Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Trail Running Shoes for Men of 2021

We covered hundreds of miles in trail running shoes from Salomon, Nike, HOKA, La Sportiva, and more to help you get on the trails with your best match
Photo: Matt Bento
Monday November 8, 2021
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On the hunt for new trail running shoes? Over the past decade, we've tested over 100 different models, with 17 of the best and most popular in this 2021 review. Our running shoe testers hit the trails year-round, from dreamy dry single track in the desert to plodding through winter snow, to bring you the best advice in terms of traction, comfort, stability, and underfoot protection. Whether you like short lunch runs in nearby parks or regularly venture into the mountain wilderness to collect your miles, we can help you find the best pair for your needs and budget.

Related: Best Women's Trail Running Shoes of 2021

Top 17 Product Ratings

Displaying 6 - 10 of 17
 
Awards Top Pick Award Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award  
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$179.95 at Backcountry
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Overall Score
68
79
74
75
74
Star Rating
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Pros Very light, maximally cushioned, comfortable, relatively affordable, more stable than past versionsUnbeatable fit, very comfortable, fantastic underfoot protection, doesn’t absorb much water, ankle collar keeps out debris, very stablePrecise fit, very grippy on rock, comfortable upper effectively keeps out debrisStable, low to the ground, great tractionVery protective, roomier fit than other models from La Sportiva
Cons A tad narrow, tread could be stickier and more aggressive, not sensitiveExpensive, hard to get on foot, must wear above the ankle height socks, hard to stuff laces into garageNarrower than average, a bit pricey, not the lightestA little heavy for a trail shoeHeavily padded tongue results in sub-par breathability
Bottom Line This appealing and maximally cushioned shoe can handle high miles on all types of terrainThe cream of the crop for trail running shoes delivers fine-tuned long run performanceA well-rounded and grippy shoe offering high performance for short or long distancesThis is a very stable shoe with a sticky outsole that's perfect for putting in miles over varied terrainThis burly mountain runner is very protective and is an excellent choice for longer outings in rocky terrain
Rating Categories Hoka One One Challe... Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 La Sportiva Kaptiva Saucony Peregrine 11 La Sportiva Karacal
Foot Protection (25%)
9.0
9.0
8.0
5.0
9.0
Traction (20%)
7.0
7.0
8.0
9.0
9.0
Sensitivity (15%)
3.0
6.0
5.0
9.0
5.0
Stability (15%)
6.0
9.0
8.0
9.0
7.0
Comfort (15%)
7.0
9.0
8.0
8.0
7.0
Weight (10%) Sort Icon
7.0
6.0
6.0
5.0
5.0
Specs Hoka One One Challe... Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 La Sportiva Kaptiva Saucony Peregrine 11 La Sportiva Karacal
Measured Weight (per pair) 21.8 oz (size 11) 22.4 oz (size 11) 22.3 oz (size 11) 22.5 oz (size 9.5) 20.2 oz (size EU 43)
Heel-to-Toe Drop 5 mm 8 mm 6 mm 4 mm 7 mm
Stack Height (Heel, Forefoot) 30 mm, 25 mm 26 mm, 18 mm 17 mm, 11 mm 27 mm, 23 mm 29 mm, 22 mm
Upper Unifi REPREVE recycled yarn Anti-Debris Mesh with sockliner Sock-Like knit Reinforced mesh Mesh
Midsole CMEVA foam midsole Energy Save PU foam with Profeel Film rock protection Duel-density EV PWRRUN Compression-molded EVA/1.5 mm dual-density EVA
Outsole Trail Outsole with 4 mm lugs Contagrip MA Rubber FriXion XF 2.0 PWRTRAC FriXion AT 2.0
Lacing Style Traditional Quicklace with garage Traditional Traditional Traditional
Wide Version Available? Yes No No Yes No
Sizes Available 7 - 15 4 - 13 38 - 47.5 7 - 14 38 - 48.5


Best Overall Trail Running Shoe


Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3


79
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 9
  • Traction 7
  • Sensitivity 6
  • Stability 9
  • Comfort 9
  • Weight 6
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 8mm | Weight (per pair): 22.4 oz (size 11)
Amazing comfort due to snug and responsive fit
Great underfoot protection that holds up over time
Very stable
Excellent traction on all types of terrain
Very pricey
Hard to get onto the foot
Must be worn with above-the-ankle height socks
Lace garage takes a bit of work

Salomon recently updated their S/Lab Ultra to the newest version, which is quite possibly the most highly refined trail running shoe we've ever tested. We often lament the industry pressure to constantly update and change a shoe, especially when one that we really like gets altered for the worse. Sometimes, though, an already amazing shoe (like this one, in all its iterations) gets refined to an even higher standard, and our minds end up blown. The S/Lab Ultra 3 is that shoe. Things that we didn't even know we wanted to be better — such as removing the protective side wings, adding an ankle collar to keep out debris, or creating an even snugger, refined fit — have now been improved. The versatile and sticky rubber traction, light weight, and bomber PU foam underfoot all remain. Needless to say, this is our favorite trail running shoe, and one we delight in using for big days linking peaks, long runs over rough terrain, or for ultra races.

