Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2
: 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
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 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 result is innovative products that redefine mountain equipment. 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 is 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 we 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 so, check out the Scarpa Spin Ultra below. 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!). Our lead tester enjoyed wearing it repeatedly as a daily trainer. So, If long-distance trail running and racing is your jam, or 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 Traction
Salomon Speedcross 5
: 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
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 have 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 is 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. We are psyched that Inov-8 expanded the selection of Graphene-infused rubber soles to another favorite of ours, the Inov-8 Roclite 290. However, our side-by-side testing showed that the Speedcross simply gripped better. 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 Zero Drop
Inov-8 Terraultra G 260
: 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
Last year 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, Terraultra G260 received its first updates and so 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 is also zero-drop! For the second year in a row, no other zero-drop shoe can offer the advantages of this shoe. That is why once again we are happy to award it our Top Pick for Zero Drop. Last year we 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. This year we put them to the test in scrambling situations 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 absolutely most comfortable shoe, but slight improvements have been made to the comfort of the upper, so this is not 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 at first start, so they should transition slowly away from larger drop platforms. It remains one of the best trail shoes you can buy, with the bonus of a zero-drop platform.
Read review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260
Most Affordable Zero Drop Trail Shoe
Merrell Bare Access XTR
: 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
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 G260 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 is 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 and 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 no end. Unfortunately, the insole is "integrated," meaning that it is 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. That means this 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 for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5
: 5 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11)
: 21.5 oz.
Massively improved traction is sticky and durable
Firmer foam underfoot means better stability
Now comes in size EE wide
Absorbs very little water
Fit in the heel is a bit wide
Gained some weight compared to previous versions
Maximally cushioned shoes have a significant amount foam padding underneath the foot to dampen the repetitive impacts of running, especially over long distances, while also protecting the sole of the foot from objects. Pretty much every runner has heard about Hokas and formed an opinion on whether they help one stay healthy on the trail or are the likely cause of a next injury. This year, Hoka updated their Hoka ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5. They kept the simple, water-shedding upper and the dampened, stiffer EVA foam underfoot, and finally added a sticky rubber outsole with lugs that grip both rock and dirt, and won't tear off in a heartbeat. They also expanded the sizing offerings to include EE wide. That's a good idea, given that these shoes fit narrow in the forefoot to begin with. These additions prompted us to select them as our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning.
Hokas have always had a few drawbacks that scare people away (besides just their looks) — notably their lack of stability on uneven terrain. These shoes are better than past versions, mostly due to a firmer, denser feeling foam that doesn't rock as much from side to side or bounce back with a springy action. This changes the trail feel a bit compared to older Hokas or the Hoka Speedgoat 3, but it improves stability and overall performance. For our head tester, they are a little wide in the heel and narrow in the forefoot, but everyone has differently shaped feet, and this shouldn't dissuade you from trying them out. These shoes are light, relatively affordable compared to other Hokas, and have become exceedingly refined. That makes them the ideal choice for Hoka lovers and those who are curious to test the benefits for themselves.
Read review: Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Best Crossover Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail
: 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 is easily one of the most comfortable running shoes we have 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 more natural in this shoe than it does in the Wildhorse 5, where it fails to pad against the pressure of the laces over the top of the foot. This is 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 near our home.
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 Terra Kiger 5 instead if technical terrain is your jam), 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.
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. Andy has been running his entire life, ever since he was the fastest (and smallest) kid on his youth soccer team. While running through the mountains for simple fitness and due to impatience on long mountain approaches and descents has always been his norm, in 2011, he was bit by the competitive running bug. He took to it in earnest, and along the way managed to win or podium at mountain races from 10k to half marathon, as well as marathon, 50k, 50 mile, and the Mustang Trail Race, a nine-day stage race through the Himalayas. In 2014 he quit his job to live a nomadic, dirtbag lifestyle of mountain running, traveling the world, and the American West to explore wild trails. Those adventures led him to settle in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, a modern-day mountain running mecca and home to the iconic Hardrock Hundred trail race, where he began reviewing trail running shoes and other running apparel for OutdoorGearLab. He now bases himself out of another running hotspot — Bend, Oregon — where the air is a little thicker and the trails a bit faster, but with access to just as many epic adventures.
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 130 different pairs of trail running shoes over the past six 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 (it does happen), 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.
