While nothing can quite compare with the experience of going into your speciality 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Soft Ground Trail Running Shoes
This speciality 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.
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 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.
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.