Trail running has grown exponentially over the past several years resulting in record setting participation at trail events and sold out races around the country.
These new participants consist of road runners gravitating towards a more forgiving surface and the relaxed atmospheres of trail races, as well as crossover and new athletes recognizing the appeal of hitting the single track for solitude and a mental reset.
With this increase in interest and participation shoe companies have responded by designing and releasing more trail running shoes than ever. Some of these models are tried and true generalists which are adequate for all types of trails, whereas other models are highly specialized for the terrain and distance.
What we aim to do is to help you, the buyer, simplify your trail running shoe buying experience by helping you dial in the type of trail shoe you’re looking for in addition to giving you some expert tips on fit expectations and overall shoe performance.
While nothing can quite compare with the experience of going into your specialty local running store and trying on a bunch of shoes, we realize that not every runner has that kind of access.
However, we can give you some veteran’s data on shoes that have been tried and true in the trail community.
Lets begin by outlining the various types of trail running shoes on the market and the types of terrain that they’re ideally used for.
All Surface Trail Running Shoes
These shoes are your all-rounders: capable of handling smooth, rocky, wet, and dry terrain – this category is always a great place to start.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re pairing things down for you. Within this category there are various outliers such as maximal and minimalist shoes, as well as varying heel drops (more on this later).
The important thing to remember about these shoes is that many models have been on the market for many years in different iterations, confirming their popularity among seasoned trail runners.
The Vazee Summit offers a road running feel in a more than capable trail running shoe. Based on New Balance’s very popular RC1400 marathon racing flat the Vazee Summit features adequate outsole lugging and upper protection in a sub-9 ounce trail shoe with a 10mm heel drop. While the feel of the shoe is relatively minimal, the RevLite EVA cushioning and rock plate provide a surprising amount of comfort for long distances. The fit is the real treasure of this shoe as New Balance employs a Fantom Fit technology which wraps the foot in a mono-tongue providing the wearer with a secure fit on technical terrain. The Vazee Summit also runs well on short road sections qualifying it here as a decent road-to-trail shoe. Runners who train frequently in wet conditions take note; the Vazee Summit tends to retain water in sloppy conditions or after water crossings.
The Wildhorse 4 was a bit of sleeper on the trail running market due to the fact that it differed so much from its more minimal previous iterations. With this fourth version, the Wildhorse assets itself as a bonafide all around trail beast. Heavier than some other models on this list, the Wildhorse still weighs in at 10.3 ounces with an 8mm heel drop. It also features a great midfoot fit and a gloriously accommodating forefoot for those wanting a bit of wiggle room in the toe box. It also provides great traction in the form of a burly version of the classic Nike waffle sole. Most surprising about this shoe is the overall durability, as trail runners have reported regularly getting a thousand miles out of this shoe. Something to consider with the Wildhorse 4 is that its generally considered to require a bit of a break in period to feel less rigid.
For the uninitiated, Altra’s designs feature a foot-shaped toe box and a zero drop, meaning that the shoe is the same height from heel to toe. While this low drop height may take some getting used to, many runners appreciate the increased proprioception and stability without sacrificing cushioning. In fact, Altra’s A-bound EVA foam is considered one of the most resilient on the market and with a moderately lugged outsole this all arounder does great on a variety of trails. Another unique aspect of Altra’s technology is that the rock plate of the shoe is embedded in the midsole to increase stability over uneven rocky terrain while still offering adequate protection. If you’re having any forefoot discomfort I would highly encourage you to try out the Lone Peak 3.0. At 10.4 ounces this varied trail shoe is a great option for runners who have struggled with the restrictive fit of road running shoes.
