The Best Trail Running Shoes Review

Click to enlarge
Head tester Andy Wellman running high in the San Juan Mountains. To run in mountains like these you are going to want dedicated trail running shoes.
Credit: Lara Getz
What are the best men's trail running shoes on the market today? Over the course of four summer months, we binged on running the trails while testing 10 pairs of trail-specific shoes from the leading manufacturers, all in a quest to help you choose which one is right for you. These trail running shoes inspired us to fly over smooth, buffed-out single track; bomb down steep mountain hillsides; crawl through jumbled talus; and leap over streams (or sometimes just splash right through them). While reviewing these products, our testers strove for personal bests on long mountain ultras and sprinted to the finish of shorter town-series races. Along the way, they stopped to smell the wildflowers, loped across the alpine tundra, glissaded down snow slopes, and even took in a few views from the summits of mountains. We compared the foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity that these trail running shoes offered to decide which were the very best ones.

Read the review below to find out which pair of men's shoes we like best, which ones offer the best value, and which ones we especially prefer when light and fast is key. Ladies, be sure to check out our Women's Trail Running Shoe Review!

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Trail Running Shoes - Men's Displaying 1 - 5 of 10 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Saucony Peregrine 4
Saucony Peregrine 4
Read the Review
La Sportiva Helios
La Sportiva Helios
Read the Review
Mizuno Wave Kazan
Mizuno Wave Kazan
Read the Review
The North Face Ultra Trail
The North Face Ultra Trail
Read the Review
Brooks Cascadia 9
Brooks Cascadia 9
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award     
Street Price Varies $77 - $110
Compare at 5 sellers
Varies $84 - $120
Compare at 7 sellers
$120
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $77 - $110
Compare at 5 sellers
$120
Compare at 5 sellers
Overall Score 
100
0
84
100
0
80
100
0
80
100
0
79
100
0
78
Editors' Rating
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros The best combination of lightness, stability, comfort, and great tractionForm fitting and extremely light, sole is sleek and stable while still offering surprising cushioningLight, stable, and comfortable, wide in the forefootLow to the ground, stable, and very light; bike tire-like tread is surprisingly grippyDurability, traction, and great cushioning
Cons The fit might be a little off for the size - best to try them on before purchasingWill make all your other shoes feel like clunkersDoesn’t shed water well, upper laminate creases oddlyNot super protective, upper mesh tears easilyLess than neat construction on the interior of the upper leads to chafing and friction
Best Uses Short trail runs, long ultra races, dry, wet, rocky, smooth, muddy or snowyFast mountain running! A great uphill shoe, can handle the roads alright as wellAll day adventures, as an everyday trainer, or a long distance race shoeSmooth trail where fast turnover is the goalAn everyday, all-purpose shoe; long runs, races, and big missions
Date Reviewed Sep 24, 2014Sep 17, 2014Aug 27, 2014Sep 25, 2014Sep 24, 2014
Weighted Scores Saucony Peregrine 4 La Sportiva Helios Mizuno Wave Kazan The North Face Ultra Trail Brooks Cascadia 9
Foot Protection - 25%
10
0
8
10
0
6
10
0
7
10
0
5
10
0
9
Traction - 20%
10
0
9
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
9
Stability - 20%
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
9
10
0
8
Comfort - 15%
10
0
9
10
0
9
10
0
8
10
0
8
10
0
6
Weight - 10%
10
0
9
10
0
10
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
6
Sensitivity - 10%
10
0
7
10
0
9
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
0
6
Product Specs Saucony Peregrine 4 La Sportiva Helios Mizuno Wave Kazan The North Face Ultra Trail Brooks Cascadia 9
Upper Synthetic mesh and Flexfilm HIghDrain Mesh Synthetic Flashdry with Ultra airmesh Synthetic mesh
Midsole Powergrid technology midsole MorphoDynamic Injection Molded EVA/ 2mm LaSpEVA U4ic midsole with Smoothride Engineering Dual-injection-molded, EVA CRADLE GUIDE midsole platform, no rockplate BioMoGo DNA midsole
Outsole XT-900 carbon rubber with rockplate FriXion AT/ VA Wave X-studded rubber Vibram rubber sole, neutral stride Rubber sole with rock shield
Weight (per pair, size 11) 20.8 19 22 20.3 25.9
Heel-to-Toe Drop 4mm 4mm 12mm 8mm 10mm
Lacing style Traditional Traditional Traditional Traditional Traditional
Sizes Available 7 - 13 38 - 46 7 - 14 7 - 14 7 - 15
Color Options Blue/Red/Yellow; Red/Black/Green; Black/Green/Yellow Blue/Grey; Grey/Dark Orange; Grey/Red Red/Blue/Yellow; Grey/Tangerine/Blue Black/Blue; Black/White; Black/Red; Blue/Green; Olive/Navy Red/Orange/Yellow; Blue/White; Red/Grey/Black