The major downside to this shoe is the price. It isn't meant to be offered with "everyman" compromises, and as such, also doesn't come at an "everyman" price point. It is also slightly narrow for an ultra-distance shoe, although a fair bit wider than almost all of the other Salomon shoes we've worn. And while we absolutely love the new tongue design integrated with the debris collar, we do find it to take some effort to put on because of this. Overall, however, we aren't sure we've ever worn a trail running shoe that we loved more, and we are sincere with this praise. The S/Lab Ultra 3 makes for an excellent long-distance shoe, as billed, but can serve well for shorter distances as well — for either standard trail missions or big days in the mountains. Save these for those special days, and don't wear them down by wearing them on pavement or by walking in them around town, and you'll likely be as psyched as we are.

Read review: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3

Best Bang for the Buck


Saucony Peregrine 11


75
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 5
  • Traction 9
  • Sensitivity 9
  • Stability 9
  • Comfort 8
  • Weight 5
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 4mm | Weight (per pair): 22.5 oz (size 9.5)
Sensitive and stable
Extremely comfortable
Sticky and aggressive traction
Little in the way of underfoot protection
Heavy

The Saucony Peregrine 11 is one of the most comfortable shoes we have ever worn. The inside of the upper and the entire heel cup is nearly entirely seamless, and issues with blisters and rubbing seams from a couple of versions ago have been eliminated. The outsole remains the same as previous versions, one of the most aggressively lugged and sticky that you can find on a trail shoe, giving excellent grip in snow, steep dirt, and grass. And while this shoe still retains its original price point, that amount is starting to seem like a bit of a bargain when considering how steeply the prices of trail running shoes are rising. With excellent performance and without a corresponding leap in price, we think this is a great high-value choice.

The Peregrine 11 is one of the heavier models in our lineup, and extra ounces add up over many miles. The durable mesh uppers have a very tight weave, limiting the shoe's breathability and making them take a bit longer to dry out after stream crossings. Despite these downsides, we feel that comfort is king. The Peregrine 11 is more comfortable than most others and still comes at a price we're glad to pay for a trail running shoe.

Read review: Saucony Peregrine 11

Great Price for a Zero Drop Shoe


Altra Superior 5


68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 5
  • Traction 5
  • Sensitivity 7
  • Stability 8
  • Comfort 9
  • Weight 9
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0 mm | Weight (per pair): 17.4 oz (size 9.5)
Super light
Comfortable
Affordable
Sensitive
Lack protection
Outsole rubber not very sticky

While the Terraultra G 270 may be our favorite zero-drop model, the Altra Superior 5 comes in at a very close second. It offers an alternative fit that's wider than most trail runners and an incredibly soft and supple midsole for excellent sensitivity. These shoes are extremely comfortable right out of the box, and their width and zero-drop create a very stable platform. They have a comfy burrito-style closure that keeps the feet locked in place, even though the laces don't go very far down the shoe. They also include a pair of removable rock plates that are very thin and flexible and slide in underneath the insoles.

The flip side to lightweight and sensitivity is a lack of protection and support. If you haven't spent much time in a zero drop, minimalist-style shoe, you need to ease in then with shorter training runs. Even with the rock plate inserts, miles of downhill pounding will stress the arches, calves, and knees of anyone who hasn't spent much time in this type of shoe. The traction isn't great, so we stick to rolling single track with the Superior and opt for something with more support and better traction for mountain adventures. For folks who want to experiment with the freedom and trail feedback of a zero drop shoe, these are a perfect place to start without a high dollar commitment.

