Why Trail Running Shoes?
Why choose to buy specialized trail running shoes at all? After all, before about 20 years ago there was no such thing as a trail running shoe and yet people still accomplished amazing things running on trails or even up and down mountains. Certainly, it is possible to run on your local trails in your favorite road shoe, and indeed some people choose to do exactly that. However, we believe that if you intend to make trails your primary running surface, you will be much happier if you invest in a dedicated pair of trail running shoes. Simply put, this footwear is designed for off-road travel and includes many design features not found on a road-specific model.
Trail shoes typically feature a far more aggressive outsole with durable, sticky rubber, and include large lugs for added traction on dirt, mud, and snow. They frequently have a rock plate in the midsole, which helps absorb blows to the underside of your foot. When trail running or racing, it is common to end up with wet feet, whether from crossing streams, running over a snowfield, or merely by absorbing the morning dew off the grass along the path. Manufacturers know this and have gone to great lengths to design uppers made of breathable materials that will quickly shed water. They also try to balance breathability with durability by choosing materials that will protect against abrasion and hold up to abuse for a long time. These are all qualities that trail running shoe designers consider first, and are not typically necessary for a road running model.
Using road running shoes on a trail can be akin to skiing the lifts with cross-country skis, riding an unpaved trail on a road bike, or hitting a class IV rapid in a sea kayak. All are (maybe?) possible, but why try? If you are planning to run on trails, do yourself a favor and buy yourself a pair of trail runners!
Types of Trail Running Shoes
These days, trail running shoes can be loosely grouped into a few broad, ill-defined, and overlapping genres. These groups are not an industry definition but are merely our attempt to help you understand the differences between types of shoes. The metric that most accurately defines and divides shoes into these groups is the heel-toe drop, although the amount of cushioning under your foot also plays a role in these categorizations. The heel-toe drop is found by measuring the height of the heel above the ground and subtracting from it the height of the toes. This number is represented in millimeters, and the range to be found is from 0mm all the way to 12mm or so. Generally speaking, these genres are:
Barefoot & Minimalist
Some people run on trails and cross-country barefoot or in sandals! But for this review, we are going to talk about shoes. Attempting to mimic the most natural way for humans to move over the earth on two feet while still protecting their soles with some form of covering, a whole slew of "barefoot shoes," has been invented. Barefoot shoes have a 0mm heel-toe drop and virtually no cushioning or protective features, other than an outsole. While many people do run in these models, none of them are covered in this review. Check out our Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoe Review if these types of shoes appeal to you.
Low-Profile shoes are light and sleek and feature low heel-toe drop, typically in the range of 0 to 6mm. They also tend to have lower stack heights, meaning there is less material between your foot and the ground (to find out what a shoe's heel-toe drop or stack height is, check out the specs table in our main review). For this reason, they are often quite sensitive and might offer correspondingly less underfoot protection. Because of this, they tend to require a running style that embodies the philosophy of a natural stride — landing on the forefoot while avoiding heel-striking.
They are created with the same idea as barefoot shoes, but with the accepted caveat that a little more protection is needed for our feet to charge around the mountains, forests, and deserts at our limits. They are also the preferred choice for fast runners and racers with more developed body structure. For those wanting to wean their bodies off of "unnatural" shoes or biomechanics, it is recommended that you start with short and easy runs in low-profile models. The products we reviewed which best fit this genre are the very sensitive La Sportiva Helios 2.0, the always popular Saucony Peregrine 7, Altra's most minimalist trail runner, the Superior 3.5, our Best Overall Trail Running Shoe, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 4, and the shoe with the best traction, the Inov-8 Roclite 290.
