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From rocky mountain runs to muddy spring trails, we tested the best trail running shoes for every use and budget.
Venturing off-road can provide a mental lift to your weekly routine and reap huge fitness gains. While we’ve all taken our road shoes to the trail, having trail-specific kicks will elevate your off-road game.
The perfect shoe is the calculus of individual fit and the type of trail you run on. To collect feedback, we had our team of testers from across the country run in diverse terrain.
From rocky scrambles to mellow hikes to the Leadville 100, we’ve worn these trail shoes through rain, summer heat, and everything in between. And while there isn’t a single perfect shoe for everyone, we’ve categorized our top picks to help you find the best fit.
Fortunately for runners, 2023 is a great year for trail running shoes. Every shoe on this list is a stellar choice, with several capable of crossing over into a variety of terrain.
Our list is quite comprehensive. If you need more help deciding, be sure to check out our buyer’s guide at the end of our review to unravel just how to choose the best trail running shoes. Also, check out our comparison chart to see how our choices stack up against one another, and our FAQ section for any lingering questions.
Scroll through to see all of our recommended buys in the categories below:
A balance of snap, cushion, traction, and fit, Nike’s Terra Kiger 8 ($140) stands head and shoulders above the field of shoes we laced into this year.
Core to TK8’s comfort is the React foam midsole. It runs through the entire shoe and is paired with a “Zoom Air” pod in the forefoot. The result is a firmer cushion with a slight rocker that puts a spring in your step. The shoe wants to take flight with every stride.
The breathable upper fits like a sock. There’s zero play in the shoe; the heel and tongue pads are engineered to lock the Kiger to the foot, connecting the runner to the trail. More porous than other uppers, Nike lines the toebox with an inner sock, which curbs the amount of sand and grit from spilling in. The bootie liner rides up over the toes, connecting to the tongue. This keeps the tongue pegged dead center over the foot.
Inside the shoe rides a segmented rock plate. While the shoe’s rocker is minimal, the stiff heel yields some flexibility as the plate segments towards the toes, allowing good mobility while climbing.
Per usual, the design team at Nike hits it out of the park. The TK8 sports gorgeous lines and is available in a variety of bright colorways. For those who like it tamer, the TK8 is also available in black and grey.
Equal beauty and brawn, the Kiger embodies the evolution of the modern trail shoe. It’s low to the ground, protective, springy, and shouts at you like a backseat driver urging you to step on it.
The TK8 has become our go-to trail shoe for quick lunch runs to long, Saturday miles. It’s the shoe we kept wanting to lace back into after testing the competition and it’s what we recommend to our friends looking for a great all-rounder for the trail.
Plush midsole, supportive upper, and a robust rocker, The North Face VECTIV Enduris II ($139) was our favorite cushion shoe tested this year.
In back-to-back testing against other trail shoes, the VECTIV Enduris II felt more cushioned. No laggy, doughy ride, the midsole feels both supportive and energetic. Helping propel you through the gait, the Enduris II has a TPU plate and an aggressive rocker. The combination keeps the feet protected and legs rolling with quick turnover.
Riding above the robust midsole is a breathable upper that snugs the heel and opens a touch in the toebox. It’s not aggressively wide (like an Altra), but cradles the foot with secure comfort.
The foot drops into the plush midsole and is stabilized with both lateral and medial postings that creep up the shoe’s sidewalls from the TPU plate. For a mileage shoe, the Enduris II has plenty of stability to minimize torquing an ankle.
While tailored for high miles, we feel the VECTIV Enduris II strikes a balance of comfort and stability with proper roll and rebound, making this a good all-arounder for many runners.
We’ve seen a few brands introduce carbon plates to the running world. TNF’s VECTIV and Craft’s CTM Ultra come to mind. As you’d expect, these shoes provide spring and rigidity — and are meant to go fast.
HOKA Tecton X ($200) entered the ultrafast field with its own carbon whip, designed to keep the turnover revving toward a PR. In our opinion, the Tecton X sets the current bar for carbon-plated shoes and is worthy of consideration.
Like all HOKAs, the cushion is top shelf, with a softer layer against the foot and a denser, responsive layer closer to the ground. Sandwiched between the foams are a pair of carbon plates that give you the stiffness and spring you’d expect from carbon while yielding lateral compliance to negotiate the changing terrain.