Read review: Altra Superior 5

Best Zero Drop Trail Runner


Inov-8 Terraultra G 270


77
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 7
  • Traction 9
  • Sensitivity 7
  • Stability 9
  • Comfort 7
  • Weight 7
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0mm | Weight (per pair): 20.9 oz (size 11)
Graphene Grip Traction is simply amazing in every way
Enough foot protection for long distances
Lightweight
Improved comfort
Very stable
Pricey
Tongue could still use comfort improvements

The Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 is the newest, improved version of the older Terraultra G 260, which was the first shoe in the world to feature the Graphene Grip rubber compound on the sole. These shoes are far and away our favorite zero-drop trail runners, out-performing the numerous other models made by Altra that we have repeatedly compared them against. They are light, comfortable, very stable, have plenty of protection for running ultra distances, and hold up excellently to the test of time. But the best thing about these shoes is the Graphene Grip rubber, which has been tweaked to be much stickier. We've run in G-grip shoes for years and are certainly convinced the rubber lasts longer. This newly tweaked G-grip now feels on par with the stickiest Salomon Contagrip, and it sticks fantastically on rock. These have become some of our favorite scrambling shoes and are a go-to for technical, rocky runs.

Since these are some of the highest-performing shoes in our review, we have almost no complaints. A tiny crease at the bottom of the tongue on one of the shoes occasionally rubs, although we've never had it manifest in long-term discomfort or a blister. Honestly, our biggest problems were incredibly tight calves as these shoes repeatedly coerced us into longer runs than we should have been doing in zero drop shoes. Regardless of whether you only run zero drop or just want a pair to add to the rotation, the Terraultra G 270 are certainly the first to try.

Read review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 270

Best Crossover Shoe


Salomon Sense Ride 4


71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 7
  • Traction 8
  • Sensitivity 8
  • Stability 6
  • Comfort 8
  • Weight 4
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 8mm | Weight (per pair): 20.7 oz (size 11)
Very breathable
Plenty of cushioning for on-pavement adventures
Excellent traction
Wide for a Salomon shoe
Not very sensitive
High heel can feel unstable

Fans of the previous version can let out a sigh of relief since the Sense Ride 4 has only changed a little from its predecessor. These kicks still pack plenty of cushion to keep you bouncing along on the pavement as you make your way to your favorite trailhead. This shoe's Optivibe midsole is road-ready, and the sticky rubber outsole delivers on loose gravel and mud, making the latest version of the Sense Ride our favorite crossover shoe. If your favorite trail runs require a few miles of road running to access, this shoe should be high on your list. Its mesh upper is super breathable, making them great for warm days, and allowing them to dry quickly after any mandatory water crossings. Additionally, we found these shoes to be refreshingly wide compared to many offerings from Salomon, making them a good option for longer runs when your feet may swell.

Our testers used to low-to-the-ground minimalist or zero drop shoes found the Sense Ride 4 particularly unstable, while folks who mostly run on the road didn't seem to mind the high stack and 8mm drop. Traversing steep hills or picking your way through scree may be difficult in these shoes due to their lack of stability and sensitivity, but overall, this shoe is a very good compromise between cushioning and support for the road and traction for the trails. Their width and breathability keep your tired feet feeling fresh, and these should be on the radar of any runner who is looking to do some long training runs this summer.

Read review: Salomon Sense Ride 4

Best Traction


Salomon Speedcross 5


71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 7
  • Traction 10
  • Sensitivity 7
  • Stability 5
  • Comfort 8
  • Weight 3
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 10mm | Weight (per pair): 24.4 oz (size 11)
Insanely sticky rubber with huge aggressive lugs
Considerably wider toe box than previous versions
Fits like a glove
Not super breathable and a bit hot
High heel-toe drop isn't the most stable design
Heavy

The Salomon Speedcross 5 has long been known for its insanely aggressive outsole, a feature that forced almost every competing shoe brand to imitate it. Salomon has improved this by making the rubber on the sole even stickier so that it acts like glue to rock — even wet rock. More significantly, they widened the forefoot of this notoriously narrow shoe by a significant margin. This increased both comfort and wearability for those without narrow feet from past versions while also adding to stability with a larger landing platform. These changes, in addition to making the arrow-shaped lugs larger and farther apart for easier mud shedding and increasing the durability of the already beefy upper, make this the best version of the Speedcross in at least the last six years. The shoe still fits like a glove, with the foot securely locked in place with Salomon's quick lace system; it feels supremely comfortable right out of the box. We've been running in these shoes for more than eight years now and saw our love for them diminish as they got narrower and tighter as time went on. Well, this newest version has won us back over.

