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The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2020

Hitting the trails in the northern Front Range of Colorado when the aspen leaves are at their peak is a real treat  here running in the Supercross.
By Andy Wellman ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday May 12, 2020
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Want to know which are the best trail running shoes in 2020? Our expert testers have put over 80 pairs in the past 8 years through the wringer. Our current review details 19 of the best and most popular contenders today, describing how they fare in our rigorous, side-by-side testing. We've logged miles on desert single track, through shaded forests, and on gnarly mountain passes, not to mention a bit of off-trail travel through snow and tundra, to bring you the best recommendations. Whether you want a shoe with the best traction, the most cushioning, or the sleekest ride, we have the knowledge to point you in the right direction.

Related: The Best Women's Trail Running Shoes of 2020

Top 19 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 19
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Best Overall Trail Running Shoe


Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2


Editors' Choice Award

$134.96
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

79
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 10
  • Traction - 20% 7
  • Stability - 15% 8
  • Comfort - 15% 7
  • Weight - 10% 6
  • Sensitivity - 10% 6
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 8mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 22.7 oz.
Extremely protective midsole and upper saves your feet from abuse
Locks foot in place for a very stable ride
Highly durable and grippy outsole
Slightly narrow (could be a pro for some!)
Not very much padding in upper
Very expensive

Francois D'Haene may not be a familiar name to most people, but in the world of ultra-running, he is pretty much unbeatable at gnarly mountain 100-mile races. He has the course record at the largest and most iconic mountain 100 in the world, the UTMB in Chamonix, and also owns countless long FKTs, such as the 210-mile-long John Muir Trail in California's Sierra Nevada. He put this knowledge to use in the development of the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2, his signature shoe for a company that is known for listening seriously to the advice of their sponsored athletes. The S/Lab Ultra 2 uses a polyurethane injected upper mesh and Kevlar quick lace system, combined with a dense high-mileage EnergyCell EVA midsole, to offer the most protective shoe of any that we have tested. For running on difficult, rocky terrain, or for going extra-long distances, foot protection is the single most valuable attribute for a trail running shoe. In this department, the S/Lab Ultra 2 blows away the competition. This updated version is fairly similar to the original, but Salomon shaved off a few grams to lighten it slightly. Also, our head tester feels it's slightly less narrow in the toe box.

The biggest downside to this shoe is the exorbitant price tag. We believe that you are getting what you pay for but concede that this is a lot of money to pay for a temporary piece of equipment. Also, runners with wide feet may find the forefoot a bit too restrictive. If this sounds like you, try checking out another very protective offering, with a much wider toe-box — the Scarpa Spin Ultra. Plus, biomechanics nerds may not be thrilled with the 8mm heel-toe drop.

Salomon calls this a "racing only" shoe, but we found it far more durable than their other racing-only offerings such as the Sense line of shoes (which are equally expensive!). We enjoy wearing it as a daily trainer. If you appreciate the most fine-tuned engineering regardless of price, check out the S/Lab Ultra 2.

Read review: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2

Best for Zero Drop


Inov-8 Terraultra G 260


Top Pick Award

$89.98
(40% off)
at Amazon
See It

75
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 7
  • Traction - 20% 8
  • Stability - 15% 9
  • Comfort - 15% 7
  • Weight - 10% 7
  • Sensitivity - 10% 7
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 22.2 oz.
The graphene-enhanced outsole rubber is the most durable you can find
Sticky grip on all types of surfaces
Zero drop, yet protective enough for long-distance runs
Protective, stable, and sensitive
High volume fit perfect for runners with wide or large feet
Not as supple and sensitive as other zero drop shoes
Pricey

In 2018, Inov-8 introduced their first shoes using a revolutionary new rubber compound they call G-grip, featuring a graphene-infused outsole that is among the strongest and most durable that we have ever tested. Recently, the Terraultra G 260 received its first updates and remains one of the very best trail running shoes you can buy. Not only is it protective enough for long ultras, with Kevlar fabric overlays on the upper and G-grip rubber in the outsole, but it's also zero-drop! Simply put, no other zero-drop shoe can offer the advantages of this shoe. We've tested these shoes intensively on pumice fields of sharp and jagged lava rock along the PCT in Oregon, and they remained virtually unscarred after miles of rubber tearing terrain. We've also put them to the test scrambling in the San Juans of Colorado, and found that the rubber is not only durable but also impressively sticky. Combining this outsole performance with a solid and highly absorptive, but not flimsy, foam midsole ensures that they offer far more protection for the long haul than any other zero drop shoe.

The biggest downside is the price, although there are plenty of other shoes even more pricey that will not perform the same or last as long. It isn't the absolute most comfortable shoe, but slight improvements have been made to the comfort of the upper, so this isn't a major concern. Some runners may think a zero drop shoe should offer more sensitivity, but while it doesn't ride as low to the ground as the Merrell Bare Access XTR (see below), it does have a decent amount of trail feel. Runners new to zero drop shoes may experience calf or plantar fascia tightness when they first start, so they should transition slowly away from larger drop platforms. This is one of the best and most durable trail running shoes you can buy, and also happens to have the added bonus of a zero drop platform.

