trail runners seem to be here to stay as a popular thru-hiking option. We’ve spoken to a number of PCT thru-hikers who made the switch from boots to trail runners mid-trip and they’ve had nothing but good things to say about their levels of comfort and nimble feel—provided they kept their pack weight down.
Wearing Trail-Running Shoes on Pavement
As a result of the unique designs for both trail and road shoes, it’s difficult to try and use one single shoe for both activities. Often, it can actually be painful to run with a trail-running shoe on pavement, or vice versa for long distances. There is the occasional shoe that can do an OK job of crossing over, but we wouldn’t make a habit of using a single shoe exclusively for long runs on both dirt and pavement. If you have to get you a short stretch before hitting dirt, we’ve found both the Hoka One One Challenger ATR and Asics Gel-Venture are suitable hybrid options.
Back to Our Trail-Running Shoe Picks Back to Our Trail-Running Shoe Comparison Table