With countless shoe companies all producing a huge pile of different trail specific options, choosing the perfect pair for you can be quite a challenge. We're here to help! We researched hundreds of pairs, selecting 13 of the best for inclusion in this comparative review. We tested each model on runs in deserts and slot canyons of Death Valley, CA, and Zion National Park, UT, as well as in our home San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We ran ranch roads in Minnesota, hard packed volcanic trails in the Cascades of Oregon, and Slickrock in Moab. We also tested in mud, snow, while crossing swollen creeks, on grassy tundra, and on more than one summit adventure. Whether you want something for short runs or long, enjoy maximum cushioning or minimalist sensitivity, we have the perfect fit for you.
The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men of 2018
Analysis and Award Winners
We recognize that shoes are constantly being updated or discontinued, so we are in a non-stop quest to continually test and update this review to keep it current. With a brand new release at the end of the year, our expert testers had the opportunity to put the newly updated Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4, our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning, to the test. We also purchased and ran in the newly updated and vastly improved Altra Superior 3.5, our new Top Pick for Zero Drop. While doing this, we have continued to put miles on our favorite trail runners, such as our Best Overall winner, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4.
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
As the best trail running shoe that we laced up for 2017, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 was the obvious pick for our Editors' Choice Award. While we have garnished it with awards in the past, namely as a Top Pick for Fast and Light running, we never felt like it was a shoe that we wanted to wear every single day — until now! It rides much lower to the ground than your average everyday trainer, but that doesn't stop it from offering great underfoot protection, grippy and durable traction, and a low, stable ride. In this fourth edition, Nike upgraded to upper, giving it a foot-cradling elastic sleeve inside that easily locks the foot in place while also keeping the tongue positioned correctly and helping to keep out debris. The Terra Kiger 4 also features a Phylon midsole combined with Nike Air cushioning pockets that give it better than average foot protection, despite its minimalist feel. There is no doubt this shoe can help you run faster and is equipped to stand up to the abuse of trying to do so.
While we have little to complain about from such an awesome shoe, there is plenty of room to get nitpicky. In particular, the upper does little to protect the foot from trail obstacles like jagged rocks, and is itself a bit fragile, being made of only very thin mesh fabric. At the same time, we were surprised this shoe didn't weigh even less, considering it was one of the lowest profile designs we have encountered in the trail running world. Neither of these minor complaints detracts from the experience of lightness while out running, and we feel this shoe delivers as a perfect choice for any type of on or off trail running. We used it on adventures that ranged from peak scrambles to talus slopes to gentle alpine tundra and smooth single track and loved it for all these types of terrain. If you want the best trail running kick available today, we recommend making the Terra Kiger 4 your first choice.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
Best Bang for the Buck
Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
When assessing a product's value, many people fail to look beyond the price tag. However, when judging the value of a trail running shoe, measuring the number of miles run before the shoe completely disintegrates seems to be the norm. From our testing, there is no shoe in this review more durable than the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4, making it our choice for the Best Bang for your Buck. We have put over 200 miles in our test pair and can testify that they barely have a scratch on them. Stories abound in online user reviews of runners who have put these shoes through the trials of 500 or even 1000 miles before relegating them to the trash bin, suggesting that the workmanship is top notch. Compared to most of the shoes in this review, whose torn treads, ripped uppers, and easily compressed foam cushioning start to reveal themselves after perhaps less than 100 miles, the Wildhorse 4 is a true workhorse.
There is little to complain about the performance of the Wildhorse 4, which closely mimics that of the Terra Kiger 4, except with a fair bit of extra underfoot protection. While these shoes can pound out the miles, they are also pretty heavy compared to their competition, weighing in at just over 12 ounces per size 11 shoe. For this reason, they are best used by runners who appreciate foot protection over top speed. They are perfect for use as everyday trail runners, or as ultra distance race shoes. At $110 retail, these shoes are slightly cheaper than average, but the real value comes from their longevity.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
Top Pick for the Best Traction
Inov-8 Roclite 290
The Inov-8 Roclite 280 was the most surprising shoe of this year's review. It even managed to tie our Best Overall award winner, the Nike Terra Kiger 4, for the highest score, mostly on account of its great traction, fantastic stability, and sensitive trail feel. We chose to recognize it as our Top Pick for Traction because no other shoe gripped as well to every surface that we tested: wet rock, mud, grass, steep dirt, talus, and snow. The Tri-C rubber compound was far and away the stickiest rubber found on this crop of shoes, unseating the Salomon Speedcross 4, which had the best traction in our review for many years previous. Even more impressive was the fact that this was a shoe we didn't want to leave at home. No matter what manner of running adventure we were about to have, the Roclite 290 was the shoe we wanted on our feet.
