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How to Choose Trail Running Shoes for Women

By Amber King ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday March 18, 2020
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Are you considering a new pair of trail runners? The world of trail running is one that can literally sweep you off your feet. The sport allows access to the most beautiful places in the world and offers an air of exploration that is both empowering and eye-widening. A great shoe that'll keep you protected and confident on the trail is the most important thing that'll ensure your safety and comfort when throwing down the miles. Whether you'd obsessed with the latest and greatest, or simply want to learn about trail running, this article will help you find purchase an important piece of your outdoor gear collection.

Technical terrain? Snow? Mountains? Sand? Rain? Hot  dry weather? These are all considerations you have to make when thinking about what you demand from a trail runner. Here our the main editor of this review tests a pair of Altras during a 30-mile day with over 6 000 feet of elevation gain at elevations over 13  000 feet.
Technical terrain? Snow? Mountains? Sand? Rain? Hot, dry weather? These are all considerations you have to make when thinking about what you demand from a trail runner. Here our the main editor of this review tests a pair of Altras during a 30-mile day with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain at elevations over 13, 000 feet.

What is a Trail Running Shoe?


A trail shoe is designed for…well, the trail! The outsole has better traction features, with sticky rubber and aggressive lugs to keep you upright on uneven and steep terrain. The outsole is constructed to integrate more stability and comfort. A good trail running shoe is built for the worst conditions on the trail. If you're simply looking to get out on an easy trail every now and then, a regular road shoe will probably suffice (and cost you a little less).

Related: The Best Women's Running Shoes of 2020

Budget


It's important to set your budget in the world of shoes. If you're looking for a high-performance shoe, be ready to shell out some cash. A great shoe is durable and built to carry you for hundreds of miles. When considering your budget, set a number that you're willing to spend, then peruse the options. We have tested many shoes that range from inexpensive to wildly expensive. While some of the more expensive options are high performers, you may not need that kind of performance. Consider where you run before you make your purchase.

The Saucony Peregrine 10 performs across the metrics and is offered at an average price. While it isn't the cheapest  it offers the best performance for the price.
The Saucony Peregrine 10 performs across the metrics and is offered at an average price. While it isn't the cheapest, it offers the best performance for the price.

Where Do You Run?


When considering this question, don't just consider the city or place that you're in. Think about how loose or slippery the trail will be, the angle, the weather, and generally what you need. Deciding what's most important to you on your run is paramount to figuring out what shoe is the best for your personal trail experience. Knowing this information will help you decide on the level of technical performance your shoe needs. In the next section, we will go into considerations to make in shoe construction to help you look for specific attributes that will slim down the choices for your experience. If you're new to running, choose a middle of the road shoe that is versatile.

Here we tackle a steep stone pathway that later transitions in hot  deep sand. When considering these obstacles and the 90-degree weather we would later intercept  we are able to make a better decision about what shoe to wear.
Here we tackle a steep stone pathway that later transitions in hot, deep sand. When considering these obstacles and the 90-degree weather we would later intercept, we are able to make a better decision about what shoe to wear.

Considering the Running Surface - Type of Trail Runners


If you've ever typed "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. It is very difficult to lump trail runners into different categories as there are so many options with different niches; but, we've done it, and categorize as light or and rugged trail runners.

Here we look at the difference in lug layout and depth. The Salomon Speedcross (left) features a much deeper lug than the Salomon Sense Ride (right)  offering better traction on soft and slippery surfaces.
Here we look at the difference in lug layout and depth. The Salomon Speedcross (left) features a much deeper lug than the Salomon Sense Ride (right), offering better traction on soft and slippery surfaces.

Light Trail Runners


Light trail runners feature minimalist materials and are designed for consistent surfaces. Think of well-groomed trails, dry and rocky trails, dirt roads, and sometimes pavement. This category of the shoe looks like a road running shoe with minimal protective features, a lightweight design, and less aggressive lugs. The lugs on the outsole are typically flatter and shallower without being prone to wear and tear.

The Nike Terra Kiger offers lightweight performance to keep you going mile after mile.
The Nike Terra Kiger offers lightweight performance to keep you going mile after mile.

Protection is moderate to minimal with a more flexible design. These trail runners certainly can be used for harder trails, but keep in mind it'll put more strain on your body as a result of its lack of rigidity, protection, and stability.