Read review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260

Best Traction


Salomon Speedcross 5


Top Pick Award

$97.46
(25% off)
at Backcountry
See It

71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 7
  • Traction - 20% 10
  • Stability - 15% 5
  • Comfort - 15% 8
  • Weight - 10% 3
  • Sensitivity - 10% 7
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 10mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 24.4 oz.
Insanely sticky rubber with huge aggressive lugs
Considerably wider toe box than previous versions
Fits like a glove
Not super breathable and a bit hot
High heel-toe drop isn't the most stable design
Heavy

The Salomon Speedcross 5 has long been known for its insanely aggressive outsole, a feature that forced almost every competing shoe brand to imitate it. Salomon has improved this by making the rubber on the sole even stickier so that it acts like glue to rock and even wet rock. More significantly, they widened the forefoot of this notoriously narrow shoe by a significant margin. This increased both comfort and wearability for those without narrow feet, while adding to stability with a larger landing platform. These changes, in addition to making the arrow-shaped lugs larger and farther apart for easier mud shedding, and increasing the durability of the already beefy upper, make this the best version of the Speedcross in at least the last six years. The shoe still fits like a glove, with the foot securely locked in place with Salomon's quick lace system; it feels supremely comfortable right out of the box. We've been running in these shoes for more than eight years now and saw our love for them diminish as they got narrower and tighter as time went on. Well, this newest version has won us back over.

This is a shoe that we once again love to run in but it still has some features that seem a bit outdated. Our biggest gripe is the 10mm heel-toe drop, combined with the very thick and high-off-the-ground heel counter. It's not only unstable, especially when running downhill, but a bit of a relic of a bygone era in shoe design. It's also pretty heavy on the spectrum of ever-lighter trail shoes these days, and it retains its reputation for running a bit warm and short on breathability. This means these shoes are better used for higher altitude mountain runs where the air is cool, which is what they are designed for anyway. While a lot of other companies have put serious effort into improving the traction on their shoes, our side-by-side testing shows that the Speedcross simply grips the best. If you enjoy running off-trail or in the mountains where the ground is often wet, snowy, muddy, rocky, and steep, the Speedcross 5 is an ideal choice, with traction unrivaled by any other shoe.

Read review: Salomon Speedcross 5

Best for Maximum Cushioning


HOKA Speedgoat 4


Top Pick Award

$144.95
at Backcountry
See It

69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 9
  • Traction - 20% 7
  • Stability - 15% 5
  • Comfort - 15% 8
  • Weight - 10% 4
  • Sensitivity - 10% 4
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 4 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 23.6 oz.
Comfortable and protective
Great cushioning underfoot
Comes in regular and Wide EE versions
Long-lasting durability
Great traction
Heavier than previous versions
Rides high off the ground
Absorbs more water than previously

In just over a decade, maximally cushioned Hoka One One shoes have gone from laughably silly to completely normal and mainstream. These shoes offer significant advantages over regular trail runners in the form of drastically increased underfoot protection due to the huge amount of midsole EVA foam cushioning, and also greatly increased shock absorption. Our favorite Maximally Cushioned shoe for trail running is the Hoka Speedgoat 4, the newest version of the shoes designed by Karl Meltzer, the "Speedgoat." These shoes improve on the already fantastic previous version by widening the toe box slightly, and offering a wide EE shoe for those who simply can't squeeze their feet into a regular width. The underfoot foam compound has been changed slightly to purportedly be a bit more springy, although our testers had a hard time telling the difference when wearing one new shoe and one Speedgoat 3 on comparative runs. The Vibram Megagrip outsole offers fantastic traction, on all types of terrain, and is, without doubt, the grippiest outsole on any of the many Hoka shoes that we have tested over the years.

While the positives far outweigh the negatives, we will still point out that we are slightly disappointed that this shoe gained about half an ounce of weight, per shoe, compared to the last version. And while we like the new durable mesh upper material that feels thinner, lighter, and simultaneously more burly than what we have become used to, our water bucket test also revealed that it absorbs more water than the last version, and doesn't shed it as quickly. Due to their increased shock absorption, Hokas have become the most popular shoe for ultra races, and with good reason. We also love how they allow us to bomb down steep hills with a bit more impunity than your average trail runners, and acknowledge that as we age and our bodies lose some of their natural built-in cushioning, the appeal of Hokas continues to grow. Runners who fit into any of the above categories should consider Hokas as a viable choice, and for trail running, look no further than the Speedgoat 4.

Read review: Hoka Speedgoat 4

Best Lightweight Trail Shoe


Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6


Top Pick Award

$129.95
at Backcountry
See It

74
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 6
  • Traction - 20% 7
  • Stability - 15% 9
  • Comfort - 15% 9
  • Weight - 10% 7
  • Sensitivity - 10% 8
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 4mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 21.5 oz.
Very comfortable and flexible
Low weight
Low to the ground and very stable
Good grip in dry conditions
Less protection underfoot compared to others
Grips poorly in wet conditions/mud
White colors get very dirty when trail running

Do you enjoy running on trails, but don't like to plod along in some behemoth of a shoe, sacrificing speed for a stiff, unresponsive ride? Then we highly recommend checking out the Nike Terra Kiger 6, our favorite lightweight shoe for running fast. We've long been in love with the Terra Kiger line, and find that the newest iteration of this shoe is just as fun and enjoyable to run in as all of the others we've tested over the years. This shoe feels light on the foot, offering a nimble flexibility that allows for dancing over rocks and bounding down smooth single track. It's also great for keeping the cadence high, while providing solid traction on dry surfaces. Perhaps best of all, this shoe is stable and sensitive, but can handle long distances with ease.