Standard or Traditional
The vast majority of shoes, including those reviewed here, fall into this category. For the last 40 years or so, athletic footwear has mostly been designed with a 6mm to 14mm heel-toe drop. From the moment we began walking, and our parents put shoes on our feet, we have been adapted to these artificial levels of heel-toe drop. Thus, this is what most of our bodies have become accustomed to. The reasoning goes that adding cushioning in the heel helps absorb some of the shock that comes from heel-striking. There is much "chicken or egg" style debate about adding cushioning to the heels of athletic shoes. Do we land on our heels so therefore need extra padding? Or, do we have extra padding in our heels and so, therefore, adapt our stride to take advantage of it when landing? Regardless, we have virtually all been raised in footwear designed with higher heels, and our running strides tend to reflect this. As a result, most of us find them to be the most comfortable and therefore most trail running shoes are made to these parameters.
Traditional shoes also tend to be designed for the Everyman. What we mean by this is they tend to have more protection underfoot, allowing most of us to run longer and more comfortably on difficult terrain. They aren't quite as concerned with weight as the most important feature, and will, therefore, include features that add comfort and durability to a shoe, even if it means the shoe is slightly heavier. Generally speaking, most people will find that these shoes last longer before falling apart than low-profile shoes. They are the everyday trainers, and we believe most people will be happier running in them. The traditional shoes that we reviewed are the ultra running inspired New Balance Leadville v3, our Best Buy Award Winning Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4, the burly Vasque Constant Velocity, last year's Best Buy Award winning The North Face Ultra Endurance, the New Balance Vazee Summit v2, the aggressively lugged Salomon Speedcross 4, the relatively cushioned, zero-drop Altra Lone Peak 3.5, and the new this year Brooks Caldera.
This small genre of shoes is best defined by the brand Hoka One One, so check out our review of the Hoka Challenger ATR 4 if they interest you. These models do not emphasize heel-toe drop but instead, focus on giving you the most cushioning possible to absorb impact from the ground. They have a massive stack height, meaning there is a ton of foam between your foot and the ground. They are most often used to run long ultra races or training runs of ultra length, and often by older runners or those whose bodies have seen some wear and tear. The goal of this heavily cushioned design is simply to absorb more of the impact of running, thereby preserving your body. They have a huge following in the trail running community. While we used to feel somewhat prejudiced against these shoes due to the loss of performance that necessarily came with such a massive stack height, we no longer feel that way due to design changes and improvements in materials that are allowing HOKA, and others, to make lighter and much more stable shoes than they had in the past.
All of the shoes we have tested here are defined as neutral shoes. Neutral means that the shoe does not have extra features designed to control the motion of your foot. Motion Control shoes, on the other hand, DO attempt to support your foot differently if you are an excessive pronator. Although this can be a contentious topic, many recent studies are showing that over-pronating does not cause a higher rate of injury in runners, as has been assumed for a long time. Experts now say that deciding which shoe to buy should be based more on personal comfort than the mechanics of how your foot lands and distributes force. It just so happens that most of the traditional trail running shoes are neutral shoes, and are therefore more applicable for us to test. However, many brands do have motion control alternatives to the ones reviewed here, if that is something you feel that you need.
Recent Trends in the Trail Shoe Market
Here are a few ways in which this year's crop of trail running shoes has changed for the better:
Zero Drop and Maximum Cushioning
According to recent surveys by the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), the two most preferred brands of trail running shoes are Altra and Hoka One One. This is interesting because both of these manufacturers create specialty shoes that are defined by an overriding characteristic: Altra only makes shoes that have zero heel-toe drop, while Hoka only makes shoes with massive amounts of foam cushioning underfoot. While they may seem like household brands to trail runners these days, it is easy to forget that both came about in the relatively recent past, carving out impressive market shares as quirky innovators before being gobbled up by larger companies. Even more interesting to us is that despite the love for these brands, in our comparative testing, they are still performing lower than shoes created by most of the traditional brands, revealing that even with great ideas, it is still hard to create the perfect shoe. Also evident is that consumers are willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for the sake of running in either zero-drop or maximalist shoes. This leads us to wonder when the more mainstream brands will start to notice the apparent success of these two and offer more genuine competition in the maximalist and zero-drop categories.
