The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

By Andy Wellman ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday May 12, 2020

In the past eight years we have tested over 150 individual pairs of men's trail running shoes, and almost an equal number of women's shoes as well. Since new shoes and updated versions are released all throughout the year, we have resorted to testing shoes pretty much constantly, and adding them into the review as we finish. The current selection of 20 shoes you see in this review is a collection of long time classics, freshly updated with the newest versions, and the newest shoes to hit the market. The list, and ratings, change with every new selection we test, and are updated roughly every three months.

As a year-round activity, testing takes place during all months of the year. The center of our testing efforts is Ouray, Colorado, located in the San Juan Mountains, a trail running mecca. Here we have easy access to steep and rugged mountain single track, as well as smooth aspen forest trails. Since we love combining running with a summit or two, we are often afforded the opportunity to test these shoes off trail, on grassy tundra, jumbled talus fields, and year-round snowfields. During the winter months we are able to head downhill to the slickrock deserts of southern Utah and Arizona to test shoes on a completely different selection of terrain. For the sake of diversity, and because trail running shoes are coming with us no matter where we travel, we also get out for runs around the world, and in the last year this has included jaunts in British Columbia, Greece, the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, the Sawtooths and Tetons of Idaho, and the mountains along the Front Range of Colorado.

Comparative testing trail running shoes on a large basalt talus field in Smith Rock State Park  OR. While we already had opinions about performance  we still tested each pair one after the other  taking notes as we did  about how they performed for the attributes of foot protection and sensitivity by running back and forth over these large sharp rocks.
Comparative testing trail running shoes on a large basalt talus field in Smith Rock State Park, OR. While we already had opinions about performance, we still tested each pair one after the other, taking notes as we did, about how they performed for the attributes of foot protection and sensitivity by running back and forth over these large sharp rocks.

When testing an updated version of a shoe, we have on hand all of the older models that we have tested, so we can closely compare both the feel on our feet and the trail, as well as cosmetic changes that have taken place. While most of our testing takes place on our daily runs, we also devise head-to-head tests that we conduct with shoes one after the other so we can provide the most accurate feedback and assessment of how a shoe performs in a variety of terrain. These tests are described below.

Foot Protection


While running over the variable landscapes in the mountains subjects us to plenty of nice buff trails, alpine tundra and grass, sloppy mud, creek crossings, talus fields, steep and loose scree, and high altitude technical scrambling, we want to be sure that we know exactly how each shoe compares to each other when it comes to underfoot protection. To do so, we find a gnarly patch of sharp rocks and talus and spend an entire afternoon running back and forth in each pair of shoes, comparing them to each other while taking copious notes. There is no doubt we have a firm grasp on the level of underfoot protection after such a test.

Running across any sort of rough  rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot  but crossing lava fields  like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon  makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.
Running across any sort of rough, rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot, but crossing lava fields, like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon, makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.

Traction


Our initial opinions of the performance of the traction on these trail runners is formed out on adventures and everyday runs, but we also subject each shoe to a variety of different surfaces to compare their traction.

On slippery surfaces like this deep mud  having a shoe that is stable to land in is very important. This shoe is not the most stable landing platform of any we have tried  but we really appreciate how tightly it holds our foot in place  fusing the shoe to foot  which greatly helps stability.
On slippery surfaces like this deep mud, having a shoe that is stable to land in is very important. This shoe is not the most stable landing platform of any we have tried, but we really appreciate how tightly it holds our foot in place, fusing the shoe to foot, which greatly helps stability.

To do this, we find areas of steep dirt trail, steep grass, dry rock talus, wet rock, and steep muddy trail, and again run back and forth in every shoe on every type of terrain, keeping notes on how well they perform compared to the others.

Testing the grip of the G-grip traction on wet rock in the rain. While this shoe still has one of the most aggressive traction patterns  we find that the g-grip is firmer and not as sticky on rock as the previous versions of the Roclite 290.
Testing the grip of the G-grip traction on wet rock in the rain. While this shoe still has one of the most aggressive traction patterns, we find that the g-grip is firmer and not as sticky on rock as the previous versions of the Roclite 290.

Stability


To better compare stability head-to-head, we locate a steep grassy slope and run back and forth across it, side-hilling incessantly to see which shoes induce our ankles to want to roll over more frequently. We also run down this slope repeatedly, comparing relative stability in a very real-world test - running down steep hills is an integral part of trail and mountain running.

Stability is important when running over loose or uneven terrain such as these small and unstable rocks. The Challenger ATR 5 performed far better than most Hokas we have tested over the years  and are not much of a liability on ground like this as they used to be.
Stability is important when running over loose or uneven terrain such as these small and unstable rocks. The Challenger ATR 5 performed far better than most Hokas we have tested over the years, and are not much of a liability on ground like this as they used to be.

Comfort


There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we test for, and we find it very difficult to devise controlled tests that can accurately rate comfort in a way that will apply to everyone. The majority of our findings simply come from our everyday experiences, but we also conduct the water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort.

The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.
The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.

The test is described in detail in our Best Trail Running Shoes for Men Review. Since it is only a tiny aspect of overall comfort, we just use this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers at this test and leave most shoe's scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we don't penalize any shoes with super low ratings.

How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.
How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.

Weight


This one is easy. We weigh these shoes straight out of the box, and write down their collective weight, completely ignoring the figures on manufacturers' websites. The lightest shoes receive the best score, and we go on down the list from there.

At a mere 19.4 ounces per pair for a size 11  these are indeed very light shoes  and can genuinely claim to be ultralight. For this weight you will sacrifice a bit of foot protection  however.
At a mere 19.4 ounces per pair for a size 11, these are indeed very light shoes, and can genuinely claim to be ultralight. For this weight you will sacrifice a bit of foot protection, however.

Sensitivity


Similar to how we assess for foot protection, we already have a pretty good idea of the relative sensitivity of each shoe after months of field testing but still devise a controlled head-to-head test anyway. We again run back and forth over the same patch of sharp rocks that we use to test foot protection and keep detailed notes as we do so. Shoes that allow our feet to feel more of these protrusions through the outsole and midsole we consider more sensitive than those that allowed little to no feeling and we grade accordingly.

The foam cushioning underfoot allows a lot of sensation to make its way through to the foot  ensuring that these shoes are very sensitive  as we are testing here by hopping through talus fields.
The foam cushioning underfoot allows a lot of sensation to make its way through to the foot, ensuring that these shoes are very sensitive, as we are testing here by hopping through talus fields.