The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men Review

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From ultra distances to short training runs, we put these trail runners through the paces. Here, the Leadville 1210v2 shines in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley
What are the best men's trail running shoes on the market today? Over the course of two consecutive summers, we binged on running the trails while testing trail-specific running shoes from the leading manufacturers, all in a quest to help you choose which one is right for you. For 2015 we added seven new and updated pairs of shoes. In our opinion, trail running shoes just keep getting better, and we were happy 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) in these fantastic new shoes. 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 14 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2
Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2
Read the Review
Saucony Peregrine 5
Saucony Peregrine 5
Read the Review
ALTRA Superior 2.0
ALTRA Superior 2.0
Read the Review
La Sportiva Helios
La Sportiva Helios
Read the Review
Mizuno Wave Kazan
Mizuno Wave Kazan
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $100 - $120
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Pros Comfortable, durable, stable, great foot protectionThe best combination of lightness, stability, comfort, and great tractionZero Drop, light, fast feeling, optional rock protection insert, sensitiveForm fitting and extremely light, sole is sleek and stable while still offering surprising cushioningLight, stable, and comfortable, wide in the forefoot
Cons Low sensitivity, not the lightestEver so slightly heavier and not as perfectly snug as the old Peregrine 4Short fit, lacking durability and foot protectionWill make all your other shoes feel like clunkersDoesn’t shed water well, upper laminate creases oddly
Best Uses Pretty much any trail, anywhere, any distanceShort trail runs, long ultra races, dry, wet, rocky, smooth, muddy or snowyShorter trail runs and races, fast runningFast mountain running! A great uphill shoe, can handle the roads alright as wellAll day adventures, as an everyday trainer, or a long distance race shoe
Date Reviewed Jun 30, 2015Jun 30, 2015Jun 30, 2015Jun 30, 2015Jun 30, 2015
Weighted Scores Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 Saucony Peregrine 5 ALTRA Superior 2.0 La Sportiva Helios Mizuno Wave Kazan
Foot Protection - 25%
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Traction - 20%
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Stability - 20%
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Comfort - 15%
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Product Specs Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 Saucony Peregrine 5 ALTRA Superior 2.0 La Sportiva Helios Mizuno Wave Kazan
Upper Seamless synthetic mesh Synthetic mesh and Flexfilm Quick-Dry Trail Mesh (ripstop synthetic) HIghDrain Mesh Synthetic
Midsole High density EVA midsole Powergrid technology midsole Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound Top Layer MorphoDynamic Injection Molded EVA/ 2mm LaSpEVA U4ic midsole with Smoothride Engineering
Outsole Self-cleaning carbon rubber with forefoot rockplate XT-900 carbon rubber with rockplate Sticky Rubber TrailClaw with removable rock shield insert FriXion AT/ VA Wave X-studded rubber
Weight (per pair, size 11) 23.2 21 19.6 w/o insert, 22.4 w/ rockshield insert 19 22
Heel-to-Toe Drop 4mm 4mm 0mm 4mm 12mm
Lacing style Sure lace Traditional with gaiter clip Traditional Traditional Traditional
Sizes Available 7 - 14 5 - 12 7 - 15 38 - 46 7 - 14
Color Options Black/blue; Orange/yellow; Grey/blue; Roange/maroon Grey; Mint; Purple Blue/yellow; Grey/green Blue/Grey; Grey/Dark Orange; Grey/Red Red/Blue/Yellow; Grey/Tangerine/Blue

  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



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 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!

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The 2015 lineup of trail runners, all begging to be run in! We added seven new pairs to our review this summer! L to R: ASICS Kahana 7, Adidas Vigor 5, Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2, Saucony Peregrine 5, Brooks Cascadia 10, Altra Superior 2.0, New Balance Leadville 1210v2.
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 a combination of heel-toe drop and amount of cushioning. Heel-toe drop is the height of underfoot cushioning at the heel minus the height of underfoot cushioning at the toes; it generally ranges from 0 to 14 millimeters. Listed below are four basic genres of trail runners, which are expanded upon in our 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. They typically have a 0mm drop and almost no cushioning or underfoot protection except for a sole. 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 bestselling 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.

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The La Sportiva Helios was one of the low-profile shoes that we tested.
Credit: Lara Getz

Low-Profile


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, the Saucony Peregrine 5, the Altra Superior 2.0 and The North Face Ultra Trail.

The Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2, our Editors' Choice winner, falls between the low profile and traditional categories. It has the heel-toe drop of a low profile shoe but the underfoot protection of a traditional shoe. This is part of why we loved it so much.

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 rockplate, aggressive lugged traction, and a water-shedding mesh upper. They typically have 6mm to 14mm of heel-toe drop, a feature that has been standard for running shoes for a long time. These shoes serve as great everyday trainers and thrive at 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. The majority of the products we reviewed fall into this category, including the New Balance Leadville 1210v2, the Mizuno Wave Kazan, the Brooks Cascadia 10, the Salomon Speedcross 3 and Salomon XA Pro 3D, the ASICS GEL-Kahana 7, and the Adidas Vigor 5 TR.

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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. 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 Stinson ATR if this category interests you. Our review of The Best Trail Running Shoes for Women contains two additional maximalist shoes: the Altra Olympus 1.5 - Women's and the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR - Women's.

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

A Note on Motion Control Shoes
Virtually all of the shoes we have tested here are defined as neutral shoes, however, the ASICS GEL-Kahana 7 and Salomon XA Pro 3D are exceptions. 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 or supinator. Although this can be a contentious topic, there are many recent studies showing that supinating or over-pronating does not cause a higher rate of injury, 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. 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 obviously full of countless product options to choose from, and like most consumer goods, the developmental trends of new products is largely consumer driven. Of course, never-before-seen new technology is constantly under development, but in general manufacturers are trying to produce the products that consumers want to buy, and this is driven by fashion and other current trends. These consumer demands fluctuate year-to-year.

There are three current trends that we have noticed and want to highlight. The first is that heel-toe drops in almost all models of shoes are dropping. The days of 14mm of drop seem to be gone, with most traditional shoes falling in the 8mm to 10mm range and most companies releasing their higher performance shoes with 4mm of drop, the category we defined as low-profile above. This trend seems to be the effect of applying a minimalist ethos in a rational way to everyday shoes, and we believe it is a very good thing.

Our pick for Best Buy – the Saucony Peregrine 5 – and our Top Pick for Zero Drop – the Altra Superior 2.0 – both fall into the category of low-profile. These shoes are perfect examples of minimalist features in shoes that still offer enough protection for serious mountain running.

The second trend is that true minimal/barefoot shoes have mostly faded away in the trail running scene. These shoes seem to have been a fad, although their effect on the rest of the trail shoe market was significant and positive. That said, there are handfuls of die-hards that still only run in minimalist shoes. A feature that persists is zero drop, or 0mm heel-toe drop, found most prominently in all shoes made by the company Altra. Their shoes have normal amounts of padding and protection underfoot and are thus not minimalist in the way of the barefoot shoes. Altra's following continues to grow as people who swear by zero drop for mechanical reasons find that cushioning and foot protection are still great features to have in a shoe. If you are interested in this type of shoe, check out our review of the men's Altra Superior 2.0 or the Altra Lone Peak 2.0 - Women's and Altra Olympus 1.5 - Women's.

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With very sticky rubber and an incredibly flexible mid and outsole, the Superiors were easily our top pick for scrambling or runs on rocks and talus where friction and agility were rewarded. They are also zero drop.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley

The last trend is that the Maximalist category of trail shoes - introduced years ago by HOKA ONE ONE - is still expanding. HOKA's line-up is ever broadening, and now includes some significantly lighter trail options, like the Challenger ATR featured in our women's review. New Balance is also a player in this market with their new Fresh Foam line-up. We intend to broaden our reviews in this category in our Fall 2015 update, so check back! For more information on the evolution and history of these shoes, click here.

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 topic, check out our Buying Advice article. Read on to see how these different types of trail runners 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 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 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.

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The Leadville 1210v2s are made for running! On trails! The lovely amount of cushioning under your foot will carry you for a whole lot of these kinds of miles, and the top notch upper construction means they will last as long as you will.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley

But a rockplate is not the only method of underfoot protection. Many models, like the New Balance Leadville 1201v2 forego the rockplate 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. As we note throughout this review, protection often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.

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Two very protective shoes underfoot, done in a completely different way. The HOKA ONE ONE 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 5 (our Best Buy Award winner). 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 10. Our lowest scorer on the foot protection scale was The North Face Ultra Trail, a low-profile model that compensates by offering incredible sensitivity.

Traction

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

Mud, snow, grass, 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 that won't leave 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.