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products

Selecting the Right Product
The most, and perhaps only, essential piece of gear for running on trails is a good pair of shoes. While road running shoes will work, and in fact many people do run on trails in their regular road shoes, having a dedicated pair of trail running shoes is worth the investment. These models are designed specifically for this purpose. They have trail-specific features like lugged soles for added traction, a rockplate in the midsole to protect your feet from the sharp and uneven terrain underfoot, and mesh uppers designed to shed water from stream crossings as quickly as possible. They are durable and can handle the abuse that you are about to fling on them. They are your Sancho Panza in an uncertain world of adventure, they are the high performance tires on your red Corvette convertible. Read our review below to help you pick out the perfect pair of trail running shoes for your purpose, lace them up, and hit the trails!

Click to enlarge
Which pair should I wear today?
Credit: Andy Wellman

Types of Trail Running Shoes
Although there aren't specific industry-defined categories for trail running shoes, we've loosely divided the products in this review into type by heel-toe drop. This measurement represents the height of the heel subtracted by the height of the toes and generally ranges from 0 to 14 millimeters. Listed below are four basic genres of trail running shoes, which are expanded upon greatly in the buying advice guide. The genres, generally speaking, are:

Barefoot & Minimalist
Barefoot or minimalist shoes attempt to leave the shape and function of your foot in its instinctually unaltered form, and merely slap a piece of rubber on your sole to help with protection and traction. There is much debate surrounding the benefits of the barefoot movement. If you're curious about this type of footwear, be sure to check out our Barefoot Shoe Review.

Click to enlarge
The La Sportiva Helios was one of the minimalist shoes that we tested.
Credit: Lara Getz
Transitional
Transitional shoes typically have a heel-toe drop of 0mm to 6mm and are designed to be light, fast, and support a natural running gait, while at the same time offering the protection and support that most people need for trail running. The products in this review that qualify as transitional are the La Sportiva Helios and the Saucony Peregrine 4.

Standard or Traditional
Standard or traditional trail running shoes are what we would typically think of when we mentally picture a running shoe, but with trail specific features like a midsole rockplate, aggressive lugged traction, and a water-shedding mesh upper added on. They typically have 6mm to 14mm of heel-toe drop. The majority of the products we reviewed fall into this category, including the Mizuno Wave Kazan, the Brooks Cascadia 9, the Salomon Speedcross 3 and Salomon XA Pro 3D, the ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco 3 Neutral, and the Adidas Vigor TR 4.

Click to enlarge
The Speedcross 3 at home in the mountains. With a relatively large heel-toe drop, but designed to tackle anything, they are a perfect example of a traditional trail shoe.
Credit: Lara Getz

Maximalist
When we say "Maximalist," we mean models that emphasize a large amount of cushioning. HOKA ONE ONE is the brand that has brought this trend to the forefront, although a few others are jumping on board with this trend. These shoes are very popular amongst ultra-runners. Check out our review of the HOKA ONE ONE Stinson ATR if this interests you.

Click to enlarge
HOKA ONE ONE shoes perfectly exemplify the maximalist trend in trail running shoes
Credit: Lara Getz

It is important to note that all trail running shoes are designed for the same purpose: running on trails or cross-country. Deciding what end of the heel-toe drop spectrum to look for in a running shoe depends on the preference of your body (in short, comfort) and also on your ideals regarding body mechanics. For more on this check, out our Buying Advice article. Read on to see how these different types of trail running shoes compared in our head-to-head assessment.

Criteria for Evaluation
Foot Protection
The single most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it didn't offer your foot protection, why would you be wearing it at all? The largest component of protection is what is found underfoot - in short, the sole and whether or not it has a rockplate in it. A rockplate is a hard metal, plastic, or composite material plate or rod that lives in the midsole and is designed to protect the bottom of your foot from sharp things like rocks or roots. The rockplate typically runs from under your heel to just past your arch, as the sole still needs flexibility to bend in the forefoot.

A lesser component to protection is how good a job the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your foot from protrusions like sticks or from abrasion by rocks. Many manufacturers skimp on the upper to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are as strong as a Kevlar bulletproof vest. As we note throughout this review, protection often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.