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. It can perform on a wide variety of terrain and include both hard and soft surfaces. Some of the protective features you'll find reinforced in this type of shoe are toe caps, rock guards, additional cushioning, supportive uppers, and diversity of lug shapes and patterns that are more aggressive than a less-aggressive outsole.

Jo hikes down a snowy slope high in the backcountry with the La Sportiva Akyra. This is one of the most protective and stable shoes we've tested.
Jo hikes down a snowy slope high in the backcountry with the La Sportiva Akyra. This is one of the most protective and stable shoes we've tested.

Some options in this category will have longer lugs to perform better in softer surfaces, while others may have a hard Vibram sole to protect on rocky trails. While most of these trail runners are meant, well, for the trail, they can be used well on dirt roads. Those with longer lugs or softer rubbers will be more susceptible to break down on harder surfaces.

Trail Shoe Buying Considerations


When approaching the market, you'll find a million different marketable attributes that'll make your eyes go wide like dinner plates. Below, we outline some attributes to look for in a trail runner through several lenses of use. Choose the lens that best suits you on this journey to help you find your next best trail running shoe!

Traction & The Outsole


All trail running shoes will have some sort of traction pattern that is more aggressive and suitable for trail use. However, trails differ in what you might encounter. Some may be a groomed singletrack that shares use with mountain bikes. These are typically dry and rocky. Others might be slabs of rocks, synonymous with what you might find in the Sierra mountains. Some may not be trails at all, overgrown from the amount of moisture you may encounter. So the first question to ask yourself is, "What do your shoes need to be able to do?".

Here we hike up a super steep trail that gains 2 000 feet in just two miles. The Salomon Speedcross 5 is a perfect companion  digging into the dry  hard dirt and providing traction that is monumental on the downhill.
Here we hike up a super steep trail that gains 2,000 feet in just two miles. The Salomon Speedcross 5 is a perfect companion, digging into the dry, hard dirt and providing traction that is monumental on the downhill.

For the beginner or intermediate trail runner, a basic and versatile outsole will work just fine. These are best for those who are transitioning from road to trail often. The lugs don't need to be very long, and better if they have a flatter design, so to avoid them breaking off or wearing down on the pavement.

This trail runner has a less aggressive outsole that does well on dry trails  sticks well to rocks  and offers a nice bounce on the trail.
This trail runner has a less aggressive outsole that does well on dry trails, sticks well to rocks, and offers a nice bounce on the trail.

For those in wet climates, you'll find value in a more aggressive outsole. If the trails you run on are muddy or soft, an outsole with longer lugs that are well-spaced apart that can shed mud easily will be best. These outsoles are also perfect for those looking to do Spartan Races or anything similar.

For dry and rocky trails, shoes with a Vibram sole will host stickier and softer rubbers that mold better to the rock, for better scrambling ability. The lugs that are flatter and wider will offer a better transition on these surfaces. These shoes will also last longer.

The tall lugs that are widely spaced of the Salomon Speedcross 5 offer great traction on soft surfaces.
The tall lugs that are widely spaced of the Salomon Speedcross 5 offer great traction on soft surfaces.

If you want a versatile shoe that'll do it all, look for something that has an aggressive outsole that isn't too specific. Look for longish lugs built with rubber composites with good spacing for lateral and front/back traction.

Cushioning and Underfoot Protection (Midsole)


This is the part of the shoe that is under your foot. It is what holds cushioning, a rockplate, and provides the support you need, in conjunction with the upper. Depending on the level of protection and stability you require, you may need more or less from your midsole. The "stack height" of a shoe will give you a good idea of how much relative cushioning in the midsole. Some cushioning will feel springy, while others feel firm. Some pack out (or break down) faster than others as well. Typically, the more cushioning, the less intimate your trail experience; some shoes, however, are really good at keeping a low stack height with high-density foam that is more durable than springy foam with pockets of air.

A look at the super protective outsole of the HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4 (right) in comparison to the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 (left).
A look at the super protective outsole of the HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4 (right) in comparison to the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 (left).

Typically, if you are heavier and put your shoes through the wringer (rain, snow, scrambly terrain), the midsole can break down faster than those who are "nicer" to their shoes. A well-built shoe can last up to 1000 miles (even though it is not recommended by the manufacturer to wear them this long). According to various ultrarunners we've spoken to, those with relatively light with moderate use should see an average of 600-800 miles, while anything lower is considerably lesser in value.

