Trail running offers any runner the opportunity to get off the pavement and onto beautiful single-track trails into the wilderness. The trails are uneven, full of obstacles, and ultimately require more protection than your regular running shoe. A great trail runner will allow you to feel the natural undulations of the surface while sufficiently protecting your foot from the rogue rock or root you might accidentally step on. They have outsoles with varying amounts of traction and differences in the construction that ultimately offer more stability and protection.
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! Testing side-by-side is how we come up with the best recommendations, comparing each shoe, in hand, and on the trail. In this article, we help you navigate the different options on the market by outlining key trail running shoe features and considerations to make before committing to an investment.
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 to 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. You will also 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. Before we get into that if you're not familiar with what "heel-to-toe" drop is, be sure to check out the section below.
There's a lot of information about the proportional amount of cushioning in the heel vs. the toe. Some prefer a 'zero-drop' shoe which means that the cushioning is consistent through the foot. The idea is this promotes better posture while running, promoting a foot striking pattern at starts at the forefoot. Others prefer a little cushioning in the heel, but still, don't want too much. Here, a low profile shoe is best that offers a little extra protection in the heel. Those that are full-blown heel strikers may appreciate extra cushioning in the heel. This elevated heel pushes your body forward, but some will say that it is unnatural and could be the cause of many running injuries. While considering your shoe, think about the profile and the relative amount of cushioning from the heel to the toe.
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: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor, Salomon Speedcross 5, 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 5
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), Altra King MT 1.5, Altra Superior
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 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 Inov-8 TerraUltra, our Editor's Choice winner. Or, if you prefer a light trail shoe that does well on consistent surfaces, you might look for a shoe with a less aggressive outsole like the Peregrine. Think about these features as you look at different option out there.
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 dry, cold weather, you might want a shoe that will bite down on the snow, while keeping feet warm and more protected. The Salomon Speedcross 5 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!
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.