Laced down over to just above the toes, a jacquard mesh hugs the foot, weaving in breathability and adjustable comfort for long days on the trail. A Vibram Megagrip outsole is studded with spaced 4mm lugs to shed mud without sacrificing traction.
As a whole, the Tecton X has a pop that shouts speed.
Do you need a carbon shoe? Well, with the release of the Tecton X, maybe! If you are a racer who’s been on the fence with carbon fiber plates, this is the shoe we’d recommend pulling the trigger on.
Salomon is a perennial GearJunkie favorite. For years, we’ve been loving Salomon’s Sense Ride series, and so has everyone else. It’s a firm stability shoe that crosses over from road to trail, and it’s a shoe we often recommend for those new to trail running.
This year, Salomon released its Ultra Glide ($140). This shoe carries over a lot of what we love about the Sense Ride and brings a little extra. And less.
At 9.2 ounces, the Ultra Glide weighs one ounce less than the Sense Ride 4, but provides a more responsive cushion, making it a better tool for hardpack and road, or for those who simply want a smoother ride.
You get a similarly lugged Contragrip sole, the bombproof QuickLace system, and a durable mesh upper — only with simplified overlays. The extra 6 mm of stack cushions the ride and propels the gait forward with the help of more rocker. A little less durability yields comfort and hard surfaces.
At $140, we feel that the Ultra Glide is still a good value. If that’s still a little steep, for $20 less you can still get yourself the Sense Ride 4 and buy into some extra protection and a solid trail shoe.
The godfather of “foot-shaped” running shoes, with a wider toebox and zero-drop platform, Altra has built a legion of followers through its unique design.
Out of the box, the Timp 4 ($160) are good-looking shoes. They’ve added some cushion and reduced the toebox volume. While some Altra purists may throw up their hands in blasphemy, we think it’s elevated Altra’s game, making it more approachable for most runners.
At the core of the Timp is the new EGO Max foam. Out of the box, we ran 13 miles on gravel road, sprinkled with single track. The ride was surprisingly smooth with some giddy-up in the tank when we needed it.
As one reviewer stated, “It rides like a Cadillac … Plush, comfortable, and compliant.” It doesn’t look flashy and it’s not built for performance. It’s a cushioned ride. An added bonus, the extra millimeters of stack also give it some extra underfoot protection on rougher terrain.
The upper is constructed from a durable woven mesh protected with a rubberized rand for extra durability. Light padding softens the minimal collar, heel, and tongue.
A fat pull tab helps you slip into the shoe with ease. With no structural overlays on the upper, these shoes can feel a little sloppy on technical terrain. The softer tread reinforces this.
The one factor we’re not unanimously sold on is the size. Some testers found the Timp ran small this year, while others found the stock size a perfect fit. This is a matter of foot shape and preference, but it’s worth noting.
Like most Altra models, it’s probably not a good choice for those with narrow feet. And while narrow for Altra, Timp 4 is a little wide for super-precise or technical terrain. But it’s a strong contender for anyone who wants zero drop or cushion in their queue.
Read our full review on the Timp 4.
To meet the growing interest in technical long-distance runs, La Sportiva released the Akasha II ($165), a cushioned shoe that inspires confident traction on rough terrain. Think technical, rocky, or rooted terrain that climbs up (and down) all day.
La Sportiva is known for its snug, sporty fit. Slip into the shoe, and you feel something different — room! For longer runs, the Akasha has more room in the toebox, cushioning, and a more judicious stack. The winning combination enables you to plow through rough trail for hours on end.
A robust cushion under the heels allows you to tap the brakes without jarring the chassis. The cushion tapers toward the toes and flexes under the metatarsals to bite down on the climbs. Out front, a stout rubber bumper deflects any zingers. The combination runs much lighter than they look.
Mountain running requires the stars to align around comfort, durability, and protection. But its north star will always be stability. You can’t risk an ankle twist above the tree line.
For extra stability, the Akasha has a solid heel cup that holds the foot in place. And the entire upper is heavily guarded by a lightweight structural TPU. The entire shoe elevates confidence on erratic terrain.