This is a shoe that we once again love to run in, but it still has some features that seem a bit outdated. Our biggest gripe is the 10mm heel-to-toe drop, combined with the very thick and high-off-the-ground heel counter. It's not only unstable, especially when running downhill, but a bit of a relic of a bygone era in shoe design. It's also pretty heavy on the spectrum of ever-lighter trail shoes these days, and it retains its reputation for running a bit warm and short on breathability. This means these shoes are better used for higher altitude mountain runs where the air is cool. While a lot of other companies have put serious effort into improving the traction on their shoes, our side-by-side testing shows that the Speedcross simply grips the best. If you enjoy running off-trail or in the mountains where the ground is often wet, snowy, muddy, rocky, and steep, then this is an ideal choice, with traction unrivaled by any other shoe.

Read review: Salomon Speedcross 5

Best for Maximum Cushioning


Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6


68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Foot Protection 9
  • Traction 7
  • Sensitivity 3
  • Stability 6
  • Comfort 7
  • Weight 7
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 5 mm | Weight (per pair): 21.8 oz (size 11)
Wider platform under the heel increases stability when landing
Tons of light cushioning is absorptive and protective
Very light for such a large, protective shoe
Comfy
Comes in standard or wide widths
Traction lacks grip for softest and slipperiest terrain
Maximal shoes are often a bit tippy
Very little sensitivity

Maximally cushioned shoes have all sorts of fans, from die-hard ultra runners, to older runners, newer runners, hikers and backpackers, and even people who need to stand on their feet all day. For trail running, our favorite choice is the Hoka Challenger ATR 6. This awesome, affordable, and versatile shoe gives all the cushioning and foot protection you could dream of, with a redesigned outsole shape that adds to its stability, especially for heel strikers and when running downhill. We find this shoe to be more comfortable and less narrow in the forefoot for logging high miles than other Hoka's that we've tested, which is the ultimate indicator of a good long-distance or training shoe. And who doesn't love how light they are?

There are few downsides to this shoe, except for those that are inherent with all maximally cushioned shoes. When you stack your foot on top of a bunch of foam, you remove it some distance from the ground, lessening sensitivity and decreasing stability. In short, it's easier to roll your ankle in this type of shoe, so they are best used on trails that don't rank up there as the world's most technical. However, the new platform design of the Challenger ATR 6 does help with this compared to previous models. The traction pattern is not super impressive for slippery or loose surfaces, but is instead designed to be versatile and durable on pavement as well as trails. This is a great crossover shoe and one that can sustain a lot of miles before needing to be retired.

Read review: Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
79
$180
Editors' Choice Award
A perfectly fitting, comfortable, and very protective shoe that just begs to be worn on long run days
77
$160
Top Pick Award
The best zero-drop trail runner demands no compromises, and has all the features for any type of terrain or distance
76
$130
These shoes offer loads of protection but little in the way of breathability
75
$140
While not the best shoe for mountain running, they are a joy on smooth and flowy trails
75
$120
Best Buy Award
Perfectly tooled for everything from slick rock to loose gravel, these shoes are a great addition to the Peregrine legacy
74
$130
If you've stayed away from La Sportiva running shoes in the past, this model offers an alternative fit to their narrower, low-volume models
74
$145
The best choice you can make if traction durability is a critical concern
74
$139
A precise fitting shoe that translates well into high performance, as long as your feet aren’t too wide
71
$130
More for hard-charging runners than trail dancers, these shoes are built with protection as a top priority
71
$120
Top Pick Award
A comfortable crossover shoe that combines multiple layers of EVA foam to provide a very well cushioned platform
71
$130
Top Pick Award
The first choice if off-trail running is your happy place
70
$149
Comfortable, stable, and bomber, the ultimate recipe for long distance success
68
$120
Best Buy Award
One of the lightest and most comfortable trail running shoes you can find, this zero drop option emphasizes sensitivity over protection
68
$130
Top Pick Award
With a wider landing platform, this thickly padded shoe is more stable than we would expect
66
$145
A burly shoe that combines comfortable and supportive cushioning and foot protection with optimal traction
64
$130
For certain Cinderella's out there, these are the ultimate zero-drop trail runners, but folks with medium to narrow-width feet should stay away
63
$150
If your runs take you down hard-packed double track or pavement, these shoes may serve you well, but they're not a great choice for mountain runners

This is why we trail run, for views like these. Only trail running...
This is why we trail run, for views like these. Only trail running shoes and the desire to get out there and use them will land you in spots like this one, looking at the Red Mountains of Colorado.

