Finding the best trail running shoe is a task that depends on a number of variables, such as the type of running (terrain, distance, and speed), as well as your personal preferences (desired feel and fit). We used to believe that categorizing trail runners would be helpful to our readers—sort of like “you tell us what kind of trails you run, we’ll tell you what to wear.” But after we gave our own shoe preferences a closer look, we came to the conclusion that the majority of running shoes defy categorization and are much more about the interaction between the shoes, the terrain, and the runner. In spite of this, there are still a lot of hints that can direct you toward a particular option. We go into more detail on these hints below.
The good news is that the majority of shoes available are excellent all-arounders and suitable for most runners on most trails. If you need a shoe for a specific purpose, such as to travel really far, really fast, or really remote, then you should start thinking about trail runners. Generally speaking, max-cushioned shoes are excellent for long distances; streamlined and firm shoes are perfect for race day, and those who venture into off-trail terrain will want to place the highest priority on protection, stability, and sticky tread.
Trail Runners In Different Circumstances
Mountain Running Shoes
Mountain running is expanding rapidly, with more and more enthusiasts trading in their bulky overnight gear for a pair of running shoes and a small pack. By our definition, this type of running takes you off the trail and into cross-country areas, where you might encounter anything from rock climbing and talus or boulder fields to glacier travel and steep snow. To navigate this challenging terrain, you’ll need the ideal shoes: a shoe that combines the comfort and lightness of a trail runner with the stability, traction, and toughness of a hiking shoe.
Fortunately, a brand-new category of shoes designed specifically for off-trail adventures has just recently appeared. In this category, La Sportiva is in the lead, but products from companies like Arc’teryx, Dynafit, Salomon, and Scarpa are closely behind. For the best climbing performance, look for sticky rubber outsoles(compounds like Megagrip and FriXion are popular). With moderate to light cushioning in the midsole, many will have a lower, more planted feel for stability on off-camber terrain. Finally, they have strong and protective uppers (we frequently attach crampons or microspikes to our mountain running shoes) and are relatively stiff (compared to a typical trail running shoe).
Road-to Trail Shoe
If you’re anything like us, the pavement and trails you use for your daily runs start right outside your front door. That’s great, until you realize that these trail running shoes weren’t made to be worn on pavement. They will feel overbuilt and heavy because they have full rubber soles, firm midsoles, and more protective uppers. Additionally, they frequently use softer rubber compounds, which if subjected to a lot of road running, will prematurely wear out.
Hiking and Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
Trail running footwear has become increasingly popular in recent years among day hikers, fastpackers, and thru-hikers alike. And it makes a lot of sense: with a lightweight, flexible feel and good traction, you can move through more distance with less effort. Additionally, since the majority of day hikers and thru-hikers carry light packs, they don’t necessarily need the stability and ankle support that a sturdy shoe or boot provides. In fact, when PCT thru-hikers switched from boots to trail runners in the middle of the trail, they had nothing but positive things to say about how comfortable and nimble they felt—so long as they didn’t carry too much gear.
But there are several obvious problems. One is durability. Your trail runners won’t likely last as long as a pair of lightweight hiking shoes or a full-on hiking boot, which are made to withstand more wear and tear. Second, a trail runner simply cannot provide the same level of protection as more robust hiking footwear, particularly those with large rubber rands and leather uppers. Finally, we don’t advise wearing trail running shoes on particularly difficult terrain or when carrying heavy loads because you’ll need a more supportive option.
But despite these potential drawbacks, trail runners continue to be a popular hiking and backpacking option.
Things To Consider When Choosing Trail Runners
We give weight a lot of consideration when choosing a trail running shoe. Each design, as expected, has trade-offs: the lighter options lack overall support and protection, while the heavier options can be too heavy for smooth trails. The sweet spot, in our experience, is typically right in the middle: This usually gives you enough support and protection for long distances without making you feel sluggish.
Traction is one of the areas where we see the most variation in trail running shoes. Shoes for easy trails typically have an exposed midsole and rubber outsole combination, which provides a lightweight, springy feel but struggles on slippery rocks, roots, and mud. However, those designed for rocky trails frequently have a full rubber outsole for traction similar to that of an shoe made for mountainous terrain. All-rounders fall somewhere in the middle and are a great compromise for the majority of trail running goals.
When it comes to the specifics of traction, the rubber compound, tread depth, and tread pattern of an outsole all contribute to maximizing grip. Starting with rubber composition, sticky, approach shoe-like shoes perform best on rock, whereas softer, more softer shoes frequently perform better in mud. Second, few manufacturers list the tread depth, but you can estimate the size by looking at a picture of the sole. Last but not least, the tread pattern should be taken into account. Over rock or hardpack, broadly spaced, tall lugs with a soft compound will perform better than tightly spaced, short lugs with sticky rubber.
Cushioning (Stack Height)
The amount of cushioning that shoes offer is one area where manufacturers have tried to set themselves apart. The distance between the foot’s position inside the shoe and the ground is known as the “stack height” , which can range from extremely thin to very cushioned. Because there is so little EVA foam in the midsole of minimalist designs, they are incredibly nimble and give a close sense of the terrain. The drawback is that as the miles pile up, your feet could become extremely sore. On the other end of the spectrum are shoes with the most cushioning possible. They ride smoothly and you hardly notice the ground beneath you.