We've put at least 10 solid trail runs in these shoes, while also alternating them with other competitors, and find them to be one of the most fun shoes for running in daily. Despite claims of a forefoot rockplate, they are a bit light on underfoot protection, so don't gobble up miles of talus or endless boulderfields as well as more cushioned alternatives. They also aren't super great in wet or slippery conditions; their sticky outsole rubber shines much better when the surfaces remain dry. Depending on what color schemes you choose (we opted for the clown colors), these shoes are bright in a way that will certainly get you noticed, but which also quickly stain brown after a couple runs. The Terra Kigers are only minimally changed from the previous version, and are the best shoes you can choose if running light and fast equals more fun.

Read review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6

Best Affordable Zero Drop Trail Shoe


Merrell Bare Access XTR


Best Buy Award

$90.10
(10% off)
at Amazon
See It

65
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 5
  • Traction - 20% 6
  • Stability - 15% 9
  • Comfort - 15% 5
  • Weight - 10% 9
  • Sensitivity - 10% 8
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 18.2 oz.
One of the most affordable trail shoes on the market
Rides very low to the ground for unparalleled trail feel
Very light
Super stable with enhanced arch support
Arch support can feel a bit intrusive for some
Not much cushioning to protect the foot
Not recommended for severely rocky trails

The Inov-8 Terraultra G 260 (described above) is currently the best zero-drop running shoe on the market, but it has two elements that some zero-drop runners will not love — the heavy underfoot cushioning and the high price. For those runners, we recommend the Merrell Bare Access XTR. It's among the most affordable trail runners that we have reviewed, and at a time when the price of shoes seems to jump every year, these shoes have retained a price tag that was the norm about 10 years ago. That helps budget-minded runners reel in the costs of their increasingly pricey sport. Many zero-drop runners originally fell in love with these shoes because of the intimate trail feel they afford, something being lost as thicker platforms of foam cushioning are added onto the majority of zero-drop shoes. The Bare Access XTR is an exception, employing Merrell's "all you need" philosophy, which has been fine-tuned over years of making amazing barefoot shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove. Think of this shoe as embracing the ethos of a barefoot shoe, but with enough protection underfoot to enable running on non-technical trails at a full running cadence without the fear of wrecking your feet.

They still lack the cushioning or rockplate needed for bombing through boulder fields and over the rockiest trails. They also offer a significant under-arch support that may feel nice with the zero-drop platform or may annoy you to no end. Unfortunately, the insole is "integrated," meaning it's sewn in place and cannot be removed or traded out for an after-market option. And while the outsole handles fine on smooth trails and even road surfaces, it doesn't offer much bite on slippery mud, snow, or loose dirt. The result is a shoe you may want to add to your quiver, but probably won't expect to run in it exclusively day in and day out. For those who like the sensitivity of running in barefoot shoes but want more protection, or those zero-drop aficionados who want to save a cash, check out the Bare Access XTR.

Read review: Merrell Bare Access XTR

Best Crossover Shoe


Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail


Top Pick Award

$90.96
(30% off)
at Backcountry
See It

71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot protection - 30% 6
  • Traction - 20% 6
  • Stability - 15% 7
  • Comfort - 15% 10
  • Weight - 10% 7
  • Sensitivity - 10% 8
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 10 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 21.3 oz.
Extremely comfortable upper
Lightweight breathable mesh for good ventilation
Pleasantly sensitive for non-technical trail running
Performs equally well on roads and pavement
Lacks the protection or durability needed for gnarly mountain trails
Large heel-toe drop (10mm) compromises stability on uneven terrain

Nike's third trail-specific running shoe, the Pegasus 36 Trail, is a modified version of the Pegasus 36, one of their oldest and most popular road running shoes. The shoe fits nicely into their lineup as a hybrid crossover shoe, ideal for running on either pavement or moderate, non-technical trails like those commonly found in urban parks, or dirt roads. What we really love about it is that it's easily one of the most comfortable running shoes we've ever worn. It's a bit more snug, form-fitting, and comfortable than the road version of the shoe. The shoes are relatively light while offering a considerable amount of underfoot cushioning, and the move to a thin, unpadded tongue feels natural. It's literally a shoe that we had a hard time taking off, preferring it for any sort of outdoor activity, from hiking to walking or running errands, not to mention evening runs on the well packed and groomed dirt trails at Smith Rock State Park.

As with any crossover shoe, this one is not the best fit for the gnarly mud, snow, grass, or rocky mountain terrain that many people associate with "trail" running. Its 10mm of heel-toe drop and generous Nike Air cushioning more closely fits the mold of a road running shoe than one that will thrive in off-camber, off-trail terrain. That said, this shoe doesn't claim to be made for those situations (check out the Nike Wildhorse 6 instead if you want something for technical, rocky terrain), and is fantastically comfortable when running on the type of mellower trails that most of us typically frequent. If you are looking for a very comfortable shoe that is equally at home on all the surfaces found on an urban run, then we highly recommend the Pegasus 36 Trail.

