For the sixth year in a row, we researched over 100 top men's trail running shoes, eventually selecting the 25 best and most popular for inclusion here. Some of these shoes are holdovers that have not been updated in the past year, while others are new releases.
We have tested each of the shoes against each other over the course of many winter, spring, summer, and fall months running in a variety of terrain. The home base for testing this year was the high desert of central Oregon, based around the outdoor-friendly town of Bend. Within a reasonable distance are lots of dry pinion/juniper forests and rocky canyons crisscrossed by trails that are run-able all winter, with the Ponderosa Pine forested trails of the east side of the Cascades also close at hand. A short drive away allows for testing in the wet and lush Cascade mountains, a completely different environment both psychologically and in terms of the demands placed on the feet and shoes, although waiting for the snow to melt in the spring requires patience. We also tested shoes on many road trips and travels around the world, including the San Juan Islands of Washington, the Coast Range of British Columbia, the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges of Colorado, and on the dry trails surrounding our favorite limestone climbing areas in Catalunya, Spain.
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.
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 wanted to be sure that we knew exactly how each shoe compared to each other when it came to underfoot protection. To do so, we found a gnarly patch of sharp rocks and talus and spent 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.
Our initial opinions of the performance of the traction on these trail runners were formed out on adventures and everyday runs, but we also subjected each shoe to a variety of different surfaces to compare their traction.
To do this, we found areas of steep dirt trail, steep grass, dry rock talus, wet rock, and steep muddy trail, and again ran back and forth in every shoe on every type of terrain, keeping notes on how well they performed.
To better compare stability head-to-head, we located a steep grassy slope and ran back and forth across it, side-hilling incessantly to see which shoes induced our ankles to want to roll over more frequently. We also ran 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.
There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we tested for, and we found it very difficult to devise controlled tests that could accurately rate comfort in a way that will apply to everyone. The majority of our findings simply came from our everyday experiences, but we also conducted the water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort.
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 used this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers at this test and left most shoe's scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we did not penalize any shoes with super low ratings.
This one was easy. We weighed these shoes straight out of the box, and wrote down their collective weight, completely ignoring the figures on manufacturers' websites. The lightest shoes received the best score, and we went on down the list from there.
Similar to how we assessed for foot protection, we already had a pretty good idea of the relative sensitivity of each shoe after months of field testing but devised a controlled head-to-head test anyway. We again ran back and forth over the same patch of sharp rocks that we used to test foot protection and kept detailed notes as we did so. Shoes that allowed our feet to feel more of these protrusions through the outsole and midsole we considered more sensitive than those that allowed little to no feeling and graded accordingly.