The Best Trail Running Shoes
Read our guide to pick the best trail running shoes for you.
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- Great comfort
- Cushioning that disperses shocks well
- The effective grip on most terrains
- Good foot protection
- New lighter upper
- Cushioning can be a little firm for some trail runners and lacks responsiveness
- Great comfort
- Excellent grip
- Protective and responsive cushioning
- Upper more comfortable than on the previous versions
- Sturdy shoe
- High price
- The upper could be a little airier
- Very lightweight shoe (174g/6.1 oz!)
- Very comfortable
- Good grip overall
- Excellent responsive cushioning
- Effective lockdown despite the lack of structure of the upper
- Difficult to put on, especially for runners with wide feet
- The grip can be limited on very technical terrain (mud, snow)
- Limited protection: no side guards, minimal toe cap
- Some doubts about the durability of the midsole
- Good general comfort
- Effective grip in all circumstances
- Stable shoe, ideal for overpronators
- A resilient model capable of handling the mileage on the toughest trails
- Efficient Quicklace system for adjusting the laces
- Heavy shoe
- Rigid platform
What Are Trail Running Shoes?
Trail shoes are shoes made for running in natural environments like dirt roads and rugged paths in the forest or mountains. Trail running has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years, appealing to runners who want to combine the love of nature with running. One of the most famous races is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. It goes around Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland, and Italy for a total distance of 171 km.
Trail shoes are ideal for running in the wilderness. To adapt to the most challenging conditions, they feature a special configuration that differentiates them from traditional road running shoes. The main differences are:
- Lugs: the outsole often features lugs for a good grip on the most difficult terrain, both downhill and uphill. It favors naturally grippy carbon-type hard rubber for optimal traction. Runners particularly appreciate Vibram rubber for its grip and abrasion resistance. This rubber has earned an excellent reputation, especially with its MegaGrip technology featured on many models.
- Protection: who hasn’t stubbed their toe in the corner of a table? Imagine the same thing at high speed with a sneaky rock or root. Trail running shoes aim to protect the foot from potentially dangerous or at least painful obstacles that athletes can encounter in nature. The upper is tough and durable to withstand impact and friction. There are also overlays sewn or fused to the upper for added protection. The collar slightly rises to wrap the foot, and the shoe’s point often features a toe cap. On the other hand, it’s increasingly common for trail running shoes to offer a rock plate. Inserted between the outsole and the midsole, it aims to protect the foot from sharp obstacles.
- Waterproofing: trail models often come with a water repellent finish. Some models even offer a Gore-Tex (GTX) membrane for advanced waterproofing. However, they are more expensive and heavier.
What Are the Different Types of Trail Running Shoes?
Like for road shoes, there are various trail running models to suit all preferences. Here are the main broad sets we distinguish:
- Minimalist shoes: popularized by Christopher McDougall‘s excellent book, Born to Run, this heterogeneous set of models shares a low stack height (less than 15mm). Thus, we find both sandals, thick socks, shoes with five fingers that look like foot gloves, and traditional shoes. Trail running is particularly suitable for minimalist running because of its natural surfaces. Indeed, the pressure on the joints is less strong than on the asphalt. That’s why ultramarathon (very long distance) running is mainly done on trail courses and not in the city. The main brands of minimalist shoes are Luna Sandals, Xero Shoes, and Merrell.
- Lightweight shoes: they offer a medium thickness sole (over 15 mm) but with a stripped-down configuration to go fast. These shoes are for trails without particular technical difficulty or for cross country that requires lightweight shoes to go as fast as possible. La Sportiva Kaptiva is a good example. There are also little gems of technology that manage to combine cushioning, grip, and lightweight, like the very good Salomon S/Lab Sense SG 8.
- “Classic” shoes: these offer a standard level of cushioning, grip, and protection to suit most people. The Brooks Cascadia and Salomon Speedcross are good examples of this with their medium stack, aggressive lugs, and protective uppers.