After testing these shoes on more than just a handful of runs, we did also notice a few flaws, which is to be expected. While the deep and well spaced out rubber cleats do an amazing job of gripping steep terrain, they are also prone to ripping if you treat them too roughly. We tore one off while scrambling across a steep boulder slope on a peak climb. They are also pretty thin underfoot, giving the runner great feel for what they are landing on, but also shortchanging them a hair on underfoot protection. For that reason, these shoes are best worn for shorter days, or by those whose feet are prepared to stand up to a little bit of extra abuse. Think floating speedster more than plodding stomper. If you want optimal traction, and also love shoes that are comfortable, stable, lightweight, and sensitive, the Roclite 290 is surely worth a look.
Read review: Inov-8 Roclite 290
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4
Shoes made by HOKA ONE ONE are based on the premise that it is possible to have a maximal amount of soft EVA foam cushioning underfoot without compromising performance. Indeed, before HOKAs first hit the market almost a decade ago, there really was no such thing as the maximalist category of running shoes. My how things have changed! Now taking their place among the most popular running shoe brands in the world, HOKA shoes have been widely recognized as having the ability to dampen the force of repetitive impact that comes from running, preserving runner's bodies and in some cases helping them run again after long-term injuries. The Challenger ATR 4 is HOKA's mainstay trail running shoe, revised once again for 2018. It features a completely redesigned upper, making it sleeker, more breathable, and also more spacious.
This shoe excels in many categories important to the trail runner, such as underfoot protection, lightweight, and comfortable fit, while simultaneously struggling to offer much in the way of sensitive trail feel or all-terrain stability. For most, the benefits manage to outweigh the drawbacks, and HOKAs are nearly ubiquitous at ultra-distance races. They have also become very popular as hiking, backpacking, or even everyday shoes. If you are a long time fan of HOKAs or are interested in trying out a shoe that can help preserve your body, we highly encourage you to check out our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning.
Read review: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4
Top Pick for Zero Drop
Altra Superior 3.5
The Altra Superior 3.5 is by far our favorite zero drop shoe. Zero drop simply means that the height of the midsole and outsole, basically everything that sits underneath your foot, is the exact same beneath the heel as it is in the toe area, mimicking the way our feet function when not in shoes at all. Surprisingly, very few running shoes available today are designed without a heel that sits higher than the forefoot, but that is exactly the market that Altra caters to. While Altra's trail running shoe line has expanded drastically in the last two years, the highly refined Superior 3.5, one of their original trail runners, has regained its old, lovable form. This shoe is supremely comfortable, doing an amazing job of correcting the discomfort inherent in the previous version while offering a wide fit throughout the shoe that will really appeal to those who have a hard time fitting in narrower tow boxes. The shoe is light, nimble, grips the ground well, and is supremely sensitive, offering unrivaled trail feel.
We happily recommend this shoe over its larger, clunkier cousin, the Altra Lone Peak 3.5. However, the shoes fill slightly different needs, and the Superior 3.5 will please runners who believe that less is more. It lacks a bit in underfoot protection if not using the included StoneGuard inserts, which we have found drastically alter the fit of the shoe, and not for the better. And while some may love the shoe for its wide fit, we think a number of people will have a hard time locking it down tight enough to generate a responsive ride. This shoe seems designed for shorter, faster runs, such as for speed work or shorter races, and that is how our testers enjoyed it the best. On the other hand, we have watched ultra racers win 50 milers in these shoes, so there is no limit to what they are capable of. For those who love zero drop shoes, and the anatomically correct stride that they promote, we think that the Superior 3.5 is the new standard.
