Trail running offers any runner the opportunity to get off the pavement and onto beautiful single-track trails in the wilderness. The trails are uneven, full of obstacles, and ultimately require more protection than your regular running shoe. A high performing trail running shoe 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. It will also last you for more than just a couple hundred miles. In a market saturated with choices, its easy to come down with a case of choice paralysis. Take a look at our article to help you narrow the options and find your perfect trail partner.
What is a Trail Running Shoe?
These are shoes designed to stand up to a variety of surfaces while keeping feet protected and comfortable. The outsole has better traction features, with stickier rubber and more aggressive lugs that are well spaced apart, which help grab uneven terrain. The outsole is typically constructed in a way that integrates more stability and comfort. If you plan to take to the trails, even if you're a beginner, buying a trail runner will offer you more safety from trips and falls on uneven terrain. If you're planning on getting on the trail, and it's super flat and easier in nature, you can probably get away with sticking to a road running shoe.
Related: The Best Running Shoes for Women
It's important to set your budget in the world of shoes. If you're looking for a high-performance shoe, be ready to spend over one hundred dollars. There are many options priced below this price point, but from our experience, the tread isn't as aggressive, nor is the midsole as high quality. We have seen these shoes deteriorate quickly. There are some award winners in this review that do well at a low cost, so be sure to hone in on those as well.
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.
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.
Light Trail Runners
Light trail runners features 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.
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.
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?".
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.