- Maximal cushioning shoes: this type of shoe has become very popular in recent years thanks to the thumbs up from famous athletes who proudly display them while competing in ultramarathon races. American athlete Karl Meltzer who gave his nickname to the Hoka One One Speedgoat comes to mind, or Anton Krupicka, who promotes the La Sportiva brand. The maximalist shoes feature a 30mm or more high stack sole for effective shock absorption. The most popular brand of maximal cushioning trail running shoes today is Hoka One One.
- Shoes for ice and snow: these models display deep aggressive lugs for a maximum grip, like the Salomon SnowSpike and SpikeCross shoes.
How to Choose The Right Shoes for Trail Running
To find the ideal model that’s right for you, you should first evaluate your goals, experience level, and preferences. Indeed, a model may suit one runner but displease another. Nevertheless, on the whole, there are reference models that can satisfy a large number of trailers with their excellent qualities.
Below you will find the main questions to ask yourself when choosing your shoes.
What types of terrain will I be running on?
The lugs and level of protection in trail running shoes vary depending on the type of terrain they are intended for. For example, there are trail shoes with thin lugs for easy trails. On the other hand, some models are made specifically for snow. Overall, the majority of models are designed to be suitable for ultra-trail running and thus offer a versatile configuration capable of tackling most terrains. Such is the case with the Hoka Speedgoat 4, one of the most popular shoes, which boasts a versatile configuration with 5mm lugs to ensure good grip on muddy ground and snow.
To help you out, here are some models categorized by the technical level of the trails they tackle.
Low to moderate technical level (dirt trails)
- Nike Pegasus Trail 2
- Salomon Sense Ride 4
Moderate to high technical level (rough, rocky trails)
- Saucony Peregrine 11
- Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
- Brooks Cascadia 15
Very high technical level (snow/ice)
- Salomon SnowSpike
- Minimalist – stack height of less than 15 mm
- Thin – 15 to 22 mm
- Medium – 23 to 26 mm
- Generous – 27 to 30 mm
- Maximal – over 30 mm
Minimalist, moderate or maximalist? What cushioning level should I choose?
This is primarily a matter of preference, but in some cases it can also influence your performance. The answer can vary greatly from runner to runner and change as you gain experience and refine your preferences. Essentially, ask yourself: do I prefer to feel the ground under my feet or do I prefer to avoid impact as much as possible?
If this is your first trail running shoe, we recommend opting for a similar level of cushioning as your road shoes. If this is your first pair of running shoes, in that case it is prudent to opt for an intermediate level of cushioning and refine your choice later.
On Runner’s Lab, we classify shoe cushioning according to the stack height under the heel. We thus distinguish five main categories:
Do I need waterproof shoes?
Most trail running models protect against moisture with varying levels of waterproofing. For example, the vast majority come with a water-repellent coating that repels minor water infiltration such as light rain or a brief trip through a shallow puddle. It’s often enough, especially since the shoes are designed to dry quickly. So even if you train every day, you’ll rarely have to put on wet shoes the next day. If you want to be fully protected, choose Gore-Tex or equivalent technology. However, it’s important to note that no shoe is entirely waterproof beyond a certain limit. A Gore-Tex shoe can usually withstand heavy rain for several hours at a time, but beyond that, it will rarely hold water ultimately. And that’s a good thing: a fully waterproof model wouldn’t allow for proper foot ventilation.
Visit this page to see the best trail running models available in Gore-Tex.
The Leading Trail Brands
There are many shoe brands that offer trail running models. Some started with road running before expanding their series to trail running while others have their roots directly in trail running. To keep things concise, here’s a list of ten popular brands that have been offering comfortable, high-quality trail models for many years (this is not a ranking, the order is alphabetical):
The Most Popular Shoes for Trail Running
Here are four models that have established themselves as references over the years. They are also versatile shoes that can suit the greatest number of trail runners no matter what the conditions.