Analysis and Test Results
Trail running shoes differ drastically from their road running counterparts by offering more protection for your feet, both in the midsole and in the upper, while also having far more aggressive traction that can handle difficult and rugged terrain. While many of the companies that make trail running shoes are also famous for their road running shoe selections, there are also a few players in this market that focus only on the trail and off-road side of things. If you are new to trail running, we highly recommend purchasing a pair of trail running shoes, rather than go it in your normal road running shoes. The advantages are considerable and are more than worth it when considering slips and injuries in wild and remote terrain, or even on an urban trail, are both more likely and also harder to manage than on the side of a road or bike path. Choosing the right equipment for the job virtually always leads to better results, and having more fun, and trail running is no exception.
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.
In all cases, our testing and assessments are done in comparison to the other shoes described here. If one shoe receives a poor score, that doesn't mean it is a poor shoe, but simply that it doesn't perform as well as the other excellent shoes we compared it to. Since we aim to test only the best and most innovative trail running shoes, we think all of these shoes are pretty solid. We strive to keep this review as up to date as possible, and our expert testers have finished putting in the miles on a whole new crop of shoes, so read on to find out which new versions and fresh releases are the best.
We enjoyed these shoes most on smooth dirt trails, like this one, in scenic places of course! The deep Crooked River Gorge and river are far below the Otter Bench Trail in Oregon.
Below you will find descriptions of the six metrics that we test and assess for to come up with a shoe's overall score: foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity. A score of 1-10 is awarded for each metric, and then the metrics are weighted as a percentage of the final score based upon their relative importance to the overall performance of a shoe. Worth noting is that the highest overall scorers may not be the best shoes for you. Carefully decide which metrics matter most to you and your intended goals, desires, and adventures to find out whether a particular shoe perfectly matches your needs.
A significant critical 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, and thus more expensive products are also the highest performing, 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.
When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are critical 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 in a finite period and need to be replaced, finding shoes that can withstand more miles of abuse before disintegrating is also critical to ascertaining that shoe's value. Unfortunately, not only does every runner put a different amount of strain on their shoes, but we didn't have the time or energy to completely trash 20+ pairs of shoes before publishing our findings! That said, after many years of testing literally hundreds of pairs of shoes, we have noticed some areas of shoes that tend to be the first points of failure, as well as certain design features that tend to wear out quicker than desired.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
There are a handful of shoes that offer foot protection that is better than the rest. The 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 back. Another shoe that doesn't skimp on protection is the Hoka Mafate Speed 2, which has the most foam underfoot of any shoe we tested (even more than other Hokas). This foam is denser and more absorptive than we would expect, and the upper is covered in durable overlays that also protect the foot. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 5 are also top shoes that offer an exemplary amount of foot protection. 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.
Hokas have the most underfoot EVA foam of any shoe, although this foam is relatively soft and not as firm as many other shoes. Regardless, it does a good job of protecting the bottoms of your feet when out on rocky terrain.
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 simple 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 were 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.
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 much easier, often shortening the life of the shoe if you wear them too much on pavement or hard surfaces. In contrast, firmer rubber tends to be more durable and last longer but doesn't bite into rock nearly as well. Firm rubber is preferable for shoes that will mostly be used on firm surfaces, like hardpacked dirt trails.
The outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite 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. With a change in rubber compounds, it is also now softer and by far the stickiest of any we tested on rock and wet rock as well, although it has the propensity to wear down quicker 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 290 and the TerraUltra G260 is also impressively sticky on rock, and is far more 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 long term 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.
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, often 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 4-6 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. When walking, your foot is used to pushing off of a flat, even surface, and so a shoe that provides this for you, even 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.
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 5 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 G260 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 assigned stability 15% of a shoe's final score.
Running on this trail that has been recently demolished by horses and cattle, or both, requires attention and a very stable shoe. The Peregrine performs well at this sort of terrain due to its low to the ground, 4mm heel-toe drop.
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 chose 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.
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 make the foot feel more like they are ensconced in slippers than shoes is the Scarpa Spin Ultra. In years past we have lauded the comfort of the two other trail running shoes made by Nike, but after recent testing, we feel that the recent releases of the Wildhorse 5 and Terra Kiger 5 are not quite as comfortable as their predecessors, at least to our head tester. Most of the other pairs of shoes tested are also very comfortable, and to some degree, it is impossible to eliminate user bias when grading for this metric. 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.
The Water Drainage Test
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.
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.
To start, we weighed the pair of shoes clean and dry, then dunked them completely in a bucket of water for 20 seconds. This was immediately followed by a 20 second draining period, where we held them whichever way we could to drain excess water quickest. We then weighed the shoes to see how much water they absorbed and turned this amount into a percentage. We then put the wet shoes on while sockless, and ran 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 Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 top the chart when it comes to absorbing the least amount of water, and also managed to be among the lightest compared to dry weight after the five-minute run. Made largely of synthetic mesh and felt-like materials, these shoes are the best choice if you want a shoe for running in the pool or a similar environment. The Adidas Terrex Speed and the Merrell MTL Cirrus both also exhibited an impressive performance when it came to these tests, absorbing very little water compared to the competition. Also, despite their size, the Hoka Mafate Speed 2 and the Hoka Challenger ATR 5 were among the lightest compared to their dry weight after the five-minute jog, meaning they drain the water they take on very quickly. Shoes with lower percentages are better performers where water is concerned, and those with higher percentages tended to be more towel-like, sucking up the water they came in contact with.
