On the hunt for new trail running shoes? Over the past decade, we've tested over 100 different models, with 16 of the best and most popular in this 2021 review. Our running shoe testers hit the trails year-round, from dreamy dry single track in the desert to plodding through winter snow, to bring you the best advice in terms of traction, comfort, stability, and underfoot protection. Whether you like short lunch runs in nearby parks or regularly venture into the mountain wilderness to collect your miles, we can help you find the best pair for your needs and budget.Related: Best Women's Trail Running Shoes of 2021
Best Trail Running Shoes for Men of 2021
|Price||$179.95 at Backcountry||Check Price at Backcountry|
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|Pros||Unbeatable fit, very comfortable, fantastic underfoot protection, doesn’t absorb much water, ankle collar keeps out debris, very stable||Excellent traction, protective and sensitive, light, comfortable, durable||Good protection and sensitivity, stable||Precise fit, very grippy on rock, comfortable upper effectively keeps out debris||Comfortable, low to the ground stability, lightweight, drains water well|
|Cons||Expensive, hard to get on foot, must wear above the ankle height socks, hard to stuff laces into garage||Expensive, tongue comfort affects some||Not particularly breathable, fit is small||Narrower than average, a bit pricey, not the lightest||Traction not the best on slick surfaces, light on underfoot protection|
|Bottom Line||The cream of the crop for trail running shoes delivers fine-tuned long run performance||The perfect definition of a do-everything trail running shoe, which also happens to be zero-drop||These protective tanks will keep going over rocky ridges and scree fields but aren't great for hotter environments||A well-rounded shoe offering high performance for short or long distances||A highly tuned trail running machine that thrives at top speed and can tackle a ton of varied terrain|
|Rating Categories||Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3||Inov-8 Terraultra G...||La Sportiva Bushido II||La Sportiva Kaptiva||Nike Air Zoom Terra...|
|Foot Protection (30%)|
|Specs||Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3||Inov-8 Terraultra G...||La Sportiva Bushido II||La Sportiva Kaptiva||Nike Air Zoom Terra...|
|Weight (per pair)||22.4 oz (size 11)||20.9 oz (size 11)||21.9 oz (size 9.5)||22.3 oz (size 11)||21.5 oz (size 11)|
|Heel-to-Toe Drop||8 mm||0 mm||6 mm||6 mm||4 mm|
|Stack Height (Heel, Forefoot)||26 mm, 18 mm||22 mm, 22 mm||19 mm, 13 mm||17 mm, 11 mm||14.5 mm, 10.5 mm|
|Upper||Anti-Debris Mesh with sockliner||Breathable Mesh||Air mesh/thermal adhesive microfiber/high-frequency welded ripstop overlays/TPU toe cap||Sock-Like knit||Mesh|
|Midsole||Energy Save PU foam with Profeel Film rock protection||Powerflow Max||4mm LaSpEVA/compression-molded MEMlex/1.5 mm dual-density compressed EVA||Duel-density EV||React foam, Zoom Air heel unit|
|Outsole||Contagrip MA Rubber||Graphene Grip||FriXion XT V-Groove2 rubber with Impact Brake System||FriXion XF 2.0||Rubber|
|Lacing style||Quicklace with garage||Traditional||Traditional||Traditional||Traditional|
|Wide version available?||No||No||No||No||No|
|Sizes Available||4 - 13||7 - 15||38 - 48.5||38 - 47.5||6 - 15|
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3
Salomon recently updated their S/Lab Ultra to the newest version, which is quite possibly the most highly refined trail running shoe we've ever tested. We often lament the industry pressure to constantly update and change a shoe, especially when one that we really like gets altered for the worse. Sometimes, though, an already amazing shoe (like this one, in all its iterations) gets refined to an even higher standard, and our minds end up blown. The S/Lab Ultra 3 is that shoe. Things that we didn't even know we wanted to be better — such as removing the protective side wings, adding an ankle collar to keep out debris, or creating an even snugger, refined fit — have now been improved. The versatile and sticky rubber traction, light weight, and bomber PU foam underfoot all remain. Needless to say, this is our favorite trail running shoe, and one we delight in using for big days linking peaks, long runs over rough terrain, or for ultra races.