Read review: Altra Superior 3.5
Analysis and Test Results
The only essential piece of gear for running on trails is a good pair of shoes. Trail running shoes tackle the specific demands of the off-road environment, whether that means rocks, roots, mud, loose dirt and gravel, grass, or even steep scrambling. They have more durable outsoles than road running shoes, featuring sticky rubber and large, grippy lugs to help you gain the purchase you need. They also tend to have a rock plate or extra foam cushioning to protect the bottom of your feet from obstacles not found on the road. To compile the results and information contained within this trail running shoe review, we extensively tested each of the 14 models of shoes described here over the course of four summer months in 2017. Even though four of the models found in this review are holdovers from last year, we again tested them side-by-side against the ten new pairs of shoes released this year, to be sure that all of the results and statements we make are congruent with the shoes in this year's crop.
Testing involves a lot more than simply going out for runs while wearing different pairs of shoes (although there is a whole lot of that). We pride ourselves on making the best comparisons among the various products to help differentiate which shoes are truly better. To help us, and you the reader, we have carefully rated each shoe based on six different metrics, giving a grade of 1 to 10 on how well each shoe performed. Furthermore, we weighted each of the metrics based on how important we felt it was to a shoe's overall performance. The table above shows where each shoe ranked in overall performance score. Scores were awarded in comparison to each of the other shoes. Below we describe each rating metric in detail, including what are the most important aspects of that metric, how we tested it, how much it was weighted toward the final score, and what were the best shoes for that particular purpose. We want to point out that we selected what we thought were the 14 best and most representative trail running shoes after assessing the entire market, so even if a shoe receives a low overall score here, we still think that it is an elite product.
While all of the metrics combine to form the shoe's overall score, it is important to delve into the individual metrics to find the shoe that best fits your needs. For instance, you may not be interested in our top-rated shoe if it scores highly in a metric that is not important to you. For example, maybe the model got that rating due to its exemplary foot protection when you might define sensitivity as your primary criteria. Don't necessarily write off a shoe simply because it isn't the highest scoring shoe in the review. Delve deeper into the numbers that we have provided and carefully read the individual reviews!
In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it didn'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 hard 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 found in contenders is EVA foam, 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. An interesting component of foot protection is that it often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.
A lesser component of foot protection is how well the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your foot 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 to helping 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.
In our testing, three shoes rose above the rest when it came to foot protection. The HOKA One One Challenger ATR 4, with its 31mm of EVA foam under the heel, provided a wonderfully soft and cushy ride. The Brooks Caldera was significantly stiffer feeling underfoot, but did equally as good a job of protecting our feet from anything that we stepped on. Since we think this is such a vital component to running your best anywhere off-road, we weighted foot protection as 30% of a shoe's final score.
Mud, snow, grass, slippery or wet rocks, tree roots, logs, talus, scree, loose dirt — all of these surfaces are commonly encountered along the trail, so you need a trail running shoe that will grip when it matters.
To tackle these myriad surfaces, manufacturers have introduced many diverse solutions through sole material and design. Many of our test pieces had large arrow-shaped lugs, most of them employed a type of rubber stickier than your average road shoe, and most incorporated spaced out traction lugs to shed mud easier as well.
Overall, we were impressed with the creativity and different materials that manufacturers used to create traction. We weren't content to only rely on our running adventures to tell us which shoes had the best traction, and so devised some head-to-head traction tests. For this, we tested each shoe on the same stretches of steep loose dirt, steep grass, steep muddy trail, dry talus, and wet rock. In the end, the highest ranking models were the ones that could tackle it all and never left us doubting whether we could firmly land and push off on any given surface. The best shoes tended to have deep, multi-directional lugs that were well spaced apart to better shed mud, covered the entire sole from end to end and side to side and were made of sticky, durable rubber. Short lugs didn't grip grass and mud as well, while closely spaced lugs tended to collect mud; rubber compounds that were too firm didn't give us confidence on talus and wet rock.
After all of these tests, there was a clear winner, the Inov-8 Roclite 290, which we recognized as a Top Pick for Traction. Its widely spaced, deep cleats were made of supremely sticky rubber, and handled every traction test with impressive ease, including wet rock! The insanely aggressive outsole of the Salomon Speedcross 4 also had gigantic, well-spaced lugs, but it didn't manage to grip wet rock quite as well as the Roclite 290. Likewise, the gnarly spiked outsole of the Saucony Peregrine 7, unchanged from the previous version, once again looked more like some medieval torture device than the sole of a shoe but gripped all surfaces very well. Since improved traction is one of the foremost reasons why you would choose to buy a trail running shoe instead of just any old regular running shoe, it accounted for 20% of a shoe's overall score.