The shoe feels less responsive than others on the list. But in the end, the Akasha isn’t designed for speed on flat trails. It’s the shoe you reach for when the trail starts to throw speed-shedding obstacles in your way. And through that lens, the Akasha is arguably the faster shoe.
Shortly after we posted our last buyer guide, highlighting Salomon’s Ultra Glide, we got our hands on the Pulsar Trail ($130). Billed as Salomon’s mid-range trail runner, the Pulsar has plenty of firm cushion underfoot but brings more stability to the trail. The result is a Salomon shoe better positioned for pure trail.
A few mm lower stack than Salomon’s Ultra Glide, the 6 mm drop rides over a dual-density midsole: the softer Energy Surge, and underlying firmer (and more protective) Energy Blade TPU plate. The combination takes the edge off the underlying terrain, and adds spring to the gait.
The ride is firmer than the Ultra Glide but feels more stable underfoot. It’s more trail-worthy than the Ultra Glide and generation of advancement over the Sense Ride.
Protecting the upper, the breathable mesh is overlayed with TPU mountain motif. A light smear of rand protects the toes. The shoe wraps around the back of the foot with a pliable, amply padded heel cup and closes with Salomon’s quick lace system.
There’s a lot of material up top. While adding negligible weight, you do notice the drop in breathability. During our testing, this shoe ran warmer than others with less-engineered uppers. Tied with the hard-ish midsole cushion, the Pulsar performs better at slower, longer runs or as an everyday trainer.
There are more lively options for faster, technical trails. But for runners new to the trail, the Pulsar Trail provides that plush ride a lot of us were looking for in the Sense Ride but more stability than the Ultra Glide. Given its price between the two, the Pulsar is positioned as Salomon’s best do-it-all trail shoe.
A little softer, a little lower, and with more traction, Topo Athletic’s MTN Racer 2 ($145) is a worthy alternative to the max cushion movement and is a good choice for runners looking for comfort on more technical terrain or shorter runs.
With versatility extending beyond its mountain namesake, the MTN Racer 2 hits the sweet spot between a cushioned ride and traction, making it a great all-rounder choice for trail runners.
Our testers praised the fit and feel of the MTN Racer. Falling in line with other Topo models, the toebox is generous but not sloppy, snugging the midfoot securely without causing friction spots around the toes. The foot is locked into the plush 30mm cushion that feels soft underfoot without compromising a lot of rebound.
The heel is secured with a seamlessly padded counter. A touch of posting runs forward off the heel counter along the midsole, and the shoe rides low — dropping from 30 to 25 mm — seating you closer to the ground for more confidence and control on off-camber, technical trails.
While the first iteration was dinged for breathability, the Racer 2 sports a TPU-reinforced mesh upper that strikes a balance between durability and breathability, making it a worthy 2.0 update.
Mesh debris wings center the thin tongue and keep the tongue tacked down the dead center with the help of a pair of ingenious lace loops. A D-ring sits over the toes and the heel counter has receptacles to attach Topo’s proprietary gaiter ($30).
We did find the laces can bind over the top of the foot. Topo threads the shoe through the topmost eyelet from the factory. There’s a second — higher and more forward-sitting — eyelet that knocks that pressure point down a bit. But in general, while there’s a toebox, the shoe still feels low volume over the midfoot.
There are faster and lighter shoes with better traction on the list. But for those who want a do-it-all stalwart daily driver, with a bend toward technical, we highly recommend looking at the MTN Racer 2.
Running firmer, lower, and a few Jacksons less than the Tecton X, HOKA’s Zinal ($160) is HOKA Tecton’s trimmed-down sibling. The submaximal shoe is staged for short and fast runs. And with its lower lug height, the Zinal is our choice for quick door-to-trail runs.
Sporting the same engineered, jacquard mesh found in the Tecton, the upper is light and breathable and wraps the foot with exceptional comfort. It keeps the foot connected with the shoe, allowing you to speed through terrain with precision.
Out front, the shoe is minimally protected with a pliable toe rand and narrow bumper. The tongue and heel counter are lightly padded and pliable.
The reduction of materials and details cut down the weight. It’s purpose-built for speed over durability. Still, after a year of running in the Zinal, there’s plenty of life left in our pairs.