Showing the results of our water test, with shoes listed near the top scoring better than shoes near the bottom. On the left represents how much water the shoe absorbed after 20 second of dunking and 20 seconds of draining. On the right represents how much water the shoe still retained after running for five minutes.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, weight is one of our favorite metrics for judging the benefits of a product or piece of gear. Not only is it extremely easy to quantify and measure, but literally thousands of hours testing every sort of gear imaginable, by hundreds of different people, has always confirmed the same assumption: Light is Right! Weight used to be one of those things you would only consider when buying a tent or stove for backpacking, but didn't think mattered enough to consider for precious outdoor items like clothing, backpacks, climbing ropes, sleeping pads, or running shoes.
However, we've come to realize that in virtually every situation, carrying less weight in clothing and equipment makes your sport or activity easier to perform, which in turn makes it more fun. Trail running is no exception, and while the weight of a simple pair of shoes may not seem noticeable to you on your daily run, trust us when we say that it is very noticeable to us as we test pair after pair after pair in quick succession. To have the most fun, you want the lightest pair of shoes that you can get away with while still meeting the basic needs of your body and objectives.
Getting in some leg turnover in a pair of super light trail shoes on the Grey Butte Trail in central Oregon, which is clearly more fun when constantly being chased by the crazy puppy Rishi.
Of course, weight typically comes at the cost of something. Often this something is the rockplate or another mode of underfoot protection. Trimming materials from the upper is another common way of shaving off the grams. However, with the continual evolution of new material choices, shoe companies can do a lot more with less, and are doing so by using lighter weight mesh uppers strengthened with TPU overlays rather than plastic support, and EVA foam in place of hard rock plates in the midsole. It's true that the very lightest shoes reviewed here are certainly the least supportive, and are only fit for specific uses, such as short races or speedwork. However, whether your desires and objectives require a zero-drop shoe or a maximally cushioned beast, you will be happier if that shoe weighs less. To assess for weight, we took each pair of shoes out of the box and immediately weighed them on our independent scale before they had a chance to collect any dirt. All weights listed are for US men's size 11, but the weights should accurately represent their comparative position no matter what size you happen to wear.
Trail running shoes are more tightly grouped at the lower end of the weight scale than they used to be. At a mere 16 ounces per pair, the Hoka Evo Jawz blew many out of the water, weighing around two ounces less than the next closest competitor. This shoe is reminiscent of a racing flat but designed with mountain running in mind. Also impressively light is the Merrell Bare Access XTR, which are designed to offer you "only what you need" and have a minimal amount of underfoot padding. The next-lightest shoe is the newly redesigned Altra Superior 4, which managed to shed a couple of ounces over its previous version and drop the overall weight down to 18.8 ounces per pair. As an essential thing to consider, but not the be-all-end-all in running shoe performance, we assigned weight 10% of a product's final score.
The scale doesn't lie! Eight ounces each is one super light shoe!
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 were 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 easier when our ancestral connections to the earth are, even minimally, maintained.
Running the last few meters to the summit of Grey Butte in central Oregon, while avoiding the surrounding rain showers. The Terra Kiger 5 offers a nice balance between foot protection and sensitivity, ensuring that one can still feel a bit of the terrain underfoot, like this scree, but that it won't damage the foot to push the speeds.
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 weighted sensitivity as only 10% of a shoe's overall score, while foot protection is weighted as 30%. However, we tested these two metrics pretty much the same way, by repeatedly running back and forth over the most jagged patches of rocks we could find, and noticing the relative differences in the how our feet felt 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, in our estimation.
The Altra Superior 4, relying on a scant amount of foam cushioning, is perhaps the most sensitive of this group, but also 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. Very light shoes are usually the most sensitive as well. The Hoka Evo Jawz is also one of the lightest on underfoot protection, a reliable indicator of sensitivity, and should be among the first shoes considered for someone who values trail feel more than protection. 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, and indeed prefer to have a quiver to choose from based upon the run planned for each day. We hope that the information that we have presented here has helped make your choice easier, and encourage you to delve deeper into the metrics to better understand which shoe will be optimal for your needs.
Ideally, your shoes will grip the ground as well as a set of dog's claws!