In the past 10 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. 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 16 shoes in this review is a collection of long time classics, freshly updated with the most recent 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 can 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 — 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.
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 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 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 the others 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.
Our initial opinions of the performance of 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 this metric.
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.
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.
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 it in a way that will apply to everyone. The majority of our findings simply 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 just 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.
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 on down the list from there.
Similar to 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 we consider more sensitive than those that allow little to no feeling,a and we grade accordingly.