Flip the shoe over and you see the rubber tread is dispersed under the ball of the foot and heel, with a rubberized foam spreading under the arch and midfoot. The 4mm lugs are tightly packed (when present) and occasionally keep muddy stowaways. But the tread is shallow and soft.
The Zinals are an easy choice for runs that start at the front door and loop the local trail. They run effortlessly, feel smooth on the tarmac, and are easy, fun shoes for days you struggle to fit it all in. If they had more traction, the Zinal may have been our choice for the best overall trail shoe for 2023.
Read the in-depth full review of the Hoka Zinal.
Saucony is on its 12th iteration of its venerable trail runner. While it’s sometimes easier to not mess with a good thing, this year Saucony reworked the entire shoe. Dropping the baby fat and adding some rebound, the Peregrine is all grown up. It’s a one-shoe quiver for training and racing.
Keeping it simple, the Peregrine 12 ($130) trimmed the upper’s padding and uses a more compliant mesh material. It’s breathable and more sock-like, securely wrapping the foot.
To protect the new welter-weight upper, Saucony modestly beefs up the protection with strategically placed overlays. The upper is finished with a gaiter ring and a heel strap. Sleek, simple, and dedicated to speed.
While its modest looks don’t scream trail runner, Saucony has packed a lot of trail-worthy qualities under the hood. The lightweight, breathable upper seamlessly wraps the foot and is supported in the back by a firm heel cup.
The toe squares off for room and finishes with a durable toe rand, with a ribbon of TPU that wraps back along the midsole to the heel. Aggressive lugs sweep under the entire foot, allowing heel-to-toe traction.
The proprietary PWRRUN foam is firm, but compliant, and is protected with a flexible rock plate. Aggressive 5mm lugs are contra-pattered for both breaking (under the heel) and traction (under the toes), and cleat the shoe uninterrupted under the midsole. The Peregrines take flight on terrain that leaves other shoes spinning their wheels.
This legacy trail runner carries on its reputation as a reliable, comfy shoe for a variety of technical terrain, but brings chops for racing and PRs.
There are typically two kinds of trail runners: nimble runners who dance through rocky terrain, and those who plow down the trail, letting the shoe suck up the bumps.
With a massive 28 mm of firm cushion underfoot, the ATR ($213) trends toward the latter. The foot drops into a fat cushion, providing both lateral stability and protection from sharp underlying rocks without any extra plastic stays or rock guards.
The shoe derives its Golden Gate moniker from the truss-like TPU exoskeleton, weaving a pattern of structural support across the breathable mesh upper. But it’s also a nod to the ATR’s adaptability to tackle trails that dart off the pavement and into urban parks. SCARPA built this shoe for the street to trail runner.
Most notable on the ATR is the secure fit. The neoprene bootie cuff wraps snugly around the ankle and under the laces like a sock. It sucks the shoe around the foot but also does a good job of preventing pebbles and debris from slipping into the shoe. The fit is so snug, in fact, you could probably pull the laces and run in it like a slipper.
Unfortunately, we found that the slipper fit is a touch narrow compared to others. We recommend sizing up or trying these on before you buy.
The most minimal trail shoe on our list (or most maximal minimal shoe), the SL 2 ($160) is Arc’teryx’s approach trail shoe for climbers hiking off the backside of routes. But it works great for runners who want a racy shoe with a low profile.
If you’re looking for cushion, padding, and support, you can look elsewhere. The SL 2 is stripped down to the basics. Other than the midsole and a pair of pads on the heel counter, there’s no padding.
The upper is a durable mesh embedded with TPU layups for support. There are no gussets around the tongue or pull-loop in back. The slot on the medial collar clips the pair to your harness.
Incredibly airy, the SL 2 vents very well, but things tend to cool off quickly. We wore this shoe on a winter run through hardpacked snow, and the heat poured off the foot. In summer, trail dust seems to pour in just as freely.
The footprint is narrow and small and doesn’t provide robust stability. It lacks the midsole support you’ll see on stouter trail runners. You notice this more on technical trails that demand attention to where you plant your feet. This plays well with climbers who inherently like to hone their footwork.