Read review: Nike Pegasus 36 Trail


Cruising trails through the alpine tundra in Colorado  the Pegasus 36 Trail is the perfect choice for runs like this -- collecting miles in beautiful locations.
Cruising trails through the alpine tundra in Colorado, the Pegasus 36 Trail is the perfect choice for runs like this -- collecting miles in beautiful locations.

Why You Should Trust Us


This review is led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. As a young boy growing up in Colorado, Andy's parents took him for a hike up the popular 14er, Quandary Peak. After huffing and puffing to the summit, he remembers being blown away by seeing a man running down the mountain. Andy soon gave chase, picked up a few pointers from the nice man along the way, and has been a trail runner ever since. He has participated in trail races all over the world, and for a period of time even lived as a nomadic dirt bag so that he could run in the mountains each day. Some of his most memorable runs have taken place in the Himalayas of Nepal, the Pyrenees of Spain, and in the Grand Canyon, but his favorite places to run are the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges of southern Colorado. He lives in the small mountain town of Ouray.

The Roclite 290 are not one of the most protective shoes  and instead offer great trail feel and sensitivity. They are perhaps better for shorter distance efforts for this reason. Here testing them on great single track next to the Deschutes River in Oregon.
The softer Contagrip TA rubber compound grips extremely well to rock  making this a great shoe for scrambling in the course of the run.
Running downhill on steep trails will certainly test the stability of a shoe  where lower heel-toe drop and lower stack heights usually perform better. Here testing the Pegasus 36 Trail  with its added air pocket in the heel and fantastic fit that kept our foot securely and comfortably in place  it was reasonably stable.

Testing of trail running shoes never really ends, as companies now release new models all throughout the calendar year. These shoes are tested in all seasons, on road trips all over the country, and are continuously compared against the other newest shoes available, as well as against previous versions of the same shoe (you should see all the shoes in Andy's closet!). As a bit of a Luddite, he doesn't wear a watch or log his miles and time spent running, but has run in and tested over 80 different pairs of trail running shoes over the past eight years, so feels he has a pretty informed idea about what works and what doesn't out on the trail. That said, since it can sometimes be hard to find people with the same size foot to help him test shoes, he also chats with pretty much every runner he meets to get their opinions of the shoes on their feet. You can rest assured that what you read in this review is knowledge hard-won through time actually spent out on the trail.

Related: How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

The trails at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon are a fantastic winter training ground because they are almost always dry while the surrounding mountains are buried in snow. Here cruising a ridgeline trail in the Challenger ATR 5 in January.
The trails at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon are a fantastic winter training ground because they are almost always dry while the surrounding mountains are buried in snow. Here cruising a ridgeline trail in the Challenger ATR 5 in January.

Analysis and Test Results


We judge trail running shoes based upon six different metrics: foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity. Why each metric is important for shoe performance, how we test for the metric, and which shoes perform best for that criteria are some of the things discussed below. Keep in mind that all ratings and comparisons are made in relation to the other products tested and a shoe with a low score can still be a great shoe. We recommend identifying what aspects of a shoe's performance matter most to you, in order to zero in on the best choices for your needs.

Running away from the grey clouds in the Cloudventure shoes  on a high ridgeline trail with the San Juans in the background.
Running away from the grey clouds in the Cloudventure shoes, on a high ridgeline trail with the San Juans in the background.

Value


A significant consideration when selecting a pair of trail running shoes is the value of the purchase. While one could simply assume that you get what you pay for, years of testing has proven to us that this isn't always the case.

Exploring the alpine tundra of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado wearing the Salomon Supercross  a shoe designed for soft ground and steep ascents  exactly what we found on this run.
Exploring the alpine tundra of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado wearing the Salomon Supercross, a shoe designed for soft ground and steep ascents, exactly what we found on this run.

When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are important to consider: price, performance, and longevity. Two of these, price and performance, are easily quantifiable and can be compared effectively.


The third aspect of value for a trail running shoe is longevity, something that is not at all easy to quantify. Since all pairs of shoes wear out and need to be replaced, finding shoes that can withstand more miles of abuse before disintegrating helps ascertain that shoe's value. Unfortunately, not only does every runner put a different amount of strain on their shoes, but we don't have the time or energy to completely trash every pair of shoes before publishing our findings!

The Wildhorse 5 are an ideal shoe for running long distances  for logging tons of training miles  or for running ultra races. They perform best on dry trails  such as this one above Wychus Creek in central Oregon.
The Wildhorse 5 are an ideal shoe for running long distances, for logging tons of training miles, or for running ultra races. They perform best on dry trails, such as this one above Wychus Creek in central Oregon.

Foot Protection


In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it doesn't offer your foot protection, why would you be wearing it? The largest component of protection is what is found underfoot — in short, the combination of the outsole and midsole. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of your body, so if you intend to run on rocky and uneven terrain, which is what we do when we trail run, then your shoe will need adequate underfoot protection. Forego this protection, and watch how your feet will dictate to you whether you can run on a trail or not, and how fast you can go.


