The Best Trail Running Shoes for Women Review
In our comparison of 13 of the best women's trail running shoes, we ran over a range of terrain in all kinds of weather; tackling steep rocky trails in the high alpine of the Peruvian Andes, conquering 30 mile point to point missions in the San Juan mountains, and running the river walk after work. We ran with different shoes on each foot to make side-by-side comparisons and tested traction by trudging through mud, soggy snowfields, and a slew of nasty surfaces. We dunked and dried each shoe to see which held the most water and which dried the fasted. After an exhaustive testing period, we rated each based on foot protection, stability, traction, comfort, sensitivity, and weight.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Are you a woman in search of adventure by trail? A trail running shoe is built to take you safely onto backcountry trails. On these adventures, there are a variety of surfaces you may encounter. You might find yourself on loose trails littered with rocks. Or you might be flying downhill on nicely groomed single track. On most trail runs you are bound to encounter unplanned obstacles like river crossings, mud, downed trees, roots, and rocks. So, what do these conditions demand from a shoe? And what do you need to consider to make sure you're prepared for anything a trail might throw at you?
As any consumer would observe, the shoe market is massive! If you take a walk down to your local shoe store you'll find a ginormous selection in a variety of categories. There are pavement running shoes, trail running shoes, walking shoes, cross fit shoes, and more! In the world of trail runners, there is further categorization based on the type of trail conditions out there and the type of runner you are. Most trail runners offer a combination of good foot protection, stability, and sensitivity. Some are lightweight and skimp on protective features while others are heavy and built to endure anything.
Since trail running involves running on uneven terrain, it's important to protect feet from potential trail hazards. Even more importantly, the shoe needs to be comfortable with a larger fit than normal to accommodate foot swelling (after long distances). In this Best in Class article, we discuss our award winners and how they compared to the rest. Each individual review covers each shoe in-depth, while our Buyers Advice article provides helpful tips on what to consider when purchasing a trail running shoe. Enjoy!
Types of Women's Trail Running Shoes
Take a look at the four different categories of trail specific running shoes covered in this article. Each shoe tested in place in one of the following categories; Traditional, maximalist, Barefoot, and Low Profile.
We recommend determining which category of shoe you prefer since this will help you narrow down which models will be best for you. Next consider your personal running priorities characterized by foot protection, type of traction, stability, weight, and sensitivity.
Traditional shoes have a heel-to-toe drop of 8 mm or more with ample cushioning in the heel. Using cushioning and support materials, these trail shoes are designed to accommodate the impact of heel striking and feature cushioning in both the heel and the midfoot. Traditional shoes in this review include: Pearl iZUMI Trail N2, Montrail Bajada 2, Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, New Balance Leadville v3, Brooks Cascadia 11, ASICS Kahana 8, and Salomon Speedcross 4.
The traditional shoe technology has been challenged by theories made famous by the book Born to Run. In this book, McDougall questions whether heel striking really is a healthier way to run and whether or not it leads to long-term injury. According to this philosophy, traditional shoes have been looked at as "enablers" of the heel striker, and thus aid in potential injury. Many minimalist and barefoot enthusiasts will side with the notion that traditional models are not good for the joints and do lead to long term injury. However, it is important to note that there is no notable or conclusive research showing the direct effects. This is where you as a consumer need to decide if the traditional style is right for you. If you run in traditional shoes and deal with regular aches and pains in your joints, you may want to consider trying a different type of shoe or changing your running stride.
HOKA ONE ONE has dominated the maximalist market over the last several years while leading with new innovations in technology every year. Over just the last few years we have seen these shoes transform from ugly and unwearable to cute and stylish with performance innovations to match.
This is a new trail running shoe category developed over the last ten years. Unlike other types of shoes, it is not defined by heel-to-drop, but instead are set apart by the amount of cushioning offered through the midsole. The cushioning in these shoes protects the foot, provides a flat and consistent ride, and maximizes comfort on the trail. That said, the maximalist shoes tested in this review are also considered 'low profile' as they feature a low 5 mm drop.