Outsoles Continue to Improve
The outsole is the piece of rubber on the bottom of the shoe that makes contact and interacts with the running surface and is thus an important part of the performance of any shoe. We noticed last year that more companies are moving towards an outsole that features large, aggressive lugs for grip on soft surfaces, made of durable sticky rubber for grip on hard surfaces, and widely spaced apart lugs to best shed mud. In our opinion, the combination of these three factors leads to the best all-around outsole, like those found on the Salomon Speedcross 4 or Inov-8 Roclite 290. There is no doubt that this year's crop of shoes has moved even more in a positive direction, with way more of the shoes we tested incorporating all three of these excellent design aspects.
The "upper" is the part of the shoe above the sole, including everything from the heel to the toe, all of the fabric that holds your foot in place, and the tongue. It is a delicate balancing act to design an upper that simultaneously hugs the foot, thereby holding it in place on top of the sole, while also protecting from abrasion, keeping out debris, allowing for adequate foot ventilation and water drainage, all while weighing as little as possible. A few years ago the words "seamless upper" started to creep into the lexicon of shoe marketing speak, but this was the first year that we could truly say that most of the shoes we tested embraced this ideal. While few shoes are truly seamless, there are noticeably fewer seams present on the insides of the uppers, and the sewing technology has apparently improved such that what seams do exist are virtually frictionless and un-noticeable. In particular, we love the many designs that incorporate stretchy inner sock-like pieces of fabric that simultaneously hug the sides of the foot and attach to the edges of the tongue, eliminating its overlapping material while also helping to keep out debris. With innovations such as these, it is very obvious to us that the footwear market continues to improve.
Selecting the Right Product
An Honest Assessment
The first step in deciding which trail running shoe is the right one for you is to conduct an honest self-assessment. If anything, this might help you rule out some of the options that may not work for you. Reading reviews of 14 shoes online and then trying to blindly decide which one is the best for you can be daunting. Likewise, standing in front of a huge wall of shoes and basing your decision on color will probably not end up with you being a happy runner.
Ask yourself these important questions to help you decide what kind of a runner you are not, thereby helping you understand what kind of a runner you are so that you can narrow down your choices. Guidelines for your answers to these questions are described in more detail below. Do you intend only to buy one pair, or are you willing to fork over the cash and revel in the luxury of multiple specialized pairs? What do you plan to use them for? Are you new to running or have you been at it a long time? Are you currently injured, or have you been injured recently? Are you a body mechanics idealist, always striving to improve towards a perfect stride? What shoes have worked well for you in the past?
One Shoe Fits All or a Quiver of Options?
If you intend to own more than one pair of trail running shoes, or in fact already do own more than one pair, then you probably do not need to be quite so selective in what you choose. It is nice to be able to wear a different pair depending on the outing you are planning or how you feel. A decent quiver might include one pair of low-profile shoes, one or two pairs of traditional shoes, and perhaps a pair of HOKAs as well.
On the other hand, if you are like most people and have one pair that you will wear every time you go running until the soles are falling off, the laces are torn, and the upper is coming apart at the seams, then you want to make sure that you have all your bases covered. In this case, you will want to focus your selection on a well-rounded traditional shoe, as minimalist models probably won't serve you for all length of runs or terrain. For certain runners, a low-profile protective shoe will work here as well, like the Peregrine 7 or Nike Terra Kiger 4, but you will probably want to be certain you can handle a low heel-toe drop every day before making these your only option.
What is the intended purpose of the trail running shoes you want to buy? If you are planning to run on trails, through the mountains, over slick rock and sand in the desert, through quaking forests, or all of the above, then you are in the right place.
If you are looking for a race-specific model that you don't intend to wear often but will help you run fast, then look towards the light and fast side. We recommend models like the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, the Altra Superior 3.5, or our Best Overall trail running shoe, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 4. If you want a trail shoe for running 50 or 100-mile ultras, we recommend something with some decent cushioning, like The North Face Ultra Endurance, the New Balance Leadville v3, or the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4.
