The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021
Our trail selection for men and women to make the right choice.
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Last update: December 2021
Which Shoes for Trail Running?
In a hurry? Go directly to the top 11.
Trail running is a beautiful way to combine a passion for running with nature exploration. However, whether you’re an experienced trail runner or just about to hit the trails for the very first time, choosing your shoes can be more complicated than it seems.
If you thought finding a good pair of road running shoes was difficult, then the possibilities when it comes to trail running shoes might make your head spin!
But don’t worry: we’re here to guide you in your selection!
So we’ve prepared a list of the top eleven trail running shoes of 2021 (so far) with various and unanimously acclaimed models to make sure everyone can find at least one pair that’s perfect for them.
If you’re new to trail running, we suggest looking at our tips to purchase your first model. For more experienced trail runners, you can visit our list pages. They offer powerful filters to find the ideal model based on the desired attributes (e.g., terrain, stack height, drop, distance).
Since 2017, the Runner’s Lab team has been analyzing reviews from expert and casual athletes to reach a consensus and overall score for each trail running shoe. A test already offers a wealth of information on the various pros and cons of each trail shoe. However, only a systematic review can allow us to draw conclusions applicable to most runners.
For example, one runner may criticize the lack of cushion in one shoe while another may find it comfortable enough. Some will experience blisters, while others will have no discomfort whatsoever. Our goal is to determine whether a disadvantage or benefit is an isolated report or, on the contrary, if it’s a generalized pattern.
Furthermore, we check the claims of brands and testers against scientific research evidence to clarify specific hot-talking points like the impact of the person’s weight, the heel-toe drop, and the stack height on the risk of injury.
Our Selection of the Best Trail Running Shoes for Men and Women
|Shoe||Overall score||Heel height||Drop||Weight||Cushioning||Lugs||Rock plate||Available in GTX||Best offer|
|Hoka Speedgoat 4||9.5||32 mm||4 mm||10.8 oz||Balanced||5 mm||❌||✔||Check prices →|
|Brooks Cascadia 16||9.5||29 mm||8 mm||10.5 oz||Soft||3.5 mm||✔||✔||Check prices →|
|Saucony Peregrine 11||9.4||27 mm||4 mm||10.9 oz||Firm||5-6.5 mm||✔||✔||Check prices →|
|Salomon Sense Ride 4||9.4||27 mm||8 mm||9.9 oz||Firm||4 mm||❌||✔||Check prices →|
|Hoka Mafate Speed 3||9.3||33 mm||4 mm||10.7 oz||Soft||5 mm||❌||❌||Check prices →|
|Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7||9.2||30 mm||4 mm||10 oz||Balanced||3.5 mm||✔||✔||Che|
ck prices →
|La Sportiva Bushido II||9.4||19 mm||6 mm||10.5 oz||Firm||3.5 mm||✔||✔||Check prices →|
|Altra Olympus 4||9.3||33 mm||0 mm||11.2 oz||Soft||3 mm||✔||❌||Check prices →|
|Asics Fuji Lite 2||9.3||30 mm||4 mm||9 oz||Soft||4 mm||❌||❌||Check prices →|
|New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v6||9||28 mm||8 mm||11.9 oz||Soft||3.5 mm||❌||✔||Check prices →|
|Brooks Catamount||9||32 mm||6 mm||9.5 oz||Balanced||3.5 mm||✔||❌||Check prices →|
1. Hoka Speedgoat 4: the undisputed queen of trail
Hoka One One’s bestseller has dominated trail running since 2019. Its sharp yet comfortable fit immediately appealed to runners worldwide, starting with Karl ‘Speedgoat’ Metzer, the famous ultramarathon runner for whom this shoe was named.
The HSG4 has become an icon of trail running culture. If you want to play a little game at your next trail race, count how many pairs you can spot on the starting line!
The Vibram MegaGrip outsole with its 5 mm lugs offers the best when it comes to grip and durability. At the same time, the comfortable midsole cushion makes for a fantastic ride on long distances and all types of terrain.
Plus, even though the fit is relatively strict for perfect stability on treacherous descents, the Speedgoat remains suitable for runners who need a generous toe box.
In short, the Hoka Speedgoat 4 may just be the best trail running shoe right now.
2. Brooks Cascadia 16: the most versatile trail shoe
After Karl Metzer’s Speedgoat, here comes Scott Jurek‘s Cascadia!
2021 is especially a good vintage for the Brooks Cascadia, with much more comfort on the menu.
The cushioning is softer, and the breathable mesh upper is roomier (also in the toe box), all without losing foot lockdown. Also, the new DNA LOFT v2 technology replaces the BioMoGo DNA foam in the midsole. The result is more responsiveness for a fun and smooth ride regardless of the type of workout or distance.