The major downside to this shoe is the price. It isn't meant to be offered with "everyman" compromises, and as such, also doesn't come at an "everyman" price point. It is also slightly narrow for an ultra-distance shoe, although a fair bit wider than almost all of the other Salomon shoes we've worn. And while we absolutely love the new tongue design integrated with the debris collar, we do find it to take some effort to put on because of this. Overall, however, we aren't sure we've ever worn a trail running shoe that we loved more, and we are sincere with this praise. The S/Lab Ultra 3 makes for an excellent long-distance shoe, as billed, but can serve well for shorter distances as well — for either standard trail missions or big days in the mountains. Save these for those special days, and don't wear them down by wearing them on pavement or by walking in them around town, and you'll likely be as psyched as we are.
Read review: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3
An Excellent Value Trail Shoe
Inov-8 Roclite 290
If you want to slip into a comfortable shoe with an almost seamless interior and rage through the forest with the best rubber we've encountered so far under your feet, then check out the Inov-8 Roclite 290. Featuring durable and grippy Graphene rubber on the outsole and a highly breathable mesh upper, the Roclite 290 is fit for almost every terrain. It has huge 6mm lugs that are highly adept at gripping dirt while being spaced out just enough to shed mud effectively. Even with the thick lugs, this shoe rides pretty close to the ground (13.5mm stack height in the forefoot) and is stable for long days over uneven terrain and sensitive for navigating trails with roots and rocks. The uppers are a highly breathable mesh and facilitate quick drying if you get waterlogged. All these features come at an affordable, wallet-friendly price.
A low-to-the-ground breathable shoe like this one is predictably light on protection. Our testers could really feel the trail through the thin midsole, and while Invo-8 says that there is a "metashank" in the midsole, we couldn't feel how it was adding any protection. Folks used to a thicker, more padded shoe or who need to spend a few miles on the pavement on the way to the trailhead may want a more protective model. For anyone else looking for a great deal, the Roclite 290 will do the trick nicely, and they could be your (affordable) ticket to miles of bliss.
Read Review: Inov-8 Roclite 290
Best Zero Drop Trail Runner
Inov-8 Terraultra G 270
The Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 is the newest, improved version of the older Terraultra G 260, which was the first shoe in the world to feature the Graphene Grip rubber compound on the sole. These shoes are far and away our favorite zero-drop trail runners, out-performing the numerous other models made by Altra, Merrell, and Topo that we have repeatedly compared them against. They are light, comfortable, very stable, have plenty of protection for running ultra distances, and hold up excellently to the test of time. But the best thing about these shoes is the Graphene Grip rubber, which has been tweaked to be much stickier. Graphene has been proven in a lab to be the strongest substance ever tested by man, and Inov-8 was the first to incorporate it into their shoe rubber to drastically improve strength and especially durability. We've run in G-grip shoes for years and are certainly convinced the rubber lasts longer. That said, it hasn't always been very sticky, often even feeling slippery to the touch. But this newly tweaked G-grip now feels on par with the stickiest Salomon Contagrip, and it sticks fantastically on rock. These have become some of our favorite scrambling shoes and are a go-to for technical, rocky runs.
Since these are some of the highest performing shoes in our review, we have almost no complaints. A tiny crease at the bottom of the tongue on one of the shoes occasionally rubs, although we've never had it manifest in long-term discomfort or a blister. While they are a pricey choice, we've found that these shoes feel and look practically new after over 150 miles of rugged mountain running, suggesting they are a far better value than some notoriously short-lived alternatives. Honestly, our biggest problems were incredibly tight calves as these shoes repeatedly coerced us into longer runs than we should have been doing in zero drop shoes. Regardless of whether you only run zero drop or just want a pair to add to the rotation, the Terraultra G 270 are certainly the first to try.
Read Review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 270
Best Lightweight Trail Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6
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 singletrack. 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 many 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 they don't gobble up miles of talus or endless boulder fields 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 Kiger 6 is only minimally changed from the previous version and is the best shoe you can choose if running light and fast equals more fun for you.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6
Salomon Speedcross 5
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 — 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 from past versions while also 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-to-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. 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, then this is an ideal choice, with traction unrivaled by any other shoe.