If you frequently encounter mud and need excellent traction, then look towards a model with large lugs, like the Salomon Speedcross 4, the Inov-8 Roclite 290 or the Saucony Peregrine 7. If you are like us and enjoy your fair share of scrambling while out on a mountain run, take a peek at the New Balance Vazee Summit v2. Or if you want a shoe that you can run in every day and will do everything well, look towards the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4, Brooks Caldera, the Altra Lone Peak 3.5, or the Vasque Constant Velocity.
New to Running?
If you are new to running, then your body likely isn't used to the abuse that pounding out those miles will put on it. It can take a long time, years even, for a new runner to get to the point where his or her body has fully adjusted to the act of running daily. It may not be wise to add extra strain to an already strained body by trying to go too minimal or even low-profile. Generally speaking, our bodies have grown up used to a moderate amount of heel-toe drop, and there can be an extended adjustment period for using low-drop shoes. Initially, anyway, we recommend sticking to something in the middle to upper end of the heel-toe drop spectrum, like a traditional shoe, and many people even find it most comfortable, to begin with a maximalist shoe, like a pair of Hokas.
Are you currently injured or have you suffered a running-related injury recently? Many doctors and sports medicine specialists recommend looking at a change in footwear when trying to recover from injury. We are not experts in this field and cannot recommend exactly what you need to do, but new shoes are a must, and in most cases, you will want to pick a different type than the one that may have contributed to your injury.
Exponents on both ends of the spectrum abound when it comes to what will cure you of a running injury. We have heard countless stories of runners who claim to have been chronically injured, washed up, and unable to run anymore until they first tried a pair of HOKA's. At the same time, Google zero-drop shoes, or simply, Altra, and you can read stories for hours about people who claim that the only way to sustainably run injury free is by choosing zero drop shoes that support natural biomechanics. The worldwide bestseller Born to Run is essentially all about this topic. So, if you have a running related injury, the first thing to do is get a new pair of shoes, and depending on your predisposition, you may look to either one of these directions for your solution.
Are you attracted to the idea of zero-drop footwear, or strive to have the most instinctually natural stride possible? Did you just read Born to Run? Then you may want to check out the zero-drop or minimalist models in the review, such as the Altra Superior 3.5 or Lone Peak 3.5, or possibly the La Sportiva Helios 2.0. Be aware, however, that it takes many people a long time to let their bodies adjust to wearing footwear with lower drop, as it can be a real strain on the Achilles tendon and calves of someone used to traditional heel-toe drop. At least initially, it is an excellent idea to only have a minimalist or zero-drop shoe as part of a quiver and to use it sparingly on shorter runs to adjust over time.
If It Isn't Broke Don't Fix It
What has worked for you in the past? Most runners have worn many pairs of shoes in their lives, and have gained a significant amount of experience with what they liked or didn't like. We encourage you to remember the products that didn't work for you and focus your search on something else. On the other hand, if you have a brand that you love because they have always felt comfortable, then that is probably a great place to start your search for your next pair.
After answering all of the above questions, you have probably narrowed down your search and have a good idea of what type of trail running shoe you are looking to buy. At this point, we highly recommend trying them on before you buy. In the end, comfort is the most important quality in a shoe and is extremely subjective person to person. Some products that we have ranked very highly here may not feel good to you at all, and you should listen to your own body in making your final decisions. If you are shopping for shoes online, then make sure that the company you buy from will take returns. A good strategy is to purchase your top three choices based on our advice and reviews here, try them all on when they arrive, and send back the ones you don't want.
The majority of the trail running shoes on the market fall into the broad "traditional" category, and this is where most buyers will want to focus their attention. These models are designed to do everything an off-road runner will ask of them and last for a long time. Most runners will fare much better and enjoy running more in these shoes than in minimalist or barefoot shoes. Low-profile shoes like our Best Overall winner offer a great alternative. They include most of the same features as traditional shoes, but emphasize a lower heel-toe drop and lighter weight, making them a good choice for long-time runners whose bodies can handle the lower drop, and who need greater performance. In the end, individual comfort is the most important criteria when selecting a shoe, and we recommend the buyer try on multiple pairs before making a purchase.