The world of trail running is growing in popularity. As shoe companies continue to upgrade old models and test out new technology, we are seeing updates and changes as fast as we can review each contender. The market is huge with a lot of different options. We are here to help you sift through this ocean of choices by first focusing on what you should consider for this key piece of gear out on the trails.
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What is a Trail Running Shoe?
A trail shoe is designed for…well, the trail. A place that is littered with hazards underfoot. As a result, trail shoes are more protective, with better traction to tackle this terrain. Additionally, they are built for comfort and stability to keep you exploring through the day, without turning an ankle. A good trail running shoe will help keep you comfortable while running all day long on off-camber terrain. If you're heading out into the backcountry to explore singletrack trails or that summit you've been dreaming about, we strongly advise you buy a pair of trail runners. But where to start first?
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 options that range from decently inexpensive to wildly expensive. While some of the more expensive options are high performers, you may not need that kind of performance.
Where Do You Run?
When considering this question, think about how loose or slippery the trail will be, the angle, the weather, and generally what you need for where you want to go. 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 for shoe construction to help you look for specific attributes that will slim down the choices a bit. If you're new to running, choose a middle-of-the-road shoe that is versatile.
Considering the Running Surface
If you've ever typed "trail running shoes" into Google, you know that a wide variety of trail runners come up. 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 roughly categorized them into light and rugged options.
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 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.
Protection will be 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 the lack of rigidity, protection, and stability.
Rugged Trail Runners
Designed with versatility and technical trails in mind, this category of shoe does best when the trail is littered with rocks, roots, and steep terrain. They can perform on a wide variety of terrain that includes 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 a diversity of lug shapes and patterns that are more aggressive.
Some options in this category will have longer lugs to perform better on softer surfaces, while others may have a hard Vibram sole to protect on rocky trails. Those with longer lugs or softer rubbers will be more susceptible to break down on harder surfaces.
When approaching the market, you'll find a million different marketable attributes that'll make your eyes go as wide as 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 and 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 find in the Sierra mountains. Some may not be trails at all, overgrown from moisture or lack of use. So the first question to ask yourself is, "What do your shoes need to be able to do?".
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. 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.
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 and 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 boast stickier and softer rubbers that mold better to 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.
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 rock plate (if your shoe has it), and provides support 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 is 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.
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.
Shoes that are called maximalist shoes are built by companies like HOKA ONE ONE and use highly cushioned foam that is very springy. This mega-cushioning, while protective underfoot, can feel unstable for some. However, companies are getting better at making them more stable as the years go on.
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 and flexible, with less 'stability' elements. However, 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 and strengthening your feet before trying to attempt mega-long distances.
The upper is the part of the shoe that wraps around your arch and the top of your foot 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 mesh uppers are more breathable. A good upper should keep out pesky particulates like dirt, sand, and the rest.
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 usually pretty expensive, typically more rigid, and always less breathable. Plus, most water will get into the shoe via the collar anyway. Very rarely do we find this a worthy investment.
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, dedicated drainage holes help to get the water out more efficiently. 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. Some shoes have a single pull system that doesn't allow this type of functionality, so be sure you choose a lacing system that you like.
This term describes the amount of cushioning in the heel vs. the toe and infers the amount that your foot naturally "drops" or how high your heel sits above your toes. 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 feel 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 height. Running with a heel-strike position on super thin shoes or those without much cushioning in the heel can be dangerous. Shoes with less drop 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 and getting your body used to it. Start with short distances and with ample recovery time.Traditional
This is 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 8mm or greater. These shoes are designed to accommodate both heel and midfoot strikers and provide additional cushioning in the heel to absorb that shock.
These shoes are sensitive with a low-to-the-ground feel; this type of shoe features a heel-toe drop of 1 to 7mm. These shoes promote forefoot or midfoot striking 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.
These shoes have a consistent stack height from heel to toe (0m). 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 can adapt and catch up before tackling super long distances.
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 to try your 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.
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. Have fun.