Click to enlarge
Two very protective shoes underfoot, done in a completely different way. The HOKA ONE ONE Stinson ATR features 32mm of cushioning under the heel, while the Saucony Peregrine 4 uses a rockplate.
Credit: Andy Wellman

Some products manage to strike a perfect balance of great protection and a sensitive feel for the trail, like the Saucony Peregrine 4. By far, the most protective model was the Salomon XA Pro 3D, which features a burly rockplate and supportive midsole, as well as a very heavy leather sidewall material on the upper. Other high scorers were the HOKA ONE ONE Stinson ATR and the Brooks Cascadia 9. Our lowest scorer on the foot protection scale was The North Face Ultra Trail, a minimalist model that compensates by offering incredible sensitivity.

Traction
Click to enlarge
A completely unique outsole! We loved the articulation and single piece of rubber in the construction of the Ultra Trail. We also thought it gripped trail and rocks really well!
Credit: Andy Wellman

Mud, snow, slippery or wet rocks, tree roots, logs, talus, scree, loose dirt - all of these surfaces are commonly encountered along the trail, and you need a trail running shoe which will not put you on your butt. To tackle these myriad surfaces, manufacturers have introduced many diverse solutions through sole material and design. Many of our test pieces had large arrow-shaped lugs, most of them employed a type of rubber stickier than your average road shoe, and one - The North Face Ultra Trail - even had a sole that closely mimicked a mountain bike tire.

Click to enlarge
The tread on the Peregrine 4 offer amazing traction. Sticky, grippy, and highly durable. They also shed mud well.
Credit: Andy Wellman
Overall, we were impressed with the creativity and different materials that manufacturers used to create traction, and therefore awarded few low scores. In the end, the highest ranking models were the ones which could tackle it all and never left us in doubt as to whether we could firmly land and push off on any given surface. The Salomon Speedcross 3 had the most aggressive lugs while having an incredible ability to stick to harder surfaces like rock, and we loved it the best when traction was tough, in the mud or especially snow. Our lowest performer, the Adidas Trail Vigor 4, had the smallest profile lugs with the hardest and least sticky rubber.

Stability
Any time that you wear something on your foot, you are modifying your body's natural ability to stand and move from a stable platform. Landing on the ground and pushing off for each stride from a stable platform is a fundamental aspect of running, and one that is greatly affected by the type of surface you are running over. When testing for stability, we looked for how easy it was to maintain our normal running mechanics over variable terrain. We found that some trail running shoes would bend and morph to the running surface, forcing us to adjust our landing and push-off. While running in some others we felt that the shape of the shoe required us to change our stride to ensure a stable platform.

Generally speaking, the lower to the ground the product rode, or the smaller the stack height, the more stable it felt, giving us confidence to push our speed. The North Face Ultra Trail and the Mizuno Wave Kazan really gave us the confidence we were looking for. On the other end of the spectrum, a couple of pairs were downright nerve-wracking to run in on technical terrain, especially downhill, requiring caution and a mind-fatiguing level of focus to keep from twisting an ankle. The HOKA ONE ONE Stinson ATR felt like a rolled ankle continually waiting to happen, while the excessively high heel of the Salomon Speedcross 3 made us feel like we could only heel-strike heading downhill. It's worth mentioning that many of us naturally heel-strike and are looking for that kind of cushioning. While it may not have led to us ranking it highly for stability, extra stack height and cushioning may be something you find desirable.

Click to enlarge
With no midsole rockplate the Wave Kazan is very flexible, making it possibly the most stable shoe that we tried.
Credit: Andy Wellman

Comfort
Comfort is perhaps the criteria most difficult to rate for because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person is totally un-wearable by another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are just really narrow throughout. Some fit perfectly "to size," while others run big or small. We have done our best to describe how each model fits in the individual reviews. However, we did find some universal factors that could be compared and rated.

Craftsmanship seemed to play a large part in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs used seamless construction that made them easy to wear sockless. Others, like the Brooks Cascadia 9, had "untidy" insides that we found caused rub points. We also took into account whether the shoe breathed well or whether it tended to hold in the heat. Lastly, we performed our Water Drainage Test, and accounted for it in our ratings as well.

Click to enlarge
The water test. We dunked dry shoes in the bucket for 20 seconds to see how much water they absorbed.
Credit: Andy Wellman
The Water Drainage Test
The idea behind this test was to attempt to scientifically test which product shed water the best, making it ideally suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. We weighed each pair dry, then dunked them in a bucket of water for 20 seconds, let them drain toe down for 10 seconds, and then quickly weighed them again to see how much water they had absorbed. We then put them on without socks and jogged around the block for exactly five minutes, took them off, and weighed them again to see how much water weight they had shed while running.