Read review: Salomon Speedcross 5
Best for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6
Maximally cushioned shoes have all sorts of fans, from die-hard ultra runners, to older runners, newer runners, hikers and backpackers, and even people who need to stand on their feet all day. For trail running, our favorite choice is the HOKA Challenger ATR 6, which isn't the most badass or cutting edge, isn't the most expensive, and doesn't have the gnarliest tread pattern you've ever seen. Instead, this awesome, affordable, and versatile shoe gives all the cushioning and foot protection you could dream of, with a redesigned outsole shape that adds to its stability, especially for heel strikers and when running downhill. We find this shoe to be more comfortable and less narrow in the forefoot for logging high miles than other HOKA's that we've tested, which is the ultimate indicator of a good long-distance or training shoe. And who doesn't love how light they are?
There are few downsides to this shoe, except for those that are inherent with all maximally cushioned shoes. When you stack your foot on top of a bunch of foam, you remove it some distance from the ground, lessening sensitivity and decreasing stability. In short, it's easier to roll your ankle in this type of shoe, so they are best used on trails that don't rank up there as the world's most technical. However, the new platform design of the Challenger ATR 6 does help with this compared to previous models. The traction pattern is not super impressive for slippery or loose surfaces, but is instead designed to be versatile and durable on pavement as well as trails. This is a great crossover shoe and one that can sustain a lot of miles before needing to be retired. If you need an ultra-distance shoe, or simply want one for everyday training, this is a great choice.
Read review: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6
Best Crossover Shoe
Salomon Sense Ride 4
Fans of the previous version can let out a sigh of relief since the Sense Ride 4 has only changed a little from its predecessor. These kicks still pack plenty of cushion to keep you bouncing along on the pavement as you make your way to your favorite trailhead. This shoe's Optivibe midsole is road-ready, and the sticky rubber outsole delivers on loose gravel and mud, making the latest version of the Sense Ride our favorite crossover shoe. If your favorite trail runs require a few miles of road running to access, this shoe should be high on your list. Its mesh upper is super breathable, making them great for warm days, and allowing them to dry quickly after any mandatory water crossings. Additionally, we found these shoes to be refreshingly wide compared to many offerings from Salomon, making them a good option for longer runs when your feet may swell.
Our testers used to low-to-the-ground minimalist or zero drop shoes found the Sense Ride 4 particularly unstable, while folks who mostly run on the road didn't seem to mind the high stack and 8mm drop. Traversing steep hills or picking your way through scree may be difficult in these shoes due to their lack of stability and sensitivity, but overall, this shoe is a very good compromise between cushioning and support for the road and traction for the trails. Their width and breathability keep your tired feet feeling fresh, and these should be on the radar of any runner who is looking to do some long training runs this summer.
Read review: Salomon Sense Ride 4
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 while, even lived as a nomadic dirtbag so that he could run in the mountains every 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 mountain ranges of southern Colorado.
Chiming in from the Sierra foothills of Nevada is longtime reviewer Matt Bento, a lifelong runner since high school. Matt discovered his enthusiasm for trail running one summer while working in Yosemite Valley when temperatures hovered in the 90s, and he decided it was too hot to go climbing. He methodically logged miles and built up his endurance until he could run the Yosemite high camps loop, a 40-mile adventure through the Sierra high country. Ever since he's found many ridge runs and link-ups throughout Sierra and believes the best runs start in the dark and end with a cheeseburger.
The 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 newest shoes available as well as against previous versions of the same shoe. As a bit of a Luddite, Andy doesn't wear a watch or log his miles, but he knows he has run in and tested over 100 different pairs of trail running shoes in the past nine years. Because of this, he 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
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 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, just be sure to tune into exactly what each model is specifically for. 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.
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 have proven to us that this isn't always the case.
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, every runner puts a different amount of strain on their shoes, and we don't have the time or energy to completely trash every pair of shoes before publishing our findings (though we do our best to try!)
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 protects the foot from protrusions and absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into the 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.
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 a 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. Our favorite models do a nice job of balancing these attributes.