In our tests we have noticed maximalist shoes proved to be less stable with less sensitivity. They are great for both midfoot and heel strikers, but provide the most benefits for heel strikers. As with other shoe types, there is no definitive research showing the long-term benefits or detriments of these shoes. However, if you are dealing with chronic running pain or injury, you may consider this type of technology. Shoes featured in this review in the maximalist category includes the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 and HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat (Our Top Pick for Comfort).
A low profile trail running shoe is typically light with little to moderate cushioning in the heel. Some shoes have zero drop from heel to toe, while others can be up to 6 mm. Many low profile shoes also feature a wider toe box than you'd find with road runners. The intended benefit of less cushion is to train your body to move in a "more natural way". With a lack of cushion in the heel, it forces your body to use your mid or forefoot as the first point of contact in each step. These shoes are generally not recommended for heel strikers as there is little to no shock absorbance in the heel. Examples of low profile shoes include the La Sportiva Bushido, Saucony Peregrine 6, Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (zero drop), HOKA ONE ONE options, and the Salming Elements.
If you do decide to try a low profile shoe for the first time, make sure to break them in slowly. For some it could just take a week while others could take months. Listen to your body, and don't push it too hard. If it hurts, ease up.
Barefoot running shoes are intended to completely conform to your foot and imitate a barefoot running experience. These shoes are lightweight with have no cushion and often offer a wider toe boxes to allow your toes to splay. We did not test any in this article. Below is the Vibram KSO, a barefoot running shoe example, which has since been discontinued. If you're interested in barefoot models, check out the The Best Barefoot Shoes For Women Review.
Criteria for Evaluation
After polling numerous trail runners on popular facebook pages and chatting with friends, we learned that foot protection (20%), traction (20%), stability (20%), comfort & fit (20%), weight (10%), and sensitivity (10%) are the most important factors to consider when buying a trail running shoe. This makes sense because while running on uneven surfaces and technical terrain, it's important to keep feet protected from sharp rocks and other hazards while offering a certain level of sensitivity.
Most trail runners want an outsole that can perform on a variety of surfaces while offering a certain level of stability as well. Finally, a lightweight shoe is important for speed and endurance. Many of our runners preferred lighter shoes as they felt their legs could turn over faster and last for longer periods of time. In the end, we determined the performance of each shoe by subjecting each to many field and at-home tests. In this next section we will discuss the specific tests we carried out for each metric and how each shoe performed comparatively.
Foot protection is imperative when exposing feet to rough trail surfaces. Ruts, rocks, mud, snow, dust, and sand can cause discomfort if your feet aren't properly protected. For this metric we looked specifically at the shoe's ability to protect the underside of the foot. Through our testing, we learned that thicker cushioning or an integrated rock plate did better than those without.
We also looked at the hardness of the toe cap. Those with a hard toe cap performed better in this metric than those that are soft. Finally we looked at the porosity of the upper mesh. Shoes with a tightly knit mesh did better than shoes with a more porous design. Taking each of these micro-metrics into consideration while comparing each shoe side-by-side, we were able to decipher which shoes had the best foot protection.
In this round of trail shoe reviewing we learned that mostly every shoe offered some form of foot protection. Most shoes did well in this category, while others weren't so lucky. Our top performers in this category came from all shoe categories. Our Editor's Choice winner (the La Sportiva Bushido) features a tight-knit mesh that keeps pesky debris out. The rock plate and extra hard toe cap keeps the foot protected from most trail hazards. The Saucony Peregrine 6 - Women's has many similar features except the mesh itself is a little more porous, allowing smaller particulates to penetrate the upper.
Of the traditional and maximalist shoes, the classic Brooks Cascadia 11, Pearl iZUMI Trail N2, and HOKA ONE ONE varieties did a fantastic job. The HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 - Women's and HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat utilizes uber amounts of cushion that keeps feet protected from any and all trail hazards. The Speedgoat would have earned a perfect ten in this category had the upper not been so porous that we could actually see through it! This allowed fine particulate matter like sand and dust to get inside pretty easily.