But it also has a way of reigniting a fire under those trails you tend to run over and over again. The vapor minimalism gives you fresh eyes to see those overworked go-to routes.
Price-to-shoe ratio, the SL 2 can be off-putting. But, it follows the trend for weight-weeny gear, where lighter materials, durability, and niche application typically cost more.
Given this is such a specific shoe, we wouldn’t recommend the SL 2 for runners looking for a daily trainer. It’s going to be your third or fourth pair, for those specific days with unique weight requirements.
The Catamount ($160) is Brooks’ cushion shoe for uptempo trail runs. Utilizing Brooks DNA flash foam, its pedigree reminds us a lot of its road shoe line. With sexy good looks, the sleek design is flawlessly constructed and wears fantastic out of the box.
Brooks protects the shoe from the trail with overlays that cradle the upper and runs a rock plate through the midsole to protect the feet from rough terrain. The nitrogen-infused midsole adds rebound and cushion over a full rubber outsole studded with 3.5mm multidirectional lugs.
The Cat is a very fast shoe and a good choice for road runners looking for speed on gravel or tamer trails. Tipping just over 9 ounces, it works both as a trainer and a racer.
Rock plate aside, given its slim lug profile, we feel the shoe falls short on the technical, preventing it from leveling up to the best in the field.
Incredibly popular with the athleisure crowd, On Running shoes wins the war on looks. And the brand makes some solid running shoes, too. Our top pick from On for the trail is their Cloudultra ($180).
Core to the shoe is On’s Helion foam. It’s engineered to provide rigid cushioning underfoot and flexibility in the toes. While this rigidity provides good rock protection and a structural rocker, the foam can feel harsh. And there’s a lot of it running over the luggy outer sole, giving protection and traction on the trail.
For feet that swell over the miles, On has integrated a nifty FlipRelease adjustment knob on the laces over the toebox that when untoggled, opens the space over the feet a few millimeters.
Across the line of On shoes, we find that the brand’s collar feels stiff. That’s the same story here, which is only compounded by the sock-like cuff that seals the foot in the shoe.
The bootie construction makes it a struggle to get into, but once you’re in, the shoe locks around the foot and remains very breathable. This makes the Cloudultra ideal for hot, dry trail runs where dust and debris can often kick into the shoe.
And of course, the Cloudultra looks great après run.
Every family has a favorite. Toeing across finish lines of years, the Speedgoat 5 ($155) is Hoka’s beloved classic.
With a new outsole, midsole, and upper, nearly every component of the Speedgoat has been improved for better traction, better fit, and lighter weight than the previous model. Reswizzled from the sole up, the newest update doesn’t disappoint.
Updates include a bolstered heel collar, more comfortable features, and what feels like a more responsive midsole with what Hoka calls a “late-stage meta-rocker.”
The lightweight midsole — the same midsole formula from the evo Speedgoat — is everything you could want in a trail shoe: lightweight, supportive, and responsive. This midsole is bouncy and comfortable for running on all forms of terrain.
The soles are fitted with Vibram Megagrip and 5mm lugs, somehow providing even more traction than previous iterations. Our reviewers lauded its ability to tackle varying, loose, and rocky terrain.
Somehow Hoka pulled all this off while shaving an ounce off of the Speedgoat 4.
While the Speedgoats let you push the pace, their durability and comfort over the long haul make them a good value. Legions of long-distance hikers have picked up on this. The Speedgoat 5 was one of the most popular shoes for thru-hiking in 2022. One of our testers walked over 5,000 miles in the Speedgoats last year, eking out about 700 miles a pair.
If you aren’t used to shoes with a higher stack, runners may want to experiment with a different model first. The stack can be tippy on technical trails. But as a mega-comfortable performer over challenging terrain, it’s hard to find a better ride out there.
An absolute staple in the trail running and long-distance hiking communities, the Lone Peak is Altra’s flagship model, and defines the wide-toe evolution. This year, updates to the LP6 ($140), keep flaming the stoke.
For a better fit, Altra added a simple but functional heel overlay, and an additional midfoot lacing system that dials in the fit. While we’ve never found the Lone Peaks too sloppy or loose, the updates undeniably provide more security.