Why You Should Trust Us


This review is led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. As a young boy growing up in Colorado, Andy's parents took him for a hike up the popular 14er, Quandary Peak. After huffing and puffing to the summit, he remembers being blown away by seeing a man running down the mountain. Andy soon gave chase, picked up a few pointers from the nice man along the way, and has been a trail runner ever since. He has participated in trail races all over the world, and for a while, even lived as a nomadic dirtbag so that he could run in the mountains every day. Some of his most memorable runs have taken place in the Himalayas of Nepal, the Pyrenees of Spain, and in the Grand Canyon, but his favorite places to run are the mountain ranges of southern Colorado.

Chiming in from the Sierra foothills of Nevada is longtime reviewer Matt Bento, a lifelong runner since high school. Matt discovered his enthusiasm for trail running one summer while working in Yosemite Valley when temperatures hovered in the 90s, and he decided it was too hot to go climbing. He methodically logged miles and built up his endurance until he could run the Yosemite high camps loop, a 40-mile adventure through the Sierra high country. Ever since, he's found many ridge runs and link-ups throughout Sierra and believes the best runs start in the dark and end with a cheeseburger.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The testing of trail running shoes never really ends, as companies now release new models all throughout the calendar year. These shoes are tested in all seasons, on road trips all over the country, and are continuously compared against the newest shoes available as well as against previous versions of the same shoe. As a bit of a Luddite, Andy doesn't wear a watch or log his miles, but he knows he has run in and tested over 100 different pairs of trail running shoes in the past nine years. Because of this, he feels he has a pretty informed idea about what works and what doesn't out on the trail. That said, since it can sometimes be hard to find people with the same size foot to help him test shoes, he also chats with pretty much every runner he meets to get their opinions of the shoes on their feet. You can rest assured that what you read in this review is knowledge hard-won through time actually spent out on the trail.

Related: How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

The trails at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon are a...
The trails at Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon are a fantastic winter training ground because they are almost always dry while the surrounding mountains are buried in snow.

Analysis and Test Results


We judge trail running shoes based upon six different metrics: foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity. Why each metric is important for shoe performance, how we test for the metric, and which shoes perform best for that criteria are discussed below. Keep in mind that all ratings and comparisons are made in relation to the other products tested, and a shoe with a low score can still be a great shoe, just be sure to tune into exactly what each model is specifically for.

Running away from the grey clouds on a high ridgeline trail with the...
Running away from the grey clouds on a high ridgeline trail with the San Juans in the background.

Value


A significant consideration when selecting a pair of trail running shoes is the value of the purchase. While one could simply assume that you get what you pay for, years of testing have proven to us that this isn't always the case.

Trying to outrun the thunderstorm back to the car high in the San...
Trying to outrun the thunderstorm back to the car high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with the running dog Rishi in tow.

When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are important to consider: price, performance, and longevity. Two of these, price and performance, are easily quantifiable and can be compared effectively.


The third aspect of value for a trail running shoe is longevity, something that is not at all easy to quantify. Since all pairs of shoes wear out and need to be replaced, finding shoes that can withstand more miles of abuse before disintegrating helps ascertain that shoe's value. Unfortunately, every runner puts a different amount of strain on their shoes, and we don't have the time or energy to completely trash every pair of shoes before publishing our findings (though we do our best to try!)

Out for a long run of around 28 miles in the Sense Ride 4 with...
Out for a long run of around 28 miles in the Sense Ride 4 with Uncompahgre Peak in the Cimarron Range of Colorado in the background. We felt these shoes were excellent for long distances.

Foot Protection


In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it doesn't offer your foot protection, why would you be wearing it? The largest component of protection is the combination of the outsole and midsole. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of your body, so if you intend to run on rocky and uneven terrain, then your shoe will need adequate underfoot protection.


Most underfoot protection comes in one of two forms: a rock plate made of a plastic or composite material that adds rigidity to the shoe and absorbs impacts, or in lieu of that, thick foam cushioning. The most common type of foam used is EVA, which protects the foot from protrusions and absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into the body. The third method of underfoot protection, found on the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7, is trapped air pockets in the heel that also offer both protection and cushioning with adding much weight. Interestingly, foot protection often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we grade for both.

Bombing down hills is one of the great pleasures of trail running...
Bombing down hills is one of the great pleasures of trail running and is certainly made easier by copious amounts of plush EVA foam underfoot.

A lesser component of foot protection is how well the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your feet from protrusions like sticks or abrasion by rocks. The ends of the toes are a common point of abuse, as we have all accidentally kicked a rock while bombing down a trail. Rigid toe bumpers go a long way in helping to alleviate this pain. Many manufacturers skimp on upper materials to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are as mighty as a Kevlar bulletproof vest. Our favorite models do a nice job of balancing these attributes.

