The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men Review
What are the best men's trail running shoes on the market today? To find out, we tested 14 of the most popular trail running shoes from the leading manufacturers, all in a quest to help you decide which one is best for you. We tested on buffed-out single track; bombed down steep mountain hillsides; hopped over jumbled talus; and splashed through cool streams, striving for personal bests on long mountain ultras and sprinting to the finish of shorter town-series races. We smelled the wildflowers, loped across the alpine tundra, glissaded down snow slopes, and took in a few views from the summits of mountains, comparing the foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity to determine which ones were the very best.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Trail Running Shoes
Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Ultra Endurance
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
Top Pick for Light and Fast
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3
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Analysis and Test Results
The only essential piece of gear for running on trails is a good pair of shoes. Trail running shoes are designed to tackle the specific demands of the off-road environment, whether that means rocks, roots, mud, loose dirt and gravel, grass, or even steep scrambling. They have more durable outsoles than road running shoes, featuring sticky rubber and large, grippy lugs to help you gain the purchase you need. They also tend to have a rock plate or extra foam cushioning to protect the bottom of your feet from obstacles not found on the road. The toe bumpers and protective overlays found on the uppers of these shoes protect the sides and tops of your feet from sticks or the sides of jagged rocks, while also protecting the mesh material that is designed to let your foot breathe and the shoe shed water should it get wet. While running is still running on both roads and trails, shoes are increasingly designed for different purposes. Running on trails, or even off-trail through the mountains, forest, or desert, requires a dependable trail running shoe.
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 types using a combination of heel-toe drop and the amount of underfoot cushioning. Differentiating shoes in this way is meant to help a person select which type of shoe is most likely to suit their individual needs. For instance, someone who has never run before and has a history of back problems is probably going to want a Maximalist shoe, and perhaps more importantly, is going to want to avoid Minimalist shoes, at least initially. These categories are expanded upon more in our buying advice article.
The two components of a shoe that we have used to define these categories are heel-toe drop and cushioning. Heel-toe drop is the difference between the height of cushioning in the heel versus the toes. Almost all shoes have extra padding under the heel because people tend to land on their heels first when running, and so need more cushioning there. If a shoe has 8mm of extra foam and other materials in the heel than in the toes, then it's heel-toe drop would be 8mm. The range of heel-toe drop in the shoes we tested is as high as 12mm and as low as 0mm.
Cushioning, also known as stack height, is used to describe exactly how much material is actually between your foot and the ground while wearing a shoe. This material is the combination of the midsole, made up of the support, cushioning, and rock plate, combined with the outsole, which is the sticky rubber traction that interacts with the ground. Some shoes have very little cushioning, while others, in particular the Maximalist category, specifically feature lots of cushioning. Whether you desire lots of cushioning or little-to-none is mostly a personal preference, although anatomy and amount of running experience also tend to play a role. The categories:
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. They typically have a 0mm drop and almost no cushioning or underfoot protection except for the outsole. There is much debate surrounding the benefits of the barefoot movement, and the excitement surrounding these types of shoes has waned considerably since its peak following the release of the best-selling book Born To Run. None of the shoes in this review fit into this category, but if you're curious about this type of footwear, be sure to check out our Barefoot Shoe Review.
Low-Profile shoes exemplify the adage "less is more," while also striking a "some is better than none," balance. They typically have a heel-toe drop of 0mm to 6mm and are designed to be light, fast, and supportive of a natural running gait, while at the same time offering the protection and support that most people need for trail running. They tend to have less cushioning and underfoot protection and offer greater sensitivity in return, although there are exceptions.
We recommend these shoes to more experienced trail runners who have developed strong foot muscles, a quicker, lighter running stride, and who can handle (or desire) less foot protection and more sensitivity in their shoes. These are the shoes most often seen on the feet of elite runners at trail races, and tend to be the highest performers. The products in this review that qualify as low-profile are the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, the Saucony Peregrine 6, the Altra Superior 2.0 and the winner of our Top Pick for Light and Fast, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3.