The Pearl iZUMI Trail N2 v3 - Women's offers fantastic foot protection in the way of a rigid sole and rock plate. It features ample cushioning, similar to the New Balance Leadville Trail v3, but the Leadville does not have a rock plate. The Brooks Cascadia 11 - Women's offers similar cushioning to the Trail N2 in additional to a forefoot rock plate.
The Montrail Bajada 2 - like the Salomon Speedcross 4 - stands out for its burly protective exterior. This workhorse does a great on long trail runs to protect feet with its ample cushioning and traditional ride. The mesh is so tightly knit that nothing can penetrate its upper. This is similar to the Salomon Speedcross shoe, except the Speedcross has a continuous fabric design. We quickly learned that snow, mud, sand, and more were unable to penetrate the continuous-fabric upper making it very well protected. That said, neither of these shoes offered a solid rock plate, scoring them lower than others with a rock plate.
Shoes that did not offer the best in protection include the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, ASICS GEL-Kahana 8, and the Salming Elements. None of these shoes feature a rock plate or a particularly tough toe cap. That said, they all do a great job at keeping particulate matter out. The ASICS shoe provides some foot protection in the way of gel pods underfoot, making it score higher of the three. The Hayate 2 provides less cushioning than the ASICS but more than the Salmings. The Salmings scored the worst in this category. This shoe does not integrate a rock plate, nor does it have much cushioning to offer. It is the least protective of the shoes tested - which, for some - might be a good thing.
When treading over slippery and soft terrain, good traction inspires confidence and limits slips and falls. Based on where you run, your personal traction requirements may change. For example, if you find yourself in with lots of snow and rain, a shoe with longer lugs that does better in soft conditions is your best bet. If you run on groomed trails, a shoe with smaller lugs will provide better performance. If you like to cross over from groomed trails to the pavement, a shoe that can perform well on both is key.
When considering traction, we tested our contenders in all sorts of conditions. We ran groomed to slippery surfaces. We ran over rocks, snow, mud, groomed trails, and pavement. We also measured the length of lugs and considered how well each did in wet and dry conditions. In the end we were able to determine which shoe had the best traction over a variety of surfaces, and which were more specialized.
For all you technical trail runners
If you are looking for a trail running shoe with a special niche for technical and soft terrain, we recommend taking a look at the deep and widely spaced tri-tipped lug system offered by the Salomon Speedcross 4, our Top Pick for Sloppy Surfaces. This system provides the most trusted traction on both steep and flat terrain, as well as all the other backcountry surfaces tested in this review. We were surprised how well the soft non-marking contra-grip rubber performed over rocky surfaces and through mud and snow.
The La Sportiva Bushido, our Editors' Choice winner, was a very close runner up in our traction metric when compared to the Salomon Speedcross 4 - Women's. The complex and multi-directional tread design binds to most surfaces for trusted traction while rounding corners and bounding over boulders. During long rocky approaches to the crag, this shoe stuck well to boulders overlaid with small pebbles, which was a great relief with a heavy pack. The sticky rubber is on par with the Salomon Speedcross, but the lugs aren't as deep. This actually made the La Sportiva more versatile than the Speedcross. The Saucony Peregrine 6 performed similar to the Bushido. The new outsole featured on the Peregrine provides a comparative level of traction, doing well in dry and wet conditions. The only difference is the rubber isn't as soft and the lugs are different shapes. One downside of the La Sportiva Bushido tread is the lugs wore down faster than others. This is attributed to its softer rubber.
A new and surprising contender for traction is the Salming Elements. Featuring 8 mm lugs, (similar to the Speedcross), this shoe does well on soft terrain like mud and snow. We didn't think it was a great cross over shoe, nor did we think the outsole was as high quality as the Salomon Speedcross. The lugs weren't as thick and the rubber didn't seem nearly as durable. That said, we do like how well spaced the lugs are, shedding mud relatively easily.