Most underfoot protection comes in one of two forms: a rock plate made of a plastic or composite material that adds rigidity to the shoe and absorbs impacts, or in lieu of that, thick foam cushioning. The most common type of foam used is EVA, which not only protects the foot from protrusions but also absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into a runner's body. The third method of underfoot protection, found on the Nike shoes in this review, is trapped air pockets in the heel that also offer both protection and cushioning. Interestingly, foot protection often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we grade for both.

Bombing down hills is one of the great pleasures of trail running and is certainly made easier by the copious amounts of plush EVA foam underfoot in the Challenger ATR 5  one of the most protective shoes underfoot you can buy.
Bombing down hills is one of the great pleasures of trail running and is certainly made easier by the copious amounts of plush EVA foam underfoot in the Challenger ATR 5, one of the most protective shoes underfoot you can buy.

A lesser component of foot protection is how well the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your feet from protrusions like sticks or abrasion by rocks. The ends of the toes are a common point of abuse, as we have all accidentally kicked a rock while bombing down the trail. Rigid toe bumpers go a long way in helping to alleviate this pain, as does choosing a shoe that is not too tight on the toes. Many manufacturers skimp on upper materials to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are as mighty as a Kevlar bulletproof vest.

Running across any sort of rough  rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot  but crossing lava fields  like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon  makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.
Running across any sort of rough, rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot, but crossing lava fields, like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon, makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.

There are a handful of shoes that offer foot protection that is better than the rest. Our Editors' Choice award-winning Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 does a great job of protecting the undersides of our feet with its dual-density EVA foam, while also providing far more upper protection than any other shoe we tested. The combination left us smiling, and ensured we could run down a trail as out of control as we wanted, knowing that our shoes had our feet covered. Another shoe that doesn't skimp on protection is our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning, the Hoka Speedgoat 4. This shoe, as well as the other Hokas we have tested, has foam that's denser and more absorptive than we would expect. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 6 also offer an exemplary amount of foot protection. Since we think this is such a vital component, we weighted foot protection as 30% of a shoe's final score.

Running down trails covered in sharp rocks and talus such as this one  it is nice to have a solid amount of foot protection. While the rock plate in this shoe will dampen the blow somewhat  it is still easy to feel the rocks underfoot  requiring you to step carefully.
Running down trails covered in sharp rocks and talus such as this one, it is nice to have a solid amount of foot protection. While the rock plate in this shoe will dampen the blow somewhat, it is still easy to feel the rocks underfoot, requiring you to step carefully.

Traction


If it weren't for the drastically increased performance when it comes to traction, there would be only a minimal amount of incentive to purchase trail running shoes instead of road running shoes. Based on this assessment, one could certainly make the argument that traction is the single most important aspect of a trail running shoe, and is certainly one of the very first things you should check out when trying on a new pair of trail shoes.


To come up with these scores, we devised several controlled tests where we tested each pair of shoes one at a time and rated them based on how well they did on that surface. The different surfaces are steep dirt, steep grass, mud, snow, dry rock, and wet rock. The scores above are an amalgamation of a shoe's performance on all of these separate surfaces; the higher the score, the more surfaces that the shoe would be capable of easily sticking to, with a high level of confidence that it wouldn't slip.

Showing the Speedcross 5 on the left (blue)  and the Supercross on the right (black). While the lug patterns are slightly different  the effect is the same  these shoes grip fantastic on soft or loose surfaces. Very noticeable as well is the extra width to the forefoot of the Supercross (right)  which is easily 4mm wider than its much narrower cousin.
Showing the Speedcross 5 on the left (blue), and the Supercross on the right (black). While the lug patterns are slightly different, the effect is the same, these shoes grip fantastic on soft or loose surfaces. Very noticeable as well is the extra width to the forefoot of the Supercross (right), which is easily 4mm wider than its much narrower cousin.

Two main factors contribute to a shoe's ability to grip a variety of surfaces well: the type and spacing of lugs, and the performance of the rubber used. In general, deeper, more aggressive lugs will grip most surfaces better, especially steep dirt, grass, mud, and snow. More and more trail running shoes are reflecting this with the aggressiveness of lugs growing across the board in recent years. Lugs that are spaced closely together tend to do a better job of gripping well on rock and hard dirt surfaces, while lugs that are further apart tend to do the best job of shedding mud without allowing it to build up into a huge, heavy pancake on the bottom of the shoe.

The hardness of rubber also plays a large part in the traction performance of a shoe. Softer rubber tends to be stickier and does a far better job gripping rock, both wet and dry. The downside of soft rubber is that it wears out, or in some cases rips off, often shortening the life of the shoe. In contrast, firmer rubber tends to be more durable and last longer but doesn't stick to rock nearly as well. Firm rubber is preferable for shoes that will mostly be used on firm surfaces, like hard-packed dirt trails.

The outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 is made with the new graphene enhanced G-grip rubber that we have found to be very durable when running over hard abrasive surfaces like rock. The plethora of 6mm deep cleats found on the bottom also provide excellent traction on soft surfaces like dirt  mud  grass  and snow.
The outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 is made with the new graphene enhanced G-grip rubber that we have found to be very durable when running over hard abrasive surfaces like rock. The plethora of 6mm deep cleats found on the bottom also provide excellent traction on soft surfaces like dirt, mud, grass, and snow.

While all of the shoes we test offer pretty solid traction, especially on your standard dirt trail, a few are particularly noteworthy for their excellent grip. The Salomon Speedcross 5 has gigantic protruding rubber lugs spaced far apart for the absolute best grip on mud, grass, and snow. It is also the stickiest of any we tested on rock and wet rock, although the lugs have a propensity for wearing down quickly if used too often on hard surfaces. The similarly lugged Salomon Supercross is a more affordable version with many of the same attributes as the Speedcross 5, if large lugged traction is a primary desire. The graphene infused G-grip rubber found on the bottoms of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 and the TerraUltra G 260 is also impressively sticky on rock, and is extremely durable. In fact, with the addition of graphene, the strongest textile substance ever lab tested by man, these shoes have the most durable outsoles of any we tested, adding significantly to their value.

The summit of Coxcomb Peak is well-known as one of the hardest 13ers in Colorado to access  with mandatory chossy 5.6 scrambling. Here is the author  about to reverse the crux section along the summit ridge  racing the impending lightning storm  while wearing the Inov-8 Roclite 290. Photo by Stephen Eginoire.
The summit of Coxcomb Peak is well-known as one of the hardest 13ers in Colorado to access, with mandatory chossy 5.6 scrambling. Here is the author, about to reverse the crux section along the summit ridge, racing the impending lightning storm, while wearing the Inov-8 Roclite 290. Photo by Stephen Eginoire.

Stability


Trail running takes place over uneven ground, and being able to land and push off from a stable platform is a critical feature of how well a shoe performs. Failure to maintain stability through the running stride will lead to either losing traction and slipping, or even worse, rolling an ankle, potentially leading to injury.


Through our extensive testing over many years, we have found that stability is largely impacted by the following four factors: stack height, heel-toe drop, landing platform, and fit of the upper. The stack height represents how much material rests between the ground and your foot, and is measured in millimeters. In most cases, the larger the stack height, the greater the chance for a rolled ankle, although this threat can be mitigated by having a wider landing platform. The landing platform is the shape of the bottom of the shoe. Wider typically ensures greater stability, while a narrower platform is less stable. Heel-toe drop measures the difference in stack height between the heel and the toes, once again measured in millimeters.

Over the last many years, shoe companies, largely in response to customer demand, have been slowly lowering the average heel-toe drop, which today rests around 4-8 mm. Shoes with a substantial drop are considerably less stable on uneven terrain, especially going downhill. Shoes with 0mm of drop, known as zero-drop, are usually the most stable. Finally, a shoe with an upper that holds your foot firmly in place allows you to land squarely on top of the footbed, minimizing foot movement within the shoe. The opposite of this is sloppy shoes that don't hold the foot in place through the stride, which are inherently less stable.

Another key factor when considering foot stability is the firmness of the midsole under your foot. Very stiff shoes tend to be more stable than very soft and pliable ones. A flexible shoe that can easily bend in any direction is more sensitive and allows your foot to take the shape of what it lands upon, but this is not generally the most stable design. We have accustomed ourselves to walking on flat, even surfaces, and so a shoe that provides this for you, especially if you are stepping on a very uneven surface like rocks, feels more stable. Of course, stiffness leads to a clunkier feel, which isn't nearly as sensitive and tends to be a bit heavier, so there are trade-offs, and personal preference plays a roll in what will feel better for you.

With a wide forefoot  a low stack height  and a zero-drop platform  the Superior 4 are quite stable  with a very low propensity to cause an ankle to roll. They are soft and mold to the terrain they land on  like this grassy side-hill.
With a wide forefoot, a low stack height, and a zero-drop platform, the Superior 4 are quite stable, with a very low propensity to cause an ankle to roll. They are soft and mold to the terrain they land on, like this grassy side-hill.

Most of our testing for stability is done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compare shoes in a more controlled setting by running in each of them one after the other both across a steep hillside and straight down a similarly steep slope. The Altra Superior 4, a very light and low-riding zero-drop shoe, is one of the most stable that we tested. The combination of a completely flat footbed without any heel rise, and a super-wide platform that allows one's feet to splay out fully when landing, ensures that stability is never compromised with this shoe. Despite having a 4mm heel-toe drop, the Nike Terra Kiger 6 feels equally as stable when running on varied terrain. This is due once again to the wide toe box and forefoot area of the shoe and the very low to the ground ride. The Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260 and Scarpa Spin Ultra scored similarly well in our head-to-head stability testing. As a critical component of a trail running shoe's performance, but not the most important, we assign stability 15% of a shoe's final score.

Running down steep hills or across uneven terrain like this one is a test of a shoe's stability. While these shoes are not super stable compared to the competition  they are still plenty stable on terrain like this  as long as you step carefully.
Running down steep hills or across uneven terrain like this one is a test of a shoe's stability. While these shoes are not super stable compared to the competition, they are still plenty stable on terrain like this, as long as you step carefully.

