The Trials of The Best Men's Trail Running Shoes of 2017
Intimidated by the 100's of trail running shoe options? We were, too. That's why we researched 90 top models and bought 14 for detailed testing. After over 150 hours on the trails, we have recommendations whether you want the maximum cushion, minimal heal-rise, or just a good value. Our testing team ran winding single track, steep fire roads, and jagged talus to find the best option for a variety of surfaces. Whether you need the most comfort for runs after work or want the ultra traction for, well, ultras - we have an award winner that will meet your needs. Lace up and hold on, here we go.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated March 2017
This spring, our top shoe by Pearl iZUMI was discontinued. Expect a new Editor's Choice by early summer after our spring tests and major review update. Until then, you can still find the EM N2 V3 on some retailers, often at a big discount. Also, we have confirmed the availability of our other top-scoring shoes. We added new charts to help you find the shoes that perform best for the metrics you care about. Last, we greatly expanded our Trail Running Shoe Buying Advice.
Best Overall Trail Running Shoes
Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3
While the Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3 win's again, it has been discontinued. Luckily there are many other great shoes that you can read about below. How did it win our top honors two years in a row? We love the balance of comfort, foot protection, sensitivity, and stability. There is nothing about this shoe that disappoints. We reached for it again and again for long runs and short jaunts along the local trails. We even took it scrambling on long peak-bagging missions and found that it climbs wonderfully. In short, compared to the competition, there is no other trail running shoe we would rather have.
Good underfoot protection
More expensive than previous years
Runs slightly long
Read full review: Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Ultra Endurance
With its wide and stable platform and fantastic underfoot protection provided by the snakeplate rock plate, The North Face Ultra Endurance runs and feels remarkably like our Editors' Choice award winner. The suede overlays on the upper, solid plastic toe bumper and the single piece Vibram outsole ensure that durability is no concern. This shoe lasts much longer than your legs and keeps your feet healthy and fresh. Not only that, but it costs less than all the other favorites from this year's review, which is why we are proud to give it our Best Buy award! This great trail running shoe is also available in a waterproof version; check out the The North Face Ultra Endurance GORE-TEX.
A bit heavy
Not very sensitive
Read full review: The North Face Ultra Endurance
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
Some people demand lots of cushioning underfoot to protect their bodies from the abusive impacts of daily running. Other people simply aren't aware that they can have a lot of extra cushioning without sacrificing anything when it comes to weight or performance. For both types of people, we recommend the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2. With a stack height of 29mm, it certainly offers more underfoot protection than any other shoe we reviewed, which is reason enough to be interested. But remarkably, this shoe was stable, sensitive, and at only 20.4 ounces for a pair of men's size 11, among the lightest in our test. Gone are the days of compromised performance or ankle-breaking instability while wearing HOKAs.
Superior foot protection
Not very durable outsole
Read full review: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
Top Pick for Light and Fast
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3
The Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3 have a winning combination of low profile, light weight, and remarkable underfoot protection that makes them our Top Pick for running light and fast. Where other super light and minimal shoes compromise on protection for increased sensitivity, this shoe instead sports the hardest and stiffest rock plate in our test, ensuring that you can quickly stomp over anything without ever feeling a thing. We loved it for pushing our speed through rocky terrain. With such a hard platform to protect us, we didn't need to mince steps because we were afraid of damaging our feet. This shoe takes the exact opposite approach than most, where extra cushioning is added, but performs equally as well if not better.
Upper lacks much abrasion resistance
Read full review: 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 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.
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 table below shows where each shoe ranked in overall performance score.
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 the 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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