Protection and grip are also on point—the Ballistic Rock Shield works wonders to absorb shocks on the most rugged terrain. It makes the Cascadia one of the best models of 2021.
We recommend the Cascadia if the Speedgoat feels a little overkill for your practice and you are looking for a more comfortable shoe for long-distance training.
3. Saucony Peregrine 11: the best to combine ground feel and comfort
We hesitated between the Peregrine and the Xodus in the Saucony collection. We decided to go for the lighter of the two.
While the Peregrine is not the lightest trail shoe in this selection (close to 11 oz for the men’s model), it’s a tough, responsive shoe that will get you through the most technical terrain.
The PWRTRAC sticky rubber outsole and the 5 mm lugs (6.5 mm for the Soft Ground version) provide excellent traction in all conditions. The PWRRUN cushioning is a bit firm, but that increases the bounce. If you like a more cushion, you may have to keep this one for shorter runs (up to 10 km) and alternate with another shoe for longer runs.
4. Salomon Sense Ride 4: the all-round dependable cruiser
The Salomon Sense Ride is another safe choice that will suit most trail runners, experienced or not. Its highlights? A stable ride, a good comfortable (yet firmish) cushioning, and great grip.
The Sensifit upper technology offers a precise fit for good lockdown.
With this new version, Salomon has chosen to focus on protection rather than bounce. So it’s not the most responsive shoe in this guide, but it’s one of the most comfortable and safe.
Also, its Contagrip outsole is sturdy, and even soft terrain like mud will have a hard time making you slip (well, no promises, uh).
While not as popular as other Salomon shoes like the Speedcross, the Sense Ride is, in our opinion, superior due to its greater versatility and dependable efficiency.
5. Hoka Mafate Speed 3: the most cushioned
Hoka is doing what they do best and has earned them a reputation since their modest beginning in France: cushion.
The keyword here is comfort.
The thick midsole (33 mm under the heel—need we say more?) ensures optimal shock absorption while the roomier and softer upper gives a relaxed yet effective foot lockdown.
This upgrade is worth a look, even if it’s not perfect. For example, its grip shows its limits on technical grounds like mud, and some testers note a lack of stability on rocks.
Overall, the Mafate Speed 3 is an obvious choice if you are looking for a shoe to enjoy your long trail runs.
6. Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7: the most stylish
Nike has been working hard in recent years to catch up with other brands in the trail running arena. Indeed, while Nike is at the forefront of road running (it was the first to introduce a carbon-fiber plate shoe), it’s not the first brand that comes to mind when you imagine stunning mountain paths.
The Terra Kiger had the reputation of being comfortable and offering a good ground feel but struggling with grip on the most technical trails. Until now. 2021 marks a new era for the series, and the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 7 now features an edgier build, with more lugs on the outsole to level up when it comes to traction. The comfort and underfoot protection are also great with a few more millimeters of React foam midsole.
With better cushioning (without losing responsiveness), more protection, and more grip, the Terra Kiger has ultramarathon running in sight. Whether trail runners will trust it to go all the way remains to be seen!
Oh, and beware: Nike trail shoes are becoming fashion accessories. So don’t be surprised if you catch a lot of eyes on your way!
7. La Sportiva Bushido II: the best near-minimalist trail shoe
The Italian brand is well known among mountain lovers for the quality and effectiveness of its high-end mountaineering and climbing shoes. The brand applies the same know-how to its trail running gear, and the result is impressive. La Sportiva collaborates with Anton Krupicka, the famous bearded ultramarathon runner and two-time winner of the notorious Leadville Trail 100.
Aimed at experienced athletes, La Sportiva Bushido II has a bare configuration with a reduced and responsive midsole to go fast on the trails. The grip is top-notch, and so is foot protection.
Because of its near-minimalist setup with light cushioning, we recommend it only for those under 176 lbs/80 g and with experience with low-stack shoes.
8.Altra Olympus 4: the best zero-drop trail shoe
Altra Running earned itself a unique reputation in the trail running world by breaking away from the mainstream and crafting zero drop shoes with a roomy toe box.
However, one may say that their collection is uneven that comprises some outstanding models and others quite frankly disappointing (looking at you Altra Lone Peak 5).
The Altra Olympus 4 is among the best ones! Here we’re dealing with a great shoe that offers ultimate comfort with its max cushion (33 mm) and wide toe box that allows you to splay your toes (if you feel like it).
Also, it’s a very robust shoe that offers a responsive ride despite its relatively heavy build.
Overall, it’s a good option if you want to dabble with a zero drop shoe. However, it also makes it a unique pick that we recommend for runners who have already earned some trail running stripes.
9. Asics Fuji Lite 2: the trail shoe with the most fun ride
Like Nike, Asics has struggled to transfer its stellar reputation in road running to the wild world of trail running. It doesn’t offer good shoes, but none of them has been able to break through.