HOKA ONE ONE creates maximal running shoes designed to provide pillowy cushioning and protection over the long haul. While these shoes may look a bit platform-ish in photos, the foot actually sits in a cradle within the midsole and they’re much more stable than they appear. The Challenger ATR is an update to HOKA’s flagship lightweight trail shoe and weighs in at 9.8 ounces with a 5mm heel drop. Of course, being a HOKA shoe, there is a surprising amount of cushioning in the Challenger ATR and most runners are surprised at how protective this shoe is due to the fact that it lacks any sort of rock plate protection. Additionally, a minimally lugged carbon rubber outsole provides good traction on the loose and steep terrain. I’ve found that narrow footed runners absolutely adore this shoe while those with a full volume foot, or wider forefoot, tend to be hampered by blisters and discomfort. While HOKA has made a concerted effort to increase its forefoot width in previous years, this is a shoe that still firmly sits in the narrow camp.
The Sense Pro 2 is a nimble trail machine thanks to the secure midfoot wrap of Salomon’s Endofit technology as well as a very subtle rock plate. It also features many of the great technologies used in Salomon’s S-LAB line of running shoes for fifty dollars less. For runners liking a firmer feel, the combination of low-to-the-ground proprioception and kevlar Quicklaces make this shoe a a great choice for this looking to go fast. While the Sense Pro 2 is not recommended for mud, its minimally lugged outsole is made of very sticky rubber that works great on rocks. Road runners who tend to like firm midsoles tend to like this shoe a great deal, and at 9 ounces with a 6mm heel drop it definitely feels more minimal than it really is. However, runners looking for a wider toe box should likely look elsewhere.
Designed with the Leadville 100 ultra marathon in mind, this shoe incorporates just a touch of medial support for overpronators and a very wide profile for runners with wide feet and to accommodate swelling during ultra marathons. The Leadville v3 also sits at 10.8 ounces and has an 8mm heel drop which should work for most runners. New Balance employs their plush N2 and Revile cushioning which hold up well for 500 miles, however some runners complain about the lugging wearing down early. Also, this is a shoe that does especially poorly in muddy, sloppy conditions, but that isn’t necessarily what it was designed for. If you’re a runner with full volume feet and you’re having difficulty finding trail running shoes in widths to suit you, the Leadville v3 is a must try. Its made for the long haul of ultra marathons and the added support is something largely missing from the current trail running market unfortunately.
Long a favorite of many seasoned trail runners, the Saucony Peregrine continues to be a well proven all around performer for a variety of conditions. This 8th version, while retaining its lightweight neutral profile at 9.5 ounces, has been outfitted with an especially burly outsole featuring teeth-like lugs which work very well on technical terrain and even in slop. The Peregrine also has great rock protection and a great cushioning to weight ratio with a nimble 4mm heel drop. Many runners also comment on the wide toe box combined with a locked down midfoot fit. This shoe really is a true trail virtuoso for runners who experience a variety of trail conditions on a regular basis.
Here is a shoe that has made most runners “best of” lists so far. The Superior features Altras trademark zero drop platform and foot shaped toe box in a lightweight and fast 9 ounce package. While it may lack some of the rock protection and outsole traction of heavier models, the Superior earns points for absolute comfort and a a great fit that feels dialed in enough for technical terrain while staying comfortable for hours on end. Its the kind of running shoe you forget about during a run.The criticisms of the Superior include the softness and flexibility of the midsole which some runners may need to transition into. Size has been an issue with this shoe as well and sizing up is recommended. Also, many runners have experienced excessive wear of the outsole lugs on dry and rocky conditions. However, this remains a great shoe for runners looking for that minimalist experience while still having enough protection for an ultra marathon.
Road runners coming from a stability background and needing a stiffer shoe that can handle larger runners as well as tough terrain look no further. The Cascadia has become a standard in the trail shoe industry, and very little has changed since it was released in 2005. This is a built up shoe with little flexibility, great cushioning, and a heavy duty rock plate aimed at tackling rough terrain over long distances. At 12 ounces with a 10mm heel drop the Cascadia harkens back to trail shoes before the minimalist movement started influencing designs in 2010. With this latest version runners have complained about the narrowing of the toe box, but much of the design stays the same and older models are still available for sale. If you’re currently a road runner used to running in shoes such as the ASICs Kayano, Brooks Adrenaline GTS, or other highly built up road shoes, this will likely comfortable transition.