Click to enlarge
The water test. After soaking the shoes in the bucket and letting them drain for 10 seconds we immediately weighed them to see how much water they absorbed compared to when dry.
Credit: Andy Wellman
For each model we calculated as a percentage of their weight how much water they absorbed while being dunked for 20 seconds, how much water they had shed after a five minute run compared to when they were soaked, and what their after-run weight was compared to their dry weight. The Brooks Cascadia 9 and the ASICS Gel-FujiTrabuco 3 proved to absorb the least amounts of water, and to be closest to their dry weight after the run. We found that the Salomon Speedcross 3 absorbed the most water, while somewhat surprisingly the La Sportiva Helios retained the greatest percentage of water weight after the run.

Weight
Weight proved to be a fairly easy criteria to judge. Fresh out of the box we weighed each trail running shoe individually and together, and completely ignored what the manufacturer claimed the weight was. For reference, every product that we received was a U.S. men's size 11. We then paid attention to how heavy the shoe felt while running in them daily. A few were startlingly light, and the math was easily backed up while out wearing them. When running in the La Sportiva Helios, The North Face Ultra Trail, or the Saucony Peregrine 4s, the added agility and nimbleness made us feel like we were dancing along the trail, a refreshingly light way of running. Most of the models fell into the category of "didn't really notice the weight as a good or bad thing," while out running, while at least one, the Salomon XA Pro 3D was far off the charts in terms of heaviness, and made us feel like we were trying to run in boots, especially compared to the other test pieces.

Click to enlarge
The Helios weighing in at an mind-blowing 9.5 ounces for size 11, the lightest shoe in the review.
Credit: Andy Wellman

Sensitivity
When grading for sensitivity, we tried to notice how well we could feel the trail in any given shoe. We tried our best not to be judgmental on whether feeling the trail is a good or bad thing, or what amount of Sensitivity we preferred, but rather graded the most sensitive the highest. While it is easy to decide which ones were the most and least sensitive, it is completely a preference thing in terms of how sensitive you want your trail running shoe to be. Some people like to be intimately connected to the ground they are moving over, while others would prefer to have much more protection for their foot, which often comes at the expense of sensitivity. The less cushioned products we tested, The North Face Ultra Trail and the La Sportiva Helios, were by far the most sensitive. Not surprisingly, the most protective model in the review, the Salomon XA Pro 3D, was the least sensitive.

Click to enlarge
The North Face Ultra Trail in action. This shoe ranked the highest for Sensitivity.
Credit: Thomas Braham

Trail Running vs. Road Running
Now that we've gone through all the main attributes you'd want to look for in the best trail running shoes, let's dive into why you might want to run trails (instead of roads) in the first place. Outside of the inherent athleticism associated with running, many trail runners view the sport as a way of connecting to nature and our roots as humans by exploring and interacting with the natural environment. But why run on trails rather than roads?

Running on roads tends to emphasize a more fluid stride and cadence where it is easier to tune out the pain of the workout and knock out those miles quicker. Without constant obstacles to navigate, road running is without a doubt faster, and for some true speed is an addictive thing. With the consistency of the road also comes the ability to consistently fine-tune mechanics and focus on improving one's raw speed or performance. Many more people run on roads than trails, so not only is the level of competition greater in road races, but for the everyday runner it is much easier to find partners to run or train with. Of course, there is also the fact that roads are everywhere, they take us where we need to go, so simply finding a place to run is easier than finding a good trail.

Click to enlarge
The San Juan Mountains, our trail running shoe test playground.
Credit: Lara Getz

By comparison, running on trails is slow. It is almost pointless to track your pace while trail running, as it varies so much depending on whether you're heading uphill or downhill, how technical the trail is, and what altitude you are at. Likewise, one could spend most of the day covering 20 miles, making it difficult to judge a workout based on miles covered. (Most serious trail runners log time instead of miles.) There is less competition at trail races, people often spread out very quickly, making the experience less social. Wipeouts are a reality on the trails, blood is a common sight at a trail race. But perhaps it is better to focus on what is gained by running on trails, rather than what is lost.

For many, trail running transcends being just a workout - it is a unique and genuine experience, adventure, every time you leave your house or the car - and happens to be a great workout as well. The terrain is endlessly changing and stimulating: hopping over rocks, dancing over streams, and brushing against tree branches can be much less boring than the fixed cadence on the roads. Additionally, the variation of running on a trail is good for your body. Overuse injuries and tweaks from repetitive motion are minimized, and your core and legs are naturally forced to become stronger due to the added stresses placed upon them.