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The lugged outsole pattern of the Cascadia 10 offer great traction, and a perfect blend of stickiness and durability in the rubber.
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 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 3 had the most aggressive lugs while having an incredible ability to stick to harder surfaces like rock. We loved this shoe the most when traction was tough, in the mud or especially snow. Our lowest performer, the ASICS GEL-Kahana 7, 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 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. The Altra Superior 2.0, 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 couldn't avoid heel-striking on the 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 high scores in stability, extra stack height and cushioning may be something you find desirable.

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With no midsole rockplate, the Wave Kazan is very flexible, making it one of the most stable shoe that we tried, along with our Top Pick for Zero Drop, the Altra Superior 2.0.
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. Some shoes, like the Adidas Vigor 5 TR, 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.

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The Speedcross 3 undergoes our 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 products absorbed the least amount of water, and then shed it the best, making them ideally suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. 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, let them drain for 10 seconds, and then quickly weighed them again to see how much water weight 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.

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Another batch of shoes, another round of the bucket test. Here we dipped the shoes for 20 seconds, drained them for 10 seconds, then weighed them to see how much water weight they had absorbed. Unfortunately, the Leadville 1210v2 (shown here) took on the most water of any we tried.
Credit: Andy Wellman
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 Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 and the Altra Superior 2.0 proved to absorb the least amounts of water. While the Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 was also the closest to its dry weight after the run, many other models also fared will in this test, like the HOKA ONE ONE Stinson ATR and the Salomon Speedcross 3. Despite being a comfortable shoe that we liked, we found that the New Balance Leadville 1210v2 had the dubious distinction of absorbing the most water and also retaining the most water after the five minute 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 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, The North Face Ultra Trail, or the Altra Suprior 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 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.

We awarded the La Sportiva Helios our Top Pick for Light and Fast Running. It was the lightest shoe in the review, but more importantly, that lightness translated into such a nimble and quick feeling we couldn't help but give it an extra shout out. Weight does matter!

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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. 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 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.

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The Ultra Trail in action. This shoe ranked among 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 by exploring and interacting with the natural environment. So why run on trails rather than roads?

Running on roads tends to emphasize a more fluid stride and cadence brought about by the (at times) mind-numbingly boring repetition. 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.

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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 more of a test against yourself and the terrain. 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 or 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.

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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 shoes and get started.

Editors' Choice Award: Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2


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The wide platform of the Pearl Izumis means that they are very stable, even in rocky terrain like this. This is the kind of running where a rockplate is really nice and can save your feet from a ton of abuse. We were surprised with the flexibility of this shoe considering it does have a forefoot rockplate.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley
Deciding what shoe is the most worthy of our Editors' Choice award is usually as simple as sizing up all the choices and then seeing which one we reach for come race day. Race day is where all the hard work of training comes to fruition, and naturally one wants to be wearing their best pair of shoes. When it was time for us to attempt 100 miles on the trails we went straight to the Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2, and so we are proud to award it our Editors' Choice! The incredibly comfortable fit, wide and stable landing platform, light weight, optimal underfoot protection, and mud-shedding outsole had us convinced that there is no better shoe for running our best. It also scored the highest in our product rankings, further justifying our wholehearted recommendation. We loved these shoes even more when after abusing them for 12 straight hours they still looked basically new. This is certainly a testament to their durability and the ultimate indicator of a well-made shoe. Do your feet a favor and give these shoes a ride.

Best Buy Award: Saucony Peregrine 5


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A long run through the desert of the Canyonlands NP is perfect terrain for our Best Buy award winner - the Peregrine 5. Here shown in the testing grounds at the Colorado River.
Credit: Andy Wellman
The Saucony Peregrine 5 is still one of our very favorite shoes, despite being bumped from the Editors' Choice award in this year's review. It has a significantly different feel that we like just as much as the Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2, but as it is $10 cheaper, we felt that it was the perfect choice for our Best Buy Award. No other shoe will give you better performance for your money. We fell in love with the Saucony Peregrine 4 during our 2014 review, and used them for both the San Juan Solstice 50 mile race in Colorado, and then again for the Speedgoat 50k in Snowbird, Utah. When the new Saucony Peregrine 5 came out, we couldn't wait to try it! We loved it almost as much as its predecessor and continue to recommend it. This is the fourth lightest shoe in the test, and with a low 4mm heel-toe drop, it promotes 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. Rated amongst the very best shoes we have tried for three years running, and at an MSRP of $110, we feel that the Peregrine 5 offers you the most shoe for your money.