Hard Ground Trail Running Shoes
This is a type of trail shoe designed to be worn almost exclusively on dry, hard packed, and rocky terrain.
Think of the arid southwest of the United States, southern France and Spain, Australia, and other climates which may tend toward the drier side.
While not to say that these shoes couldn’t work well in other conditions, they tend to be minimally lugged and would not be recommended for muddy conditions.
If you’re new to trail running La Sportiva is probably a brand you aren’t familiar with, though their Italian mountaineering heritage guarantees very high quality trail shoes. A fantastic shoe for smooth dry trails, the Helios features La Sportiva’s Morpho Dynamic outsole which is both sticky and incredibly well cushioned, and at under eight ounces with a low 4mm drop, this is a shoe made for fast paced trail running. While the Helios 2.0 features a wide toe box and dynamic kevlar lacing, the upper has been accused of being a bit stiff and taking some break in time. Additionally, breathable upper does seem to have drainage issues after water crossings or in wet conditions.
While sometimes considered an all-around trail shoe, without a doubt the Terra Kiger performs best on smooth and dry trails. Featuring Nike’s seamless Flymesh/ Flywire upper the Terra Kiger is one of the best fitting shoes on the market. An innovative Mono-Wrap tongue wraps around the midfoot to provide protection from debris and a very secure fit. Nike’s Zoom Air pods in the heel and forefoot also add to the sensation of wearing a lightweight (9 ounces) racing flat with a 4mm heel drop. Nike employs their always effective waffle sole here to provide a fantastic grip on dry surfaces and rocks, and while this shoe lacks any sort of rock protection it will work fine on tamer trails.
For those unindoctrinated to maximal shoes the Olympus 2.5 can be quite a treat for the feet. Designed with ultra marathons in mind, this 12 ounce monster an incredible amount of cushioning and room for the toes without feeling overbearing or clunky. The Olympus actually does quite well on technical terrain but true comfort comes when cruising on mellow trail. For those curious in trying a maximal shoe the Olympus 2.5 is about as plush as they come thanks to Altra’s A bound cushioning and it features a zero drop just like all Altra shoes. The only complaint we’ve had about the Olympus 2.5 is the premature wearing of the outsole which made it difficult to find traction in loose, sandy, or slightly muddy conditions. However, the Olympus feels great on the roads and works well as a hybrid road-to-trail shoe.
Soft Ground Trail Running Shoes
This specialty type trail shoe started its own niche several years ago pioneered by European brands such as Salomon and Inov8.
These shoes are typically heavily lugged with minimal uppers designed to shed mud and water as much as possible.
Again, just because a shoe is advertised as such doesn’t mean that trail runners won’t use soft ground shoes in dry conditions as many prefer the extra traction offered by these rugged outsoles.
Another shoe that has stood the test of time while facing all of the elements, the Speedcross 4 is a great shoe for any time of loose or muddy trail, including snow, that you may encounter in all seasons. A fairly traditional 11mm heel drop paired with highly durable and sticky 5mm chevron shaped lugs gives the Speedcross 4 great traction and good stability on both steep up and downhills. The fit of this shoe is very dialed in as well, and the combination of Salomon’s Sensifit overlays and Quicklace system make this a great shoe for any run in less than ideal conditions. Runners especially love the durability of this shoe and the fact that no matter how wet this shoe gets the upper feels very dialed in and secure. Runners with higher volume feet and wider forefeet may have difficulty finding a good fit in the Speedcross 4.
With a climbing heritage, La Sportiva produces some amazingly sticky rubber for sloppy conditions as well as dry rock. The Mutant is a great all arounder and runners love this shoe for varied trail conditions as well as scrambling on dry rock. The upper is innovative in the fact that it uses a built-in gaiter to keep debris out of the shoe as well as La Sportiva’s innovative Fusiongate to lock down the midfoot of the shoe while still retaining a wide forefoot feel. Trail runners applaud the mutant for its durability and versatility and it’s 10.9 ounce weight and 10 mm drop works well for most runners looking to combine a bit of off trail adventure into the runs.
