Are you bored by the same pavement roads and looking for a new way to explore while getting a little exercise? Trail running is a sport that takes running from the roads to the trails. The possibilities are endless and the adventures, unpredictable. When you take on the challenge of exploring the backcountry by foot, you put yourself out there…weather can change, getting lost is always a possibility, and you never know what kind of trail hazards you might encounter along the way.
In order to make sure your adventure is a success, the right equipment is a total necessity. Trail running shoes, the only thing protecting your feet from underfoot hazards, keep you protected from paths littered with rubble and other obstacles. This is arguable the most important of equipment for the trail. You will encounter rocks, roots, mud, snow, slippery rocks, downed trees, tall grass, and about a million other things. You might veer off onto a smooth, flat forested pathway or you might find yourself grappling to the side of a cliff. Whatever the obstacle, you want to make sure that your shoes can stand up to whatever might be thrown at you.
With a market swollen with so many different makes and models of trail shoes, it's no surprise that you may not know where to begin. That's what OutdoorGearLab is here for! Before buying a shoe, it's important to know the difference between a trail and road shoe. Once you know that, you need to figure out what category of shoe you prefer. Do you require something with lots of underfoot cushioning or do you want something that is minimalistic? Next, you need to ask yourself "Where do you run?" Terrain and climate have a huge impact on what you might require from a trail runner. Lastly, you need to find out if the shoe fits. In this article, we cover all these key considerations.
Trail vs. Road Shoes
Shoes for trail running are designed to stand up to a variety of surfaces while keeping feet protected and comfortable. When comparing trail running shoes to road running shoes, there are a few key differences that set the two apart. This includes more protective materials, better stability, and superior traction.Protective Materials and Better Stability Control
Uneven and technical running surfaces demand additional foot protection and stability control to prevent rolled ankles and forefoot sized blisters. Your shoes shouldn't be the reason to stop your fun run. Trail running shoes generally feature stabilizing and comfort materials such as double or triple layers of EVA or open-celled foam, shanks, and/or rock plates. In addition, stability harnesses or systems prevent the upper from losing its shape, enhancing overall stability. This protects the foot from sharp rocks or other potential hazards on the trails. Shoes without these features are typically less protective and not the best option for long distances (unless you've trained your foot to withstand these surfaces). These materials are inserted into the midfoot of the shoe to provide better rigidity and comfort.
Encountering sloppy and uneven surfaces including mud, snow, sand, rocks, and roots, are guaranteed to be encountered. As a result, trail shoes require better traction to avoid slipping and falling. Expect to find a complex tread design and deeper multi-directional lugs. These aid in ascending, descending, and traversing surfaces through a variety of terrain. Shoes specific for softer surfaces will have longer lugs that are spaced further apart for better 'mud shed' abilities. Shoes that are more versatile will have more lugs closely spaced together and not quite as long.
Considering the Running Surface - Type of Trail Runners
If you've ever typed in 'trail running shoes' into the Google machine, you can understand the variety of trail runners out there. Here, we fit shoes into different categories to help you understand what use is best for each. We discuss light and rugged trail runnings. In addition, we look at those best for off-trail terrain and crossing over to harder, paved surfaces.
Light Trail Runners
This shoe features minimalist materials and is designed for surfaces that are consistent. Think of well-groomed trails, dirt roads, and cross-over to asphalt every now and then. This category of the shoe looks like a road running shoe with minimal protective features, lightweight design, and less aggressive lugs. Protection is moderate with a stiffer design. While it can perform in more technical environments, it's not ideal for tromping through streams or up boulder or scree fields.
Example: Nike Terra Kiger 4
Rugged Trail Runners
Designed with versatility and technical trails in mind, this category of the shoe does best when the trail is littered with rocks, roots, and steep terrain. This category of shoe fits a wide variety of terrain to include both hard and soft surfaces. Some of the protective features you'll find include toe caps, rock guards, cushioning, supportive uppers, and a diversity of lug shapes and patterns. In addition, some shoes will have longer lugs to perform better in softer surfaces, while others may have a hard Vibram sole to protect on rocky trails. Most of the shoes we reviewed fit into this category.
A shoe that you can run in while doubling as a hiker is one of the most protective. If you decide to go off-trail, this is the best category. In addition to all the features of a rugged trail shoe it offers better durability and water protection. Some have added gore-tex inserts to increase waterproofing, in addition to polyurethane foams (instead of EVA foam) that is firmer and more durable. In addition, you will find better torsional rigidity that keeps the shoe from twisting in wacky ways on the trail. This type of shoe is best for those looking for the best when it comes to protection.