Standard or Traditional
Standard or traditional trail shoes are what we would typically think of when we mentally picture a running shoe, but they also have trail-specific features like a midsole rock plate, aggressive lugged traction, and a water-shedding mesh upper. They typically have 6mm to 12mm of heel-toe drop, a feature that has been standard in running shoes for a long time. These shoes serve as great everyday trainers and specialize in protecting your feet for long running adventures.
They are the type of shoes that the majority of the trail runners in the world are wearing, and are the type we would typically recommend to the average runner. The majority of the products we reviewed fall into this category, including our Editors' Choice award-winning Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, the Best Buy winning The North Face Ultra Endurance, as well as the New Balance Leadville v3, the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, Brooks Cascadia 11, Salomon Speedcross 4, the Montrail Caldorado, the ASICS Gel-FujiTrabuco 4, and the La Sportiva Wildcat.
When we say "Maximalist," we mean models that emphasize a large amount of cushioning. These shoes often have relatively low heel-toe drop, but very high stack heights. HOKA ONE ONE is the brand that has brought this trend to the forefront, although a few others are jumping on board and adding models with extra cushioning. These shoes are very popular amongst ultra-runners and older runners who desire the least amount of abuse to their body. Check out our review of the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 if this category interests you.
A Note on Motion Control Shoes
All of the shoes we have tested here are defined as neutral shoes. Neutral means that the shoe does not have extra features designed to control the motion of your foot. Motion Control shoes, on the other hand, DO attempt to support your foot differently if you are an excessive pronator. Although this can be a contentious topic, there are many recent studies showing that over-pronating does not cause a higher rate of injury in runners, as has been assumed for a long time. Experts now say that deciding which shoe to buy should be based more on personal comfort than the mechanics of how your foot lands and distributes force. It just so happens that most of the popular trail running shoes are neutral shoes, and are therefore more applicable for us to test. However, many brands do have motion control alternatives to the ones reviewed here.
Recent Trends in the Trail Shoe Market
The trail running shoe market is being updated pretty much constantly and so it can be hard to keep up with these changes. Why would you want to? Well, this is a consumer driven market, after all, and so the countless manufacturers are beholden to listen to their customers to try to correct mistakes and problems, as well as design the kind of shoes that people want to buy. Over the course of the many consecutive years that we have been producing shoe reviews, we have noticed that, without a doubt, shoe designs are getting better, and the companies are in fact listening (sometimes it even feels like they are reading these reviews!). We have also noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, the shifts often seem to be industry wide. On that note, we wanted to point out a few ways in which this year's crop of trail running shoes is improving for the better:
A New Baseline
Based on the best selling shoes in this market, it seems as if the industry is moving away from the edges and more towards the middle, defining, in a way, a new baseline. What we mean is that the average shoe now has between 4mm and 8mm of heel-toe drop, down from 10-14mm a few years ago. At the same time, manufacturers have slowly been increasing the amount of underfoot cushioning recently as advances in foam technologies have allowed them to add cushioning without adding weight. The New Baseline is less drop with more foam padding.
Outsoles are Improving
The outsole is the piece of rubber on the bottom of the shoe that makes contact and interacts with the running surface, and is thus an important part of the performance of any shoe. More companies are moving towards an outsole that features large, aggressive lugs for grip in soft surfaces, made of durable sticky rubber for grip on hard surfaces, and widely spaced apart in order to best shed mud. In our opinion, the combination of these three factors leads to the best all-around outsole, like that found on the Salomon Speedcross 4, and so we think it is a positive thing that more companies are incorporating one or even all three of these attributes in their outsole design.
Trail running shoes continue to get lighter. Year after year, shoe companies release updates and new versions of their most popular flagship models, and we often test the new version of these best-sellers, comparing them to previous versions. What we have noticed is that many of these models, such as the Brooks Cascadia, the Salomon Speedcross, and the La Sportiva Helios, have become lighter this year compared to their predecessors. Even more remarkable is the newer models of the HOKA's, like the Challenger ATR 2 that we reviewed, are among the lightest in our review despite quite obviously being a much bigger shoe. These weight losses are due mostly to advances in foam technologies, but also using lighter weight mesh uppers with thinner film overlays for support rather than heavier plastic or suede materials. Regardless, we believe that lighter is better, so we are happy to see these shoes ditching the extra ounces, and hope this trend continues.