Protective and More Stable Shoes

Those that appreciate lots of protection from underfoot hazards should look for shoes with more cushioning and protective elements and should look for double or triple layers of EVA or open-celled foam, shanks, and/or rock plates. Stability harnesses or systems prevent the upper from losing its shape, enhancing overall stability and protection, which 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. If protection and stability are your top priority, look for these features.

Here the Scarpa Spin provides awesome stability on this unstable and slippery snow crossing high in the alpine on an early summer day.
Here the Scarpa Spin provides awesome stability on this unstable and slippery snow crossing high in the alpine on an early summer day.

Shoes that are called maximalist shoes are built by companies like HOKA HOKE ONE, and use highly cushioned foam that is very springy. This mega-cushioning, while protective underfoot, can feel unstable for some. However, they are getting better at becoming more stable as the years go on.

A look at the midsoles of the ultraprotective and ultra-cushioned shoe options. Here we see the HOKA ONE ONE brand shoes renowned for this niche function.
A look at the midsoles of the ultraprotective and ultra-cushioned shoe options. Here we see the HOKA ONE ONE brand shoes renowned for this niche function.

Less Protective Shoes

Those that want less protection should look for a shoe with minimal underfoot cushioning, but a rock plate in the design. The rock plate is a thin layer that helps to distribute the impact of trail hazards when landing. The force spreads out from one point and keeps you going. These shoes are also typically more lightweight, flexible, with less 'stability' elements. In a lot of ways, they are more stable simply because they are low to the ground. It's important to note that less protective shoes will make your feet work harder. After a few months of getting used to them, your feet will thank you with stronger muscles and bones. It's just important to take your time breaking them in before trying to attempt mega long distances.

While the Salmon Sense Ride offers great traction on hard surfaces  it has minimal protective features. It lacks cushioning and comes without a rock plate. It is one of the lightest and most sensitive options out there.
While the Salmon Sense Ride offers great traction on hard surfaces, it has minimal protective features. It lacks cushioning and comes without a rock plate. It is one of the lightest and most sensitive options out there.

The Upper


The upper is the part of the shoe that wraps around your arch to provide additional protection and a good fit. A good upper will provide great breathability with a little bit of water resistance. Most of the trail running shoes we test are not waterproof but do a good job repelling water and drying quickly. A continuous upper that isn't mesh is the most protective, while the mesh uppers are more breathable. A good upper should keep out pesky particulates like dirt, sand, and the rest.

The continuous upper of the Salomon Speedcross 5 is a favorite of ours for sand and silty environments  simply because of the continuous upper that doesn't let anything inside. Unfortunately  breathability is a trade-off.
The continuous upper of the Salomon Speedcross 5 is a favorite of ours for sand and silty environments, simply because of the continuous upper that doesn't let anything inside. Unfortunately, breathability is a trade-off.

A trail gaiter is an example of a feature that is adaptable to add to your shoe to make it more protective. For example, if you find yourself running in deep sand, it will prevent said sand from being kicked up into the collar of your shoe. It also protects from moisture, keeping your shoes a little drier when running through grassy meadows filled with early morning dew.

Here we see a mesh upper on the Altra Superior that is also very protective. Not the little D-shaped metal link at the bottom of the laces. This is designed to attach a gaiter for added protection when water or sand is just too deep.
Here we see a mesh upper on the Altra Superior that is also very protective. Not the little D-shaped metal link at the bottom of the laces. This is designed to attach a gaiter for added protection when water or sand is just too deep.

For those that seek more water resistance, Gore-Tex shoe options are typically available. This will help to keep water off your feet, especially if you know you'll be trudging through a lot of rivers and streams. However, this is a pretty extreme shoe, typically more rigid and less breathable. Plus, most water will get into the shoe via the collar anyway. Very rarely do we find this a worthy investment, and you'd be better off with a good pair of Merino wool socks that will help to protect your feet from blisters and all the rest.

It also has great holes to support efficient drainage when traveling through water-laden streams or rivers.
It also has great holes to support efficient drainage when traveling through water-laden streams or rivers.

On the topic of water, drainage holes are also a neat feature. Many shoes drain from their breathable mesh areas, but if you plan on submerging your foot, these holes help to get the water out. While this is a cool feature, it's not one that is 'needed' by most trail runners.

Lacing Patterns and Eyelets


When trying to get a specific fit, the lacing structure on your shoe must offer ample room to either keep it wide or pull it tight. There are many neat lacing patterns that you can use to enhance the fit of any shoe. RunRepeat has a great article that outlines a variety of techniques that you can try to make your shoes fit better.