Some of you may remember the Asics Gel Fuji Lyte. It was a tremendous peppy and lightweight shoe that received accolades from many seasoned trail runners. However, it always remained under the radar as it was difficult to find it in-store.
Fast forward five years, and here comes the Asics Fuji Lite 2! Don’t ask us why Lyte became Lite. Or where the Gel went. We have no clue. What matters is that it’s one of the lightest and most comfortable trail running shoes out there right now. The grip is impressive, and the ride is as fun as it gets! The only downside is the stability on very technical trails, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
It’s our favorite trail running shoe at the moment.
10. New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v6: the best to combine style and comfort
Is it a sneaker or a trail running shoe? Don’t let the sleek design fool you: the NB Fresh Foam Hierro packs a comfortable and efficient configuration under the hood.
The Vibram MegaGrip outsole is naturally grippy for excellent traction in most conditions. The lugs are not so deep, which limits grip in mud but overall, it fares very well.
The signature Fresh Foam X midsole of the brand gives soft cushioning to be comfortable on your long runs.
Finally, the bootie upper enhances both comfort and lockdown compared to the previous versions. The only real disadvantage is the heavy weight, but we trust New Balance to address that in the next version.
11. Brooks Catamount: the best door-to-trail shoe
The Brooks Catamount may be the best new shoes series to launch in 2021!
Suppose you’re not planning to tackle a gritty ultramarathon (Western States 100 anyone?) and would instead take a leisurely approach to trail running, stopping and smelling the flowers, and all that. In this case, the Brooks Catamount may be the comfort solution you need.
Not that this shoe cannot flex when you need it to (it comes with a protective plate, after all), but with its lightweight conception and flexible upper, the Brooks Catamount is at its best on moderately technical terrains.
Its balanced cushioning (not too soft, not too firm) and 3.5 mm lugs make it suitable for running on the road. As such, trail runners enjoy it as a road-to-trail shoe but let’s be clear: it can do much more!
Our Guide to Choosing Your Trail Running Shoes
Trail shoes allow you to run in natural environments. Easy to dirt roads, snowy mountain paths, rocky desert trails, or muddy forest tracks: trail shoes are for all conditions.
Trail shoes have a unique configuration that differentiates them from road running shoes to adapt to the most challenging situations.
Below are the key points to take into account.
It’s proven (1): the more comfortable the shoes, the less oxygen you need while you run. In other words, good comfortable shoes make you more efficient.
Many factors come into play, but it boils down to this: you need to try the shoes and ensure there’s not the slightest discomfort. The fit you should be precise but not overly strict, and you should feel stable at all times.
The outsole of a trail running shoe has lugs for good grip on very technical terrain, both uphill and in steep descents. They tend to be in hard carbon-type rubber, which is naturally grippy and sturdy.
Vibram is especially popular for its performance and abrasion resistance. Vibram MegaGrip is omnipresent on hiking shoes, and it’s now made its way to trail running shoes, though many brands prefer to use their proprietary technology.
The lugs and the level of protection vary depending on the type of terrain. For example, there are shoes with shorter lugs for easy trails. Conversely, some models have longer lugs and a more aggressive outsole tread pattern for snow.
Overall, many trail shoes aim to be suitable for ultramarathoning and offer a versatile configuration to handle most terrain. That’s the case with the Hoka Speedgoat 4, one of the most popular shoes. It features a versatile design with 5 mm lugs on its outsole to ensure good traction on muddy ground and snow.
Stability is a compound of the shoe’s traction and foot lockdown. If the outsole is not grippy enough for the terrain you plan to tackle, you risk slipping and losing your balance.
Similarly, if the foothold of the shoe’s upper and the platform is not snug enough, then your ride may be wobbly on uneven terrain and, in the worst case, lead your ankle to twist.
Who hasn’t banged their toe on the corner of a table? Imagine the same thing going full speed with a sneaky rock or root waiting in ambush. Trail shoes protect the foot from potentially dangerous obstacles that you can encounter in nature, especially in wild and poorly marked areas. For example, they almost all feature a toe bumper at the front.
While the midsole is often sufficient for a comfortable ride (especially on high-stack shoes like the Hoka Speedgoat), some shoes also have rock plates for extra protection and comfort. It’s essential if you intend to run mainly on rocky terrain.
Also, the upper is sturdy to prevent tears from impacts and scratches. It’s common to see fused or sewn overlays for added protection. Dense uppers offer better protection and durability, but watch out for the breathability!
It’s primarily a matter of preference, but it can also influence your performance in some cases. The answer can vary significantly from runner to runner depending on body type and will change as you gain experience and refine your preferences.
Ask yourself: do I prefer to feel the ground under my feet, or do I prefer to avoid shocks as much as possible?