Trails needing a shoe that can handle daily outings in the sloppiest of conditions look no further. The giant 7mm lugs of the X-Talon 212 have worked to provide grip in the wettest conditions for years. Developed in England’s Lake District which consists of muddy bogs, steep ups and downs, and nary an established trail, the X-Talon 212 provides just enough underfoot cushioning for its sub-8 ounce weight to manage up to a 50k distance. Additionally, it works well on grass and sheds water well through water crossings. Many runners love Inov-8’s minimalist and natural feel that lends itself well to faster paced running and forefoot striking efficiency.
Road-to-trail Trail Running Shoes
This is a category that applies to many runners who run on a variety of terrain and want to get by with one pair of shoes.
These shoes also work well if you’re running on roads to access trails and they typically have outsoles more consistent with road shoes which offer little traction on loose terrain or steep ups or downhills.
Salomon uses all of their great minimal trail technologies plus some additional EVA cushioning to create the Mantra 3 which works incredibly well as a daily all-arounder. For those of us needing to run a couple of road miles to get to the trailhead, the Mantra 3 weighs 10.2 ounces and has a 6mm heel drop, and is more than capable of handling mild to moderate trail surfaces. Runners also love that the Mantra 3 features Salomon’s widest forefoot profile while still using their Quicklace system and ProFeel Film rock plate. While many trail runners gravitate towards Salomon’s more expensive offerings, the Mantra 3 should not be overlooked and will work for a wide variety of trail runners’ needs.
The Litewave is a hybrid trail shoe with minimal outsole lugging or protection featuring a very lightweight and responsive midsole feel and ground proprioception. The sub-8 ounce weight of this shoe combined with a 6mm heel drop makes this a great “go fast” trail/ road hybrid shoe. We found that the Litewave TR performs best on smooth, hard packed trail, and feet can take a beating in rocky conditions. While the design of the Litewave TR accommodates wider forefeet, some runners have difficulty with the welded on overlays and experienced chaffing. However, the sublime ride of The North Faces’ semi-soft EVA make this a “must try” trail shoe if you are a hybrid road/trail runner.
Trail Shoe Jargon
There are several other things to consider whenever transitioning into a trail running shoe.
Heel drop can be a major consideration given that many road runners are transitioning from traditional road running shoes with a 10-12mm heel drop.
Heel drop is the differential between the heel and toe of the shoe which is measured in millimeters. This is important because many trail running shoes have lower heel drops which help condition a runner to a forefoot strike and provide better stability on technical trails. Road runners used to a higher heel drop may have difficulty with calve tightness and even achilles tendon issues if they transition too quickly.
Another consideration which many trail runners find to be an issue is forefoot width.
While road shoes feel more standardized, many trail running shoes have varying forefoot widths. While some shoes are more geared towards a tight fit for racing short distances and feeling secure on technical terrain, other long distance trail shoes accommodate for foot swelling that happens in the ultra distances.
Most trail running shoes, outside of those aimed at minimalist design, feature rock plates which are typically between the squishy midsole and the hard outsole of a trail shoe.
The purpose of the rock plate is to protect the foot from sharp rocks and stone bruises. While these can make trail shoes stiffer than road running shoes the added protection becomes key, especially after long distances on technical trails.
Trail running shoes also usually have a protective toe bumper which is usually made of welded on rubber overlays that protect the toes when hitting rocks on the front of the shoe.
Other welded on and sewn on overlays are usually more substantial than in road shoes for increased durability and stability in the shoe on terrain that requires frequent turns and steep downhills.
Some companies, especially Salomon and La Sportiva, have unique lacing designs made of kevlar that allow for quick and easy lacing and adjustments of the shoes.