Both maximally cushioned and minimally cushioned styles have their advantages—and ardent supporters. In the end, most runners are happiest somewhere in the middle. This way, the shoes will be springy and have enough give to keep your feet happy over long distances and on rough terrain. They also don’t sit too tall to jeopardize stability and confidence.
The heel-to-toe drop, as the name suggests, is the variation in shoe height between the heel and toe, where your foot rests. Before the zero-drop craze took off a few years ago, hardly anyone outside of the diehard running community was aware of this specification. Many all-purpose shoes have a 4 to 8 millimeter drop, which can be beneficial for heel and midfoot strikers. True zero-drop footwear has a difference of 0 millimeters promoting a mid- or forefoot landing. Furthermore, many models for rocky trails have the most extreme drops, which are frequently 8 to 10 millimeters.
Our opinion is that choosing to drop is primarily a matter of comfort and preference. Some prefer trail running shoes with a zero-drop design, while others prefer ones with a moderate drop. Although the science surrounding performance and injury prevention is hotly disputed, the trend for running shoes generally is toward lower drops. The important thing is to avoid drastically altering one extreme of the spectrum before starting a long run. Instead, ease into it and gain confidence on the trail if you’re interested in a zero-drop design.This will lessen the risk of injury and guarantee that you are making the best decision possible.
It may seem like asking for an injury to attempt to move quickly over challenging terrain in a pair of lightweight low-top shoes, but modern trail running shoes do provide a stable ride that is resistant to ankle rolls. It begins with a strong platform that is wide and rigid enough to withstand significant impacts on unlevel ground. To make a more sturdy foundation, trail runners chassis is being upgraded and in order to add additional stiffness, some shoes also have a shank, which is a semi-rigid piece of plastic or nylon slid in between the midsole and outsole. For added structure and rollover protection, some manufacturers encase the heel cup in a partial plastic exoskeleton. Most frequently, a shoe’s intended use will be correlated with its relative stiffness and stability: In contrast to easy trail options, which are more flexible and comfortable right out of the box, a mountain-oriented shoe is stiffer and more structured.
Most trail runners continue to run despite rain and other wet weather, but having wet feet can be a major deterrent to finishing a run early. A waterproof and breathable membrane (typically Gore-Tex) is placed between the outer fabric and the shoe’s inner lining to address this issue. These shoes typically weigh a few extra ounces per pair and cost $15 to $40 more, but they are worth it because of their excellent waterproofing, which is especially useful in cold weather when wet feet quickly turn into numb feet.
Despite this, we don’t particularly like waterproof trail running shoes for a variety of reasons. Our main complaint is that waterproof membranes significantly reduce breathability, which makes conditions ideal for sweaty feet. Additionally, drying times are hampered because sweat or water can’t escape once it’s inside. Furthermore, waterproof shoes do nothing to stop water from seeping in at the ankles, even though they protect against low-lying puddles and streams. In the end, we can understand the appeal of having waterproof trail runners, but for the majority of runners, the tradeoffs aren’t justified.
As an alternative, you can purchase waterproof socks which are great option if you want to add waterproof protection to your shoes. They are simple to take off and stow in your pack while hiking through extended dry stretches.
You don’t want to be wheezing your way up a steep climb while worrying about your sweaty, uncomfortable feet. So one of the most crucial aspects for runners is a shoe’s ventilation capacity. Due to its obvious benefit of increased breathability, nylon mesh is a popular material for trail running shoes. Many manufacturers combine a tight weave with a thin fabric to maintain durability while preventing tears and allowing air to pass through.
Running on trails naturally places you in more difficult and potentially dangerous terrain than what you’d find in a city. As a result, you’ll need some extra defense from the design of your shoes. Trail running shoes almost always have some kind of toe protection, typically in the form of a rubber toe guard or cap that can fairly effectively absorb direct impacts. A trail runner’s toe protection isn’t as robust as a hiking shoe’s because of the lightweight design of the shoe, but it should keep your toes from turning black and blue if you unintentionally kick a rock or root on the trail.
Many trail shoes have lightweight rock plates inserted between the midsole and outsole to protect you from sharp rocks and other trail debris in a manner similar to that of a protective toe cap. These plates range in thickness, area covered, and construction type from a thin, flexible ESS foam under the foot’s ball to a rigid TPU shank. Rock plates are a great feature in general, but the amount of protection required will depend on personal preference and the terrain you’ll be running over.
Although they are simple to overlook, laces are crucial to shoe comfort. The majority of shoes are fastened with laces, but some manufacturers, like Salomon, are breaking the mold by using a single pull “Quicklace” system on their trail running shoes. You only need to pull once, after which you can tuck the extra laces away and put them out of mind. We’ve discovered that these laces hold incredibly well—in some cases, better than some conventional sets. However, there might be a drawback. The quick lace design isn’t really a solution for those with picky feet who need to adjust the fit around specific parts of their feet. The laces will be equally snug all the way around your foot. So, if you frequently adjust your laces to get the perfect fit, we advise against using quick laces.