If anyone knows a thing or two about shoes, it's us. In the past ten years, we have tested over 130 individual pairs of men's trail running shoes and almost an equal number of trail running shoes for women. We are constantly testing, since new shoes and updated versions are released throughout the year. The selection list and ratings change with every new addition to the lineup, so our review is updated roughly every three months.
The center of our current testing efforts is located in both Lake Tahoe and Durango, Colorado. We have easy access to steep and rugged mountain single-track and smooth forest trails, in addition to our huge testing facility. Since we love combining running with a summit or two, we often get the opportunity to test shoes off-trail on grassy tundra, jumbled talus fields, and year-round snowfields. We head down to the high deserts of southern Utah, northern New Mexico, and Arizona during the winter months to test shoes on an entirely different selection of terrain. For the sake of diversity and because trail running shoes come with us no matter where we travel, we also get out for runs worldwide. In the past, our testing has included tours in British Columbia, Greece, the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, and the Sawtooths and Tetons of Idaho.
We keep all of the older models that we have tested on hand, so when we test an updated version of a shoe, we can closely compare the feel on our feet and the trail. While most of our testing takes place on our daily runs, we also devise head-to-head tests that we conduct one after the other to provide the most accurate feedback and assessment of how a shoe performs in various terrain. In short, we collect and assess loads of information on these shoes to help you find the best option for your running style, activity level, and budget.
Running over variable landscapes in the mountains subjects us to plenty of buff trails, alpine tundra, sloppy mud, creek crossings, talus fields, steep and loose scree, and high-altitude technical scrambling. Still, we want to be sure that we know exactly how each shoe compares to the others regarding underfoot protection. We find a gnarly patch of sharp rocks and talus and spend an entire afternoon running back and forth in each pair of shoes, comparing them to each other while taking copious notes. There is no doubt we have a firm grasp on the level of underfoot protection after such a test.
Our initial opinions of the traction performance of these trail runners are formed on adventures and everyday runs. We also subject each shoe to various surfaces to compare this metric, and analyze things like lug depth to gauge how design influences traction.
To do this, we find areas of steep dirt trail, steep grass, dry rock talus, wet rock, and steep muddy trail, and again run back and forth in every shoe on every type of terrain. We note how well each model performs on the various surfaces compared to others.
Like how we assess for foot protection, we already have a pretty good idea of each shoe's relative sensitivity after months of field testing but still devise a controlled head-to-head test anyway. We again run back and forth over the same patch of sharp rocks that we use to test foot protection and keep detailed notes as we do so. Shoes that allow our feet to feel more of these protrusions through the outsole and midsole are more sensitive than those that allow little to no feeling, and we grade accordingly.
To better compare stability head-to-head, we locate a steep grassy slope and run back and forth across it, side-hilling incessantly to see which shoes induce our ankles to want to roll over more frequently. We also run down this slope repeatedly, comparing relative stability in a very real-world test. Running down steep hills is an integral part of trail and mountain running.
Comfort and Fit
There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we test for, as it is highly dependent on the size and shape of an individual's foot. We find it very difficult to devise controlled tests that can accurately rate it in a way that will apply to everyone. We consider certain aspects of fit that may be more accommodating to specific foot shapes and comment on them in our writeup.
The majority of our findings come from our everyday experiences, but we also conduct a water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort. Since this test is only a tiny aspect of overall comfort, we use this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers and leave most scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we don't penalize any shoes with super low ratings; a shoe that irks us may be a dream for someone else.
This one is easy. We weigh the shoes straight out of the box and write down their collective weight, completely ignoring the figures on manufacturers' websites. The lightest shoes receive the best score, and we go down the list. The final score is based on our algorithm, which evenly evaluates the weight making sure each shoe is scored without user bias.