Underfoot, the “Altra EGO” midsole has that same ‘Cadillac-cushion’ ride we love in the Timp 4, adding comfort and more rebound. Paired with its low-slung, 25mm chassis, we appreciate how well the LP6 carries over technical terrain.
With the widest toebox on the list, the foot-shaped last gives it an organic feel, allowing your toes to splay naturally while running or hiking. Need more room? The LP6 is offered in a wide model. Because the regular fit is already wider than average, we’d recommend trying on a 2E before you buy.
The Lone Peak 6 remains a top pick for hikers and runners alike looking for a reliable shoe with a natural feel. The wide toebox and zero drop profile take a little getting used to, but connect the runner to the ground like no other.
|Trail Running Shoes||Price||Weight||Drop||Best For|
|Nike Terra Kiger 8||$140||11 oz.||4 mm||Burning turns on technical trails|
|The North Face VECTIV Enduris II||$140||11.5 oz.||6 mm||Ultra distances|
|HOKA ONE ONE Tecton X||$200||8.5 oz.||4 mm||Crushing your Strava time and race day performance|
|Salomon Ultra Glide||$140||9.2 oz.||6 mm||Tamer trails|
|Altra Timp 4||$160||10.9 oz.||Zero||Wide-footed runners who need cushion; a great recovery shoe|
|La Sportiva Akasha II||$150||10.9 oz.||6 mm||Mountain runners chasing longer distances who need precision and stability|
|Salomon Pulsar Trail||$130||10.5 oz.||6 mm||Best for middle to long-distance training runs|
|Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2||$145||10.2 oz.||5 mm||The generalist trail runner with a bias for more technical terrain|
|HOKA ONE ONE Zinal||$160||8.5 oz.||4 mm||Neutral runners who want low riding cushion; great for road-to-trailhead and gravel roads|
|Saucony Peregrine 12||$130||9.7 oz.||4 mm||Race-ready daily trainer. Best suited for loose trails and technical terrain|
|SCARPA Golden Gate ATR||$149||10.2 oz.||4 mm||Runners new to trail who want cushion underfoot|
|Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2||$160||6 oz.||7 mm||Neutral runners who want a minimal trail shoe for run-to-scramble adventures|
|Brooks Catamount||$160||9.3 oz.||6 mm||Responsive speed and door-to-trail runs|
|On Running Cloudultra||$180||10.4 oz.||8 mm||Runners with low-volume feet who run rocky trails on hot days|
|Hoka Speedgoat 5||$155||10.3 oz.||4 mm||Technical trails, ultras, thru-hikes|
|Altra Lone Peak 6||$140||10.5 oz.||Zero||Technical trails or thru-hikes|
Steve Graepel, the author of this guide, has been running for 30 years. During his time on his feet, he’s clocked a sub-3-hour marathon, won the Superior Trail Ultra 50 miler, and made the first known rim-to-rim-to-rim of Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest canyon. Steve can be found lugging a backpack with a spare pair of shoes in and around the Boise foothills with his two dogs.
To complement Steve’s personal expertise, GearJunkie has a crew of three runners collecting miles and feedback throughout the year.
A fitness-focused runner who logs miles for both cardio and agility, Adam Ruggiero run-commutes on pavement daily, and adds box jumps and stairs to his regular routine. Ruggiero logs 20-25 miles a week, with mid-distance trail runs at elevation on the weekends.
Fast is slow, and slow is M.T. Elliot. A recreational runner — and our resident Clydesdale runner — Elliot prefers the crunch of dirt over asphalt but runs on both.
Sean McCoy is a middle-of-the-pack ultra runner who, when not leading the Denver-based GearJunkie team, gets lost running and racing the Colorado high country.
If you’re looking for an even broader range of expert opinions, have a look at iRunFar’s Best Trail Running Shoes of 2023 or check out Switchback Travel’s Best Trail Running Shoes of 2023.
Staring at a wall of shoes or endlessly browsing an online retailer can be overwhelming. We’ve broken down some helpful tips to find the right shoe.
These days, manufacturers have dialed shoes for nearly every niche of running. A quick way to hone in on the right shoe is to identify where you run.
Road running shoes are primarily suitable for hard surfaces, with breathable uppers and smooth traction for pavement, track, and treadmills. Cushion and stability can vary (we’ll cover that more below).