Criteria for Evaluation
Testing trail running shoes involves a lot more than simply going out for runs while wearing different pairs of shoes (although there is a whole lot of that). We pride ourselves on making the best comparisons between different products to help differentiate which shoes are truly better. To help us and you the reader, we have carefully rated each shoe based on six different metrics, giving a grade of 1 to 10 on how well each shoe performed. Furthermore, we weighted each of the metrics based on how important we felt it was to a shoe's overall performance. The categories we assessed were: Foot Protection (20%), Traction (20%), Stability (20%), Comfort (20%), Weight (10%), and Sensitivity (10%). Read on below to find out why we feel each category is important, how we assessed for each, and which shoes were the best and worst performers for each metric.
One of the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it didn't offer you foot protection, why would you be wearing it? The largest component of protection is what is found underfoot – in short, the sole and whether or not it has a rock plate in it. A rock plate 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 rock plate typically runs from under your heel to just past your arch, as the sole still needs flexibility to bend in the forefoot. There are exceptions to this, and some shoes feature forefoot rock plates as well.
A rock plate is not the only method of underfoot protection. Some models, like the HOKA Challenger ATR 2, forego the rock plate in favor of different combinations and thicknesses of EVA foam in their midsole. Shoes that only use foam tend to be thicker and more cushioned, but are also more sensitive to rocks underfoot, and tend to be more flexible.
A lesser component to protection is how well 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. An interesting component of foot protection is that it often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.
Some products manage to strike a perfect balance of great protection and a sensitive feel for the trail, like the Saucony Peregrine 6 or ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco 4 Neutral. The most protective model was the HOKA Challenger ATR 2 with its bounty of soft cushioning foam underfoot. Other high scorers were our Best Buy award-winning North Face Ultra Endurance, as well as the
Brooks Cascadia 11. The lowest scorers on the foot protection scale were the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 and the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, shoes that offered far more sensitivity than most of their counterparts.
Mud, snow, grass, slippery or wet rocks, tree roots, logs, talus, scree, loose dirt – all of these surfaces are commonly encountered along the trail, so you need a trail running shoe that won't slip and land 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 most incorporated spaced out traction lugs to shed mud easier as well.
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 that could tackle it all and never left us doubting whether we could firmly land and push off on any given surface. They also shed the mud off the sole quickly and effectively, an under-rated attribute that is very welcome compared to the added weight of mud clod-hoppers.
The Salomon Speedcross 4 had the most aggressive lugs while having an incredible ability to stick to harder surfaces like rock, and was improved this year to be more durable while not losing any of its sticky feel. We loved this shoe the most when traction was tough, in the mud or especially snow. Our lowest performer, the ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco 4 Neutral, had the smallest profile lugs, but with its relatively sticky rubber, still wasn't what we consider a poor performer.
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 while wearing that shoe. We found that some 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 without rolling an ankle. But another way to ensure a stable platform is to make the shoe wider and flatter, especially in the forefoot, as many of the most stable shoes did. In general, narrow shoes with high stack heights or large heel-toe drop felt the least stable underfoot, and were the most prone to rolling an ankle or landing awkwardly.
The zero drop, low to the ground Altra Superior 2.0 was once again the most stable feeling shoe that we tested. Many of our top scorers also performed well, including our Editors' Choice winner Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, with its very flat and wide platform, as well as the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3, which also had a wide forefoot and rode very low to the ground. The least stable shoes were the Salomon Speedcross 4 and the La Sportiva Wildcat, featuring 11mm and 12mm of heel-toe drop, respectively, the two largest in the review. The Speedcross 4 was also among the narrowest shoe we tested, which limits the ability of the forefoot to splay out upon landing. While many people appreciate the extra cushioning in the heel that comes with a high heel-toe drop, in our experience, especially when running downhill, stability is certainly compromised by this trait.