Comfort


Comfort is probably the single most important criteria when it comes to selecting a running shoe, or any footwear at all for that matter, and is what we recommend you value above all other factors when selecting a pair of shoes for you. However, it is also the criteria most difficult to rate - because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person could be 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 slightly long or short. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we only to rate it 15% of a product's final score. We don't want to penalize a shoe that feels uncomfortable to our head tester too much when many other people will naturally end up loving it. However, we have found some universal factors that can be compared and rated.


Craftsmanship seems to play a large role in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs use a seamless construction that makes them easy to wear sockless (although we don't commonly do so, except for comparison testing). Poorly sewn seams or out of place material overlaps inside a shoe tend to rub and wear against the foot over long distances, significantly decreasing their overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that don't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place mean that we need to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit, often leading to discomfort along the top of our feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances. Some shoes don't breathe very well and leave our feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others are a bit too short for the size, meaning our toes will hit the front of the shoe, especially while running downhill. Most of our findings for the Comfort metric are based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also conduct the water drainage test to get a better grip on which shoes absorb the least amount of water or sweat; the test also measures which contenders are the most efficient at drying out afterward, which we define as another essential component of comfort.

Running on the trail that circumnavigates the Mountain Lake on Orcas Island  Washington  on a very warm spring day  while wearing the La Sportiva Kaptiva  a very comfortable and form-fitting shoe.
Running on the trail that circumnavigates the Mountain Lake on Orcas Island, Washington, on a very warm spring day, while wearing the La Sportiva Kaptiva, a very comfortable and form-fitting shoe.

The most comfortable shoe tested, the Nike Pegasus 36 Trail, is an ideal cross-over shoe that is simply as comfortable as shoes can get. Also featuring very comfortable and plush padding that makes the foot feel more like they are ensconced in slippers than shoes is the Scarpa Spin Ultra. The newest version of a longtime, low-to-the-ground favorite — the Nike Terra Kiger 6 — is another top contender when it comes to comfort. Many other shoes featured in this review are also exceedingly comfortable, but we acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to eliminate user bias when assessing for comfort. With that in mind, we still strongly recommend you try shoes on before committing to a purchase. If you decide to order online, do so from a company that will allow you to return them if they don't fit as well as you had hoped.

Running through some really incredible and large burned out trees in the Pole Creek Drainage of the Sisters Wilderness  OR  in the rain  while wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra.
Running through some really incredible and large burned out trees in the Pole Creek Drainage of the Sisters Wilderness, OR, in the rain, while wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra.

The Water Drainage Test

Whether you live and run on the East Coast, in the Pacific Northwest, or the Rockies, it is a common phenomenon while trail running to end up with wet feet. Even if you don't typically encounter rain, snow, dew, or creek crossings on your runs, your shoes will likely be exposed to water in the form of sweat issuing from your feet. In an attempt to figure out which shoes absorb the least amount of water, and then manage to shed it the quickest once wet, we devised the water drainage test. Our results are for your benefit most of all, but we also integrated them into how we assessed scores for comfort.

How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.
How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.

To start, we weigh the pair of shoes clean and dry, then dunk them completely in a bucket of water for 20 seconds. This is immediately followed by a 20 second draining period, where we hold them whichever way we can to drain excess water quickest. We then weigh the shoes to see how much water they absorbed and turn this amount into a percentage. Lastly, we put the wet shoes on while sockless, and run around the block for exactly five minutes, before weighing the shoes a final time to see what percentage of water they managed to shed in a short period.

The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.
The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.

The Nike Wildhorse 6 are the undisputed champions when it comes to the water test. They not only absorb the least amount of water, but are also manage to stay ahead of the competition when it comes to quickly shedding water as well. If you commonly run in a very wet area, or always seem to plod through streams on your runs, we highly recommend checking these excellent shoes out. Offering very similar performance is the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2, made of foam that simply doesn't seem to absorb the water it comes in contact with. Rounding out the top three is the Nike Terra Kiger 6, another top choice if you commonly have wet shoes.

The results of our water bucket test. The percentages shown are the weight of the shoes compared to their dry weight. Those towards the top performed better by absorbing less water and then shedding more of it after five minutes  while those towards the bottom performed worse at these tests.
The results of our water bucket test. The percentages shown are the weight of the shoes compared to their dry weight. Those towards the top performed better by absorbing less water and then shedding more of it after five minutes, while those towards the bottom performed worse at these tests.

Weight


If you peruse this site much you will notice that we love to use weight as a grading metric. One of the reasons is that it's so easily quantifiable and provides a very simple mathematical tool for comparison. But the far more important reason is that all of life, and virtually every outdoor sport, is a battle against gravity, and the less weight we have encumbering us, the more free we are to move around, which makes our sports more fun. When running, we repetitively pick our feet up in order to move them forward, so how heavy the shoes on our feet are does matter. This fact is perhaps best summed up by the old backpacking adage: "A pound on the feet equals five on the back."

Cruising through the miles is a breeze in the Terra Kiger  here on a long run on a pleasant spring day with Cascade Volcanoes in the background.
Cruising through the miles is a breeze in the Terra Kiger, here on a long run on a pleasant spring day with Cascade Volcanoes in the background.