If you're a road runner looking to get on the trails - or if you are a trail runner that likes to get on the roads, deep lugs and super complex tread patterns aren't necessary. Instead, consider a crossover shoe that boasts great traction on the trail, but not so much that it hinders your performance on the road. The best crossover road and trail specific runners that we tested include the New Balance Leadville v3, Pearl iZUMI Trail N2, Brooks Cascadia 11, Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, Montrail Bajada 2, ASICS GEL Kahana 8, and HOKA ONE ONE ATR Challenger 2.
Of all models tested, the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 and Brooks Cascadia 11 performed the best on and off trail. Both shoes feature a sticky outsole that does well on all trail terrain and works well for some sloppy surfaces. When getting off the trail, both shoes do well on both pavement and dirt roads.
Next is the Pearl iZUMI Trail N2 and New Balance Leadville v3. These shoes did a great job in a variety of terrain until reaching super sloppy or wet conditions. Both shoes - when wet - became very slippery and hard to trust. That said, on dry single track, technical terrain, and roads - they did just fine.
The Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 and ASICS GEL-Kahana 8 are probably the best on-road options of all the trail shoes tested; the Montrail Bajada 2 are also in this category. All offer decent traction for most trail surfaces, but performance went downhill when encountering gravel over rock. All shoes slipped and became unstable in this case. However, they did fine on most stable and groomed surfaces and excelled on pavement and dirt roads.
While constantly encountering uneven surfaces and obstacles on the trail, stability in a shoe is of utmost importance. Good stability could mean the difference between running or limping out of the woods. In our testing we determined that the most stable shoes have a lower stack height with a wider shoe platform and toe box. Some stable shoes have a rigid platform, while others have a flexible midsole that conforms to the contours of the trail. The most unstable shoes have a tall stack height with poor lateral and medial support. To test this metric, we simply ran technical trails with each shoe and observed how stable and confident we felt on the trail.
This year the most stable shoe tested was the Salming Elements. The lack of cushion and rock plate makes it ultra sensitive with a very low stack height. We were able to feel every contour of the trail without turning an ankle and this shoe features a flexible midsole that conforms to the trail. As a result, it earned a perfect ten in this metric.
Last year the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 stood out for its zero drop technology, wide tox box, and low profile. It scored a perfect ten last year. However, this year the shoe increased its stack height making it a little less stable, losing a point in this category.
Next, both the Pearl iZUMI Trail N2 and La Sportiva Bushido exhibited a similar level of stability that wasn't quite as stable as the Salming Elements. The Bushidos stand out for integrating stability shanks into the midsole, as well as having a low-profile design that keeps one close to the trail. The Pearl iZUMI has a similar level of stability with its wide platform and low stack height. The Saucony Peregrine 6 isn't quite as stable as they two top performers. The new design has a much higher stack height which has taken away from the stability of the shoe. Other products that performed well in this category included the ASICS Kahana 8 and Brooks Cascadia 11.
On the other side of the coin, it's not surprising that our maximalist contenders didn't score high in this category. With a tall stack height, maximalist shoes are bound to feel unstable, especially to maximalist newcomers who aren't used to the shoe. Of all tested, the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 provided the most stability of all the maximalist shoes. It sports thin uppers that wrap the foot nicely and a lower stack height than the HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat. In fact, it stacks about 3 mm lower. That said, for such a high shoe we were surprised to see how easily it conformed to the trail.
If you're an ankle roller, look for a stable shoe that will keep you low to the ground.
Comfort & Fit
Everybody wants to be comfortable on the trail - whether you're running an ultra-marathon, marathon, or just getting out after work. When considering comfort we focused on a few micro-metrics. First, we looked at the level of cushioning in the midsole. We found that the thicker the midsole, the more long term comfort the shoe provided. Second, we looked at the breathability of the upper. Uppers that with a more porous mesh generally provided better breathability than those without. Third, we looked at the fit of the shoe. In our individual reviews we discuss which shoe is best for those with a narrow and wide foot. We also looked at the space in the toe box and whether or not there was heel slippage while going up or down steep trails.