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 (or wide) 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. While, in theory, comfort is probably the single most important characteristic of shoe, we chose to only rate it 20%, like many of the other attributes, due to this very subjective nature of trying on shoes. We didn't want to penalize a shoe that felt uncomfortable to our head tester too much, when many other people will naturally end up loving it. 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. Some shoes, like the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, used stiff upper materials that creased and pinched during push-off. 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. Overall, we rated the Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3, HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2, and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3 as our top three highest scoring shoes in terms of comfort.
The Water Drainage Test
The idea behind this test was to attempt to scientifically test which products absorbed the least amount of water, and then shed it best and quickest, making them ideally suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. Running in the mountains of Colorado on a daily basis, it seems our feet are always wet. We either have to ford streams and creeks, or end up tromping through muddy swamps, and no matter how careful we can be, our feet get wet. If we don't have these problems, it still seems like they get wet from morning dew on the bushes and grass, or from afternoon rainstorms, or simply by sweating because it's so hot.
To conduct this test, we weighed each pair dry, then dunked them in a bucket of water for 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water, held them toe down to drain for another 20 seconds, and then quickly weighed them again to see how much water weight they had absorbed into their material. We then put them on without socks and jogged around the block for exactly five minutes, took them off, and weighed them a third time to see how much water weight they had shed while running. For each model, we calculated as a percentage of their dry weight how much water they absorbed while being dunked for 20 seconds and how much water they still retained after a five minute run compared to when they were dry.
The Altra Superior 2.0 and the New Balance Leadville v3 proved to absorb the least amounts of water. This was quite an improvement for the new Leadville, because last year's model had the dubious distinction of absorbing the most water! While the Altra and New Balance shoes were also the closest to their dry weight after the run, they were joined by the Brooks Cascadia 11 in showcasing their water shedding abilities. Many other models also fared well in this test, like the Saucony Peregrine 6, Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, and the Salomon Speedcross 4. We found that the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 had the distinction of absorbing the most water compared to its dry weight, and that the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, despite its claims to be an extremely breathable shoe, retained the largest percentage of water weight after the five-minute long run.
Weight proved to be a fairly easy criteria to judge. Fresh out of the box we weighed each trail running shoe individually and together as a pair, 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 2.0, the HOKA Challenger ATR 2s, or the Altra Superior 2.0s, 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 La Sportiva Wildcat 3.0, was far off the charts in terms of heaviness, especially compared to the other test pieces.
When grading for sensitivity, we tried to notice how well we could feel the trail in any given shoe. Like we mentioned before, sensitivity often comes at the expense of foot protection, and vice versa. We tried our best not to be judgmental about 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 least cushioned products we tested, the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 and the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, were by far the most sensitive. Surprisingly, out Top Pick for Fast and Light, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3, was one of the least sensitive shoes in the review, instead featuring a bombproof hard rock plate through the entire sole.
Paying Close Attention to Individual Metrics
While all of the scores that we assess for each shoe combine to form the shoe's overall score, it is important to delve into the individual metrics to find the shoe that best fits your needs. For instance, you may not be interested in our top rated shoe if it got that rating due to its foot protection when you prefer sensitivity as your most important criteria. In particular, the metrics of foot protection, comfort, weight, and sensitivity, can all be deciding factors in what shoe to choose, depending on your own preferences. So don't necessarily write off a shoe simply because it isn't the highest scoring shoe in the review. Delve deeper into the numbers that we have provided and carefully read the individual reviews!
There are literally hundreds of choices for a person looking to buy a pair of trail running shoes today, making selecting the right product a difficult task. Some important things to consider when trying to pare down the selection is your experience running as well as a personal or anatomical preference for added protection and cushioning or for greater sensitivity. For most people a traditional style shoe will last them the longest and make them happiest. Of course, choosing the one that feels most comfortable to you is usually the best way to go. We hope that our comparison testing, descriptions, and analysis has helped you to choose a trail running shoe that will make you happy and have you gleefully tearing up the trails. We also invite you to check out our Buying Advice article for even more insight into choosing the right trail running shoe. Happy Trails!
— Andy Wellman
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