Trail running shoes have an aggressive lug pattern that bites into dirt, sand, and mud. But not all treads are the same. A blocky, cleat-like tread will shed mud in the Pacific Northwest but can feel clunky on hardpack found in the Southwest and can cause trips and falls.
Trail shoes also have a more durable upper, a robust toe bumper, and a firmer sole or even a rock plate — all to protect the feet from underlying roots and rocks.
Roadrunner or trail shoe? These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. All the editors at GearJunkie run to the trailhead on the road, and we are all guilty of taking a road shoe for a spin on the trail. If that sounds like you, we’ve indicated where a shoe can cross over effectively.
According to Dr. Michael Hahn, director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic at the University of Oregon and a specialist in neuromechanics and human locomotion, “Everybody has a natural gait, and it leaves a thumbprint on your shoes.”
To get an idea of how you run, flip your shoes over and take a look at the wear pattern on the soles.
Unless you’re running barefoot, every shoe has a stack. Measured in millimeters (mm), the stack refers to how high the insole sits off the ground.
Shoes with more cushion inherently have a higher stack. Furthermore, most shoes have a “drop” in stack height from the heel to the toe. Zero drop refers to a shoe whose toe and heel stack are the same measurement. Zero drop shoes mimic a more natural, “barefoot” running feel. Both Altra Lone Peak 6 and Timp 4 are zero-drop shoes, but have different stack, and thus a very different feel.
The lower the stack, the closer you are to the ground, and hence the lower your center of gravity. Lower stack shoes, like Nike’s Terra Kiger or Topo Athletics MTN Racer 2, may feel more ‘racy’, faster, and better equipped to tackle technical terrain.
If you’re new to running or younger, experts recommend a lower heel drop. It builds a wider range of motion and strength, which makes you a healthier runner overall.
For experienced runners who grew up on a generation of high-drop shoes, your legs will appreciate a more judicious stack.
Stepping into a high-cushion shoe can feel like walking on a cloud. Those running longer distances (or who supinate) will prefer more cushion to damp the repetitive pounding and provide support. But it can become a penalty. Extra foam adds extra weight.
So, is more cushion better? Not always. It’s about finding the right balance between speed and comfort. If you’re aiming for a new PR, look for a light, stiffer shoe with a harder cushion and minimal lug friction. Hoka’s Tecton X provides a fantastic combination of cushion and weight.
Stability has drastically changed over the last decade. Bob Coll, owner of the Eugene Running Company, ranked as the top running store in Oregon by Runner’s World, explained that “shoes have become more homogenous. Today’s neutral shoe is just as stable as the best ‘stability’ shoe from 10 years ago.”
The gap between neutral and stability has narrowed. “And the approaches to stability are different,” added Coll. “Max cushion shoes, like a Hoka, use more cushion to seat you deep in a saddle surrounded by foam.” And The North Face wraps its TPU plate outside the shoe to help serve as rails for a neutralizing stride.
Regardless of labeling or engineering, the best shoe is the one that feels natural to the N of one: you.
To help buffer the feet from rough trails, some shoes embed a firm, protective, “rock plate” in the midsole. Made from plastic, or in more expensive models, carbon, the flexible plate protects the feet from getting banged up on sharp rocks and repetitive pounding on erratic terrain, while adding some spring to the step.
A good rock plate will work with the shoe without compromising flexibility or cushion. Our top pick, Nike’s Terra Kiger 8, uses a segmented plate that transitions from rigid to flexible and rides virtually unnoticeable underfoot.
Flexibility is your friend on the trails. You need variability to match the variable terrain.
Trail runners will prefer a shoe with a firm outsole and less cushion, but a firm toebox to push off of. Some flexibility and torsion can help the foot adapt to the trail and prevent injuries, like rolling an ankle.
For most trail running, we prefer a shoe that breathes well. Waterproof membranes will cause your feet to sweat faster than the waterproof membrane can keep up. This leaves your feet wet, clammy, and exposed to hot spots.
In general, we prefer a breathable upper that allows cooling air to flow in, and hot sweat to move out. The compromise is keeping dirt and grime out of the shoe.