We are really impressed with the maximalist shoes in this category. The HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat really stood out for its 28 mm of foam cushioning; if you've ever wanted to run on a cloud, this shoe will give you that experience. The HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 provides a similar experience, but because the level of cushioning isn't as great. Both shoes fit a narrow foot best. The uppers on the Speedgoat are more breathable than the Challenger ATR 2 and perform well in hot weather.
Aside from our perfect ten winner, the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 and Pearl iZUMI scored the next highest in this category. Both offer a wide toe box, perfect for both wide and narrow footed runners. Both shoes offer all day comfort with a different fit and feel. The Altras have a looser fit while the Pearl iZUMIs are a little more fitted. The Altras are zero drop while the Pearls are more traditional. On the other end of the spectrum, our least comfortable shoe is the Salming Element and Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 for its lack of cushioning. The Brooks Cascadia also scored low due to its rigid foot platform that doesn't feel very inviting or plush.
Having a lightweight shoe on the trail can make a world of difference if you're out for the day. If you're an ultra-runner, a couple of ounces feels like additional ankle weights after 50 miles. If you're a recreational runner, the lighter weight may give you more speed and help you feel liberated on the trail. To evaluate weight, we performed three tests. First, we weighed each model while it was dry, then we dunked each pair in water for 30 seconds to compare how much water the shoes held when wet. Following this we observed which shoe was the quickest to dry. The shoes that scored the highest in this category held very little water weight and was the lightest of all tested. We used the following equation to figure out how much water each shoe held: Water Held = Wet Weight - Dry Weight
The lightest shoes tested were the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 (8 oz) and Salming Elements (8.65 oz), as both shoes have very little cushioning and feature few comfort elements. We were surprised to learn that the Salming Elements held an additional 5 oz of water per shoe! It was also took the longest to dry.
Following this is the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 (9.05 oz), Saucony Peregrine 6 (9.25 oz), HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat (9.65 oz), and the New Balance Leadville Trail v3 (9.9 oz). All these shoes felt light on the trail and didn't hold too much water. Even though the Saucony Peregrine 6 weighed less than the La Sportiva Bushido, it held almost an ounce more water when wet and didn't dry very quickly. We really loved that the Bushido was quick to wick and dry on trail.
The heaviest shoe tested is the Brooks Cascadia 11 weighing in at 11.35 oz. Not only does this shoe have a huge dry weight, but it also holds a ton of water when wet - 4.9 oz. However, it does dry faster than the Salming Elements. The next heaviest is the ASICS Gel Kahana 8 weighing 11.05 oz (dry) and holding only 3.2 oz of water when wet.
Feeling the trail underfoot is important for most trail runners. Enhanced sensitivity allows you to read the trail and readjust your body to ensure a healthy foot strike and position. To test this we took each shoe on the trail and observed how easily we were able to feel the trail underfoot. We even wore two different shoes on each foot for a direct comparison. Typically, a shoe with a low profile and limited cushion in the midsole scored best in this category.
The Salming Elements scored a perfect ten in this category. As our Top Pick for Flexibility, this shoe allows you to feel every contour of the trail. The lack of a rock plate and cushion allows this shoe's rider the ability to get intimate with the trail. Second to this is the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 that offers a tad more cushioning but still great sensitivity. Our Editor's Choice winner, the La Sportiva Bushido also scored high in this category as it features limited cushioning in the fore foot. Scoring lowest in this category are the HOKA ONE ONE contenders. The ample cushioning is an inherent trade-off for sensitivity.
Buying a pair of new trail running shoe can be uncertain and exciting. We hope that our exhaustive and in-depth review helps with your mission in finding the perfect trail runner for you. If you need more assistance, check out our Buying Advice for tips on how to buy the best trail runners for women.
— Amber King
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