Look for a shoe with many lace eyelets and a wide spacing pattern. Also  try a different lacing pattern if your feet are especially wide or narrow.
Look for a shoe with many lace eyelets and a wide spacing pattern. Also, try a different lacing pattern if your feet are especially wide or narrow.

Heel-to-Toe Drop


This term describes the amount of cushioning the heel vs. the toe, and infers the amount that your foot naturally "drops" or how high your heel sits. The higher the drop, the more protection in the heel pushing you forward. While some might argue that this additional cushioning makes for a "faster" shoe, others might argue that a "low drop" or "zero drop" promotes better wellness and uses more natural biomechanics.

If going from a traditional drop that is found in most running or town shoes, it's important to note that your calves will feel more strain as you decrease the drop size. Running with a heel-strike position on super thin shoes or those without much cushioning in the heel can be dangerous. So these lighter shoes are best for those who strike with the mid- or fore-foot, or those who want to learn. If you go all the way to a zero drop, be sure to take your time breaking them in. Start with short distances and with ample recovery time.

Use our spec table to see what kind of drop the shoe you're interested in. We measure this in mm.

Traditional

Your classic running shoe, the one that you think of when you think of running. It typically boasts extra cushion in the heel with a large heel-toe drop of roughly 9 mm or greater. These shoes are also designed to accommodate both heel and midfoot strikers and provide additional cushioning in the heel to absorb that shock.

The La Sportiva Akyra has a traditional design with a 9mm drop.
The La Sportiva Akyra has a traditional design with a 9mm drop.

Low Profile

These shoes are sensitive with a low to the ground feel; this type of shoe features a heel-toe drop of 1 to 8 mm. These shoes promote forefoot or midfoot strikers with a little bit of cushioning for those that prefer to heel strike now and then and need a little more support. The lower the cushioning change, the longer it will take to get used to. Make sure you ease into training with these; not doing so can result in injury if you're not careful.

The La Sportiva Bushido is an example of a low profile shoe with a 6mm drop. It also has less cushioning in the forefoot to promote better sensitivity and stability. Though it has a little cushioning in the heel for additional support on steep slopes.
The La Sportiva Bushido is an example of a low profile shoe with a 6mm drop. It also has less cushioning in the forefoot to promote better sensitivity and stability. Though it has a little cushioning in the heel for additional support on steep slopes.

Zero Drop

These shoes have a consistent stack height from heel to toe (0 m). As a result, there's no additional cushioning in the heel relative to the forefoot. This construction is best for those that are mid- to forefoot strikers. If you've never run in a shoe like this, take it slow and make sure your muscles and adapt and catch up before tackling super long distances.

The Inov-8 Terraultra G 260 (a unisex shoe) has the same level of cushioning from the front to the back. This is an example of a zero-drop shoe that is best for those that don't need additional cushioning in the heel. Mid and forefoot strikers will appreciate these best.
The Inov-8 Terraultra G 260 (a unisex shoe) has the same level of cushioning from the front to the back. This is an example of a zero-drop shoe that is best for those that don't need additional cushioning in the heel. Mid and forefoot strikers will appreciate these best.

Fit


This is the most important consideration for finding your next best trail running shoe. Everybody has different feet with different preferences for feel. While we offer suggestions for fit, take them with a grain of salt. The best thing you can do in your buying process is try shoes on. Certain brands typically offer a similar fit across their products. So if you find a brand you love, stick to it, or find others that are similar.

If you like ordering online, order all the shoes you are interested in and send back the ones that don't work. Make sure the retailer has a great return policy that doesn't require you to pay postage upon return.

Amber (our main author) runs out steep trails in Ouray  Colorado with ease (thank goodness for downhills). The TerraUltra G260 made by Inov-8 proves to offer amazing performance in all categories winning a Top Pick.
Amber (our main author) runs out steep trails in Ouray, Colorado with ease (thank goodness for downhills). The TerraUltra G260 made by Inov-8 proves to offer amazing performance in all categories winning a Top Pick.

Conclusion


What you need in a trail runner depends on your priorities. Consider the weather and trail conditions that you'll be encountering. Buying a fresh new pair of trail running shoes is a fun and exciting experience that shouldn't be hindered by an inundated market. Check out what the best options out there and see what works for you.

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