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, is among the most protective that you can buy.
Photo: salomon, s/lab ultra 2

There are a handful of shoes that offer superior foot protection compared to the rest of the field. The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 does a great job of protecting the undersides of the feet with its PU foam while also providing far more upper protection than any other shoe we tested. The combination left us smiling and ensured we could run down a trail as out of control as we wanted, knowing that our shoes had our feet covered. Two others that don't skimp on protection are the Hoka Challenger ATR 6 and the Hoka Speedgoat 4. These shoes, as well as the other Hoka models we have tested, have foam that's dense and highly absorptive. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 7 also offer an exemplary amount of foot protection, and both the La Sportiva Bushido II and La Sportiva Karacal provide tank-like protection with their padded tongues, toe bumpers, and rock plates.

The Nike Wildhorse 7 isn't the most sensitive model, but it's not...
The Nike Wildhorse 7 isn't the most sensitive model, but it's not too bad considering its ample protection and stack height.
Photo: Ryan Baker

Traction


If it weren't for the drastically increased performance when it comes to traction, there would be only a minimal amount of incentive to purchase trail running shoes instead of road running shoes. Based on this assessment, one could certainly make the argument that traction is the single most important aspect of a trail running shoe.


Two main factors contribute to a shoe's ability to grip a variety of surfaces well: the type and spacing of lugs, and the performance of the rubber used. In general, deeper, more aggressive lugs will grip most surfaces better, especially steep dirt, grass, mud, and snow. More and more trail running shoes reflect this, with lugs becoming increasingly more aggressive across the board in recent years. Lugs that are spaced closely together tend to do a better job of gripping well on rock and hard dirt surfaces, while lugs that are further apart tend to do the best job of shedding mud.

Hopping across rocks and testing the grip on the Superior 4.5 while...
Hopping across rocks and testing the grip on the Superior 4.5 while out on a fall run in the mountains of Colorado.

The hardness of the rubber also plays a large part in the traction performance of a shoe. Softer rubber tends to be stickier and does a far better job gripping rock, both wet and dry. The downside of soft rubber is that it wears out, or in some cases rips off, often shortening the life of the shoe. In contrast, firmer rubber tends to be more durable and last longer but doesn't stick to rock nearly as well.

The outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 is made with the new...
The outsole of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 is made with the new graphene enhanced G-grip rubber that we have found to be very durable when running over hard abrasive surfaces like rock. The plethora of 6mm deep cleats found on the bottom also provide excellent traction on soft surfaces like dirt, mud, grass, and snow.

While all of the shoes we test offer pretty solid traction, especially on your standard dirt trail, a few are particularly noteworthy for their excellent grip. The Salomon Speedcross 5 has gigantic protruding rubber lugs spaced far apart for the absolute best grip on mud, grass, and snow. It is also the stickiest of any we tested on rock and wet rock, although the lugs tend to wear down quickly if used too often on hard surfaces. Thick lugs aren't always the answer, though, as the 4mm lugs on the Salomon Sense Ride 4 provide adequate traction on the trail, while their low profile keeps them effective and durable on the pavement. The new and improved graphene-infused G-grip rubber found on the bottoms of the Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 and the Inov-8 Roclite 290 is also impressively sticky on rock and extremely durable. The affordable Saucony Peregrine 11 also hits a nice sweet spot with lug size and orientation, proving good traction in gravel without collecting mud cakes in wetter conditions.

The summit of Coxcomb Peak is well-known as one of the hardest 13ers...
The summit of Coxcomb Peak is well-known as one of the hardest 13ers in Colorado to access, with mandatory chossy 5.6 scrambling. Here is the author, about to reverse the crux section along the summit ridge, racing an impending lightning storm, while wearing the Inov-8 Roclite G 290.
Photo: Stephen Eginoire

Sensitivity


We define sensitivity by how easy it is to feel the trail beneath your feet as you run. While trail running shoes are designed to protect your feet from abrasion, direct blows from the pointy sides of rocks, or from repeated impacts inherent in the motion of running itself, they need to balance this protection with the fact that to run effectively, our brains demand feedback from our feet. The shoes that allow for greater feedback are awarded more points for sensitivity.


In the ages before humans started wearing shoes, the feet were a critical link, via the sense of touch, with the world that we lived in. Honoring this evolutionary history, many runners have found that not only are they better runners when the sensitive link between the feet and ground is maintained but also more satisfied runners. Perhaps the primal activity of running touches the heart a bit deeper when our ancestral connections to the earth are, even minimally, maintained.