Any time that you wear something on your foot, you are modifying your body's natural ability to stand and move from a stable platform. Landing on the ground and pushing off for each stride from a stable platform is a fundamental aspect of running, and one that is greatly affected by the type of surface you are running over. When testing for stability, we looked for how easy it was to maintain our normal running mechanics over variable terrain while wearing that shoe. We found that some shoes would bend and morph to the running surface, forcing us to adjust our landing and push-off. While running in some others, we felt that the shape of the shoe required us to change our stride to ensure a stable platform.
Generally speaking, the lower to the ground our foot was (represented by the "stack height" which can be found in our specs table), the more stable it felt, giving us the confidence to push our speed without rolling an ankle. Another way to ensure a stable platform is to make the shoe wider and flatter, especially in the forefoot, as many of the most stable shoes did, so that our foot could splay out naturally as it went through the incredibly complex motion of landing and then pushing off again. In general, narrow shoes with high stack heights or large heel-toe drop (the difference in height between the heel and toe, measured in millimeters, can also be found in the specs table) felt the least stable underfoot and were the most prone to rolling an ankle or landing awkwardly. While many people appreciate the extra cushioning in the heel that comes with a high heel-toe drop, in our experience, especially when running downhill and across a hill, stability is indeed compromised by this trait.
Most of our testing for stability was done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compared 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. Three shoes stood out as the most stable, each receiving the highest score. With zero heel-toe drop and a low to the ground stack height of only 21 mm across the length of the sole, the Altra Superior 3.5 was certainly one of the shoes you were least likely to roll an ankle while running in. Likewise, the very low to the ground La Sportiva Helios 2.0, with a stack height of only 19 mm in the heel and an intimate, slipper-like fit, was also supremely stable. Lastly, our best overall winner, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 had an incredibly broad and steady forefoot and also rode low to the ground. As a critical component of a trail running shoe's performance, but not the most important, we assigned 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 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. We have done our best to describe how each model fits in the individual reviews. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we chose only to rate it 15% of a product's final score. We didn't want to penalize a shoe that felt uncomfortable to our head tester too much when many other people will naturally end up loving it. However, we did find some universal factors that could be compared and rated.
Craftsmanship seemed to play a large part in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs used a seamless construction that made 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 tended to rub and wear against the foot over long distances, significantly decreasing their overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that didn't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place meant that we needed to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit and often led to discomfort along the top of our feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances. Some shoes didn't breathe very well and left our feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others were a bit too short for the size, meaning our toes would hit the front of the shoe, especially while running downhill. Most of our findings for the Comfort metric were based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also conducted the water drainage test (described in detail below) to get a better grip on which shoes absorbed the least amount of water or sweat; our test also measured which contenders were the most efficient at drying out afterward, which we defined as another important component of comfort.
At the end of our testing period, it was clear that three shoes were more comfortable to us than the rest. We experienced no rubbing, pinching, or blisters when running long distances in these shoes, and honestly, we rarely noticed them at all, perhaps the best compliment that can be made about a shoe after a long run. At the top of this list was our best overall trail running shoe, the Nike Terra Kiger 4, which we felt we could run in every day for the rest of our lives and be happy. The similar but more protective Nike Wildhorse 4 relied on many of the same design concepts to deliver unrivaled comfort. Lastly, the gentle, wide fit of the Altra Superior 3.5 allowed our feet to land and push off exactly as they wanted to. While these were the shoes we found to be a notch above the rest in terms of comfort, 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.
The Water Drainage Test
The idea behind this test was to attempt to scientifically prove what products absorbed the least amount of water and then shed it quickest, making them well suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. Running in the mountains of Colorado on a daily basis, it seems our feet are always wet. We either have to ford streams and creeks or end up tromping through muddy swamps and no matter how careful we can be, our feet get wet. If we don't have these problems, it still seems like they get wet from morning dew on the bushes and grass, or from afternoon rainstorms, or simply by sweating because it's so hot. Whether you run in the mountains in summer like we do, or run trails on the East Coast or Pacific Northwest, we suspect that water management is a critical factor in the performance of a trail running shoe for nearly everyone.