Top Pick for Zero Drop: Altra Superior 2.0


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Light, flexible, sensitive, sticky - the Superiors have many great qualities that make it the perfect talus running shoe. If you spend much time in the high country in the summer, you know how nice it is to be able to move fast over talus.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley
A number of years ago, our head tester's first foray into the world of zero drop shoes ended in disaster; after running in the industry's trendiest minimal shoes, he was left injured and dejected. So he was understandably hesitant to dive into reviewing the new Altra Superior 2.0. He started out with really slow and short runs to test the water, but the Superiors felt so good that he couldn't help diving in. Despite the initial hesitation, the natural zero drop platform now leaves him feeling as good or better after a run than any of the other shoes with a higher heel-toe drop. Consider this tester sold on the "natural" way to run! We recommend our Top Pick for Zero Drop to anyone who already runs in zero drop shoes, those we love the minimalist shoes but want a bit more cushioning and foot protection, or those simply interested in moving that direction with their running.

Besides the low profile, we loved the Superior's aggressive lugged traction that easily sheds mud and the super sensitive midsole. Having the option to add in extra rock protection when needed doesn't hurt either. The Superior is a light and fast shoe that has great trail feel and inspires quick dancing feet, and for all of those reasons we feel it is more than deserving of a Top Pick!

Top Pick for Light and Fast: La Sportiva Helios


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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 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 for Light and Fast.

The History of Trail Running Shoes


The first athletic shoes, known as trainers in the U.K. or as sneakers in the U.S., were called "plimsolls." These had thick rubber soles with a canvas upper sewed on. A direct descendant of these shoes today would be the Converse All-Star. The colored stripes on the shoes apparently reminded people of the plimsoll line on the hull of a ship, hence the name. Originally intended simply as beach shoes, plimsolls gained in popularity and cultural breadth until in the early 1900's they had become mandatory equipment in school gym classes and were worn by athletes in the Olympics.

For a more recent history, be sure to check out Recent Trends in the Trail Shoe Market.

The 1940's saw a boom in the creation of running shoe companies. While Keds were the most popular athletic shoes at the time in the U.S., the foundation of Adidas in Germany and New Balance in the U.S heralded the expansion that was to come. However, before they could be running on trails by the millions, people had to be running at all. It wasn't until the "running boom" of the 1970's–synthesized by American Frank Shorter winning gold at the 1972 Olympic Marathon, New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard "inventing" and popularizing jogging, and the creation by Nike of the large cushioned heels in running shoes that are ubiquitous today–that running became a mainstream cultural activity.

Even though Gordy Ainsleigh first ran the Western States 100 mile run in 1974, thereby creating the most historic and iconic trail race in America, and likewise the Leadville Trail 100, which is now the county's largest ultra race, first happened in 1983, it took the second running boom of the '90's to bring us trail running shoes. The "marathon boom," also coincided with a time of growing environmentalism, and inspired by a desire to get more in touch with real nature, people were hitting the trails. Running shoe companies used what they knew about athletic movement to create an entirely new genre of shoe–the hiking shoe. As a lightweight alternative to hiking boots, the market grew so rapidly it inspired industry leaders of today–like Salomon–to join in. It was then only a matter of time until companies started making running shoes designed exclusively for trails.

Trail running grew significantly throughout the next decade, but after the publication of Christopher McDougall's New York Times bestselling book Born to Run in 2009, it exploded. The book simultaneously brought ultra-running and barefoot running into the sports mainstream. Vibram FiveFingers became the must have "barefoot running" shoe, offering nothing in the way of cushioning or support other than a piece of rubber to cover the sole. The idea was to offer a shoe that promoted the more natural running mechanics that had been lost with the creation of "motion-control" shoes a generation before. Like the politics of the day, shoe companies moved away from the center, offering droves of "minimalist" shoes to capitalize on the current trend, or instead offering clownishly thick soles, popularized by the upstart HOKA ONE ONE, which offered unprecedented levels of cushioning for all of the ultra-running upstarts. But within a few years these extremes were shown to be just that - extreme - and to the benefit of trail runners today, the majority of shoes now tread a middle ground which include the best developments from both of these recent trends.

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The flexible midsole of our Editors' Choice winner (the Pearl Izumi) is both low profile yet still very protective with a forefoot rockplate. Its dynamic offset helps with the forward weight transfer allowing a more fluid stride. For such a protective shoe, the ride is indeed very smooth.
Credit: Elizabeth Riley

Andy Wellman
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