Overall, the consensus is that a well-cushioned shoe is best for longer distances, if only for comfort. Even an athlete like Anton Krupicka, one of the icons of minimalism at the beginning of his career, now favors shoes with high-stack cushioning from La Sportiva. Similarly, Scott Jurek was one of the main characters featured in Born to Run (2) by Christopher McDougall. While the book is an ode to barefoot running, the legendary ultra runner always stuck to his comfortable Brooks Cascadia.
Also, it’s important to note that a study (3) concluded that minimalist shoes could increase the injury risk for athletes who weigh more than 157 lbs (71 kg). Beyond that, there was no impact.
If it’s your first pair of trail running shoes, we recommend opting for a similar level of cushioning as your road shoes. If it’s your first pair of running shoes, it’s wise to choose an intermediate level of cushioning and refine your selection later.
When the going gets tough, it’s always pleasant to feel a gentle breeze caressing your feet. Unfortunately, it’s a rare experience with trail shoes as the construction of their protective upper has a tight weave to shield the foot from trail debris.
If you live in a dry land under the sun and rain is not an issue, then you may want to pick shoes with a thin and breathable upper to avoid overheating and sweating too much on the trails.
The uppers of trail running shoes tend to have a closed texture to prevent water from entering the shoe. Also, the materials are water-repellent and engineered to dry quickly.
Trail running shoes protect against moisture with different levels of waterproofing. Most uppers are least water-repellent to prevent small amounts of water from entering, such as light rain or stepping in a shallow puddle. It’s often sufficient, especially since they also dry quickly.
Are you living in a region with wet conditions and getting tired of having your feet soaked at every run? In this case, you may benefit from waterproof trail running shoes. Gore-Tex (or equivalent) can be a good solution.
However, you should know that no model is entirely waterproof beyond a certain threshold.
Most trail running shoes (like many in our selection) are also available in Gore-Tex. However, waterproof shoes are heavier and more expensive. For these reasons, we don’t recommend such shoes.
The heel-to-drop determines the elevation of your heel in comparison to the forefoot. If a shoe is 30 mm at the rear and 26 mm at the front, the drop is 4 mm.
The drop trends change like the season. High drops (10-12 mm) used to be very common, but in recent years we see more and more brands opting for lower offsets (4 mm and less).
And, of course, there’s Altra Running who only offers zero-drop shoes as they claim it’s the only possible configuration to respect the natural position of the foot and the human body’s anatomy in general.
Ultimately, heel-to-drop ties back to comfort. There’s no absolute truth so it’s a personal preference. The only randomized controlled trial study so far (to our knowledge) (4) concluded that there were no meaningful differences in injury risk between the different drop levels.
Our advice: pick something standard (6-8 mm) and go from there. As you gain experience, you may discover that less drop is more comfortable for you or the other way around.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
All trail running shoes are available for men and women. Except in some particular cases, gender doesn’t influence the shoe’s comfort or performance.
Therefore, our selection of the top women’s running shoes is the same as the men’s.
It all depends on your practice. If you are going to venture onto more technical trails (e.g., muddy, rocky), a trail running shoe seems safer to protect your foot and prevent you from slipping.
Road running shoes may be sufficient for well-marked dirt roads without much difficulty, but beyond that, you’ll need trail shoes. If you plan to do both road and trail running but don’t want to purchase two pairs, then you can go for hybrid shoes or road-to-trail shoes like the Brooks Catamount.
For the anecdote, your humble servant climbed the Table Mountain in Cape Town (South Africa) in Nike Air Force 1 (sneakers, hmm) but did not recommend the experience!
1. Improved footwear comfort reduces oxygen consumption during running
Geng Luo, Pro Stergiou, Jay Worobets, Benno Nigg and Darren Stefanyshyn (2009)
3. The long-term effect of minimalist shoes on running performance and injury: design of a randomised controlled trial
British Journal of Sports Medicine
Joel Fuller, Dominic Thewlis, Margarita Tsiros, Nicholas Brown, and Jonathan D. Buckley
4. Influence of the Heel-to-Toe Drop of Standard Cushioned Running Shoes on Injury Risk in Leisure-Time Runners A Randomized Controlled Trial With 6-Month Follow-up
The American Journal of Sports Medicine
Laurent Malsioux, Nicolas Chambon, Axel Urhausen, Daniel Theisen (2016)
Kevin is the founder and editor of Runner’s Lab. He started running in 2015 and completed his first marathon in Rotterdam in 2016. He’s also worked for Under Armour from 2016 to 2018 and helped launch their running collection in Europe (in particular the HOVR shoes). In addition, Kevin is a 300-hour certified yoga teacher (Sivananda) and uses this experience to run more mindfully with a focus on well-being over performance.