There are a handful of shoes that offer superior foot protection compared to the rest of the field. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 does a great job of protecting the undersides of the feet with its PU 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. Two others that don't skimp on protection are the HOKA Challenger ATR 6 and the HOKA Speedgoat 4. These shoes, as well as the other HOKA models we have tested, have foam that's dense and highly absorptive. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 6 also offer an exemplary amount of foot protection, and the La Sportiva Bushido II provides tank-like protection with its padded tongue, toe bumper, and rock plate. Since we think this is such a vital component, we weighted foot protection at 30% of a shoe's final score.
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 — it is certainly one of the very first things you should check out when trying on a new pair.
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 reflect this, with lugs becoming increasingly more aggressive 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 the 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 surfaces like hard-packed dirt trails.
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 tend to wear down quickly if used too often on hard surfaces. Thick lugs aren't always the answer, though, as the 4mm lugs on the Salomon Sense Ride 4 provide adequate traction on the trail, while their low profile keeps them effective and durable on the pavement. The new and improved graphene infused G-grip rubber found on the bottoms of the Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 and the Inov-8 Roclite 290 is also impressively sticky on rock and extremely durable. In fact, with the addition of graphene, the strongest textile substance ever lab-tested, these shoes have the most durable outsoles of any we tested, adding significantly to their value.
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. Good stability will have you bouncing along with your head in the clouds, while an unstable shoe will require a laser-like focus on the ground.
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 4-8mm. 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 but may require a period of adjustment if you're switching from a less neutral shoe. 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 role in what will feel better for you.
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. Despite having a 4mm heel-toe drop, the Nike Terra Kiger 6 is one of the most stable shoes when running on varied terrain. This is due to the wide toe box and forefoot area of the shoe and the very low-to-the-ground ride. The Scarpa Spin Ultra scored similarly well in our head-to-head stability testing. Of course, the zero-drop Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 was not surprisingly a high scorer as well. 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.
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. 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. While it's hard to generalize, La Sportiva shoes run a bit small and narrow, while shoes from Salomon tend to run slightly on the larger end. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we only weight it at 15% of a product's final score.
Craftsmanship plays 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 overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that don't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place require you to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit, often leading to discomfort along the top of the feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances. Remember, an ever-so-slightly uncomfortable feature can spell game over after 20 miles, causing painful blisters or worse.
Some shoes don't breathe very well and will leave the feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others run short for the size, meaning the toes will hit the front of the shoe, especially when running downhill. Most of our findings for comfort are based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also made sure to run through streams and rivers to get an idea of how much water each pair would absorb and how quickly they could shed that water afterward. While some people don't mind taking the time to sit down and remove their shoes and socks before fording a stream, nobody will do this during a mountain race or if they have to cross a river many times in a day. We prefer to simply let our shoes get wet, cross the creek quickly, and then hopefully, the shoes will dry quickly as well.
The shoes with the plushest padding are often the ones that feel the most comfortable right out of the box — no big surprise there. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and the Salomon Sense Ride 4 are two such shoes. 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, as is the Altra Superior 4.5. 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.
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 — the less weight burdening you, the freer you are to move around, making your sport more fun. When running, you repeatedly pick your feet up in order to move them forward, so how heavy the shoes on your 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.
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 rock plates are heavier, but also protect the feet more. 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 you 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.
The Merrell Bare Access XTR is currently the lightest shoe in our review at a mere 18.2 ounces per pair for a size 11. It naturally provides minimal underfoot cushioning and an enlightening amount of trail feel. The Altra Superior 4.5, weighing in at only 18.6 ounces, is a very close second. Some of the other lightest options come from Inov-8 in the form of their Terraultra G 270, where the numbers in the name are meant to represent grams of weight — translated into ounces, this basically means, "quite light!"
We define sensitivity by how easy it is to feel the trail beneath your feet as you run. 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.
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 at only 10% of a shoe's overall score, while foot protection is weighted at 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 how our feet feel in different shoes.
One pair of shoes stands above the rest when it comes to sensitivity. The Saucony Peregrine 11 is a longtime favorite that continues to get more sensitive over time. While it has an integrated woven rock plate 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. We enjoy 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 and Merrell Bare Access XTRare worth checking out for runners who highly value the feel of the trail.
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 choosing the right pair of shoes, be sure to check out our Buying Advice article. Happy Trails!
— Andy Wellman & Matt Bento