Categories of Cushioning and Support
While we talk about the different types of trail shoes for each type of environment, further categorization can be made based on the heel-toe drop and level of cushioning. This includes a traditional, minimalist, maximalist, and low profile design.
The classic shoe we all know best. It typically boasts extra cushion in the heel with a larger heel-toe drop (about 8mm or greater). These shoes are also typically designed to accommodate both heel and midfoot strikers. They provide additional cushioning to also absorb shock.
Examples includes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor, Salomon Speedcross 4, Inov-8 Roclite 305
Barefoot & Minimalist
Barefoot shoes are designed to mimic running barefoot. Running barefoot means, well, running barefoot. No added comfort or stability components. The philosophy goes that after proper training, the stabilizing muscles in your feet and legs will become stronger, and your body will fall into a more natural running position. This running position means striking with your midfoot as opposed to your heel. Also, with your toes free to wiggle, you have better balance and stability on the trail.
The maximalist shoe is packed with the cushion to provide you with the most comfortable ride you could ever imagine on the trail. The extra cushion is said to help protect joints and is said to help endurance by absorbing shock that your knees or hips would normally absorb. That said, maximalist shoes can come with a variety of heel to toe drop ranges.
Example: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4
This shoe type features a low to the ground feel, moderate to minimal cushioning, and lightweight protective components. This type of shoe features a heel-toe drop of 0 to 6 mm and offers better stability than traditional and maximalist shoes.
Examples: Saucony Peregrine 8 (4mm), Altra Lone Peak 4.0 (zero drop), La Sportiva Bushido (4 mm), Inov-8 TerraUltra 260G (zero drop)
Where do you Run?
When considering this question, don't just consider the city or place that you're in. Think about the trails that you want to tackle, the weather you might encounter, and the type of features that you need in order to feel comfortable getting out there.
Knowing the types of terrain, surfaces, and climate you will typically encounter on a run will help greatly when choosing a trail runner. For example, if you like to get out on technical trails where you might encounter everything from snow to sand, you should consider a shoe that is versatile, protective, with a great outsole. For example; the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor, our Editor's Choice winner. Or, if you, for example, prefer a light trail shoe that does well on consistent surfaces, you might look for a shoe with a less aggressive outsole like the Ultra Vasque Constant Velocity II. Our advice is to identify what features you need and require, then look for them.
After looking at where you will be running, consider the weather and climate. For example; are you running in dry cold weather or a wet humid rainforest? All climates require different features. For example; in a dry, cold weather, you might want a shoe that will bite down on snow, while keeping feet warmer and more protected. The Salomon Speedcross 4 is a fantastic option as it offers an aggressive outsole and continuous upper that is less breathable, making it warmer. However, if you're in a wet humid rainforest, you'll want a shoe with sticky rubber (for wet rocks and moss) and a breathable upper. The Saucony Peregrine 8 (Our Best Buy winner) would be a great option for this.In the end, it's all about pre-meditation. If you're new to trail running, we'd recommend buying a shoe that conquers all terrain equally. If you're a seasoned trail runner, still consider all the factors mentioned above so you can narrow down what you need.
This is the most important consideration to make when purchasing a trail running shoe. Since every single person has a different kind of foot, and no shoe will feel the same for everybody. That said, take size recommendations with a grain of salt, and try shoes one! In this review, we provide you recommendations for fit, but it's impossible to consider odd details of one person's foot like their arch, toe length, heel size, etc. As a result, look at your own foot and the way you run to determine what might work best for you.
When considering this, determine if you have a more narrow, medium or wide foot. Consider whether you require arch support or a roomier toe box or a tight fitting heel. Then, evaluate your running style. If you are somebody that, when running, lands on their heel first, then transitions to the forefoot, you would be happier with a shoe that offers more cushioning in the heel. However, if you hit the ground with the front of your foot first, cushioning in the heel will not be that important.
Lastly - try shoes on! After trying on an array of shoes, be sure to choose a pair that fits snugly, isn't too tight, and leaves you with room to wiggle your toes. Be sure there are no weird constriction points and the uppers feel comfortable on your foot. If possible, walk down an incline and be sure your toes don't touch the front of the shoe and walk up the incline to check that your heel isn't slipping in and out of place. As you walk or jog around the store or your living room, focus on the overall comfort. A good fit truly is the best fit!
In your search consider what you demand from your trail runner. Find the features that you seek out to determine the best trail running option for you. In addition, try on different options to see what fits you best. The best shoe is the one that fits.