The Bushido IIs feel like tanks on your feet, and make an excellent...
The Bushido IIs feel like tanks on your feet, and make an excellent hiking shoe as well.
Photo: Matt Bento

Unquestionably, we now run differently than we did in the past or would be if we had no shoes on our feet. The fact that running is largely competitive, either with others or ourselves, means that we demand more protection to be able to run faster and further and are willing to sacrifice sensitivity as a trade-off.

The Saucony Peregrine 11 does a great job of being sensitive without...
The Saucony Peregrine 11 does a great job of being sensitive without sacrificing too much cushioning and protection.
Photo: Matt Bento

One pair of shoes stands above the rest when it comes to sensitivity. The Saucony Peregrine 11 is a longtime favorite that continues to get more sensitive over time. While it has an integrated woven rock plate in the midsole that is visible through the rubber outsole, the fact is that it affords more trail feel than just about any other shoe. We enjoy these shoes on shorter runs where we can appreciate the feel of the trail without exhausting our feet and usually avoid wearing them if we know the going will be rocky. A number of other lightweight options, such as the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7 and Altra Superior 5 are worth checking out for runners who highly value the feel of the trail.

The rock plate has migrated to the midfoot of the Terra Kiger 7...
The rock plate has migrated to the midfoot of the Terra Kiger 7, where it was in the forefoot of the previous version 6.
Photo: Ryan Baker

Stability


Trail running takes place over uneven ground, and being able to land and push off from a stable platform is a critical feature of how well a shoe performs. Failure to maintain stability through the running stride will lead to either losing traction and slipping or, even worse, rolling an ankle.


Through our extensive testing over many years, we have found that stability is largely impacted by the following four factors: stack height, heel-toe drop, landing platform, and fit of the upper. The stack height represents how much material rests between the ground and your foot and is measured in millimeters. In most cases, the larger the stack height, the greater the chance for a rolled ankle, although this threat can be mitigated by having a wider landing platform. The landing platform is the shape of the bottom of the shoe. Wider typically ensures greater stability, while a narrower platform is less stable. Heel-toe drop measures the difference in stack height between the heel and the toes, once again measured in millimeters.

Over the last many years, shoe companies, largely in response to customer demand, have been slowly lowering the average heel-toe drop, which today rests around 4-8mm. Shoes with a substantial drop are considerably less stable on uneven terrain, especially going downhill. Shoes with 0mm of drop, known as zero-drop, are usually the most stable but may require a period of adjustment if you're switching from a less neutral shoe. Finally, a shoe with an upper that holds your foot firmly in place allows you to land squarely on top of the footbed, minimizing foot movement within the shoe.

The Salomon Sense Ride 4 is our favorite crossover shoe for pavement...
The Salomon Sense Ride 4 is our favorite crossover shoe for pavement and trails, but they feel a little unstable on uneven terrain like scree.
Photo: Jason Peters

Another key factor when considering foot stability is the firmness of the midsole under your foot. Very stiff shoes tend to be more stable than very soft and pliable ones. A flexible shoe that can easily bend in any direction is more sensitive and allows your foot to take the shape of what it lands upon, but this is not generally the most stable design. We have accustomed ourselves to walking on flat, even surfaces, and so a shoe that provides this for you, especially if you are stepping on a very uneven surface like rocks, feels more stable.

While Hoka's have long been one of the least stable shoes available...
While Hoka's have long been one of the least stable shoes available on the market, we can't say enough about the improvements that have been made - we even felt like side-hilling and running over uneven terrain were no different in this shoe, the Challenger ATR 6, than with many others.

Most of our testing for stability is done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compare shoes in a more controlled setting by running in each of them one after the other both across a steep hillside and straight down a similarly steep slope. Despite having a 4mm heel-toe drop, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7 is one of the most stable shoes when running on varied terrain. This is due to the wide toe box and forefoot area of the shoe and the very low-to-the-ground ride. The Scarpa Spin Ultra scored similarly well in our head-to-head stability testing. Of course, the zero-drop Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 was not surprisingly a high scorer, with the Altra Superior earning high marks with it's wide neutral platform as well.

Running down steep hills or across uneven terrain like this one is a...
Running down steep hills or across uneven terrain like this one is a test of a shoe's stability. While the Speedgoat 4 is not super stable compared to the competition, it is still plenty stable on terrain like this, as long as you step carefully.