Porous mesh uppers, like those found on Arc’teryx’s Norvan SL2 and Nike’s Terra Kiger, will let more cheat grass and sand particles to ingress. To minimize dirty toes, Nike sewed in an inner bootie that limits trail debris and doubles as a gusset for the tongue.
Most trail-ready shoes are constructed from a synthetic upper mesh. Materials can be simple weaves or complexly engineered, adding more durability and better breathability in different zones on the upper.
Added materials overlays and rubber rands (like those found on Salomon’s Pulsar) provide protection and deflection but will reduce airflow in a shoe. The best, like TNF’s VECTIV Enduris II, apply overlays that strike a balance of support, breathability, and weight. The rougher the trail, the more protection you’ll need. For optimal protection, it’s tough to beat La Sportiva’s Akasha II.
Runners looking for a PR will likely want fewer materials. It’s a decision that cuts both ways. You drop the weight but have to open the wallet a little more. To keep the weight down, manufacturers start adding more expensive materials, like carbon plates. With minimal protective overlays, these welterweight trail runners may not last as long as a more robust shoe.
Lastly, dark-colored material will soak up more solar heat than lighter-colored shoes. We don’t mind this in winter, but it may sway your choice if you run in hot, sunny regions.
Compared to road running shoes, trail runners will want grippy soles to navigate the slick, uneven, rocky, and muddy terrain. Look carefully at the trails you plan to run. If they’re mostly covered with stones and hard dirt, a short lug pattern will be great.
Those who run on lots of muddy or soft surfaces will appreciate a deeper lug pattern. 4-5 mm lugs are best for most trail runners. The loamier the trail, the more you will appreciate deeper lugs. Anything more than 6 will start to feel cleat-like, making hard-pack less fun and road downright unbearable.
Lug patterns will vary across brands as well. Salomon’s Ultra Glide and Pulsar use narrow, mud-shedding treads that dart toe to heel. Many shoes use a multidirectional patterned lug, that provides breaking traction (under the heel), and gripping traction (under the toes).
Outsole compounds vary from soft to hard rubber. And choosing the right lug material depends on where you run. Softer blends will provide better grip and traction on harder surfaces, and run better on road. But they will wear down more quickly. Harder lugs feel clanky on hardpack and can cause tripping hazards in rock, but they bite down into mud like crampons.
The best traction on the list is Hoka’s Speedgoat 5. Made from Vibram Megagrip rubber, the multi-directional 5 mm lugs are cut to create arrowhead-shaped barbs. The result gives the lug more gripping surface area and an impressive amount of traction.
Running shoes should be as light as possible while still offering the protection you desire. This matters both for the fast runner as well as the ultra-distance runner, where those added ounces add up over the day.
Break through the overwhelming number of options and get some guidance with the answers to frequently asked questions.
With so many options to choose from, it can be challenging to choose the right trail shoes. Here are three things to consider as you shop:
The life of a shoe depends on a variety of factors, including running style, weight, and how often they’re used. But in general, 300 to 500 miles is a good rule of thumb.
So if you run 10 miles per week, your shoes could last 8 months to a year. If you’re logging 20 miles per week, plan on replacing your running shoes every 4 to 6 months.
And if you see excessive wear patterns, holes, and tears or notice a decrease in footbed comfort, it’s probably time to grab a new pair of sneakers.
You can certainly run anywhere in your trail shoes or bring your road shoes trailside. That said, most find the aggressive lug pattern of a trail shoe uncomfortable on pavement. Hard surfaces like cement or pavement also quickly wear down the sole of a trail running shoe.
If your runs require a short amount of road to get to your trail, you’ll be fine in most of the shoes we’ve listed. Some shoes offer a better hybrid as a pure road-to-trail offering. Salomon’s Ultra Glide is soft, light, and has road-friendly lugs.
If you plan to run mostly on roads, it would be better to get a dedicated road running shoe.
We have seen a big shift on the trail from hiking boots to lighter-weight shoes, including trail running shoes for hiking. Trail running shoes offer up excellent traction in a lighter, more nimble package.
While many backpackers still prefer a boot, we know thru-hikers who make major miles in trail running shoes. If you’re looking for something in between, it’s worth considering a hiking shoe.