An ounce or three of weight difference might not seem like much, but if you consider the fact that you will lift that weight on your foot every time you stride, that means you could be lifting literally thousands of pounds of weight with your feet on even an average length run, which clearly plays a role in accumulating muscle fatigue. Running uphill or for ultra distances only multiplies the potential advantages to be gained from lightweight shoes.


However, when it comes to trail running shoes, features that are added onto a shoe that contribute to a higher weight sometimes also contribute to better performance. For instance, thicker and burlier midsoles with rockplates are heavier, but also protect the feet a lot better. Same with upper materials, and even the amount of rubber lugs on the outsole. Cut out too much of this protection and you will surely end up with a super light shoe, but will also have to moderate your speed significantly to avoid damaging your feet. The takeaway is that lighter is better, but only if it doesn't compromise protection. The shoes described here naturally fall within a spectrum when considering these two factors, and which end of the spectrum is ideal is up to you. With this in mind, we only factor weight as 10% of a product's final score.

Running in the Crooked River Gorge in central Oregon in the middle of winter  loving the light and nimble feel of the Peregrine 10 on these steep rocky trails.
Running in the Crooked River Gorge in central Oregon in the middle of winter, loving the light and nimble feel of the Peregrine 10 on these steep rocky trails.

The Merrell Bare Access XTR is currently the lightest shoe at a mere 18.2 ounces per pair for size 11, but naturally provides minimal underfoot cushioning, and an enlightening amount of trail feel. A close second is the Altra Superior 4, which has a bit more underfoot cushioning in the form of lightweight, springy foam, but also comes with an optional and removable StoneGuard insert that adds a little bit to the weight, but quite a bit to the foot protection. Some of the other lightest options come from Inov-8 in the form of their TerraUltra G260 as well as their Roclite 290, where the numbers in the name is meant to represent grams of weight, and translated into ounces basically means, "quite light!"

Sensitivity


We define sensitivity by how easy it is to feel the trail beneath your feet. While trail running shoes are designed to protect your feet from abrasion, direct blows from the pointy sides of rocks, or from repeated impacts inherent in the motion of running itself, they need to balance this protection with the fact that to run effectively, our brains demand feedback from our feet. The shoes that allow for greater feedback are awarded more points for sensitivity.


The soles of the feet are one of the most sensitive areas of our entire body, which makes intuitive sense if you consider how much it hurts to cut your foot, or how inordinately ticklish many people's feet are. Much like our hands, our feet evolved to be super sensitive because they are one of our primary sources of interaction with the world. In the ages before humans started wearing shoes, the feet were a critical link, via the sense of touch, with the world that we lived in. Honoring this evolutionary history, many runners have found that not only are they better runners when the sensitive link between the feet and ground is maintained, but also more satisfied runners. Perhaps the primal activity of running touches the heart a bit deeper when our ancestral connections to the earth are, even minimally, maintained.

With a low to the ground ride and not very much foam underfoot  these shoes are very sensitive  offering great trail feel on smoother trails.
With a low to the ground ride and not very much foam underfoot, these shoes are very sensitive, offering great trail feel on smoother trails.

Unquestionably, we now run differently than we did in the past or would be if we had no shoes on our feet. The fact that running is largely competitive, either with others or ourselves, means that we demand more protection to be able to run faster and further, and are willing to sacrifice sensitivity as a trade-off. Since trail running shoe designs tend to reflect this, we weight sensitivity as only 10% of a shoe's overall score, while foot protection is weighted as 30%. However, we test these two metrics pretty much the same way, by repeatedly running back and forth over the most jagged patches of rocks we can find, and noticing the relative differences in the how our feet feel in different shoes. Sensitivity, then, tends to be somewhat in opposition to foot protection, although a few well-balanced designs afford roughly equal amounts of each.

Two shoes stand above the rest when it comes to sensitivity. The Saucony Peregrine 10 is a longtime favorite that continues to get more sensitive over time. While it has an integrated woven rockplate in the midsole that is visible through the rubber outsole, the fact is that it affords more trail feel than just about any other shoe. Except perhaps the Altra Superior 4, a zero drop shoe that is the lightest and least protective of Altra's trail running line. We enjoy both of these shoes on shorter runs where we can appreciate the feel of the trail without exhausting our feet, and usually avoid wearing them if we know the going will be rocky. A number of other lightweight options, such as the Nike Terra Kiger 6, Merrell Bare Access XTR, and the Topo Athletic MT 3 are worth checking out for runners who highly value the feel of the trail.

Conclusion


Running on trails is an excellent way to stay fit and healthy, and has just as many benefits for the mind as it does for the body. We love it because of the incredible variety, the connection to nature, and most of all because of the potential for adventure. There are lots of different styles and types of trail running shoes, many of which are designed for specific purposes. We hope this article has helped you with your decision making process, and that you end up with a pair of shoes that you are not only happy with, but that can be a partner on the memorable adventures to come. For more information on how to choose the right pair of shoes, be sure to check out our Buying Advice article. Happy Trails!

Ideally  your shoes will grip the ground as well as a set of dog's claws!
Ideally, your shoes will grip the ground as well as a set of dog's claws!

Andy Wellman