Comfort


Comfort is probably the single most important criteria when it comes to selecting a running shoe, or any footwear at all for that matter, and is what we recommend you value above all other factors when selecting a pair of shoes. However, it is also the criteria most difficult to rate because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person could be un-wearable by another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are just really narrow (or wide) throughout. Some fit perfectly "to size," while others run slightly long or short. While it's hard to generalize, La Sportiva shoes run a bit small and narrow, while shoes from Salomon tend to run slightly on the larger end. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we only weight it at 15% of a product's final score.


Craftsmanship plays a large role in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs use a seamless construction that makes them easy to wear sockless (although we don't commonly do so, except for comparison testing). Poorly sewn seams or out-of-place material overlaps inside a shoe tend to rub and wear against the foot over long distances, significantly decreasing overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that don't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place require you to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit, often leading to discomfort along the top of the feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances.

The Sense Ride 4 was comfortable right out of the box.
The Sense Ride 4 was comfortable right out of the box.
Photo: Jason Peters

Most of our findings for comfort are based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also made sure to run through streams and rivers to get an idea of how much water each pair would absorb and how quickly they could shed that water afterward. While some people don't mind taking the time to sit down and remove their shoes and socks before fording a stream, nobody will do this during a mountain race or if they have to cross a river many times in a day. We prefer to simply let our shoes get wet, cross the creek quickly, and then hopefully, the shoes will dry quickly as well.

Running on the trail that circumnavigates the Mountain Lake on Orcas...
Running on the trail that circumnavigates the Mountain Lake on Orcas Island, Washington on a warm spring day while wearing the La Sportiva Kaptiva, a very comfortable and form-fitting shoe.

The shoes with the plushest padding are often the ones that feel the most comfortable right out of the box — no big surprise there. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and the Salomon Sense Ride 4 are two such shoes. The newest version of a longtime, low-to-the-ground favorite — the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7 — is another top contender when it comes to comfort, as is the Altra Superior 5. The Saucony Peregrine 11 is plush and padded, and the Superior 5 are so comfy we found ourselves wearing them for all sorts of non-running activities. Many other shoes featured in this review are also exceedingly comfortable, but we acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to eliminate user bias when assessing for comfort.

Running through some really incredible and large burned out trees in...
Running through some really incredible and large burned out trees in the Pole Creek Drainage of the Sisters Wilderness, OR, in the rain, while wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra.

Weight


If you peruse this site much, you will notice that we love to use weight as a grading metric. One of the reasons is that it's so easily quantifiable and provides a very simple mathematical tool for comparison. But the far more important reason is that all of life, and virtually every outdoor sport, is a battle against gravity — the less weight burdening you, the freer you are to move around, making your sport more fun. When running, you repeatedly pick your feet up in order to move them forward, so how heavy the shoes on your feet are does matter.


However, when it comes to trail running shoes, features that are added onto a shoe that contribute to a higher weight sometimes also contribute to better performance. For instance, thicker and burlier midsoles with rock plates are heavier, but also protect the feet more. Cut out too much of this protection, and you will surely end up with a super-light shoe, but you will also have to moderate your speed significantly to avoid damaging your feet. The takeaway is that lighter is better, but only if it doesn't compromise protection. The shoes described here naturally fall within a spectrum when considering these two factors, and which end of the spectrum is ideal is up to you. With this in mind, we only factor weight as 10% of a product's final score.

Enjoying the rolling hills that surround Reno, NV while racking up...
Enjoying the rolling hills that surround Reno, NV while racking up miles in the La Sportiva Bushido II.
Photo: Matt Bento

The Altra Superior 5, weighing in at only 17.4 ounces for a size 9.5, is the lightest shoe in our review. Some of the other lightest options come from Inov-8 in the form of their Terraultra G 270.

Low stack height and a thin midsole make the Altra Superior 5 very...
Low stack height and a thin midsole make the Altra Superior 5 very light.
Photo: Matt Bento

Conclusion


Running on trails is an excellent way to stay fit and healthy and has just as many benefits for the mind as it does for the body. We love it because of the incredible variety, the connection to nature, and most of all because of the potential for adventure. There are lots of different styles and types of trail running shoes, many of which are designed for specific purposes. We hope this article has helped you with your decision-making process and that you end up with a pair of shoes that you are not only happy with, but that can be a partner on the memorable adventures to come. For more information on choosing the right pair of shoes, be sure to check out our Buying Advice article. Happy Trails!

A late fall run with the snow covered Sangre de Cristo mountains in...
A late fall run with the snow covered Sangre de Cristo mountains in the background.

Andy Wellman & Matt Bento

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