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 18 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 current home base for testing is 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 test 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.