Click to enlarge
A sunset seen from the high ridges is better than not seeing a sunset at all! Get out there for an evening run!
Credit: Lara Getz

It can be incredibly addicting to spend a weekly long run seeing as much pristine wilderness as a backpacker might take four days to traverse. Instead of struggling to carve out one week a year to backpack deep into that lost lake which always catches the eye on the map, a trail runner can enjoy an adventure like that in a long day, with no need to pack or take time off from work, and can be drinking a cold one on the porch by sunset. Trail races are also inherently different from road races. Instead of obsessively glancing at a GPS watch to see if you're still maintaining a sub 7:00 min/mile pace, try simply asking yourself: "How fast can I get to the top of that mountain and back to the finish line in town?" Or, "Can I really cover 50 miles in the mountains before it gets dark?"

Finding out the answers to these questions can be one of the most profound joys in life. If you run on trails, you know what we're talking about. If you don't, it might be time you picked up a pair of trail running shoes and get started.

Editors' Choice Award: Saucony Peregrine 4
Click to enlarge
Light, sleek, and very protective underfoot. The Editors' Choice Award winning Peregrine 4.
Credit: Andy Wellman
Which shoe did we reach for when we wanted to perform our best? Staring at 10 pairs lined up against the wall before the San Juan Solstice 50 mile race in Colorado, and then again before the Speedgoat 50k in Snowbird, Utah, the choice was obvious: the Saucony Peregrine 4, and neither time was there a hint of regret. In fact, after putting them through perhaps the most rigorous testing of any of our selection, they look pretty much exactly how they did out of the box, with a little added mud here and there. They are the fourth lightest shoe in the test, and with a low 4mm heel-toe drop, they allow a natural and fast running stride. It is amazing that Saucony could combine such a light shoe with such incredible underfoot protection, while still keeping them remarkably sensitive. The hard and aggressive lugs on the sole made them stick to every surface we encountered, and they have proven to be incredibly durable. While it wasn't the best performer in any single grading criteria, it was one of the best in every criteria. Not only did it score the highest, but it was our favorite product, making it the obvious Editors' Choice.

Top Pick for Light and Fast: La Sportiva Helios
Click to enlarge
The La Sportiva Helios. Trim, very form-fitting, and attractive!
Credit: Andy Wellman
While many trail runners are content to go at their own pace, enjoy the experience, and consider it a victory to finish the race, there are a select few who want to run as fast as they can and burn up the competition. For them there is the La Sportiva Helios. The Helios exemplifies the term "high performance." These were some of the lightest and sleekest products in the review, and there is absolutely no doubt that we ran faster while wearing them. The 4mm drop Helios demands that you dance over and around the rocks rather than stomp your way through them, which we think is a good thing. They are pure ballerina, no football player here. The FriXion AT rubber on the sole was incredibly grippy, making them our favorite choice for scrambling as well. Although they are minimal and low to the ground, the wave pattern outsole did a surprisingly good job absorbing shock and hits to the foot from rocks. The only question about these trail running shoes was whether they, and our feet, would be capable of holding up to ultra distances, but after testing them thoroughly on two 25+ mile runs, we wholeheartedly say Yes! They are more than deserving of our Top Pick.

Best Buy Award: Mizuno Wave Kazan
Click to enlarge
Mizuno claims the Wave Kazan's design is patterned after topography. We liked them enough to award them our Best Buy.
Credit: Andy Wellman
Here at OutdoorGearLab, it is not often that we award our Best Buy award to a product that is more expensive than our Editors' Choice award, but this is one of those times. With the majority of the products reviewed being sold for the exact same price ($120), we opted for the one which gave the best performance and that we thought would reward the buyer with excellent durability. The Mizuno Wave Kazan is a genuinely unique trail running shoe that we thought was vastly improved from its cousin, the Wave Ascend 8 (which we actually tested but was discontinued and replaced mid-review). The extra wide toe box and x-patterned midsole in the forefoot gave this model perhaps the most stable landing platform of any we tried, while still including a bonus 12mm of cushioning in the heel. The Wave Kazan is light, has great traction, incredible stability, is super comfortable, and just feels like one fine-tuned, high-performance piece of equipment. We think you will agree, and have awarded it our Best Buy.

Andy Wellman
Buying Advice
How we Test
Helpful Buying Tips
Get More OutdoorGearLab
Follow us on Twitter, be a fan on Facebook!
Subscribe to our Newsletter
Recent Editor's Award Winners