Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

Thursday October 20, 2022
trail running shoes - comparative testing trail running shoes on a large basalt talus...
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.
Credit: Andy Wellman

If anyone knows a thing or two about shoes, it's us. In the past ten years, we have tested over 100 individual pairs of men's trail running shoes and almost an equal number of women's shoes as well. We are constantly testing, since new shoes and updated versions are released throughout the year. The selection list and ratings change with every new addition to the lineup, so our review is updated roughly every three months.

trail running shoes - on slippery surfaces like this deep mud, having a shoe that is...
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.
Credit: Andy Wellman

As a year-round activity, testing takes place during all months of the year. The center of our testing efforts is located in the San Juan Mountains, Ouray, Colorado, a trail-running mecca. We have easy access to steep and rugged mountain single track and smooth aspen forest trails here. Since we love combining running with a summit or two, we often get the opportunity to test shoes off-trail on grassy tundra, jumbled talus fields, and year-round snowfields. We head down to the high deserts of southern Utah, northern New Mexico, and Arizona during the winter months to test shoes on an entirely 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 worldwide. Our testing has included tours 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.

trail running shoes - moving onto dry, hardpack desert trails provides a nice contrast...
Moving onto dry, hardpack desert trails provides a nice contrast from the softer soils and rocky outcroppings of the high alpine. Running in a variety of terrain helps us better understand how and where each pair of shoes performs best.
Credit: Jill Rice

We keep all of the older models that we have tested on hand, so when we test an updated version of a shoe, we can closely compare the feel on our feet and the trail. While most of our testing takes place on our daily runs, we also devise head-to-head tests that we conduct one after the other to provide the most accurate feedback and assessment of how a shoe performs in various terrain. In short, we collect and assess loads of information on these shoes to help you find the best option for your running style, activity level, and budget.

Foot Protection


Running over variable landscapes in the mountains subjects us to plenty of buff trails, alpine tundra, sloppy mud, creek crossings, talus fields, steep and loose scree, and high-altitude technical scrambling. Still, we want to be sure that we know exactly how each shoe compares to the others regarding underfoot protection. 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.

trail running shoes - running across any sort of rough, rocky terrain makes one appreciate...
Running across any sort of rough, rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot. And crossing lava fields, like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon, means foot protection is essential. This shoe, the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3, is among the most protective that you can buy.
Credit: Andy Wellman

Traction


Our initial opinions of the traction performance of these trail runners are formed on adventures and everyday runs. We also subject each shoe to various surfaces to compare this metric, and analyze things like lug depth to gauge how design influences traction.

trail running shoes - testing the grip of the g-grip traction on wet rock in the rain...
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.
Credit: Andy Wellman

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. We note how well each model performs on the various surfaces compared to others.

trail running shoes - not only do we put each shoe through rugged field testing, but we...
Not only do we put each shoe through rugged field testing, but we closely examine every pair to confirm manufacturer claims and to get a better idea of how construction translates into performance.
Credit: Aaron Rice

Sensitivity


Like how we assess for foot protection, we already have a pretty good idea of each shoe's relative sensitivity 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 are more sensitive than those that allow little to no feeling, and we grade accordingly.

trail running shoes - the foam cushioning underfoot allows a lot of sensation to make its...
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.
Credit: Andy Wellman

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.

trail running shoes - thick midsoles, rigid rock plates, and stiff construction all...
Thick midsoles, rigid rock plates, and stiff construction all contribute to a shoe's stability, but so does a secure fit. Testing on steep, unstable downhills helps us grade each shoe compared to one another.
Credit: Jill Rice

Comfort


There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we test for, as it is highly dependent on the size and shape of an individual's foot. We find it very difficult to devise controlled tests that can accurately rate it in a way that will apply to everyone. We consider certain aspects of fit that may be more accommodating to specific foot shapes and comment on them in our writeup.

trail running shoes - the water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for...
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.
Credit: Andy Wellman

The majority of our findings come from our everyday experiences, but we also conduct a water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort. Since this test is only a tiny aspect of overall comfort, we use this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers and leave most scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we don't penalize any shoes with super low ratings; a shoe that irks us may be a dream for someone else.

trail running shoes - it may be obvious, but the design of a shoe directly affects its...
It may be obvious, but the design of a shoe directly affects its comfort. Without closely examining these shoes, sometimes you can miss important features, like an integrated sock liner that greatly improves moisture wicking.
Credit: Jill Rice

Weight


This one is easy. We weigh the 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 down the list.

trail running shoes - for all of the technology included in its midsole construction, the...
For all of the technology included in its midsole construction, the Vectiv Infinite LTD manages to keep the weight off thanks to its ultralight upper.
Credit: Jill Rice

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