To conduct this test, we weighed each pair when dry. We then dunked each model in a bucket of water for 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water, then held them upside down to drain for another 20 seconds. Finally, we quickly weighed them again to see how much water weight they had absorbed into their material. We then put them on without socks and jogged around the block for exactly five minutes, took them off, and weighed them a third time to see how much water weight they had shed while running. For each model, we calculated as a percentage of their dry weight how much water they absorbed while being dunked for 20 seconds and how much water they still retained after a five-minute run compared to when they were dry.
The Hoka Challenger ATR 4 and the Altra Superior 3.5 absorbed the least amount of water as a percentage of their dry weight. These two shoes were also the driest after the five-minute run, meaning that if you need a shoe that will not absorb much water and will dry out quickly after it gets wet, these are your best bet. On the other end of the scale were the Inov-8 Roclite 290 and the Vasque Constant Velocity, which managed to absorb the most amount of water compared to their dry weight, and also retained the most after five minutes of running as well.
Weight proved to be a fairly easy criterion to judge. Fresh out of the box we weighed each trail running shoe individually and together as a pair, and completely ignored what the manufacturer claimed the weight was. For reference, every product that we received was a U.S. men's size 11. We then paid attention to how heavy the shoe felt while running in them daily. A few were startlingly light, and the math was easily backed up while out wearing them.
At a mere 17.0 ounces for a pair, the La Sportiva Helios 2.0 was far and away the lightest pair in this review, over three ounces lighter than second place. These numbers were backed up by their feel out on the trail, where it genuinely felt as if we were running with almost nothing at all on our feet. Next lightest was the New Balance Vazee Summit v2, which at 19.9 ounces for a pair, combined a sock-like fit with considerably more cushioning and protection under the heel. A close third was the Altra Superior 3.5, that weighed 20.9 ounces without the optional removable StoneGuard inserts, which is how we chose to run in them. In general this year, we found that trail running shoes were more tightly grouped at the lower end of the weight scale, while not being willing to cut out necessary features like protection to attain a low weight. As an important thing to consider, but not the be-all-end-all in running shoe performance, we assigned weight 10% of a product's final score.
When grading for sensitivity, we tried to notice how well we could feel the trail while wearing any given shoe.
Like we mentioned before, sensitivity often comes at the expense of foot protection, and vice versa. We tried our best not to be judgmental about whether feeling the trail is a good or bad thing, or what amount of sensitivity we preferred but rather graded the most sensitive the highest. While it is easy to decide which ones were the most and least sensitive, it is a preference thing regarding how sensitive you want your trail running shoe to be. Some people like to be intimately connected to the ground they are moving over, while others would prefer to have much more protection for their foot, which often comes at the expense of sensitivity.
We tested the sensitivity of shoes pretty much the same way that we tested for underfoot protection — by choosing an especially rocky and jagged patch of trail and running back and forth over it countless times in each shoe. We once again found the La Sportiva Helios 2.0 to be the most sensitive shoe in this review, which is not surprising considering it has a mere 15 mm of foam cushioning in the forefoot, no rock plate of any sort, and a minimal outsole.
Close behind was the Altra Superior 3.5, a shoe that also relies on a scant amount of foam cushioning, but comes with an optional removable StoneGuard rock shield, which is a thin flexible insert that can be added underneath the insole for added protection, and naturally dampens the sensitivity a tad. However, we find that adding this protection reduces the volume of the shoe enough that it is no longer comfortable for us to run in, and after asking everyone we have seen with these shoes whether they use it, they all concur that they prefer to run without it in place. We graded the model based on not having the rock shield, thus enhancing its natural sensitivity.
Lastly, a whole group of shoes were also relatively sensitive, although less so than those already mentioned, including the Saucony Peregrine 7, Inov-8 Roclite 290, New Balance Vazee Summit Trail v2, and Altra Lone Peak 3.5. As a somewhat less important aspect of a shoe's performance, we only allowed sensitivity to account for 10% of a shoe's overall score.
There are so many trail running shoes available on the market today that choosing the best pair can present a real challenge. Even after testing the very best shoes available for literally hundreds of hours, we still have a hard time choosing the one that we like best. We hope that the information that we have presented here has helped make your choice easier, and encourage you to delve deeper into the individual metrics and reviews to better understand which shoe will be optimal for your needs.
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.